Imagine a world in which referees and coaches actually get along.

It is also a world in which speed and skill replace size and intimidation, where the little guy gets to succeed in the face of Goliath.

Welcome to “new rules” hockey.

Last season, the National Hockey League applied new standards to its rule book. Referees were told to focus intently on holding, hooking and interference.

The changes reached the AHL and the Canadian Hockey League, too, and the game, after some adjustment from everyone involved, opened up.

This year, USA Hockey has adopted the same points of emphasis for use in junior and youth leagues across the country, including high school hockey here in Maine.

‘They’re not new’

The rules being enforced are not new rules.

“They’ve always been in the book,” said Ray Levesque of Auburn. Levesque is the president of the Maine chapter of the National Ice Hockey Officials Association.

“In years past, especially in front of the net, we’d allow the defensemen to move the forwards out of the way more,” he said. “They could clutch and grab a bit.”

No more, says USA Hockey.

“There’s no gray area anymore,” said Lewiston High School coach Norm Gagne, who has coached for more than 30 years in Maine. “That’s one good thing about this is that if the officials are following the new standards, they have to call it, period.”

In previous years, defensive coaches have been able to tell one defenseman to shield off a forechecking forward while the other defenseman retrieves a puck in the corner.

That’s an interference penalty now.

So is any contact with the stick to a player’s midsection.

That’s hooking.

Pinning a player on the boards after the puck is gone? You’re guilty of holding.

Leery at first

“I’ll admit, I didn’t like it at the beginning,” said Scarborough coach Jay Mazur, who played for four years at the University of Maine in the mid-1980s, 47 career games in the NHL and a half season with the Portland Pirates in 1994-95.

“But now we’re seeing some nice hockey (at the NHL level),” he continued. “You see some great skating and some great hits. It just requires more work.”

Some high school coaches are still concerned that the learning curve may be longer in their league.

“We had an exhibition game the other day and we had 12 penalties,” said EL coach Craig Latuscha. “I think it will be good in the long run, but it’s going to take time for the teams and the kids to adjust.”

Others are concerned with consistency.

“Some are going to call it the way they should, but other aren’t,” said St. Dom’s coach John Pleau. “It’s hard to digest at first. The biggest key will be making sure the referees are consistent with each other.”

Education

At usahockey.com, the organization has listed its new points of emphasis. It sent a letter to all people associated with USA Hockey, and offered videos to help teach the new points of emphasis. Locally, officials met with coaches in the preseason.

“At the beginning of the season, we met with high school coaches, and they’ve taken that all back to their teams,” said Levesque. “They’ve been shown the USA Hockey video, and that communication has helped ease a big uproar.”

Jeff Guay, an assistant coach with the Lewiston Maineiacs of the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League and a former assistant at Lewiston High School, runs a clinic late in the summer for high school players. This season, Guay focused two days on the new enforcement.

“The biggest thing now, you have to do more blade on blade,” said Guay. “You can’t go into a corner and slash at a guys hands anymore. When you’re backchecking, the biggest thing is to keep moving your feet.”

Some coaches have gone as far as inviting officials into their locker rooms to speak with the players.

On the ice, Levesque said, the players are asking more questions and complaining less.

“They’ll talk to us, ask us what happened, and we’ll tell them what they did wrong and why,” said Levesque.

“It’s always been the coaches against the referees and I think this might help build a bridge,” said Gagne.

Immediate impact

Teams with younger, smaller forwards are going to have a better chance to play among the bigger, senior-laden teams.

“This should create some parity in the league this year,” said Mazur. “It doesn’t matter what size you are, you have to be able to skate.”

Lewiston, St. Dom’s, Scarborough, Biddeford and Kennebunk are all teams with speedy forwards and smaller players.

“It’s going to be better for a guys like me, I’m a smaller guy,” said St. Dom’s sophomore Richard Paradis, who played varsity last season as a freshman. “They’re not going to be able to grab me on the way by now.”

Goaltending will also play a vital role in the new process.

“You’re going to see more 3-on-3s and 4-on-4s, and more shots are going to get through because the forwards are going to be able to go around some slower defensemen,” said Mazur.

For many teams, the number of penalties this preseason has actually gone down.

“Last year, we took 15 penalties in our first game at the preseason tournament in Portland,” said Gagne. “This year, we only took six.”

Still, Guay is advising coaches to practice plenty of power play and penalty kill sets this year.

“There are a lot of growing pains with this process,” said Guay.

“The faster kids, the smaller speedsters will benefit,” said Latuscha, whose Red Eddies still took 12 penalties in a recent preseason tilt. “It’s going to take time to learn, but we’ll get there. It’s going to make the game a lot faster in the end.”


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