Jack Blatherwick

Boarding penalty must be enforced with zero tolerance

By Jack Blatherwick
Let’s Play Hockey Columnist

It is not my intention to eliminate physical play in hockey. I write for two reasons: 1) to increase the dependence on skill to win games; and 2) to reduce the dangerous hits to the boards at the youth and high school levels. To those who fear the game will become too skillful and safe if we enforce the boarding rule, I say, have it your way at higher levels. Injure your superstars. Play by unwritten codes, not the rulebook. But don’t endanger children by imposing your code on them.

There is an inverse relationship between violence and skill. As physical intimidation is allowed by referees and taught by coaches, there is less chance that skill can win games.

Obviously, the harder you hit defensemen into the boards on the forecheck, the greater chance they will turn the puck over and create scoring chances. Forwards are allowed and encouraged to skate 100 feet, and hit the D as hard as they can into the boards.

This has become the main “offensive strategy” in North America. But hard hits to the boards are illegal, as is charging – the two most dangerous plays in hockey.

The coaching alternative is to create offense by passing, skating, deception and creative attacks. This is Pavel Datsyuk hockey, but it is difficult to teach at all levels, and fails to produce wins quickly enough.

Because “boarding” and “charging” penalties have been virtually ignored for decades, it hasn’t occurred to the hockey community that our offensive strategy (dump, forecheck, hit into the boards) is illegal.

The word “illegal” is not as powerful as “winning” in a sport that prides itself on adherence to unwritten codes to protect the integrity of the game. Playing the body is taught differently in Europe, so Sweden will always produce players like the Sedin brothers and Nicklas Lidstrom; Russia will feature Datsyuks and Evgeni Malkins; but we in North American youth hockey act as if our mission is to produce kamikaze hitters and broken bones. If Malkin grew up here, we would say, “Use that big body to HIT.”

So, how does the USA Hockey rulebook define “boarding?” It is a painfully inadequate attempt to detail in words what needs to be demonstrated with video, and uses non-hockey words like “throwing” and “rolling.”  But later in USA Hockey’s discussion is a clear statement of the spirit of the rule:

“The purpose of a body check is to (get position to) separate the opponent from the puck. Any time a player delivers a check for the purpose of intimidating or punishing the opponent, and therefore causes the opponent to be driven excessively into the boards, a boarding penalty must be called.”

“Purpose!” Now there’s a word that should mean something to referees, coaches and players … and to the governing body that wrote the rule. We just need agreement and education on the purpose of youth sports.

The game of hockey is all about the puck, not intimidation. It’s about skill not violence. It’s about body position (to ride a player out), and this is one of the most important skills in the game. It’s about a safe, creative sport for children and high school players.

These words should be printed on signs in every arena. All we are asking USA Hockey and the Minnesota State High School League is to enforce their own rules that have been ignored for decades: boarding and charging. Then, we adults must do everything we can to empower the referees, not intimidate them by yelling when they call penalties.

At higher levels of hockey, it will take someone with more patience than I have to debate the intellectual giants who guard hockey’s unwritten codes. They insist that players can police themselves; meanwhile their superstars are knocked out of hockey by the very thugs who are paid to police.

How do you debate that?

To see how this tradition works, and why it has been unsuccessful for as long as hockey has been played, Google “Carcillo boarding hit,” then down to the video on Tom Gilbert, January 2.  Be prepared for one of the cheapest, most dangerous hits I have seen. And he’s protecting the integrity of hockey.

Visit Jack’s website at www.overspeed.info