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Thursday, March 3, 2011

Penalty Time

Serving a penalty in hockey could quite possibility be one of the most-unique actions in all of sports.

Think about it for a second. In basketball, when someone commits a foul the other team gets possession of the ball or free throws. When a player reaches the foul limit they are excused from the game. In football a team is penalized by losing yardage and in rare cases of excess violence players are thrown out of the game. Baseball really doesn’t have any penalties as the result of actual plays that happen, although pitchers sometimes get tossed for throwing at batters and players and managers get booted for abusing umpires.

Soccer might have the most confusing system of yellow cards and red cards and in my opinion the only players who should be kicked out of the game are the ones that do the worst job of acting when they are flopping around like a fish trying to draw a penalty.

Completely different
Hockey, on the other hand, is completely different. Not only is an individual penalized by having to go for a timeout in a tiny box for two minutes or more, but in most cases the team is also penalized by having to play short-handed for that time. Penalties can impact a game and swing momentum in every sport, but hockey might be the one where they have the potential to have the greatest impact.

There are a plethora of different penalty types in hockey, some that cause coaches to go insane and others that already insane coaches actually promote and encourage. Lazy penalties like hooking or tripping, especially in situations that are in the offensive zone or do not prevent a scoring chance, are ones that make coaches crazy. So too can aggressive type penalties like charging, elbowing, roughing, slashing and boarding that border on stupid and selfish. Or undisciplined retaliation penalties. Yet some penalties are totally worth it, ones that take away a scoring chance or save a goal.

And while there are some “good” penalties, it is important to note that too many penalties and too many minutes playing short-handed hockey are more often than not a recipe for disaster.

But it’s never the team or coach’s responsibility, right? It’s always the stupid refs who don’t know what they are doing isn’t it? Maybe. In some cases. But in most cases, most refs get it right. Not saying they don’t make mistakes. They do. But when they are wrong, they typically share the mistakes with both teams and it usually evens out, if not over the course of a game, then definitely over the course of a season.

On and over the edge
Penalty minute totals usually don’t lie though. Over a period of games or months or a whole season, it is pretty easy to see which teams play on and over the edge of the rules and which ones don’t.

Not only can you get a pretty good picture of the personality of a team by their penalty minutes, but probably a good indication of the style of the coach and whether or not he or she has respect for the game, the officials and the opponents and has the ability to instill discipline in the players on the team.

As an aside, with it being “tryout time”, it is always a good idea to factor the penalty minute stats of teams into your evaluation of the coach of the team your player is trying out for.

If you look at penalty minutes in all levels of hockey, you will typically see that the majority of teams at the professional, college and junior hockey levels average between 12-18 penalty minutes per game. Some teams fall outside of that grouping, maybe as low as 8 on the low end or as high as 20 or 22 on the high end. The average is probably around 12-15 minutes per game, or 20-25% of the game length.

In college hockey, where there is very little fighting because of strict rules against it, you might expect there to be less penalty minutes. However the season is a little shorter and with teams playing fewer games, the pace and intensity of those games is high, which can result in some higher penalty totals.

Penalty minute numbers in pro hockey today pale in comparison to the way the game was played in the 1970’s and ‘80’s. It is definitely a cleaner, more highly skilled brand of hockey today than the butchery and barbarianism of the ‘70’s that provided the inspiration for Slapshot. The movie actually wasn’t that far off of how the game was played then.

At the NHL and college level, penalty minutes are deemed to be so unimportant they aren’t even listed in the team standings. In looking through the division standings in some youth hockey leagues, most of teams fall within the normal range of penalty minutes, but some of them are alarmingly high. A Midget Minor team with 949 PIM’s in 34 league games, an average of 28 minutes per game. Seriously? A Midget Major team averaging 23.5 PIM’s per game? Pee Wee Minors (11-year olds) averaging 18 PIM’s a game? Keep in mind these are shorter games than the 60-minute pro and college games. Keep in mind we are talking “average” here, which means some games are actually higher than that.

Up to the coaches
Some people will say “that’s good tough hockey” and intimidation is part of the game. In my opinion it is undisciplined, idiocy and is an embarrassment to the game. The players are not to blame. It’s up to the coaches to create the culture and demand the discipline of the players to play the game properly.

If a team is consistently playing more than 20% of every game short-handed they are obviously coached (poorly) to play that way. It’s a coach’s obligation to teach the players how to play tough and play hard, but also play within the spirit of the rules of the game.

Fighting in youth hockey is also something that always amazes me. First of all I find it hard to believe that the penalty is only a five minute major and game misconduct. What is the purpose of fighting in a game where the players have full face-masks anyway? Oddly enough, it would make more sense to me to allow fighting (to the extent the current rule does) if there were no facemasks. But how senseless is pounding someone’s facemask with your gloved hand? It might be only somewhat smarter than a bare hand.

Why is fighting even considered to be “part of the game” at the youth level? They are kids. Receive a major penalty for fighting in college hockey and sit out the next game too. Pretty simple and, not surprisingly, there are virtually no fights. Fighting major penalties in youth hockey should result in removal from that game and sitting out the next game as well. At a minimum.

Toughness is an interesting word. For some it conjures up images of Joey Kocur and Bob Probert pounding on an opponent. Absolutely those guys were tough, but so is the current version of the Detroit Red Wings, which averages less than 10 penalty minutes a game and never gets intimidated. When you have the puck most of the time you don’t take penalties.

Winning puck battles and having the discipline and tenacity to maintain possession of it to control the game is a different, more important kind of toughness.
There is a fine line between toughness and stupidity. Sometimes it gets crossed.

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