During a television timeout Saturday night in the Washington Capitals’ exhibition game against the Chicago Blackhawks, defenseman John Carlson approached the officials in search of some clarity.
The NHL this preseason is trying out hybrid icing — a blend between touch and no-touch icing — to determine whether it will be adopted for the regular season. The rule offers linesmen the discretion to whistle a play dead if they believe the defending player would have reached the puck first based on a race to the faceoff dots.
Carlson said his conversation with the officials confirmed that, like players, they still are figuring out how to adjust to the new concept.
“Overall, I think it’s a great idea; what they’re trying to do is something that needs to be done,” Carlson said. “Is it perfect right now? No.”
Hybrid icing requires a two-fold judgment call. First, linesmen must determine whether the puck would cross the goal line for an actual icing play. If so, then based on when the competing players’ skates reach the faceoff dot, a linesman must determine which player would have gotten to the puck first. If it’s the defensive player, the official whistles the play dead. If it’s the offensive player, play continues.
The traditional touch icing involves a flat-out sprint to the puck when it is fired from behind the red line all the way down past the goal line. Those chases occasionally end in devastating collisions between players or with the end boards.
Hybrid icing is designed to prevent those accidents and the significant injuries that ensue. Former Capitals center Pat Peake’s career effectively ended when he broke his heel on a race to touch the puck in 1996. More recently, Carolina defenseman Joni Pitkanen remains sidelined after suffering a shattered heel and collapsed ankle on an icing play against the Capitals last April.
The American Hockey League temporarily adopted hybrid icing last year, offering Coach Adam Oates an early look at the rule. He is in favor of the change.
“Last year in the minors I liked hybrid icing. I thought it was a good thing,” Oates said. “The safety factor of it makes perfect sense to me. Once the linesmen got used to not just looking for that as opposed to looking for the whole picture of it, I thought it was effective.”
Players understand the intent, but many say they have concerns about officials calling hybrid icing correctly because it’s more complex than the previous rule. It is difficult enough to call hybrid icing correctly when the puck is fired straight down the ice, players say, let alone when it rims around the boards or takes a strange bounce.
Defenseman Steve Oleksy has more experience with hybrid icing than many of his teammates, having played with the rule in the AHL last season, and is one of the Capitals’ most outspoken opponents of the change.
“I think it’s probably one of the worst rules introduced to hockey,” Oleksy said. “It puts a lot of people in vulnerable positions. [With] touch icing, as a defenseman you know you have to get back and touch it. When it’s hybrid, as a defenseman you’re going back concentrating on where the puck’s at, concentrating on the guy who’s coming forward on you and you’re trying to listen to the ref, too, for his decision.”
Many players are against the idea of putting the outcome of more routine plays in the hands of the officials. They’re also not convinced that hybrid icing will noticeably lessen the chance of injury on the plays.
“The ones that are kind of 50-50, they’re going to leave up to us to beat out, which is when most of the accidents happen,” defenseman Karl Alzner said. “I still think you’re going to have an issue no matter what. Guys are competing too hard to not go all out. I’m also of the thinking that I don’t want any rules to change. I like the game the way it is.”
All members of the NHLPA will vote on the issue this week, and a decision is expected Monday. NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly said there has been support for the rule among general managers and believes that will remain when they reconvene on the issue at the end of the preseason.
“I don’t anticipate that to change on the basis of the preseason, so it will really come down to the players supporting it or not,” Daly said. “I hope they will.”
The Capitals still have three preseason games left to test out the new rule, but if their initial impressions are any indication of the reception it’s received from the rest of the league, hybrid icing might not make it to the regular season.
“I think it’s too much of a guessing game,” Oleksy said. “There’s no way to make that call consistent throughout the league.”