SUN Hockey Pool

Let's get physical

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 1:41 PM ET

Steve Yzerman doesn't care much for the new NHL.

Don Cherry tolerates it.

And most fans are glad the NHL finally unshackled its skill players, but could do without 30 minutes worth of special teams a night.

There's no question the new NHL is infinitely more entertaining than the clutch and grab garbage they used to peddle, but there is growing concern that hockey is losing one of its greatest qualities - aggression.

You don't have to be tough to play the game anymore. Sure, hockey players shake off pain, from accidental high sticks, shots off the ankle and the occasional open ice hit, faster than any other athletes, but having to pay a price to make a play is all but gone.

"There's not as many battles, obviously, or as many scrums,'' said Oilers defenceman Steve Staios, who hasn't had trouble adjusting to the new rules (plus-5), but misses the contact.

"You used to be able to knock guys down in the slot. If there was a loose puck and your man was there, you could take care of him. Now it's a penalty, so it's turned into a hackfest for the puck in front of the net.''

One hates to gripe when the game, overall, is so much better, but people who come to the rink for the anger and intensity aren't getting their fill.

"I worry that we're going to lose the physicality of the game,'' said Tampa head coach John Tortorella. "We have to find that fine line of eliminating the cheating, but still allowing the contact and the one-and-one battles in the corners that make this game great.''

At the other end of the spectrum is Ron Wilson, who enjoys everything about the free-flowing game.

"I love the direction that we've gone,'' said the Sharks coach. "Are there too many penalties? Probably, but that's not the referee's fault. That's the players' fault and the coaches' fault. The referees are calling the game the way they've been instructed.

"And Gretz said it best; 'This isn't Gary Bettman or somebody sitting in an ivory tower. I sat in on the rules stuff. It wasn't anybody from the league office; it was coaches and general managers.' ''

Brendan Shanahan, whose off-season summit meeting spawned the crackdown, defended the product.

"I happen to think the hitting and the collisions are there,'' he said, respectfully disagreeing with Yzerman's assessment that "this isn't hockey.''

San Jose's Scott Thornton, another tough guy who can play it both ways, enjoys the additional time and space, but wouldn't mind if some of the guys who are dipsy-doodling their way to 60-goal seasons had to work a little harder around the net.

"Initially players were a little nervous to get out of position with big hits, but physical hockey is coming back,'' he said, adding it's up to the players to ramp up the aggression. "They didn't take hitting out of the game, so let's start finishing our hits again.''

The referees have lightened up in the past couple of weeks. Scoring and penalties are both down as more of the little hooks and tugs are being let go.

"It's not as tight as it was,'' said Georges Laraque. "They're realizing that calling every little hook kills the momentum.''

Staios subscribes to the two-tiered crackdown theory: "Don't call as much in the offensive zones so we can be physical, but call it tight on the rush and in the neutral zones - where it slows the game.''

Wilson disagrees. "If you start moving that line in the sand it's going to be right back where it was. It has to be black and white.''

Instead of black and blue?

"It's good and bad,'' said Vancouver's Todd Bertuzzi. "But I don't mind it. After getting crosschecked for nine years in a row it's nice to have the freedom.''

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ICE T'S TOP FIVE

With the Caps in court with Russia on two fronts the Washington-Moscow cold war is heating up again. Here are the top five other beefs between Russia and the Caps.

5: Not enough turnip dishes in the concession stands.

4: Won't let Red Army use MCI centre for weapons testing, even though it's always sitting empty.

3: Russian Mafia has to pay full price for luxury suites.

2: Caps management ignored Russian promotional suggestion: free hammers and sickles for the first 1,500 fans.

1: The Caps can't get the puck out of their own end, and got mad when Russia joked that Bush isn't the only one who doesn't have an exit strategy.

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ICE T TEAM OF THE WEEK

LW: KEITH TKACHUK (St. Louis)

Give credit where it's due, Tubby has 11 points in five games since coming back.

C: PATRICK MARLEAU (San Jose)

A whopping 12 points in four games since the Joe Thornton trade.

RW: LADISLAV NAGY (Phoenix)

Seven points and a tidy plus-4 in last two starts for the surprising Coyotes.

LD: MAREK ZIDLICKY (Nashville)

Four points and plus-2 on three straight games against the east.

RW: ANDREJ MESZAROS (Ottawa)

Sits at an incredible plus-23 and hasn't had a minus game since Oct. 10.

G: HENRIK LUNDQVIST (Rangers)

Allows just four goals in three-straight wins since Weekes went down.

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ICE T'S QUOTE OF THE WEEK

" I TOOK IT TO THE CAR DEALERSHIP THAT SPONSORED ME ... I REGRET NOT TAKING IT HOME TO MY MOM AND DAD.''

- Florida's Martin Gelinas on what he did with Stanley after Edmonton's 1990 Cup win.


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