icing

It was just two or three weeks ago when I tweeted something to the effect of “Full credit, hybrid icing has been a success, we haven’t had a problem with it yet,” which started me on the path to a surprising discovery: actually, the hybrid icing experiment has gone pretty poorly in the NHL’s eyes. After receiving a few messages explaining this, I deleted the tweet to cover up any evidence that I was apparently wrong about something.

I’ve spoken with a handful of people about it, and the consensus seems to be the same: linesman are calling it wrong fairly often, they’re calling it differently among themselves, and it’s making it hard to get the clock set correctly.

Stephen Walkom is now the vice president and director of officiating for the National Hockey League. While he didn’t exactly praise hybrid icing as a raging all-around win, he did his best to defend it.

When I asked him if it’s been a success, he started with a fair caveat:

Well, it’s something new for everybody, me included. I had seen it in college hockey, and I had talked to a number of coaches in college, and to a man they all liked it. But they didn’t deny that you have to go through a bit of a learning curve.

There’s quite a bit more from Walkom below.

So, let’s start with the problems.

They’re calling it wrong

The biggest problem so far has been that linesman are infatuated with the “race to the dot,” and are blowing plays down when the player who gets to the dot second is moving faster than the guy who got their first. It’s a subjective call, and it sounds like they’ve under-performed pretty significantly in that area, particularly in the beginning. Walkom referenced that “learning curve” a couple time in our conversation, but he did think there had been some improvement since the start of the season.

What I’ve heard is that the league has tracked somewhere in the range of 100 incorrect icing calls so far, and several of those have taken place in the final minutes of close games.

Can you imagine the outrage if that happens in a playoff game?

Walkom:

At the GM meetings, we showed a couple of calls in the playoffs where we did get it wrong, meaning the touch was wrong on the puck. Everyone’s assuming we did it perfect before, but we really didn’t. There’s no perfect system – those close races are black and white but we still made mistakes that took us to center ice. I think the measuring stick is if we had 10.5 icings every game compared to 8.5 icings you could say ‘there’s a big safety valve going on,’ but I think our guys are doing a good job predicting the race.

Walkom noted the number of icings a few times. Personally, my impression was never that hybrid icing was going to result in more icings – I thought it would result in worse calls – but apparently the number of icings was a big concern for the league.

I think most people would’ve expected that through about 250 games into the season icings would’ve been on the rise, and what’s happened, what the stats reveal, is that we’re probably up about one icing every 10 games or so.

Icings last year were about 8.35, 8.4 a game, and this year they’re 8.49 a game. So, when you look at that, icing has not gone up by any significant number.

I’m more curious about the number of incorrect calls per game, but it’s good to know that icings on the whole haven’t skyrocketed.

They’re calling it differently

This one is pretty simple – NHL refs haven’t had to call icing in this manner before, and aren’t exactly on the same page yet. “Who touched the puck first” wasn’t always called correctly as Walkom noted, but at least it’s awfully tough to misinterpret what you’re calling.

With hybrid icing, some guys are giving the d-man more credit than the forward, some put more weight in the speed of the player behind, some guys are calling the race to the dot and some are calling the race to the puck. They’re working to get on the same page, but they’re not there, and some players are frustrated by the uncertainty.

Not everyone is totally opposed – here’s what Eric Nystrom of the Nashville Predators had to say…

Being involved in an unfortunate incident involving icing, I like the idea of trying to eliminate the races to the dangerous areas of the ice. I think hybrid is still a bit grey, but there are still races that result in icing being negated. I’d say it’s definitely a work in progress.

…but I definitely heard more general nays than yays in response to questions about it.

There’s a lot of subjective calls in hockey officiating, but that’s hardly a reason to excuse the addition of another.

The clock’s an issue

When there’s an icing call late in games, it used to be impossible to misinterpret exactly where the clock should be set. You can review video to see in which millisecond the puck was touched and get the time right.

With hybrid icing you’ve got an issue: there’s no audio on slow-motion replay, so how do you know exactly where to set it? You may not think the occasional second disparity is a huge deal, but if you’ve ever seen an NHL coach blowing a gasket over the clock being set to the wrong second in the waning minutes, you know that some people do. It’s far-fetched, but sometimes teams do score in the final second – if a late goal gets waved off in playoffs because of an incorrectly set clock, how’s the NHL going to look there?

(Elliotte Friedman mentioned the NHL’s concern about hybrid icing and playoffs in 30 Thoughts a week ago – point #28, which included this: “A few execs see more picks being set up-ice to affect races. They’d also like a clearer method of deciding who won “the race,” although I’m not sure how that can be done now. As a group, they’re nervous about its effect in the playoffs – no bad injuries though, which is the point.”)

It’s anti-climactic

If you’re purely looking at the product, hybrid icing is hardly a win. Sometimes there’s a sprint for a loose puck that could result in an offensive opportunity that gets whistled down and you’re reminded of the old two-line pass rule. “Hey, that was almost a cool moment!”

That seems like the least of their concerns here (actually, this one is just a beef of my own), but there’s no doubt that it’s less fun, and it’s certainly more confusing for your average fan, which isn’t great for the product either.

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I keep mentioning playoffs, because that seems to be the league’s biggest fear – one of the games from it’s crown jewel gets marginalized because of a rule they floated out there sort of thinking it wouldn’t pass anyway. I genuinely believe the league was surprised it went through, though Walkom said he wasn’t when I asked if he ever thought it would actually happen:

I actually did, yeah – people were asking, and the sense on the ice from the officials was that a lot of the players wanted to try it. You know how the game goes, everyone says “I don’t wanna change that,” “I don’t wanna change that.” I can remember years ago, probably my third or fourth meeting and someone suggested having all the faceoffs on the dots – today you’d look at the game and say “why wouldn’t we have all the faceoffs on dots?” And I think that’s where we’re going to be with hybrid.

The increase in safety is indisputable (which I’m well aware is what a large number of people are thinking right now – obviously that’s not insignificant). Without touch icing, femurs have gone unsnapped. This is a good thing – bold statement, I know. But again – the league wants to get these calls right, and in the early going the success rate of the calls has been enough of a concern that they’re really reevaluating the decision to make the change.

Someone from the NHLPA said they’re going to give it until the Olympics and then reevaluate whether it’s something they want gone or not. Walkom implied it would last the year at the least (one person I spoke with wasn’t as sure).

There was no push to go to automatic icing, and there was no push to stay with touch icing – I’m not saying that that’s going to always be the case, but I think everyone wants to see it through for the year, and if it continues on this course and the players get more used to it and the officials get more used to it, I think you’re not even going to notice it in the game soon.

I think the league was surprised to be implementing the new rule this year and the so-called “learning curve” is making them impatient, but they have a problem in that if they go back to touch icing they look insensitive to injuries, and no-touch involves more icings and a slower game. So here we are.

Finally from Walkom, I asked if he would say the NHL is happy with it overall, and was met with a pretty decent pause before he got started:

That’s a tough question, but I actually do think the NHL is happy with it so far. I think everyone in the game, the coaches, the players, the officials are getting up to speed real quick. If you look at 15 games, probably in 12 of those you don’t even notice it. 

The hope is that linesman get it sorted out and it doesn’t become a topic at any point. The reality is that if they don’t, it’s not inconceivable that the league could pull the plug on it, and revert back to the old rule.