The players are almost unanimously in favor of it. The coaches are evenly split for and against. But regardless of the prevailing sentiment, the most controversial, if not significant, college hockey rule change in several decades was put into effect last week by a vote of the NCAA Rules Committee, and everyone connected with the game will have to live with it, for better or worse.
Basically, it is a simple alteration. Body-checking, once restricted to a team's defensive zone and neutral ice, will be permitted anywhere on the playing surface. The American and Canadian games are now virtually the same.
Yet the rule change has far deeper implications. Some coaches feel that the former restrictions hampered the progress of American-born players and ruined their chances for playing professional hockey, since the adjustment of one's skating and stickhandling style to accommodate the more open NHL game was nearly impossible to make. Consequently, a number of American collegiate coaches, 21 to be exact, see the expansion of checking as the key to a new era in the development of the American hockey player.
Others, including Harvard coach Bill Cleary, claim that the new rule will bring about the prostitution of college hockey for the aggrandizement of the NHL and the recently-formed WHA. They may have a point.
"I can't see one good thing about it," Cleary says. "I think it's a disgrace. The rule will serve only to slow down the game and increase the number of cross-checking and charging penalties, to say nothing of the possibilities of more fighting. My job is to produce a good college hockey team, not to prepare material for the pros."
Cleary is not alone. Nineteen of his colleagues voted against the rule at the collegiate coaches' convention two weeks ago, but the motion passed by a single ballot. Now it is law, and every college squad in the country will have to make an adjustment in its style to accommodate it.
Cleary appears to be correct, at least in theory. The fast, clean American game with crisp passing and tight fore-checking may pass out of existence now that enemy forwards and defensemen can wade into the offensive zone at will. It would be unfortunate, especially since so few American college teams are capable of playing that way--Cornell. Boston University, Harvard, New Hampshire, and one or two others.
"We'll have to make an adjustment during pre-season practice next Fall, no doubt about it," says Harvard captain Kevin Hampe. "Some of the guys, like Doug Elliott, will be helped quite a bit, but the majority of the squad are local players, and they're not used to being hit in their own end. I'll bet you'll see more fighting, especially early in the season. So I guess the penalties for fighting will have to be adjusted. We can't live with the present restrictions once this new checking rule goes into effect."
So the controversy, far from being resolved, may have just begun. Legalization of unlimited checking may be the only hope for American players to ever progress to the professional level. At best, it's a long shot, because the problems stem not only from restrictive rules but from a general paucity of ice time. There is virtually no way for an American teenager to play organized hockey unless he competes for a high school varsity. Even then, he is limited to about 15 games a year, 48 minutes a game. The development of American hockey requires more rinks, more ice time allotted to hockey, and well-organized youth programs to channel the talent productively.
The new NCAA rule is an important step, but one wonders if the steps are being taken in logical order. If, as Cleary fears, unlimited body-checking leads to the compromise of the quality of American college hockey without producing more local talent for professional rosters, then the new change is detrimental to the game and should be abolished. Unfortunately, it may be years before the results are clear.