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Madden: Obstruction rules to face many tests

Saturday, November 09, 2002

Anyone pessimistic about the permanence of the NHL's crackdown on obstruction certainly got grist for the mill Wednesday night. Only two penalties were called in the Penguins' 4-3 overtime loss at Florida, with one of them called in extra play.

If referees called everything that should be called, it would be absolutely impossible to have just two penalties in 62-plus minutes of hockey. It was easy to see that referees Paul Stewart and Dan O'Halloran blatantly were ignoring even the most obvious of calls.

Five words in the previous sentence go together hand in glove: "Paul Stewart," "ignoring," "obvious," and "calls." The former bush-league goon has been an embarrassment to refereeing since the day the NHL allowed him to don a striped shirt. Simply put, Stewart hates to call penalties.

Stewart was pathetic as a player. He had zero skill. As a ref, he watches with a smirk as the scrubs illegally handcuff the stars. A bum like Stewart could never stop a superior talent when he played. But when he officiates, Stewart can slow down Mario Lemieux by merely looking the other way.

I hope NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and director of officiating Andy van Hellemond review tape of the game Wednesday, then tell Stewart and O'Halloran that such officiating is not acceptable.

The future of the obstruction crackdown -- and indeed, the future of hockey as a viable alternative in the entertainment industry -- is at stake over the remainder of the season. NHL hockey hasn't been this much fun to watch in a decade. To keep hockey's momentum going, nimrods like Stewart and O'Halloran must be put in their place immediately. Screwing up one game is screwing up one game too many.

Bettman and van Hellemond seem committed to the crackdown. But there's no doubt their mettle will be tested by the next time somebody lifts the Stanley Cup in triumph.

ESPN hockey analyst Bill Clement says that no teams are actively lobbying against the crackdown, and that's good.

But the Canadian sports media often tries to wield clout within the hockey world, and the spiel emanating from the Great White North (especially Toronto) says that the obstruction crackdown is robbing the game of its personality. One column bemoaned the fact that a player like Toronto thug Tie Domi is having less impact on the game. How sad, the author concluded.

Actually, it's sad that a slug like Domi ever had an impact on the game.

The obstruction crackdown is adding excitement to hockey. In turn, that ultimately will allow those who deservedly dominate the sport to dominate in terms of personality and publicity as well.

Problem is, not as many of those players will be Canadian. Hence the torrent of mindless word-drool out of Canada.

Don't underestimate the influence the Canadian media has on hockey. And don't think that every NHL franchise will back the obstruction crackdown indefinitely. When fall turns to winter and the plight of some teams turns hopeless, those teams will appeal to Bettman for relief.

If the obstruction crackdown survives the regular season and playoffs, a lot of the NHL's slow-footed hacks eventually will be shoved toward the unemployment line. Many will be Canadian. They will be replaced by players quicker of hand and faster of skate. Many will be European.

We'll see how the NHL's Canadian old-boy network deals with that. That will be when Bettman's resolve is truly tested.

Maybe I'm overreacting drastically to the game Wednesday. But I'm truly concerned about the sport's future. Too many promises to open up hockey have been broken. The bursting of a dam starts with a single leak. On Wednesday, we may have seen that first leak. I hope not.

I don't expect Bettman and van Hellemond to shove Stewart and O'Halloran in front of a speeding train over that game, although that wouldn't be a bad idea. Heck, I don't expect Bettman and van Hellemond to make the matter public.

But I do expect not to see Stewart and/or O'Halloran again ignore that many calls. There needs to be accountability. It needs to be made clear that it's not up to each referee to inflict his own personal style on the games he officiates. No one ever bought a ticket to see Paul Stewart, although you'd probably have a hard time convincing him of that.

People do buy tickets to see Lemieux, though. And Jaromir Jagr. And Pavel Bure. And Sergei Fedorov.

If the stars are allowed to keep shining, the number of people who buy tickets -- and follow the game on television -- quite likely will increase. And those who watch hockey to see hitting aren't being disappointed. Hockey is still a physical game. You can still bodycheck foes. You just can't tackle them.

If Stewart and his ilk mangle more games, can 'em.

And keep this in mind: Having to play a brand of hockey he hated was a big factor behind Mario Lemieux's first retirement. It could easily usher him out again.

Mark Madden is the host of a sports talk show from 3-7 p.m. weekdays on ESPN Radio 1250.

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