By Chris Umpierre
ESTERO, Fla. – Tweet! Tweet! ECHL fans should get used to hearing those sounds again and again in the upcoming season as players head to the penalty box in record numbers.
Welcome to the new ECHL, where the slightest hook or smallest hold is worth a trip to the penalty box.
The 25-team ECHL has adopted a new strict standard of rules enforcement for the 2006-07 season. The standard, which cracks down on obstruction and holding, mirrors the radical rule changes the NHL first employed in 2005-06. The ECHL aims to get the same results the NHL is enjoying: a free-flowing game that allows its skilled players to skate and display their skills.
Rod Pasma, the ECHL’s vice president of operations, knows the results won’t happen overnight. There will be significant growing pains as players attempt to change the way they’ve played for 20 to 30 years. ECHL referees are expected to call a slew of penalties, particularly early in the season, as players adjust to the rules enforcement.
Seventy-two total penalties were called in the Florida Everblades’ two preseason games last weekend.
Several fans are infuriated with the increased infractions and some have said they won’t return to Germain Arena if the parade to the penalty box continues.
“The message to the fans is to be patient,” Pasma said. “Fans are going to see a game flow that they’ve never seen before in the ECHL. The rules will improve the game or else we wouldn’t have approved them. Look at the NHL and how their game has improved by leaps and bounds. The NHL went through some growing pains but the end result was Carolina playing Edmonton in the (Stanley Cup Finals). If you told me those two teams would be playing, I would’ve said, ‘No, way. I won’t watch that.’ But with the new rules, I watched every game.”
Based on the ECHL preseason, it will take the players weeks, maybe months, to adapt to the new rules standard. Bakersfield racked up 25 penalties in a preseason game against Long Beach last week. The Blades had 20 and 16 infractions, respectively, in their two preseason games.
Florida veteran forward Brent McDonald said ECHL referees went “a little overboard” in the preseason because they want to make sure everyone knows what’s going to be called. McDonald can’t wait until the players adapt to the new ECHL.
“I’m all for it because you get so sick of having guys hooking and holding you. Bigger guys who can’t skate and they get away with that,” McDonald said. “It’s good. You see in the NHL and the way they play and there’s no water skiing guys.”
The ECHL didn’t create any new rules. It’s just strictly enforcing what’s in the rule book. In introducing the rules enforcement to players this preseason, ECHL officials hold up a hockey stick and say, “This object can only be used for scoring, passing and shooting.” Translation: don’t use your stick to hook or hit an opponent.
ECHL referees are focusing on two main areas, Pasma said. First, officials are keeping an eye on a player’s “free hand” or the hand not on the stick.
“When a player takes his hand off the stick, that’s not a penalty but what he does after that could be,” Pasma said. “When he’s using his free hand to grab a guy, that’s a penalty.”
The second area of enforcement involves when a player’s stick is parallel to the ice.
“When that stick becomes parallel to the ice, the referee’s antennas go up,” Pasma said. “If the player impedes a player and it can be a little tug, that’s a penalty.
“There’s no more degrees of penalties. In the old days, referees overlooked a little hook in the neutral zone if there wasn’t a turnover. Those days are over. The little tugs, the little holds are penalties now.”
The ECHL spent the summer educating its players, referees, coaches and fans about the new rules enforcement. An official met with each team’s head coach in the preseason and went over every rule. Referees went to two training camps in the offseason to learn the rules enforcement. In an effort to help fans learn the new rule enforcement standards, there is a video of the new rules standard on the ECHL’s web site at www.ECHL.com/Rule_Book.shtml.
“It’s been a big educational process and I don’t think for one second that it’s over,” Pasma said. “It’s going to take awhile for everyone to adjust but the end result is you’ll see a tremendously improved game of hockey.”
Blades goalie Craig Kowalski, a Carolina Hurricanes prospect, witnessed the NHL’s rule changes when he participated in Carolina’s 2005-06 training camp.
“The refs called every single little thing and then they slowed up in the regular season,” Kowalski said. “Soon, that’s what they’re going to do here because you can’t have a game like (Florida’s two preseason games). It takes away from the flow of the game when you get all those penalties. But it’s up to the players to change the way they play.”