SUN Hockey Pool

New-look NHL quick-paced, skilful

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 8:28 AM ET

Those who don't believe the changes being made in hockey won't be better for the game didn't see the exhibition game between the Atlanta Thrashers and Philadelphia Flyers.

The Flyers defeated the Thrashers 8-6 at the John Labatt Centre on Saturday.

Forget the 14 goals. The game provided a glimpse into how the game is supposed to look. Quick-paced with plenty of skating and skill, there were long passes, quick breaks.

It had enough hitting to satisfy those who crave physical contact but it lacked the clutching and grabbing that slowed the game down. And for those who believe you can't teach an old dog new tricks, they would have been surprised to see players about to revert to the old hook-'em-and-hold-'em routine pull back when they realized they'd be slapped with a penalty.

It's a far different experience than what's going on in junior hockey. The junior games have been an exercise in exasperation. Players and fans are growing irritated at the parade to the penalty box.

None of this is unexpected. Patience is the word of the day.

One thing is certain though. Colin Campbell would have liked what happened at the JLC. Campbell is the NHL's director of hockey operations. He'll visit each team and go over the rules and their implementation. Saturday it was the turn of the Thrashers and Flyers.

Campbell understands the game not only from the administrative side but from the management and player angle. He understands the philosophy and how it got to this point. "We didn't go into a whole dissertation on hooking and holding. We haven't got enough time. They are going to learn through exhibition. We have a lot more opportunity to understand and explain this and implement this than the junior teams did."

The NHL has had meetings and seminars, committees and subcommittees on hooking, holding and interference.

"Six coaches, five managers two players, three referees beat that up for a whole day. We looked at one (video) clip for close to an hour.

"The juniors are trying hard but with all due respect, our referees are the best referees in the world. We have every game videotaped and we watch them all. We hope to correct things when they start to slip."

The new philosophy has provided a new freedom. There were situations when a penalty was never going to be called because "it may decide the outcome of the game.

"It's 5-4 late in the game, or there's already a player in the box or it's in the last five minutes when a game is tied, we didn't make the call because it's the outcome of a game. But by not making the call the outcome of a game may be decided."

He is quick to correct when the word obstruction is used.

"It isn't obstruction. We'll be enforcing the rules."

Hockey's been here before. Maybe not with rules changes like the removal of the centre line and smaller goalie equipment but in its attempt to adhere to the rules.

The initiative has always died.

"There's going to be bitching and whining when you do it. We have to hang in this time and support the referees when they call it."

And teams are building their teams around the changes. Years ago when yet another rule change initiative began, the New York Rangers traded Sergei Zubov and Peter Nedved for Luc Robitaille and Ulf Sammuelsson. Campbell was the coach of that team.

"We traded (Zubov) because he cost us a playoff game with Philadelphia because he didn't want to take a hit," said Campbell. "With the new rules that forwards couldn't be held up on the forecheck, we didn't think he'd be effective so we traded him thinking the game was going to change. It went back the way it was. Would we have been better off with Zubov?"

There is a determination to make this work. Saturday's exhibition whetted the appetite of those who love the speed, skill and beauty of the game. "This is not something we decided to do. We've been told to do this by the general managers, coaches, players, the fans, the media. It's not going to be easy. If coaches start grousing . . . fine them. (They'll say) 'We lost 6-2, they had three five-on-three goals. They had four penalties, we had 14.' Well, you played stupid, they didn't. I'm hoping they'll say to their players, 'Hey guys, you aren't learning. You're slow learners.' "

For the sake of the game, let's hope they're good students.


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