Large and in charge?

Eric Tobia of the Belleville Bulls tends a larger-than-usual net yesterday, one of many options...

Eric Tobia of the Belleville Bulls tends a larger-than-usual net yesterday, one of many options being examined during the NHL's research and development camp. (Toronto Sun/Stan Behal)

AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 7:45 AM ET

The open-game concept? Forget it.

But the bigger nets and no red line? A lot better than expected.

Those were the consensus opinions at the National Hockey League's research and development camp yesterday, the latest attempt by the league to come up with workable rules that will make the game more exciting when it returns.

Fans already know that in the new NHL, the game will be radically altered. There will be shootouts, thereby making ties a thing of the past. And the tag-up rule will be back. The goalies' pads will be smaller.

But what else?

That's the question league officials are trying to answer as they evaluate a number of different rule options.

Twice a day for the three days of the camp, a couple of specific potential changes will be placed under the microscope in scrimmages involving over-age juniors and university players. But throughout the entire session, a number of variations are always in place, including those mentioned above.

Also making an appearance is that traditional early season favourite, the crackdown on obstruction. No substitutions will be allowed on offsetting penalties. With a couple of exceptions, such as pinching defencemen and errant passes, the no-touch icing will be used throughout.

In the opening session yesterday morning, the squads tried to use a concept proposed by Harry Sinden of the Boston Bruins. Essentially, it was river hockey and while the motive was laudable, in that it was an attempt to promote offence, it took too much structure out of the game.

But in the afternoon, with the standard blue lines back in place, and prototype nets getting a look, the responses were surprisingly positive.

When first viewed in a Detroit hotel room more than two months ago, the nets -- 80 inches wide and 52 inches high as opposed to the standard 72 by 48 -- looked ridiculously large.

But out there on the ice surface, with a goalie standing between the pipes, they didn't look out of place at all. If anything, they looked like an image from a time warp.

Allowing for a bit of perspective, what we saw yesterday was what we used to see in the days when people like Guy Lafleur, Mike Bossy, Mike Gartner, Rick Vaive and others could come down the wing and blast a shot past the goalie and into the net.

The athleticism of today's goalie, combined with the size of his equipment, has made that shot obsolete. But with those nets in place and with goalies using the 11-inch pads that also will be a part of next year's NHL, that play is once again a genuine scoring chance.

Although the league originally had hoped to reduce the pads to 10 inches, it was determined after consultation with goaltenders that to do so could contribute to injuries. So 11 inches was accepted as a compromise -- along with tight sweaters.

SATHER IN FAVOUR

But the talk of the session yesterday was the manner in which the larger nets did not look out of place. Among the many general managers in attendance was Glen Sather of the New York Rangers.

"I really think that a lot of the purists would notice the difference because they know what the dimensions are and they study the game so closely," Sather said.

"There would be some protesting. The obvious question would be what happens to the goals that the guys score when it was four by six?"

But in general, Sather was in favour.

"It changes a lot of things," he said. "But everything changes and change isn't always the wrong thing to do. It's exciting. It's a new challenge. It's a new time. We're going to go through a lot of change this year."

Media gadfly John Davidson, who has been one of those spearheading a drive for change, said, "They're better than I thought they'd be. My concern would be for the five-foot-8 or five-foot-9 goaltender. It would be tough on him.

"The other concern is high shots. People might tend to shoot a little higher, and you'd have to be sure than it wouldn't result in more injuries.

"But I would agree that evolution is evolution. If that's what it takes, you do it. Most people feel that you start with making the goalie equipment smaller and see what happens. Maybe you do both."

Florida Panthers general manager Mike Keenan liked the new nets too but didn't want to rush to judgment.

"I want to see the NHL shooters against small equipment first, and then if they still can't score, make the nets bigger," Keenan said. "But if you do them both at once and everybody in the league is scoring 30 goals, then it becomes a travesty."

But the larger nets, once a long shot, are suddenly a very real option.


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