NHL GM Meetings – An April Reflection
Last month, the General Managers of the NHL met along with members of the NHLPA, player representatives and Commissioner Gary Bettman. The annual meetings in Toronto are designed to discuss both the current state of the NHL as well as any future changes that may need to be enforced to improve the sport. As we head towards the end of the shortened regular season and before what will surely be a thrilling postseason, now seems the perfect time to reflect on some of the topics that were introduced and how they may impact on the future of the NHL.
A Coach’s Challenge
A key issue discussed was the possibility of a team’s coach being able to challenge and review calls made on the ice. This stems from human errors made by officials which have been horribly obvious, such as Matt Duchene’s goal against the Nashville Predators. The goal was allowed to stand despite the entire hockey world, and maybe some animals, spotting that his skates were across the blue-line before the puck.
Or this unbelievable goaltender interference call against Jakob Silfverberg of the Ottawa Senators:
This discussion unfortunately raises far more questions than answers and each will have to be considered before a final judgement; how long will a play take to review? Will there be a punishment for an incorrect challenge as in other major sports? How many challenges will each coach be given at the opening of a game? Will challenges be allowed at any point? Which particular type of plays can be reviewed? Can challenges be used during an overtime period?
With a sport as fast-paced as ice hockey there are inevitably going to be mistakes or incidents which go unseen by officials and the exhilirating tempo of the game is one of the key reasons we enjoy it so much. Plus, most of the high-profile blunders (above) could also have been a direct result of post-lockout rust from the parties involved. So I think it’s fair to say that the idea of a ‘Coach’s Challenge’ still has a long way to go before we see it as a permanent fixture in the NHL.
Although I consider Kristopher Letang an exceptional player with both defensive and offensive talents, this video from last season does not cover him in glory. Rich Peverley’s stick grazes across his shoulder (arguably giving him the lightest of touches near the chin), at which point he flicks his head back and drops to the ice. The penalty is ultimately given by an official shielded from the best view of the incident. It is this willingness of players to exaggerate the nature of a foul in order to earn a power play opportunity for their team that is the real concern here. This was something discussed in depth at the meetings, especially with regard to embellishment on boarding penalties, of which there have been around twenty incidents already this season. Though thankfully ice hockey does not share the same amount of ‘simulation’ as in other sports, the direction the General Managers wish to take will most likely be heavy fines for repeat offenders and eventual suspensions.
In my opinion, to voluntary decide that you want a career where people consistently hit pucks at speeds over 80mph in your direction, you have to be a little bit crazy. That being said, another topic discussed at the meetings was a motion to reduce the size of goaltender’s equipment, particularly leg pads. The point put forward was that the pads are unecessarily large and give way too much of an advantage when stopping pucks, meaning saves are far too often a matter of a smaller target for the attacker than skill from the net-minder. The suggestion that the equipment could be more streamlined and still provide the same amount of protection for goalies is a credible one, but with the recent movement towards increasing safety for players, does seem quite strange.
Any new prototypes will certainly need to be trialled thoroughly, but I personally feel the solution here may be to minimally increase the size of the goal instead. This would achieve the NHL’s target of creating higher scoring matches and still allow goaltenders to continue using the equipment they are familiar with.
Icing has long been something heading towards reform in the NHL, with most other leagues around the world switching to ‘non-touch’ variations after horrific injuries to players who have collided with the boards, notably Luděk Čajka, whose incredibly sad death in 1990 was a major catalyst for the change in Europe. At the meeting last month, the general managers named their preferred variety as ‘Hybrid Icing’, which has been used in the AHL this season as a trial with the intention of soon introducing it to the NHL. This was seen as the best option presumably because it still allows forwards the opportunity to negate an icing call if they reach the offensive zone face-off circle first, but will also decrease the number of dangerous collisions. I can’t find too much to disagree with here, as it seems pretty sensible and won’t impact the game too much, except perhaps to further reduce the risk of concussions and cowardly ‘can-opener’ hits that we see from time to time.
Visors were an extremely hot topic heading into the meetings, following Marc Staal’s horrible injury against the Philadelphia Flyers and have remained a controversial subject after Nate Thompson recently took a Mike Green slap-shot to the face. Staal was not wearing a visor and suffered a fractured orbital bone, he has since returned to practice and should thankfully make a full recovery. Thompson was wearing a full-face visor, which shattered upon impact and left him with a cut.
(* Both videos contain scenes which are quite distressing. If you’re a bit squeamish it’s probably best to give them a miss.)
The key discussions here were whether the league should enforce a rule which means every skater must wear a visor or continue to respect the player’s rights to decide for themselves. The solution they reached was a ‘grandfathering’ process, which will involve ensuring all rookie players entering the NHL wear a visor, which will be a much easier transition with them having already worn one throughout their college or affiliate careers. I think this sounds like a great idea, as it means that the veteran players who argue that a visor obscures their vision can continue to do as they wish but means that the superstars of the future will be protected. Though I personally can’t understand a player who doesn’t wear a visor (an eye injury doesn’t just put your career at risk but your quality of life too), I still admire the courage of any player who steps out onto the ice every night to entertain us.
Wearing a visor doesn’t completely protect a skater from harm but as the two videos above demonstrate, severe orbital damage to your eye and a few stitches while both unpleasant, are worlds apart. This conversation will rumble on for some considerable time I believe, especially whilst some of our favourite players continue to sustain injuries through freak accidents.