With eight minutes to play in the second period of the Michigan hockey game on Saturday night, junior forward JT Compher stood at center ice flailing his arms in an animated fashion at the official. Another referee pushed Michael Downing toward the exit behind Michigan’s net while the junior defenseman hollered at the rest of the officiating crew.

It was a scene that college hockey fans have become familiar with.

The loudspeaker announced the call — contact to the head — and Downing received an automatic five-minute major and game misconduct penalty. The Wolverines’ defensive rock was tossed mid-comeback.

Minnesota won the game, 3-2, splitting the weekend series.

The advent of concussion research brought forth a variety of suggestions for reducing dangerous hits in contact sports. Today, automatic ejections are in vogue.

Division I football reached its own apex of controversy this season with hard-to-define targeting rules. In football, a player is automatically ejected for “contact to the head or neck area of a defenseless opponent.” Senior linebacker Joe Bolden was the subject of such a call during the Michigan football team’s loss to Michigan State this season.

While the targeting rule has been widely lambasted for a lack of clarity, the success of the contact-to-the-head rule in NCAA hockey is still up for debate.

Positive signs include year-over-year declines in penalty minutes at the Division I level. Also comforting is the evidence of a rapid return to a normal rate of game misconduct penalties. When the NHL adjusted its rulebook, it saw a dramatic spike for only one year — about 30 percent in 2010 — before settling back to historically normal levels.

But some still feel that the penalty doesn’t fit the crime.

It’s unfair to say that Downing’s ejection was the reason Michigan lost. Instead, it seemed to light a fire under the Wolverines, who killed off the long penalty and eventually evened the score at 2-2.

But it would also be wrong to deny the significance of the call, which left Michigan with just five defensemen and required junior defenseman Nolan De Jong to play in extra-attacker scenarios.

Michigan coach Red Berenson said after the game that the call was “disappointing.” The players didn’t use it as an excuse.

But was the game better off because of the dramatic call?

Minnesota was flat-out embarrassed Friday night to open the series. Freshman goaltender Eric Schierhorn posted an abysmal .667 save percentage, and the Gophers looked helpless as the Wolverines piled on eight goals.

Saturday, Minnesota was determined not to get pushed around.

Both teams came out hard in a game that featured 31 penalty minutes. In the early going, the contest was a sluggish affair because of sloppy passing and physical play in the corners. Bodies flew, the boards rattled and several hits took the breath out of the crowd.

For the most part, though, the refs were lenient when sending players to the box. It’s what made the Downing ejection such a surprise ­— the offending hit certainly wasn’t the worst of the game.

Downing himself went to the box earlier for breaking his stick on a slash across the back of a Minnesota player — a minor penalty was assessed. Later, the normally mild-mannered senior forward Boo Nieves took a Golden Gopher player to the ground following a cross-checking bonanza in front of the net. Nieves received a two-minute minor as well.

Either offense might have warranted a more costly penalty, but Downing’s head contact penalty was the one that changed the game.

The NCAA updated the rule before the 2010-11 season. A few months later, Sidney Crosby sustained a concussion that would keep him out of the NHL for close to a year. That injury made rules of this sort more palatable, and may have permanently changed the conversation on concussions in the sport.

Downing received his game misconduct for a hit on Minnesota’s Connor Reilly. The replay makes apparent that, in the process of going for the big hit, Downing connected with Reilly’s head in an illegal manner. Reilly was shaken up for a second, but climbed gingerly to his feet and finished the game without any visible symptoms.

It was an awkward hit in which Michigan’s enforcer appeared to miss his mark due to last-second movement. Detractors would argue the game misconduct penalty was intended for use on a malicious play, not a questionable hit.

Downing has had trouble in this area before. He was suspended three times last season, earning him an extra-game suspension as a repeat offender. Two weeks ago, while talking about his timing on big hits, he said he was working to stay on the ice this year.

But with automatic ejections, trying just isn’t good enough.

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