SUN Hockey Pool

The Last Word

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 10:39 AM ET

When the NHL finally stops patting itself on the back for taking the shackles off its stars, it might be worth giving a listen to some of the so-called neanderthals who love the game, too.

They might just have something useful to contribute.

See, not everything about the old NHL was horrible. Nobody is saying the crackdown on obstruction, especially in the neutral zone has had anything but a positive effect on the game's entertainment value but, in the process, body checking has been largely removed from the game and in the long run, that might be a problem.

So far, the new NHL has been dominated by special teams. It's wide open and exciting, breathtakingly fast and, finally, it's possible for a team to overcome a two- or three-goal lead.

That's all great, but once the parade to the penalty box starts to wane, as it surely will, what will be left? Already it's becoming a game where defencemen are afraid to lift a finger, lest they end up in the penalty box.

For players like Wade Belak and Bryan McCabe, such passivity does not come easily.

"When you're battling down low, defencemen are a little hesitant about what they can or can't get away with," said Belak, a somewhat embattled Leafs defender, who has had a tough time adapting. "If you go in and run a guy in the corner and you're battling for the puck, if somehow the puck squirts out and you don't let him go that very second, you'll get a holding penalty. Or if he steps on your stick and falls down, it's a trip."

That's what happened Saturday against Philadelphia when one of the Flyers inadvertently stepped on Belak's stick. Two more minutes in the box.

"Defencemen are being a lot more cautious because they don't want to get a penalty," Belak said. "In the old days you could go in and hammer the guy and battle for the puck and keep hitting him but you won't see that anymore.

"They're not letting us battle in front of the net, either. Guys are just standing there. They say you can protect your ice but what does that mean? You can't really control (an opponent) without tying him up.

"It's like basketball. The battling is gone. They took the red line out and we can't stand up on guys in the middle ice as we did before. It's what they want I guess ... free-flowing."

As a hockey fan, close your eyes and imagine some of the tong wars between the Flyers and Leafs in Stanley Cup playoffs past. Now try to imagine the same kind of physical intensity in today's environment. It doesn't compute. Hockey fans accustomed to seeing players ratchet up their physical intensity in the playoffs will have to make do with something a bit more sanitized, a bit less passionate.

"The more intense you are, the more penalties you're going to take," Belak said. "Everybody's scared to do too much because you're going to get called. I'd like to see some discretion, especially in the scoring areas."

So would his coach, Pat Quinn.

"All of us are in favour of not having the grappling, the hooking, the holding," Quinn concedes. "Nobody wanted that. Where it is right now, in spite of everybody saying 'Oh, I love the new game,' I don't love the new game. I don't think it's hockey. It's special teams situations and we've got gimmicks to decide games.

"It's totally different. You're not going to see the physical playoff style if everybody is afraid of penalties. So far, we've won our games on special teams and we've lost our games on special teams. Five-on-five is like the dodo bird."

And so might be the big, strong physical defenceman. You know, the guy who used to keep all those ballet dancers honest.

Rock 'em, sock 'em: RIP. 


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