ROSEMONT, Ill. — If you need to make a bathroom stop and grab some more pretzels between periods of Minnesota Gophers hockey games this season, you will need to hurry.
In a webinar with reporters on Wednesday, Nov. 11, Big Ten hockey officials supervisor Steve Piotrowski laid out a number of changes to the rules the conference will follow this season, in an effort to shorten games, increase offense and reduce opportunities for COVID-19 transmission between players, officials and coaches.
Perhaps most notable is a reduction in time between periods from 15 minutes to 12 minutes, which means resurfacers will have to work more quickly, and players will have less time to catch their breath. The Big Ten is also limiting the number of media timeouts to one each period on games broadcast by Big Ten Network. In the past, there have been three media breaks per period.
Pick up the pace
The rules are a result of the pandemic, as the general thinking is less time on the ice and less time in the rink means less opportunities for people to infect one another. But they also reflect an overall effort to speed up games and address pace of play issues, similar to what has been done in baseball and other sports.
“Pace of play and length of games have been tracked for some time, and the concern was that it’s going in the wrong direction. It’s going north instead of stabilizing or minimizing,” said Piotrowski, who was a long-time on-ice official.
So for example, when a player makes a faceoff violation, in the past that player would’ve been ejected from the faceoff circle. This often created a delay, as another player would need to move to the faceoff dot and there was often discussion among players, and from the bench, about who should take the faceoff instead. Now the offending player will be given a warning, but can stay and take the draw. Although a second faceoff violation by that player on the same play will result in a minor penalty.
On-ice officials will undergo repeated coronavirus testing before and during the series they work, and Piotrowski detailed the contingency plans the Big Ten has in place if either one or two officials is unable to work due to a positive test. If more than two officials are unable to go, the league will either explore bringing in replacement officials, or postpone the game.
The referees and linesmen will also wear neck gaiters during games, and keep their faces covered while play is stopped. Likewise, coaches and other team personnel on the benches are required to wear a facemask during the game. For Gophers coach Bob Motzko and others who wear glasses, this requirement has already created challenges in practice, with fogging due to the combination of warm breath and cold air.
Referees will also use specially-designed whistles, similar to those used by NHL officials during that league’s playoffs in August and September, which expel fewer aerosol particles when blown.
College hockey is also making small changes in hopes of seeing more offense. One example is allowing the attacking team to select the faceoff location in the offensive half of the ice after a penalty or icing are whistled.
“Let’s use the example, if Minnesota is going on a power play, they’re going to be able to choose the side they want for the faceoff,” Piotrowski said. “Maybe they have a better left-handed guy or a better right-handed guy to make those draws, they’re going to have the opportunity to choose. This will hopefully create some more offensive opportunities.”
When the game ends, another hockey tradition will change, as players will not conduct a post-game handshake. The Big Ten has instead mandated that sportsmanship be displayed with both teams lining up on their respective blue lines and offering each other a stick salute.
Piotrowski clarified that most of the Covid-related changes are just for the coming season, and they expect to revert back to more standard practices when the pandemic is under control. But the efforts to shorten games and increase offense are on-going.
“All of these initiatives are looking to kind of reduce game time, help the pace of the game move and be more exciting for fans, to keep everyone engaged,” he said.
The Big Ten season starts on Friday, Nov. 13, with Wisconsin visiting Notre Dame. The Gophers open play on Thursday, Nov. 19, with a home series versus Penn State.