NHL rule changes long overdue

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:16 AM ET

Give the National Hockey League some credit.

It only took a year-long lockout, declining attendance figures, a lack of interest in the game south of the border, no interest by television networks and an erosion of interest among true hockey fans to get the message that the game needed changing.

No one can ever say that those in charge of the game need to be hit over the hit with a hammer.

No matter how they got there, at least they finally did. They've come to terms with the reality that not only did the NHL need to get healthy from a financial aspect, it needed to get healthy from a competitive and spectacle standpoint as well.

At the time the NHL opted to stop playing, the product it was selling was not very attractive.

It was dominated by defensive-minded teams that sought players who were able to stifle creativity and drag the game down to the depths of mediocrity rather than focusing on allowing skilled players to lift the game to creative levels that are not only pleasing to watch but make the product easier to sell.

The lockout was not about making the game better on the ice. The lockout was about financial reorganization that, according to the NHL, would afford the opportunity for more teams to survive, compete and make money.

In the long run, teams that made money before are going to make more money now, teams that lost money before will continue to lose money, only not to the same extent they did before, and teams that made bad financial decisions before will likely continue to make bad financial decisions. One can install a new financial structure in an organization but that doesn't make anyone smarter or a better judge of talent.

But the real beneficiaries in the process of razing the old NHL and replacing it with the new will be the on-ice game itself and the fans. Thanks go to Colin Campbell, the league's director of hockey operations who lives in Tillsonburg, and former London Knight and veteran Detroit Red Wings winger Brendan Shanahan. They made rule changes happen in a game that needed changes to be made.

There are traditionalists who believe the game needed no change, that making the game a more attractive offensive spectacle is succumbing to the lure of television and the fan in non-traditional hockey centres.

But there was significant unhappiness with the game among longtime hockey fans as well. A lack of scoring, skill and flow led to a diminishing of the game's entertainment value. Many longtime fans were becoming only occasional observers and many felt little or no emotion when the NHL locked out its players and didn't play.

Officials have been told in the past to practise no tolerance with obstruction fouls. Officials would adhere to the edict for a while, until the whining from coaches, managers and players became unbearable. Inevitably we would slide back to stifling defensive hockey, clutching and grabbing.

Should this happen again this time, there are other rule changes that should open up the game, the most important focus on allowing more passing, skating and fewer stoppages of play.

The neutral zone will be made smaller, the offensive zone bigger. The net will be moved two feet closer to the back board, meaning more room to skate.

The centre line will exist only for icing calls. No more two-line offside passes.

The tagup offside is back, so there will be fewer offside whistles.

Goaltenders will only be able to play the puck in a certain area behind the net, and the size of goaltending equipment will be reduced by about 11 per cent.

Any player who shoots the puck directly over the glass in his defending zone will be penalized for delay of game.

If a game ends in a tie after overtime is played, a shootout will decide who wins it.

This is also good news for junior hockey fans. Most of these changes will be implemented at the junior level, meaning younger skilled players will have an opportunity to develop those skills.

Some consider the loss of hockey for a year to be a stiff price to pay for these changes.

In the long run, the price will be well worth it.


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