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Hybrid icing debate heats up as NHL looks to reduce injury

Current rule ‘just stupid,’ says former Caps forward Pat Peake

- The Washington Times - Tuesday, April 9, 2013

Pat Peake couldn't bring himself to watch. Seventeen years after breaking his right heel bone on an icing touch-up, the ex-Washington Capitals center couldn't handle seeing the same thing happen to Carolina Hurricanes defenseman Joni Pitkanen.

"It was just disgusting, and I'm sure it was a meaningless play," Peake said.

Pitkanen's injury last week against the Caps reignited the debate about whether the NHL should change the 76-year-old icing rule. General managers have voted to approve hybrid icing — racing to the faceoff dots instead of the puck — as one way to prevent injuries, but it's hard to find a consensus on the best way to handle the situation.

"It's the players' decision. What they say is best for the game," said Peake who was forced to retire after the 1997-98 season at age 24. "Every single year you have two, three, four, five guys, broken femur, separated shoulder, whatever it may be, with a stupid rule. Can you show me five scoring chances? Is somebody's career worth one scoring chance?"

The NHL Players' Association favors keeping the current rule or switching to automatic no-touch icing, which is used in international play. Even after witnessing Pitkanen's gruesome injury, several Caps defensemen are against making a change.

"I kind of like it the way it is right now, but I haven't had an injury from that, so I might be on the other side if I was Pitkanen," Karl Alzner said. "It makes sense why they would do it, but I don't really want to change."

Part of the problem is that hybrid icing is more complicated than just getting to the puck. Players would race to the faceoff dots in the defensive zone, and if the defenseman gets there first the play would be dead.

"Racing to the faceoff dot? So whoever crosses the faceoff dot first? I've never heard of that one," defenseman John Erskine said. "I'm in between with switching it. I'm for it if they do, but I don't like the race to the dots."

Many NHL players don't know about hybrid icing because they have no experience with it. Steve Oleksy played with it during the American Hockey League this season and said of hybrid icing: "I [bleeping] hate it. You can quote that."

His main issue, judging from half a season with the Hershey Bears that included conversations with linesmen, is that it's too much of a judgment call for officials and another split-second decision for players.

"As a defenseman, you're going back in a pretty vulnerable position when you're not sure if it's going to be icing," Oleksy said. "You've got to try to make a play on it, but you're trying to listen for the refs, too, so there's a lot going on and it all happens fast."

The AHL ended its hybrid icing experiment when the NHL season began in January because president David Andrews didn't want players shuttling back and forth between the leagues to have to think about what rule was in place. Washington GM George McPhee would like to observe a full year's worth of hybrid icing at the AHL level; he did not vote in favor of implementing it because he hadn't seen enough.

"I sure didn't like what I saw the other night [with Pitkanen], and I'd be more inclined to talk about hybrid if we can tweak it a little bit," McPhee said. "Maybe the decision to blow the whistle comes before they get to the faceoff dots. Maybe it has to happen a little bit before that, because I don't think it completely eliminates some of the accidents."

Veteran defenseman Tom Poti played with automatic, no-touch icing at Boston University. He and other teammates would rather have that than hybrid icing.

"Maybe twice a game an icing is negated by a forward skating in to protect the puck. It's not worth it," Poti said. "Probably 99 out of 100 times there's never a problem, but when there is a problem, it's a major problem. A guy breaks his heel bone or a guy breaks his leg or it's something major. I don't think it's going to hurt the game if you go to no-touch icing. ... It's not going to take away from the game at all."

Those in favor of hybrid icing like that there's still the element of competition involved, though ideally with fewer injuries. Pitkanen is expected to be out three to four months, while Philadelphia Flyers defenseman Kurtis Foster missed 11 months with a broken left femur suffered on an icing play in March 2008 while playing for the Minnesota Wild. Montreal Canadiens forward Brandon Prust missed three weeks with a separated left shoulder last month.

"I think that it's a part of the game that there's no need for it," said Foster, who also refuses to watch a replay of Pitkanen's injury. "A race for the puck, yeah it might be exciting, but the moment a guy goes down or something happens, it's just not needed."

Peake was injured April 26, 1996, racing Pittsburgh Penguins defenseman J.J. Daigneault to negate an icing when his right calcaneus bone broke in 14 places. He played only five more NHL games, had 19 surgeries and sometimes can't play soccer in the backyard with his two daughters because the pain is too severe.

"You get a little brainwashed, you do whatever it takes," Peake said. "Yes, I won the race. I also lost my career."

Having never seen hybrid icing in action, Peake is nevertheless a proponent of change. Getting married on crutches can have that kind of impact.

"I think it's a meaningless play in the game," he said. "The cons outweigh the pros, I guess is the best way to say it a hundred times over. It's just stupid."

Caps coach Adam Oates doesn't want to see injuries like what happened to Pitkanen, but he doesn't consider icing touch-ups meaningless. Because of that, he's not sure about a potential change.

"You're talking a huge play in the game," Oates said. "You don't want to see someone hurt. I'm sure they're really, really trying to figure out the best way to do it because that's a tough, important play of the game."

Though not at fault for Pitkanen's injury, right wing Troy Brouwer felt awful because he was the player in on the forecheck when it happened. He didn't support hybrid icing before, but seeing that kind of carnage up-close made him reconsider.

"If it's going to be at the risk of players, then I think the hybrid icing needs to be implemented because of player safety," said Brouwer, the Caps' alternate NHLPA representative. "We're having troubles with open-ice hits and just adding races to the end boards, not too many good things are going to come out of it if guys do get tangled up."

Hurricanes coach Kirk Muller said hybrid icing is "long overdue." But it's far from perfect, as Oleksy can attest. He said defensemen are in "no-man's land" given the uncertainty.

Peake, who at 39 coaches the Honeybaked 1998 youth team in Michigan, believes that players' desire to keep the current rule stems from not playing with hybrid icing. He said it, like face masks, could be integrated from the youth level up and eventually become commonplace.

Whether it becomes the norm in the NHL as soon as next season isn't clear, but the man whose promising career ended on an icing touch-up hopes a change is made before something worse happens.

"You just pray nobody gets killed, really," Peake said. "I'm telling you right now: Somebody's going to end up breaking their neck and somebody's going to end up losing their life or end up in a wheelchair because of the rule. I know, I was there, I was one of them."

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