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Savran: The joke is on us: NHL won't change

Saturday, February 23, 2002

Ever hear that old joke: "Waiter, there's a fly in my soup!" The waiter responds, "Shhh. Don't say it so loud or everybody will want one."

Everybody seems to have enjoyed the Olympic hockey. That means when it ends, everybody is going to want more. And that's when Olympic hockey will become a big, fat, horsefly doing the backstroke right in the middle of NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman's bowl of chowder.

When the NHL resumes play Tuesday night, Mr. and Mrs. America might tune in, lured by the tremendously entertaining hockey the Olympic tournament has produced. And if we were flies on their living room wall, we could hear them exclaim, "Wait a minute. How come he's allowed to jump on that guy's back, grab him around the throat and throw him down on the ice? That didn't happen last week. They look like they're skating through a thicket of underbrush. Give me the remote, Martha."

Click.

There have been a lot of great things about the Olympic hockey. None greater than Darius Kasparaitis planting that sweet left hook on Jaromir Jagr's jaw.

I suspect Kasparaitis wanted to do that for the longest time.

Anyway, there's going to be tremendous pressure on the NHL to adopt some elements of the international game. But what can we realistically expect?

Forget about the wider ice surface. It's impractical. You'd have to knock out rows of prime seating, the $100-and-up seats against the glass. Plus, it would be a construction nightmare.

If this were 10 years ago, when new arenas were still on drawing boards, you could plan for that. But so many of the teams have already moved into new buildings with the existing ice dimensions that it's too late now.

Automatic icing?

All right, but it wouldn't have that much effect.

The 15-second faceoff rule?

Love it. It really accelerates the tempo of a game. But this, too, is impractical, at least for every faceoff. Sorry fans, those commercial interruptions you hate allow broadcasters to televise the game you love.

The shootout?

I don't have much of a problem with the current system, largely because regular-season ties don't disturb me as they apparently do others. And what would you do in the playoffs? For my money, sudden-death overtime is the most riveting game-decider/series-decider in all of sport. There's no higher high or lower low.

Shootouts are fine for the minor leagues, where selling the experience of coming to a game is more important than the game itself. Not so in the big leagues. I don't think it should be part of the Olympics, either. We talk about the skilled forwards, but tomorrow's finalists arrived because they played great defense first. And defense is not a part of the shootout.

So what's left?

Legalizing the two-line pass is the most realistic, the most doable for the NHL. We've seen how it opens up the game, how it places a premium on skating and passing skills, especially for defensemen. Combine the tape-to-tape pass with unimpeded skating, and you create scoring chances.

And it's not scoring that creates excitement, it's the scoring chances that create excitement. Look at some of the best games played. The first USA-Russia, 2-2. Russia over the Czechs, 1-0. Canada 2, Finland 1. Low-scoring games, but great games. Plus, the two-line pass would take much of the bite from the neutral zone trap, although good skating and quick puck movement will do the same.

There will be great pressure on the league to change this most easily changeable rule. But it's likely too radical for the Bored of Governors to enact. In a way I agree with them. If the referees were ordered to simply enforce the existing rules as written, no matter the score, no matter the game circumstance, radical change would be unnecessary.

As it is, when the inevitable criticism born from comparisons to the Olympic game reaches a crescendo, what will the NHL do? Nothing. Bettman, just as he has always done, will deny there's anything wrong with the NHL's game. Which, basically, is a cover-up for not being able to convince the Bored to change.

Beginning Tuesday, it'll be back to the grind of muck and grind.

The NHL wanted to display its game to a wider audience. Now that it has, it will soon be exposed.

Excuse me, Mr. Commissioner. There's a fly in your bowl, and it's about to drink every last drop of your soup.


Stan Savran is the co-host of SportsBeat at 6:30 p.m. weekdays on Fox Sports Pittsburgh.

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