SUN Hockey Pool

Extreme hockey makeover

With new rules and a crackdown on existing obstruction rules, some players' tendency to take...

With new rules and a crackdown on existing obstruction rules, some players' tendency to take penalties could, ironically, penalize their chances of making a team. (SUN/Veronica Henri)

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:56 AM ET

The National Hockey League's rules package looks great in its shiny new binder and has that hot-off-the-press smell.

But once these bold initiatives to open up the game are unwrapped, can they stand up to the likes of an acerbic Pat Quinn, Ken Hitchcock's uncreative playbook, devious players and a cynical public? Will the best intentions of Brendan Shanahan, Colin Campbell and the league's competition committee be thwarted -- again?.

"Let's hope we don't hear the word 'trap' anymore," said Detroit Red Wings' Kris Draper.

"We have to play to these new rules, but we play to the system implemented by the coaches. Hopefully for the sake of the game, the coaches want to open it up."

QUAGMIRE

Indeed, the way out of the quagmire that the league created in the previous 10 years will rest in large part with the guys drawing X's and O's. But when the flood of penalties begins this month, coaches will find it hard to restrain their anger, especially those toughest on zebras .

"No one has the right to complain," said Edmonton Oilers' general manager Kevin Lowe, a member of the competition committee. "We all signed off on it.

"It's our aim to put the tools of the game back in the hands of the offensive players and get a balance with physical play. I've had (officials) tell me, 'I ref a rodeo, there's so much obstruction going on.'

"I hope they (crack down) early so there is a parade to the penalty box in the exhibition games. I've talked about this with my coach, Craig MacTavish. Guys who take penalties will not play on our team."

League officials have called this a "culture change," but culture shock is more like it. The simple act of putting a stick on an opponent's body is now strictly taboo.

"You tug the player, we see it, we'll call it," promised new NHL director of officiating Steve Walkom. "It's been coached into the game (for so long). But for the first time, coaches were involved in the rules process."

Those such as Mad Trapper Jacques Lemaire and the defence-first Hitchcock, could be the toughest to convert.

"Hitch has been pro-offence throughout this (obstruction debate)," Philadelphia Flyers forward Keith Primeau said. "I'd be shocked if we changed, but he's on record as saying he will. A lot of times, our practises were geared around special teams and defensive zone coverage. Now we look to be more free-flowing."

The 1990s were considered the golden age of goaltending, but this season could be a power-play bonanza. If the sheer increase in calls doesn't yield more extra-strength goals, the added room in the offensive zone by tweaking the lines certainly will.

"If I'm a coach, I'm practising that power play every chance I get in camp," said Hockey Night In Canada analyst Harry Neale. "There will be a lot of penalties for the first month of the regular season."

Players who have been working out in independent groups all summer have tried to incorporate some of the new rules and ice dimensions so not to be overwhelmed next week.

"Here at the Joe, guys are getting used to the speed and the body positioning," Draper said. "Teams that can skate and have a good defence will be a step ahead. You won't have any choice to open up. But this is going to be a huge adjustment and it won't happen overnight."

The elimination of the two-line offside might not have the desired effect, warned Alexei Yashin.

"I've played in Europe and everyone stayed on the blue line and gave up ice in offensive zone," said the New York Islander. "The trap might just get moved from red line to blue line."

GOALIES UNHAPPIEST

The goaltenders will be the most unhappy training campers, now that their wandering ways have been restricted, they can't freeze the puck and equipment restrictions have a few feeling naked.

"We'll be able to make a long pass because the red line is out," offered Martin Brodeur of the New Jersey Devils, but he cautioned that a lot of defenceman might get hurt because goalies can't come out and keep the puck away from charging forecheckers.

"Puck-handling is a skill I've worked on all my life and it's tough to take that rule. You can sit there and complain, but we're here to work with the league."


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