TORONTO - Hybrid icing will be in effect for the start of the 2013-14 NHL regular season after it was approved by the players.
The NHLPA gave the go-ahead for the rule change that makes icing a race to an imaginary line across the faceoff dots instead of the puck, which was given a trial run during the pre-season. The goal is to prevent serious injuries, like the one that sidelined Carolina Hurricanes defenceman Joni Pitkanen for the entire season.
Pitkanen broke his left heel bone in eight places on an icing touch-up in April. It's a similar injury to the one suffered by former Washington Capitals forward Pat Peake, whose career ended not too long after.
"After testing hybrid icing during the pre-season games, the players participated in a survey and a majority of teams supported this rule change in an effort to make the game safer," NHLPA special assistant to the executive director Mathieu Schneider said in a statement. "We are hopeful that the implementation of the hybrid icing rule, which is a middle ground between the old rule and no-touch icing, will help minimize the incidence of player injuries on icing plays."
Some players seemed happy with the change.
"I think it's good. It kind of brings the race a little bit further away from the end boards," Toronto Maple Leafs winger James van Riemsdyk said. "Once they do blow it or decide what to do with it, it gives you more time to react."
Others expressed some doubts about hybrid icing, most notably hesitancy or unfamiliarity on the part of the linesman who has to make the call.
"The normal reaction is right away 'Oh, we don't like it,'" Calgary Flames coach Bob Hartley said. "If the hybrid icing saves one injury this year, it's worth it."
NHLPA executive director Donald Fehr said in a phone interview last week that he hopes hybrid icing represents "an obvious safety improvement (that is) not otherwise damaging to the game," but conceded that it's different from his vantage point and players'.
"It's going to require adjustment and while we've seen it ultimately work in college and in other leagues, it's not the same as playing in the NHL, and we're going to have to watch it very carefully because our game is played at a higher speed than anywhere else," commissioner Gary Bettman said.
The AHL experimented with it last season during the NHL lockout, and it came with mixed reviews from players. Hartley said AHL coaches hated it for the first two weeks and loved it by Christmas.
It's possible it takes time for NHL players and coaches to embrace it now.
"There's going to be some missed calls," Hartley said. "It's kind of a grey area. It's a judgment call and every time you create a judgment call, there's going to be some calls going your way or against you, calls you like and don't like."
Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty expressed concern about a missed call happening at the worst possible time.
"I know you want to protect the players and this is a step in the right direction, but I'm just scared that that Game 7, game-winning goal is going to come down to a hybrid icing non-call and there's going to be a big uproar about it," he said.
Maple Leafs captain Dion Phaneuf prefers the traditional race to the puck over hybrid icing, but says he can live with the change.
"I think for me personally it's just what I've been used to how the game's been played for a long time, so obviously it's an adjustment," Phaneuf said. "You're going to adapt to either way."
—With files from Donna Spencer in Calgary and Bill Beacon in Montreal.