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It's time for NHL to change its game

Saturday, February 17, 2001

The Minnesota Mild might take hockey tedium to new depths. Kevin Stevens wouldn't pay to see them execute their all-trap, all-the-time philosophy, and neither would I.

But don't hate the Mild. Don't hate their coach, the undeniably cantankerous Jacques Lemaire. Hate the NHL's outdated rulebook and undersized rinks for making it possible for a team such as the Mild to stupefy, tranquilize and otherwise bore opposition and spectators into a state akin to gobbling a handful of Percocets.

Lemaire and his team have no obligation to hockey besides attempting to win by any means necessary. It's not their responsibility to realize that the NHL is in the entertainment business.

It would be nice if the NHL would realize it someday.

Hockey is a great game -- the greatest, I think. But the NHL stinks. NHL players are bigger, stronger and faster than ever before, which makes for a crowded rink. The talent pool has been diluted by overexpansion. The league has done nothing to adjust the game, to open it up, to stimulate offense.

The NHL is far behind the NFL, Major League Baseball and the NBA in terms of popularity. The XFL's TV ratings are fading fast, and they're still much better than the NHL's.

The NFL eliminated the bump-and run defense to increase offense. The NBA nixed the zone defense and added the three-pointer. Baseball will never admit it, but the ball was juiced to allow more home runs a few years back. Fans like scoring. Everyone but the NHL understands that.

I realize you can't make the rinks bigger because of economic considerations. You can't play 4-on-4 all the time because the players' union would never allow rosters to shrink and jobs to be lost. I wouldn't make the nets bigger because there are some things you just shouldn't tinker with.

But here are some changes the NHL could and should make:

Allow two-line passing. It works in college and international hockey. Passing could take place from behind the net all the way to the far blue line. Detractors say that forwards would hang at the far blue line and look for breakaways, i.e., "cherry pick." But if that happened, defensemen would pull back to cover the cherry-pickers, stretching the defending team vertically and unclogging the neutral zone, thus making it harder to trap. More breakaways, less trapping. How could anyone argue against that? Besides Lemaire, I mean.

Make the goalies wear smaller equipment. Ever see a tape of Ken Dryden playing for Montreal in the '70s? Dryden looks practically naked -- his equipment is tiny -- but he still managed to forge a reputation as the greatest goalie ever. Today, goaltenders wear more armor than Darth Vader. When Garth Snow plays a good game, I don't know whether to congratulate him or his pads. Make the goaltender -- not an equipment manufacturer -- accountable for stopping the puck.

Fire all referees who won't call every penalty regardless of when it occurs. Get different referees. Repeat the process as necessary until you have referees who don't constantly redefine the game as per their own personal parameters. It took baseball a long time, but it finally ditched a lot of its lesser umpires, and now the strike zone is more consistent than it has been in years. A penalty is a penalty whether it's in the first minute or the 60th, and the score at the time shouldn't matter.

Every player who commits a minor penalty should serve the full two minutes regardless of how many power-play goals are scored. A team should not be allowed to ice the puck while short-handed. You just committed a penalty. Why should your disadvantage be eased? You're being punished, for crying out loud. The NHL started allowing penalized players to leave the box after a power-play goal in 1956-57 because the Montreal Canadiens of the day were scoring two or three times on some power plays. This might have been the first recorded example of the NHL stifling excellence. But certainly not the last.

Have a faceoff in the offending team's zone after an icing call, just like now, but don't let the offending team put a center in the circle. In other words, give the team in its attacking zone a free play. Put the puck on the dot, don't let anyone inside the circle besides the one center, and play starts on the referee's whistle. One condition: The center can't shoot the puck directly on goal. He has to pass. It's like an indirect free kick in soccer. Icing sometimes results from a missed pass that goes awry. But more often than not, it results from a desperate attempt to stop play by a team being dominated. Icing is boring. Punish it.

If the NHL suddenly emphasized skill and scoring, expansion teams would have a rough time. So what? Expansion teams should have a rough time. They buy a franchise, not instant competitiveness.

The New York Islanders came into the NHL in 1972-73. They didn't trap. They played hockey the right way. The Islanders got killed for a while. But they had a good coach in Al Arbour, their young players developed because they were in a system that fostered improvement, and they won a Stanley Cup by 1980. The Minnesota Mild might eke out a playoff berth this year, their first. But I have a feeling the Mild will still be trying to eke out a playoff berth in 10 years.

But by then, nobody at all will be watching hockey. So it won't matter.

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