By Andy Kent
Naples Daily News
ESTERO, Fla. – Expect to hear plenty of whistles again tonight at Germain Arena when the ECHL’s Florida Everblades and Charlotte Checkers square off.
Florida (1-1-0) ranks 11th out of 25 teams in total penalty minutes after the first weekend with 61, and Charlotte (2-0-0) ranks 15th with 54. The Checkers also rank second on the power play at 32.4 percent (11-of-34) and the Everblades are ninth at 17.6 percent (3-of-17).
So for the restless Florida fans still fuming over the near extinction of even-strength hockey last week when the Blades and Texas Wildcatters went at it, the best advice for now is to bite their bottom lips and buy into the notion that the whistles will grow quieter as the season progresses.
More importantly, and this point has been made by all sides, the crackdown on hooking, tripping, holding and interference penalties will improve the overall quality of the game.
“Last year was a learning curve for our guys, but once they got through the month of October they got used to it real quick,” said Tom Rowe, head coach of the American Hockey League’s Albany River Rats. “But I think it’s a great way to call the game, it gives you a lot more flow, even though I know there’s probably been a lot of penalties in the ECHL early on.
“We went through the same growing pains last year, but now it’s so much better. I know the players enjoy playing like this a heck of a lot more than they did with the clutching and grabbing. It just opens the game up and lets players make plays, and the skill guys definitely have the advantage, and I think that’s the point to the whole thing.”
Now that the NHL, AHL and ECHL are truly part of a three- tiered developmental system, it was agreed that players at all three levels should be familiar with the same standards. Actually, it was demanded more by the two higher leagues.
Rod Pasma, the ECHL’s vie president of hockey operations, was in constant communication with the NHL and AHL last season after the ECHL took the stance that it wasn’t prepared to adopt the new NHL standard with a one-referee system. He realized after watching both higher leagues wade through the early experimentation that the ECHL would have to more closely mirror those standards this season.
“I wouldn’t say there was pressure, but there was some concerns because of the amount of players we sent up,” Pasma said. “We sent up 2.5 players a game to the American League every day, and not only that, we had officials that were going up on a weekly basis that had difficulty adjusting to the standards. The players were going up and sitting in the box three times before the first period was even over and being sent back down because they weren’t ready.”
Everblades forward Dustin Johner (pictured) began the 2005-06 season in the AHL with the Omaha Knights and after having his NHL rights traded from the Calgary Flames to the Florida Panthers, he joined the Blades and was called up to AHL Rochester for 16 games.
The 23-year-old forward vividly remembers how different the game was from one level to the next, and how challenging it was for him to adapt whenever he went up or came back down.
“When I started up there you got used to those rules and you got used to having a little more freedom to skate around and not the clutching and grabbing and not feeling like you had guys on your back all game long,” said Johner, who on Wednesday was moved from the 3-day injured reserve to the 7-day and will not play tonight or Saturday. “Then you got sent down here and it was kind of a rude awakening to how much clutching and grabbing there really is in the game in this league. It’s going to be hard on guys who haven’t played this way, especially the defensemen.
“But I don’t think it will be as bad as it is now later in the season. I think guys will adjust and the refs will, too. There will be more penalties than in the past, but in order to avoid too many 5-on-3s players will have to learn. It also will make the power plays more effective because the penalty killers won’t want to risk getting another penalty.”
Pasma is counting on the attitudes of players like Johner to prevail, much like they did in the NHL last season, and he hopes the fans will see the true benefits in the end.
“Our biggest challenge from an officiating standpoint is when the stick goes in and when it becomes parallel to the ice, that’s not a penalty. It’s what he does after with the stick that may become a penalty,” Pasma explained. “If he reaches in there and then pulls it out, that’s not a penalty, but if he reaches his stick in there and impedes the progress in any way, a tug, a little grab of a shirt or a hook, that’s going to be a penalty.
“Once the players realize that and the officials get used to that it will be better for the game overall. Players have told us they’ve never played in a game this fast and the end result will be a phenomenal game on the ice.”