It is the sort of play you see a thousand times a year in the NHL: On April 2, 2013, Carolina Hurricanes defenceman Joni Pitkanen was racing back in his own end to retrieve a loose puck under hard pursuit from Washington Capitals winger Troy Brouwer, trying to get there first to touch up for icing.
Pitkanen gets there first, but loses an edge as he’s trying to stop and crashes into the end boards. He is later wheeled off the ice on a stretcher. The announcers worry for a moment about Pitkanen’s condition and then play continues – one more injury in a game/sport/industry that sees too many injuries.
Except, almost five months after the fact, Pitkanen still isn’t ready to play.
Early in training camp, Carolina announced he would be out for the season because of a broken heel and, according to general manager Jim Rutherford, “he isn’t doing too well. I don’t think the doctors want to take that next step and say his career is over, but there’s a possibility of that.
“You go back a number of years, a player I was associated with – Pat Peake – he lost his career when he was playing for the Washington Capitals. It was the same thing – a race for the puck, a crash into the boards …,” the GM said. “With the change the managers and owners and the league is recommending, it gives the players somewhat of a chance to rectify their going down or losing an edge or bumping with a player. So I am very hopeful the players see it the same way.”
Pitkanen is the current poster boy for the debate over hybrid icing, which is currently being called in the NHL preseason. Rutherford was one of 30 GMs who recommended the league test it in the hope of avoiding such injuries.
Hybrid icing is a compromise between the traditional touch icing and no-touch icing, which is used in international play – where the linesman blows the play dead as soon as any puck shot from the far side of the centre red line crosses the goal line. In hybrid icing, if the defensive player is leading the offensive player in the race for a puck as they pass the bottom faceoff dot, play is whistled down.
“Any time we can make the game safer for the players and not take anything away from the game, we should do it,” Rutherford said. “I believe the time has come for this. It could have come before this. We’ve had [too many] serious injuries from our old icing race for the puck.”
Reviews for hybrid icing have been mixed thus far. Last Tuesday, the NHL and the players’ association met to clarify the wording of the rule. At the end of exhibition play, the union will conduct a vote and, if the majority of players agree, it will be introduced for the start of the 2013-14 regular season.
“I’m confused by the rule,” said Phoenix Coyotes goaltender Mike Smith, who noted that while the rule may protect defencemen who win the race for a puck on an icing call, it does nothing to protect forwards who get to the faceoff dots first. “I don’t love it. It’s too grey still.”
Montreal Canadiens defenceman Josh Gorges says he was initially not impressed with hybrid icing either, but: “After going through it, and you see how it works, it’s fine as long as it stays consistent, that’s the biggest thing. You know when you’re ahead they’re going to call it, and when you’re behind they’re going to wave it, so you can prepare yourself more than I thought you’d be able to.”
Calgary Flames defenceman T.J. Brodie played with hybrid icing last year in the AHL, and says it took players and linesmen time to adjust.
“It’s not that hard to get used to, defensively,” he said, “because no matter what happens, you’ve got to skate back for the puck. But I found, offensively, there might be times when you ice it, but your guy is going to get there first. But since the D is a little farther back, they’ll blow it down – where before, you could rim it around the boards and have it go to your forward [skating it down on the other side of the rink].”
Brodie’s point is not about safety, but about how hybrid icing may take away from an offensive play. And while he believes it creates a safer environment, he also thinks players are more aware than ever not to go recklessly crashing into a defenceman in a chase for the loose puck.
“Most guys are pretty good about being safe, even with touch icing,” he said. “Accidents can happen, guys will be poking for a puck and get their stick in your skates, but mostly, it’s about being aware going back for the puck. And if you feel like you’re in a bad spot, just try to slow down and get in front of the guy so he doesn’t have all his momentum pushing at you when you get to the boards.”
Ottawa Senators blueliner Erik Karlsson, the 2012 James Norris Memorial Trophy winner, said while he hasn’t “really been in a situation where [the race for the puck] has been tight, I think it’s a good thing. I don’t think it takes anything away from how the game’s played – and it makes it safer for the players.”
Karlsson’s usual defence partner, Marc Methot, says he has played internationally where the icing call is automatic, so at first, the compromise involved in hybrid icing was “weird.”
“I think it’s safer for guys like myself, defencemen who are rushing back there and guys are not sure what kind of player is fore-checking, what kind of check he might lay on you. We’ve seen some nasty injuries happen because of that rule,” Methot said. “The biggest thing is it puts a lot of onus on the linesmen. There are a lot of judgment calls and I can see how that might get a little messy during the regular season. But I like the idea of protecting the defencemen.”
Flames coach Bob Hartley said the hybrid-icing discussion is “like any changes you want to bring in – either in a hockey game or in society. The normal human reaction is right away to say, ‘Oh we don’t like it.’ If the hybrid icing saves one injury this year, it’s worth it.
“Last year, I was talking to some American Hockey League coaches. For the first two weeks, they hated it. By Christmas, everybody loved it. So you have to give it a chance to get the rule in place.”
As for Rutherford, he understands that while “there are a couple of things you have to watch for, you’re never going to make anything perfect.”
“The bottom line is, this is a rule that makes it safer for the players. It’s seamless. There’s no reason for it not to be part of our league when the season starts.”