Tuesday, February 3, 1998
Controversy rules Olympic hockey
The only certainty is this: At some point, there will be a rules controversy.
The International Olympic Committee is a law unto itself. It doesn't follow National Hockey League rules and it doesn't follow International Ice Hockey Federation rules. That's why, at some point, there will be a battle.
In fact, one already has been raging behind the scenes. In the NHL, there are no drug tests. In the IIHF, a player found using certain banned substances is tossed out of the tournament but his team continues. But the IOC has a different system altogether. In IOC competition, if tests show a player used a banned substance, his entire team is bounced and any medals won by the team are forfeited.
In the past few weeks, there has been tremendous behind-the-scenes pressure to get the IOC to change its rule to have it conform to the IIHF rule. The wrong cold pill, or even the wrong thirst-quencher the day before a game, could cause the gold-medal winner to be overturned.
However, that's almost certainly the system that will be in place for this tournament. It has been the case before and it will be the case this time if for no other reason than it's easier to get one of the Ten Commandments rewritten than to change Olympic policy.
The IOC representatives come from a large number of countries and many of them don't have the slightest clue about the realities of professional sports. Also, with all the recent revelations about the drug abuse by Chinese and East German swimmers, the timing is not the best when it come to an easing of the rules.
But fans of NHL hockey will notice a lot of other changes in the game itself. For one thing, the benches are larger in Nagano's Big Hat Arena - and they need to be. Olympic teams can dress 22 players - including two goalies - compared to 20 in an NHL game.
And the goal line is two feet further out. This is an innovation that the NHL almost certainly will adopt next year so North American fans will get an advance look at its impact.
Some other IIHF innovations may make it to the NHL - but certainly not the one that says there will be no TV timeouts.
In the NHL, a goalie can freeze the puck as long as there's an opponent in the area because, in theory at least, he's preventing the opponent from scoring. But the IIHF calls for a minor penalty to a goalie who falls on the puck outside the hash marks. If he falls on the puck behind the goal line, he's given a warning and then a minor if he persists.
Icing is automatic as soon as the puck crosses the line in the IOC. This is a rule that many NHL observers have been promoting on the premise that the race to be the first to touch the puck causes too many injuries.
The NHL's much-maligned crease rules also are altered for this tournament. For instance, if a player stands in the crease in the NHL, he's free to do so and if he gets out before the puck gets there, any goal scored on the play will stand. But the IOC rule says that if a player stands in the crease, play is stopped and the subsequent faceoff is outside the blue line.
Also, the NHL's two-minute penalty for high-sticking or charging a goalie becomes a double minor in the Olympics. However, goaltender interference is a two-minute minor in both cases.
There also may be controversy over a deflected goal. In the NHL, a goal off the skate is allowed as long as the player didn't make a kicking motion toward the puck. The IOC uses the old NHL rule that the goal is disallowed if the puck deflects off a skate.
Also the IOC does not allow video replays on a number of situations that would qualify in the NHL: to determine if a player was in the crease before the puck; if the puck deflected off an official; or if the puck was struck with a high stick.
That last one may stir some memories. The crucial goal in the 1996 World Cup was scored off Brett Hull's high stick but somehow, the video officials didn't see it. In the Olympics, however, that play would not be subject to video review so the referee would make the decision.
There are far too many changes to list - some of which are curious but not really relevant. For instance, on-ice officials must wear a shirt and tie when arriving for the game. And if you're awarded a penalty shot, you don't have to take it. You can opt for the two-minute minor instead.
Some make sense, some don't. But every one is a potential cause of controversy. And controversy there will be.