Checking rule not a hit in women’s hockey

Brett Angel

Shortly after her team defeated top-ranked and previously unbeaten Minnesota for the second-straight time Sunday afternoon, Minnesota-Duluth women’s hockey coach Shannon Miller’s excitement was tempered by frustration over some questionable officiating.

A visibly upset Miller focused on a play late in the first period that sent her star right-wing Maria Rooth crashing head-first into the boards. The Gophers’ Kelly Stephens was assessed a two-minute penalty for body checking on the play.

“Let me just say that if the hit from behind on Maria wasn’t a five-minute (major), then I don’t know what is,” Miller said after the game. “(The referee) knows he blew it with the two-minute call.”

Rooth suffered a separated right shoulder and a mild concussion. She was the fourth injured Bulldog taken to the hospital this season.

Miller faces disciplinary action and a possible fine from the WCHA for criticizing the officials, but her frustration is warranted.

According to the NCAA rulebook, body checking is illegal in women’s hockey. But body contact is not.

The fine line that distinguishes the two is the center of a heated debate regarding how much physical play should be allowed in women’s hockey.

Some argue the current rules are too subjective, while the alternatives of legalizing body checking or eliminating physical contact altogether seem too extreme.

Miller worries the safety of her players and the quality of play are being compromised by allowing more physical contact in the sport.

“People like the pureness of the women’s game; it’s very fluid,” Miller said. “That’s what people like about it, so why would you change that?”

Brown University head coach Digit Murphy disagrees.

“There’s this notion that (women’s hockey) should be more of a pure sport, but I don’t know what that means,” Murphy said. “It doesn’t have to be violent for there to be contact.”

Murphy believes most female players actually prefer a more physical game but said they are seldom consulted.

“The referees and the leagues are doing a tremendous disservice to the athletes by pontificating about what they think is best,” she said.

The Gophers’ Stephens, who played junior hockey with a boys’ team in Vancouver before joining Minnesota, is one athlete that agrees with Murphy..

“I would love checking to be a part of the game,” Stephens said. “There would be more passing; it would eliminate most of the individual stuff and make it more of a team game.”

But if body checking was legalized, some feel it would dissolve the most obvious barrier that currently separates the women’s game from their male counterparts’.

“I think women’s hockey was intended to be a different game,” Minnesota head coach Laura Halldorson said. “I don’t see (checking) as something we want to graduate to.”

WCHA Commissioner Bruce McLeod went so far as to call that distinction a hallmark of the women’s game.

Miller said that by keeping body checking out of the game, kids are more likely to participate in the sport at a young age if parents worry less about their safety.

But Murphy argues that by further reducing the physicality in women’s hockey, people are trying to make the game something it’s not.

“There’s an inherent implication in hockey that there’s going to be injuries,” Murphy said. “You take the risk when you strap on the helmet and the skates and let the athletes decide for themselves.”

WCHA Supervisor of Officials Greg Shepherd acknowledges the arguments on both sides regarding physical play and how strictly rules should be enforced. But he also said referees cannot prevent injuries by just adding an extra three minutes to a penalty.

“The coaches have to step up to the plate also,” Shepherd said. “The play itself is up to the teams and the coaches.”