What the NHL could take from the IIHF rulebook

The IIHF World Junior Championship provides hockey fans with elite competition every holiday season. It is a thrilling tournament that features the best talent under the age of 20 from around the world competing for international hockey supremacy. Individually, the tournament is full of players aiming to either impress amateur scouts that are considering them in the upcoming entry draft or professional scouts that believe they have a future as a member of their respective drafted team.

The tournament captivates audiences because of what is perceived as hockey played the right way. The high-tempo action features plenty of hitting and forechecking which lead to a high number of scoring chances. Defenseman need to be responsible for 60 minutes as a simple misstep can lead to a goal. Of course, there is also always a goaltender that manages to shine above all others and steal the spotlight with mesmerizing play. This all sounds like the recipe for a perfect hockey game.

The National Hockey League should take a page out of the IIHF rulebook. International hockey is notorious for being a safer, more tightly officiated game. Brain injuries are a recurring theme in the NHL and there are many critics that feel that a few rule changes can not only reduce such injuries, but improve the overall state of the game. Need proof of these rules working? Take a look at the teenagers playing the game at such a high, entertaining level during this short tournament.

After the 2004-2005 lockout, there was a push by the league to increase scoring opportunities in an attempt to make the game more fan-friendly. One of the major changes made was the addition of the trapezoid behind each net. By restricting the area that goalies can play the puck, the logic was that it would create more end zone attacking and thus lead to more goals.

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The NHL was somewhat correct in their assessment. Offensive players definitely do have an easier time getting to the puck first in their opponent’s end. However, this is shadowed by defensemen often being left in vulnerable, unsafe scenarios. Hockey is at its absolute peak when it comes to speed. With no support at all from their goaltender, defensemen are getting run over by speedy, forward-skating players on the forecheck.

Of course, the beauty of the breakout pass by a goaltender is also eliminated with a trapezoid. Martin Brodeur and his 40 career assists mastered this aspect of the game before it was taken away from him with the invention of this rule.

The ability to handle the puck as a goaltender is a very special skill. Of course, there is an assumed risk in playing the puck and excellent forechecking could lead to an opportunity on an open net. The IIHF has simply never adopted the trapezoid rule and the NHL can do without it as they did before 2005.

Concussions in the sport of hockey are increasing and becoming an issue that is given a ton of attention to. In a sport full of speed, physical risk, and body contact, injuries are bound to take place. Specific rules can be implemented to limit injuries without harming the nature of the game.

In the NHL, Rule 48, Illegal Check to the Head, states that “a hit resulting in contact with an opponent’s head where the head is targeted and the principal point of contact is not permitted. However, in determining whether such a hit should have been permitted, the circumstances of the hit, including whether the opponent put himself in a vulnerable position immediately prior to or simultaneously with the hit or the head contact on an otherwise legal body check was avoidable, can be considered.”

Rule 540 in the IIHF rulebook, Checking to the Head and Neck Area, states that “a player who directs a check or blow, with any part of his body or equipment to the head and neck area of an opposing player or “drives” or “forces” the head of an opposing player into the protective glass on boards, shall be (penalized).”

The NHL’s rule is by no means black and white. There is a lot of room for debate. The referee has the opportunity to decide on whether or not the victim was in the wrong for receiving a body check to his head. Hockey is a game of milliseconds. Just because a player on the receiving end of a head check happened to be in a vulnerable position at that specific millisecond should not warrant the perpetrator innocent. The title of the rule itself is painful to even read. If the rule is called “Illegal Check to the Head,” does this mean that there is a legal way to check someone in the head?

The name of the IIHF rule makes a point to also include the word “neck.”  There is absolutely no tolerance for any type of head or neck area check. The wording of this rule makes it very easy for the referee to deem the play illegal and thus, call a penalty. Injured or not injured, intentional or unintentional, vulnerable or not vulnerable, any check or blow to the head or neck is completely forbidden.

On top of all of this, the minimum punishment for a check to the head in the NHL is a two-minute minor penalty. The IIHF has a minimum punishment of a two-minute minor penalty and an automatic ten-minute misconduct.

Humans fear the possibility of being punished. The IIHF not only tolerates less of this action but it also punishes more. Which rule has a better chance of eliminating this act altogether?

Finally, one of the most widely publicized issues of many is the rule of no-touch icing. The IIHF has the no-touch icing rule in place where if a referee has their arm in the air calling for an icing, the whistle is blown the second that the puck crosses the goal line.

In the NHL, the defensive player has to touch the puck in order for icing to be called. While the vast majority of plays will see the defenseman have a relatively easy time getting to the puck, there is the odd time when a full fledge race between two players will take place; a race to a wall of hockey boards.

Players have sustained minor, major, and career-ending injuries from these races. Very often, the injury is caused from a complete accident. However, the bottom line is that they happen and that they are undeniably avoidable.

Anybody that watches NHL hockey would likely agree that these races take place only a few times in each game and among those few times, the offensive player will maybe win one of the races. After that win, how often does a solid scoring chance materialize? How often do these scoring chances lead to goals? Even calling it one goal every 10 games played could be considered a stretch. You do not have to be a mathematician to figure out that the odds simply do not work in favor of keeping this rule the way it is in the NHL.

NHL hockey is back. The next few weeks will likely focus on scheduling efforts and getting the season off to as smooth of a start as possible. It would be unrealistic to expect any rule-related adjustments to take place in time for the first game. However, the rules committee can truly learn a lot from the IIHF and their magnificent events when they likely speak about rule changes for the 2013-2014 season. With salary cap floors and ceilings, amnesty buyouts, salary variance, and, everyone’s favorite, hockey-related revenue out of the way, rules meetings should be a breath of fresh air for everyone and hopefully some changes are made.

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