New rules help cool old rivalries

JIM CRESSMAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:18 AM ET

What's happened to that old London-Sarnia rivalry?

We pine for the good old days, when the Knights and Sting were compared to the Hatfields and McCoys -- the Hunter brothers being the Hatfields, the Ciccarelli boys the McCoys.

Now, the McCoys don't even bother coming to the game.

But it just isn't London-Sarnia where the intensity has left the building. It's sweeping through the OHL. The players are afraid to hit and it's the new standard of rules enforcement that's to blame.

It was never the intention to remove physical contact from the sport, but somewhere in all the pre-season hyperbole about how the clutching and grabbing was going to be penalized to the letter of the law, it got into the players' heads that they can't use the body.

The Knights' Trevor Kell laid out the Sting's Danny Anger with a clean body check in the first period yesterday, the only hit the whole afternoon.

The only taste of the old rivalry that the 9,090 fans got was a fight between Anger and the Knights' Kris Belan with 11.1 seconds left, right off the faceoff after Rob Drummond's empty-netter capped the 8-4 London victory.

But that fight was clearly orchestrated, the gloves and helmets coming off as the puck hit the ice. So where's the old spontaneity?

"We were talking about this the other day," said Knights captain Dylan Hunter, who has been around this for five years.

"The whole Sarnia-London thing did kind of lose it. We don't hate each other day in and day out," Hunter said

He said a zero tolerance for clutching and grabbing has a lot to do with it.

"The clutching and the grabbing is the stuff that gets you frustrated, and the more you get frustrated, then you kind of snap.

"But you're right. When you're in the offensive zone you don't see so much hitting in the corner and rubbing out because you don't know what you'll get a penalty for."

It was the same Friday when the Windsor Spitfires were here. There was no physical intensity, not the way we remember London- Windsor games.

"Emotion is such a big part of junior hockey but with special teams so critical now, you don't see some of the five-on-five wars that you're used to," said Sting coach Shawn Camp.

"With the rule changes, there's none of the net-front battles. Players are trying to understand what is within the limits of clean hits versus. . . . It's a feeling-out process.

"We embrace the rule changes. It's created more offence. There's a learning curve and we're just trying to get the players to understand. We've had to unteach a lot of that stuff and because of that, you don't see as much of the contact."

Knights assistant coach Jeff Perry has seen the Hatfields and McCoys from both sides, coaching the Sting before coming to London.

"I think it's just still finding our way," Perry said. "I think there's a little bit of hesitation in terms of the hitting because we're just not sure. As time goes on, I think you'll see more hitting involved because players will get a better handle on it."

Perry too has noticed diminished rivalry, "but I always felt it was more of a buildup than it actually was. Both ownerships get along with each other. It's more the hype. It sells ticket. That's what Dale Hunter's line is."

Dylan Hunter said he misses the old days when a London-Sarnia or London-Windsor game resulted in a Holy War.

"You do miss the whole thing of going into the building two hours before the game and you're already so excited and you don't know what's going to happen.

"It was like a playoff game every time you went to Sarnia and Windsor and you do miss that. We've still got enough guys that don't like each other out there (to keep some fun in it) and we just dislike everybody."

The clutching and grabbing has been legislated out of the game, and that's a good thing.

But now maybe they should find a way to bring back the emotion and bodychecking.


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