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VIRG FOSS COLUMN: WCHA needs upgrade in officiating

I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore. Sad to say, though, I don't have a choice in the matter. And neither do you, the loyal college hockey fans of Greater Grand Forks and the surrounding area. What I am mad about is the poor o...

I'm as mad as hell and I'm not going to take it anymore.

Sad to say, though, I don't have a choice in the matter. And neither do you, the loyal college hockey fans of Greater Grand Forks and the surrounding area.

What I am mad about is the poor officiating we are subjected to at nearly every UND home hockey game.

It is truly a mixed bag for us college hockey fans.

We are blessed with being able to watch the finest college hockey in the world in the world's finest hockey rink, Ralph Engelstad Arena. We are blessed with being able to watch teams from the Western Collegiate Hockey Association, the country's top league, come here to battle the Sioux.

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That the WCHA has produced the last five NCAA championship teams, six of the last seven and 36 national title teams since the league was founded in 1951 attests to its dominance and its steady flow of star players and teams.

That the WCHA continues to have the most incompetent and inconsistent officiating in college hockey is a pox upon us all. How can the WCHA have the country's finest players and teams and at the same time the worst officiating?

And that's not just my opinion.

It's one that is widely held by WCHA coaches, who are forbidden by league rules from publicly commenting on officiating.

Off the record, reporters with access to players and coaches immediately after games around the WCHA hear plenty of complaints about officiating.

In a well-documented recent case, Minnesota State-Mankato head coach Troy Jutting and assistant Eric Means stormed to the dressing room of the officials after a game against Minnesota in Minneapolis to loudly and profanely verbally attack the referee working the game.

In their case, they were driven mad by Minnesota being awarded 13 power plays over the two-game series between the Mavericks and Gophers while Mankato had but four.

Jutting and Means, too, were as mad as hell and they obviously weren't going to take it anymore.

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Don't get me wrong, I am not saying officiating we see in Grand Forks blatantly favors one team over another. In most cases, it's more a case of equal opportunity incompetence.

The NCAA has come out with directives in recent years to try to open up the game and eliminate all the clutching, grabbing and interference that often slowed the game to a walk.

The same directive from the NHL has opened up the pro game and worked very well. NHL players know the obstruction penalties will be called, without fail, and they play the game accordingly. It's brought a new level of excitement to the pro game and opened the door again to smaller players to excel.

But go to Engelstad Arena on any Sioux home hockey game night and you'll see players tackled, wrapped up with both arms of the opponent along the boards and hooked from behind by opponents to slow their progress down the ice.

In battles along the boards and in front of the net, you'll see players grabbing the stick of the opponent, another infraction that falls within the cover of obstruction that the NCAA has directed officials to penalize.

In most case, it is players with less skill using every obstruction technique known to attempt to neutralize the talent of a more skilled opponent. They still do it in the WCHA, because the infractions are rarely called.

At times, we see the calls being made as they should. For the most part they are not. It leads to total confusion for the players, who are told these rules will be enforced without fail in preseason meetings with officials. But once the season begins, the officiating we see in the WCHA has been wildly inconsistent, at best.

It's my view that the WCHA lost its best referee when Minot's Mike Schmitt walked away from the league so he could watch his young son play the game while growing up.

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Good for him, bad for us.

There are good officials out there. We see them working the NCAA regional tournaments and the Frozen Four.

Unfortunately, we rarely see them in the WCHA and it annoys me to no end. It leaves me no choice but to place the blame squarely on WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod and supervisor of officials Greg Shepherd.

Maybe the tirades of Jutting and Means will serve as a wake-up call to the league to improve its officiating.

We can only hope that happens and soon.

Virg Foss, who retired from full-time sportswriting at the Grand Forks Herald in 2005, can be reached at virgfoss@yahoo.com or at (701) 772-9272.

Schlossman has covered college hockey for the Grand Forks Herald since 2005. He has been recognized by the Associated Press Sports Editors as the top beat writer for the Herald's circulation division four times and the North Dakota sportswriter of the year once. He resides in Grand Forks. Reach him at bschlossman@gfherald.com.
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