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Publish date: Feb 15, 2011

NHL camps give rules a dress rehearsal

By Ty Halpin

The NHL held a two-day camp in Toronto to test potential new rules and scout prospective 2011 draft class players.

In NCAA terms, experimental rules have been around nearly as long as the flying wedge. Through the years, NCAA playing rules committees have allowed institutions and conferences to experiment in the nontraditional season or early season contests to gather opinion and collect data on a rule’s effect on the game.

The National Hockey League has taken a different approach, melding a scouting opportunity for its teams over two days with an extensive – and in some cases radical – experiment with the rules of play. The NHL used the two-day camp this summer in Toronto to tinker with its rules on the ice, while also allowing the league’s general managers a peek at the top prospects in the 2011 draft class. Several current NCAA student-athletes participated in the camp.

Notable experimental rules at NHL camp

• Ice markings: The most significant change was wider blue lines , which effectively makes the offensive zone larger. One experiment created a larger goal crease and another used only three faceoff locations (the offensive zone locations were centered in front of the goal). Another experiment had a line-change area painted at the benches to assist officials.

• Overtimes: The NHL had goalkeepers change ends (another new NCAA rule) and removed players from the ice, ranging from 5-on-5 to 2-on-2.

• Icing: In addition to the new NCAA rule, the NHL experimented with not allowing icing when a team is shorthanded, a rule that initially was proposed by the NCAA committee but was withdrawn after receiving negative feedback from the membership. Another session included automatic icing.

• Offsides: To further penalize a team for an offsides infraction, that team was not allowed to change its players.

• Goal nets: Several different-shaped nets  were used, including one that created more space behind the goal.

• Faceoffs: Two main experiments were used during faceoff procedures. First, the official placed the puck on the faceoff spot and then lined up the centers. The whistle started play. Another experiment had each of the centers positioned normally. If one of the centers encroached, that center had to move behind a line painted on the ice, and the faceoff was held again.

The rules experiment used several scrimmages to showcase potential rules in an effort to improve the game. Playing the role of mad scientist was Vice President Brendan Shanahan, a former player who hung up the skates after a 21-year career with several teams. NHL scouting director and former NCAA coach E.J. McGuire also played a pivotal role in the camp’s organization. McGuire attends the NCAA rules meetings yearly to provide NHL updates and insight.

“What pleased me the most was the dialogue,” Shanahan said. “We got a lot of good hockey minds all under one roof talking about the game, which is good.”

Of the 28 rules experiments in the four sessions, a new NCAA rule seemed to garner the most support. The new NCAA icing rule, passed by the Ice Hockey Rules Committee in June, attempts to combine the best aspects of touch-up icing with the safety aspects of automatic icing. In the new model, the official determines which player will reach the puck first, using the faceoff dots as a reference point. If it is determined to be the attacking player, icing is waved off. If it is the defending player, icing is called. A tie goes to the defender.

The NHL uses touch-up icing, which requires the defensive team to touch the puck before icing is whistled. The NCAA used automatic icing the past two decades, where icing was whistled when the puck crossed the goal line.

“Seeing the rule we passed in use at this level is a confirmation that we made the right decision,” said Ed McLaughlin, athletics director at Niagara and chair of the NCAA committee. McLaughlin attended the development camp along with several NCAA commissioners. “It seems like this is a rule that has some traction for the NHL after talking with people here.”

After seeing the rule in place in the first session, several general managers asked that it be used in later sessions. The rule has been used in recent seasons in the United States Hockey League, an amateur junior league that sends many players to NCAA institutions.

“The icing rule is good because of the risk involved for players,” Buffalo Sabres General Manager Darcy Regier said. “It has proven to be very effective in the USHL. It has a good track record and is preventative.”

Longtime NHL coach Ken Hitchcock, one of the team coaches at the camp, also thought the new icing rule accomplished its goal.

“It’s a smart, safe way to play, and it still creates the competition for the puck,” he said.

College hockey was well represented at the camp, with 11 of the 33 players either currently playing at NCAA institutions or planning to enroll in the future. Besides the opportunity to show their skills on the ice, camp participants also received instruction and life skills training off the ice.

“It’s an opportunity for hockey to look at its rules but also get leaders together,” said Tom Anastos, commissioner of the Central Collegiate Hockey Association.

Ty Halpin is associate director of playing rules administration at the NCAA.