Imagine being a referee at a Junior A National Tournament and Dean Blais, then the coach at University of North Dakota, is giving the keynote address. After addressing the players, Blais asks where all of the referees are at before saying:
“Guys, I want to thank you for what you do and your commitment to the game. And boys [turning to the players], at the University of North Dakota, we work on the penalty kill every single week. We don’t work on the penalty kill to kill off the good penalties. We work on the penalty kill to kill off all penalties. You make sure this weekend you go kill all penalties, not just the ones you thought were good ones.”
For Brian Thul, who at the time was early in his officiating career, it was a moment and a message that has stuck with him through five years in the East Coach Hockey League, 15 years officiating at the NCAA Division I level and now as a coach for his son’s youth hockey teams.
“It doesn’t matter if it was a good penalty or a bad penalty,” summarized Thul. “If we have a guy in the box, we have a job to do and any effort we put into not doing that is on us if the puck goes in the back of the net.”
Playing The Right Way
Certainly, Blais was referring to how players feeling and respond to the officials’ calls, but his comments also beg another question. Are there actually good penalties?
Thul, who is in his seventh season as a coach and board member at Armstrong Cooper Youth Hockey Association, certainly think so.
“Good penalties are penalties when players a working hard and just by what happens in a hockey game a foul occurs,” said Thul.
Common examples include when a player is trying to have an active stick defensively and accidentally the stick trips the opponent or when a player gets beat by an opponent, hustles back but has to hook a player to prevent a great scoring chance.
“We had a game the other night,” said Thul. “Our player went to the net really hard, forechecking. He wanted to be at the net front. He stops at the top of the crease but he catches an edge and kind of rolls onto the goalie. That was a good penalty because he did the right thing, and he accidentally falls on the goalie. I’m not blaming the referee for that call. He has to protect the goalie, but I’m certainly not mad at my player for doing the right thing and going to the net.”
“Those are the type of penalties that we can coach around, and we can respect our player for doing the right thing.”
A Lack of Discipline
There are some penalties though that drive coaches and officials crazy. For Thul, the two most frustrating causes of penalties are players acting lazy or selfish.
“The feet aren’t moving, the stick is careless, there’s no regard for their opponents,” said Thul. “Maybe you felt like you were wronged and retaliate. Bad penalties are ones where players lose control of their emotions and don’t show the discipline that is required in a team hockey game. We can’t be selfish with penalties.”
Respect Your Opponents
Most penalties that occur in hockey fall into one of the two categories above, but sometimes, the infraction crosses another line. Penalties such as checking from behind, hits to the head, charging and boarding can be dangerous for players and must be viewed with a different lens.
“It’s so critical that everyone is on the same page with these penalties,” said Thul. “There should be no question of what we’re saying to a player who makes these mistakes. Any time you see a back you have to let up. Any time you go to deliver a check you have to be in control of your body. Any time a player is vulnerable you have to have respect for a player.”
“As a coach, I understand my players will make mistakes. As a parent, I understand my child will make mistakes, but we can never make excuses for these mistakes. We have to teach around them. As a hockey coach, I have to educate my players about what to do in those situations, not only giving hits but receiving hits.”
Coaches, officials and parents all have a role in ensuring players’ safety on the ice, Thul emphasized. We must be united in teaching respect of the game and opponents so all of the players on the ice treat each other with the respect they deserve.
Cut the Abusive Conduct
Last, but certainly not least, there are some penalties that are not necessarily on-ice infractions but are characterized by the responses of players, coaches and spectators to officials’ calls.
“Looking at our 601 penalties, the abuse of officials and unsportsmanlike conduct toward other players, taunting and racial slurs and stuff like that, those are also unacceptable,” said Thul. “There again, we all have to be on the same page.”
Thul, who also serves as a board member on the Minnesota Hockey Officials Association, has seen firsthand the impact this type of misconduct takes on officials and believes it will truly take a united effort by everyone to halt the officiating crisis we’re in.
“We cannot continue to lose officials because of the abuse they’re receiving,” said Thul. “We have to have the grace and dignity to not only accept those mistakes but almost kind of embrace them as part of the game and the learning experience.”
“To me, as a coach, I am teaching young kids how to deal with decisions they do not like, and quite honestly might be wrong, but they still have to deal with them in a way that is respectful and fits the values of our association and our team. As a coach, if my player makes that mistake, there are going to be more ramifications. We are very clear with our families and our players that is just not allowed, and I haven’t had any problems with it. If coaches and families take that stance, we would eliminate most of this.”
And like Dean Blais said, teams don’t work on penalty kill skills and concepts just to kill off the penalties they agree with.