Friday, February 03, 2012

WCHA Needs to Step Up When It Comes to Illegal Hits

ANCHORAGE, Alaska -- In the wake of the hit that left Benilde-St. Margaret's hockey player Jack Jablonski paralyzed, hockey organizations started to look long and hard at the way they were policing the game.

Two prominent Minnesota groups -- the Minnesota State High School League and Minnesota Hockey -- quickly announced stiffer penalties for hits from behind and boarding fouls, along with contact to the head.

College hockey has not made a move, largely because hits from behind along the boards and hits where the principal point of contact is the head are already supposed to be major penalties. No need for rules changes there.

However, as I've written in the past, and will probably write again, there is very much the need for a change in how the rules are enforced.

(I should note here that I've noticed -- and so have other observers around the WCHA -- players doing a better job avoiding many of the situations that can lead to dangerous hits. Guys are pulling up instead of plastering opponents into the boards from behind. They're doing better at avoiding contact to the head. It's been generally good.)

Last weekend, there were multiple examples of hits that should have been major penalties, but were not. The three I am going to discuss are the only three I'm aware of. There might be others. There will likely be more.

Why am I bringing this up? The weekend after Jack's Pledge was launched, and UMD became the first WCHA team to get involved in it, there was an egregious hit from behind in the Minnesota-North Dakota game by UND's Danny Kristo. I wrote at the time that my strong feeling was that Kristo should face a suspension for the hit. I felt the WCHA erred in not issuing a suspension, given the aggressive nature of the hit, his follow-through after the hit, and the blow-up on his way to the locker room.

There were two hits from behind in the UMD-Michigan Tech series. The first, on Michigan Tech's Tanner Kero, was not called. The second, on UMD forward JT Brown, was called a minor penalty. The hit on Brown was pretty blatant, a shot to the back that took him head-first into the boards.

On Saturday, there was a pretty bad hit in the Wisconsin-North Dakota series. Badger freshman defenseman Jake McCabe cross-checked UND forward Brock Nelson in the head after Nelson collided with Wisconsin's John Ramage behind the net. Nelson was on the ice when McCabe leaned over and delivered a deliberate cross-check to the head area.

All three of the hits could have been majors. I did not have access to replays on either hit in the UMD series, so I'm going to lay off a little bit on those. But I DVRed the Wisconsin-North Dakota game as part of my normal preparation for an upcoming UMD opponent (the Bulldogs play UND next weekend). The McCabe hit -- called a two-minute minor for cross-checking -- was not handled properly by the game officials, and there really isn't much of an excuse. The puck was there, there was an official nearby (but not so close as to cause him to not have a good vantage point), and the hit was clearly to the head.

It's the kind of play we don't need in this game, especially in light of the Jablonski play.

Basically, the onus should not only be on the players to take this contact out of the sport. With increased visibility comes increased responsibility. There is a need for more effective and more consistent enforcement. Without that enforcement, we will never get the game where we need it to go.

While I applaud the efforts of so many people to clean up the game, there is still work to be done. Based on the track record of inconsistent enforcement, maybe it's time for a MSHSL-esque crackdown on illegal hits in the WCHA. It might be the only way to make the officials feel empowered enough to actually enforce existing rules on hits from behind and to the head.

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