SUN Hockey Pool

New look depends on banning 2H Club

JIM KERNAGHAN -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 9:14 AM ET

Of all the changes in players and rules, of all the retirements, of all the new economic factors, the National Hockey League's so-called new look depends on one thing and one thing only.

It has to deep-six the 2H Club forever.

That's hooking and holding, the twin blights so irritating to fans and skilled players alike.

If, almost 500 days after the league last played a meaningful game, the third attempt to rid the game of those restraining fouls fails, everything else will lose traction and the game will slide back to where it was before the lockout.

Sure, the new shootout guarantees excitement and makes Domi the last tie in NHL play. Sure, the four extra feet in each offensive zone enhances play-making and more power-play prominence. Sure, the two-line pass helps squelch the trap.

But if those who run the game don't stay the course on the obstruction and interference clamp-down, the new NHL will look a lot like the old one. The owners and governors who dictate how the games are called simply have to suck it up.

If some teams have guys too slow to handle their defensive assignments without clutching and hooking, they're going to have to find ones who can, not whine about officiating hurting them. Those with any foresight will see the rules benefit everyone.

A new large pool of players ostensibly has opened up, the fast-skating puck wizard deemed too small will be getting a second look. The ponderous defenceman with mediocre range stands to be out or consigned to the bench and replaced by the quick and clever rearguard with superior puck-handling skills.

Through the exhibition schedule, the refs called all the obstruction they saw, wherever and whenever. Surely, the preseason parade to the penalty box has given the repeat offenders a clue to as to how they will have to play the game.

There have been more changes in the NHL this season than at any time in the league's history, counting the first expansion that doubled the league to 12 teams 40 years ago. Back then, you knew the original six would cream the newcomers for several years.

This season is a hockey pool crap-shoot. It's as if somebody put 750 numbered balls into a lottery bin and general managers, with one eye on their needs and the other on the salary cap, picked and chose from the array of free agents. As a result, there is no meaningful form chart.

You know from a peek at the personnel which teams are likely to be competitive -- from defending Stanley Cup champ Tampa Bay to finalist Calgary Flames -- that Philadelphia and Boston and Pittsburgh and Detroit and Ottawa have strengthened or maintained their ground, while teams such as de-fanged Colorado and the shockingly inactive Toronto have slipped.

Still, with trades and even some mid-season retirements, we probably won't get a solid fix on the league's new balance of power until Valentine's Day.

We are sure to see more goals. Smaller goalie equipment, a smaller neutral zone, more pressure on the defence for free pucks and the likelihood of more ice time for the stars almost guarantees it. The NHL is in the business of winning back a lot of disgruntled fans.

Part of that is an initiative aimed at bringing the players to the fans through advertising, through appearances, through rookie sensation Sidney Crosby, through availability to the media.

The Detroit Red Wings apparently haven't heard about the last one yet.

It will be a factor, but don't expect a lot of two-line home run goals. Still, players such as Wings' defenceman Niklas Lidstrom has the passing power and accuracy to send a fast-skating forward in alone past a trapped defender.

What you might see is the arrival of shootout specialists, guys named to the three-man post-overtime tie-breaker. Like football's field-goal kicker, the good one-on-one guys, while not necessarily big contributors in regular play, can mean a lot of points. You'll see a lot of them on televised highlight packages.

You will see more televised hockey generally as the networks pour it on after a season's absence.

There's something else almost all fans hope to see.

That's games called the way they were in the exhibition schedule, in which the stars were not clutched, grabbed and hooked anywhere in the three zones, right into overtime, without the offending player drawing a penalty.

If the NHL can finally rid itself of the 2H Club, it will be the most important change of all.


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