Referees in the traditionally rough-and-tumble Western Hockey League have been sending offenders to the penalty box at a record low rate this season.
As the 2014-15 campaign draws to a close, multiple teams could break the WHL’s record for fewest penalty minutes in a season set by the 2013-14 Everett Silvertips with 816 in 72 games. Everett, with 646 minutes in 64 games, will almost certainly break that mark, as will the Kootenay Ice, who have been whistled for just 631 minutes in the same span.
As recently as three seasons ago, every team in the league racked up at least 1,000 minutes. This season could finish with as few as three teams topping that benchmark, and only the Prince George Cougars have already reached four digits.
Teams are fighting less, but are also taking fewer minor penalties.
In 2006-07, the average team earned about 6.7 power plays per game. Loosening of some rules brought that down to approximately 5.5 the next season, but there’s been a steady decline since even as the sport continues to tighten restrictions on violent hits.
This season, WHL teams average about 4.1 power plays per game.
"I think that’s a good thing," said WHL director of officiating Kevin Muench. "The game is changing; there’s more emphasis on speed and skill."
Muench said there’s been no "conscious effort" by the WHL’s officiating arm to decrease penalty calls, and cites coaching and education in explaining why there are fewer whistles.
"We’ve been meeting with teams for a handful of years about penalty infractions, and we talk about how standards are going to applied," said Muench. "Once there’s a buy-in, players have a stronger understanding and coaches have done a tremendous job teaching."
Kootenay coach Ryan McGill, an imposing presence in his playing days who compiled 793 penalty minutes in four WHL seasons, says teams have adjusted to a new reality in hockey.
"The intimidation factor isn’t really there anymore," said McGill. "The game is going away from that, and we don’t really have that personality on our team.
"I think big hits are out of the game because the player giving the hit understands there’s a risk for suspension," said McGill. "The way the rules are, and the safety concerns, the players are cognizant of that and don’t go out of their way for those hits anymore."
Muench said he has "no doubts" that players have adjusted to stiff punishment for certain kinds of hits, especially that target opponents’ heads.
"It took a few years for everyone to understand that checking from behind needed to be eliminated, now players are coming into the league familiar with consequences for checking to the head," he said.
Instead of instructing players to mash opponents into the boards, coaches like McGill are focusing on technique.
"In defending, we try to teach about body position and stick positioning, and not putting yourself in a situation where you have to take a penalty," McGill said.
Fewer collisions means there are fewer occasions to drop the gloves. The Ice have engaged in a league-low 23 fights this season.
"Our fights are spur of the moment, and those are the best kinds of confrontations," McGill said.
Instances of fighting have plummeted in all levels of hockey, and its decline is a welcome development for those who believe fighting is a major cause of concussions.
The league has claimed that concussions are on the decline, but there’s no way to accurately evaluate that statement because teams are not required to publicly disclose the nature of injuries beyond "upper" or "lower" body.
In 1997-98, the first season for which game-by-game data is available online via the WHL’s website, each of the league’s 18 teams at the time fought at least 85 times, with the Medicine Hat Tigers leading the way with 211.
This season, the Swift Current Broncos top the WHL with 63 fighting majors.
"Everyone talks about fighting, and we talk about it as well," Muench said. "Fighting still happens, but there’s been a lot of effort to reduce unnecessary fights and staged fights."