A word to the wise

NHL Commisioner Gary Bettman might look to change the face of the game next month following new...

NHL Commisioner Gary Bettman might look to change the face of the game next month following new rule experiments in the American Hockey League this season. (Toronto Sun File/Ernest Doroszuk)

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 8:05 AM ET

For years, the National Hockey League has tried to avoid radical change, hoping that the traditional game would be enough to win back lost fans.

But now, with the impact of a lockout added to the pre-existing woes of a moribund game, the league is ready to make some dynamic moves.

It makes sense. There's not an awful lot to lose. In the United States, the interest level is at a modern-era low, and even large numbers of Canadian fans have been driven away by recent events.

As a result, Colin Campbell, the league's director of hockey operations, is bringing together the league's general managers for a meeting in Detroit April 7-8.

"We've got to do some planning," he said, "because what if things drag out and all of a sudden it's Aug. 31 or Sept. 1 when they get a (CBA) deal done? We've got to be ready to go."

When the GMs last met to discuss rules, the locale was Henderson, Nev., just outside of Las Vegas. But these are not high-rolling times for the NHL and Detroit is a fairly central location.

That previous meeting was highly productive and a number of innovations that should have brightened up the game were approved. Unfortunately, the NHL never got a chance to put them into action.

But the American Hockey League did. It adopted most of the NHL's proposed changes and since Campbell and his staff haven't had an awful lot else to do, they've been able to see the rules in action.

For their purposes, this is better that testing rules during the NHL pre-season when star players are often being rested and teams have no urgency. Even though the skill level in the AHL isn't what it is in the NHL, the worth of a new rule becomes fairly clear.

For instance, had there been an NHL season this year, it's likely that no-touch icing would have been introduced. The feeling had been that too many players were being hurt in relatively useless races to try to prevent icing.

AHL EXPERIMENT

But the AHL experiment has raised some doubts about the merits of no-touch icing. For one thing, it increases the number of stoppages because players don't bother to chase pucks they might have reached.

And many GMs would like to see some leniency on genuine offensive passing plays. If, for instance, a player makes a pass that is just out of reach of a teammate who is streaking down the wing, isn't it better to let the winger keep the play alive if he's the closest player to the puck?

There's no easy answer to that one, so it will be one of the items debated in Detroit.

And what about removal of the centre red line as a factor in offside plays? At their previous meeting, the GMs opposed it, but this time, because of the sense of needing to make radical changes, they may go for it.

Some of them feel that if the red line is gone, the trap merely gets established further up ice. Others believe that a good long pass can break the trap.

In this case, the AHL experiment doesn't do a lot of good because those players can't make passes of that nature. If they could, they would be in the NHL.

The limitations on a goalie's movements also were hotly contested in Nevada. That matter will be raised again.

And there's the three-point-must system: Three points for a regulation-time win; two for an overtime win; one for an overtime loss. The NHL likes that concept but the AHL didn't adopt it so that, too, will be reviewed again. The idea is that coaches will play to win rather than play not to lose.

Whatever the GMs decide, it's almost certain that they'll go for radical changes. Considering the way the game was played when last we saw it, that can't be a bad thing.


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