Undersize me!

ROBERT TYCHKOWSKI -- Edmonton Sun

, Last Updated: 5:02 PM ET

It's like every undersized player in hockey has just been given a reprieve.

In adopting new rules designed to free up space, promote creativity and generate offence, the NHL has opened its doors to a legion of players who'd been stuck on the outside looking in for decades.

If the league stays true to its vows, hockey will no longer be a game of brute force where offensive zones look like lines of scrimmage in the NFL. Defencemen won't be able to tackle and forwards won't have to fight their way through tackles - so having bodies like linebackers should no longer be a prerequisite.

In the new-look league, size doesn't matter.

"If you have a big guy and a small guy and they both can skate, you take the big guy,'' said Vancouver Canucks general manager Dave Nonis.

"But I also believe there's room in our game now for smaller players with intelligence, on defence and up front - players who can contain guys and get in the way, but also have something else to offer like good puck movement, good skating.

"Those are the guys that weren't as popular before because we needed brute strength. It's a new lease on life for some of those guys.''

Like Edmonton prospect Dan Syvret. A couple of years ago, a five-foot-11 defenceman hardly stood a chance in any club's training camp - unless he was incredibly gifted offensively - but with good instincts and an ability to move and handle the puck, he's definitely part of the Oilers' future.

"Luckily they did this at the right time for me,'' he said of the NHL's facelift.

"Not being the biggest guy in the world, it helps me, it helps the the way I play. It puts less emphasis on bigger guys who don't really have to think the game. With the new rules you have to be able to move your feet and handle the puck and know what you're going to do with the puck before you get it.

"It's more of a transition game now, from your own zone to the far blue line. You have to be able to read the game and read the ice and be intelligent.''

There have always been isolated opportunities for undersized players, many of whom went on to success in the league, but they've always been a minority that's had to overcome years of bias. Now big, plodding octopi are the endangered species and skill players are getting a much longer look.

"It's a more skillful game than it was in the past few years,'' said Syvret. "It got to the point where coaching started to take over the game. Now it's more skillful, go out and play. There are still systems and tactics, but for the most part it's about players' creativity.''

And that suits most everyone just fine, whether they're big, small, prospects or long-serving veterans. At six-foot-two and 220 pounds, Ethan Moreau was more than equipped to flourish in the obstruction era (he scored 20 goals and added 96 penalty minutes in 2003-04), but the new rules won him over in a hurry.

"I love it, there's a lot more free ice out there,'' said the nine-year-veteran, who had a goal and an assist in his first pre-season game. "I hope it stays this way. I'm excited. Our team likes to skate, I like to skate.''

And now they're being allowed to, which is a welcome relief for all the players, especially smaller ones who, because of coaching and mugging, never had a chance to adequately demonstrate their skills.

"There's been a lot of examples in the last five years of teams that just clogged up the neutral zone and relied on just locking up their winger,'' said Moreau. "A lot of guys can do that. There were some teams where the parts were pretty much interchangeable.

"I think those days are gone, and it's good. The product will be better.''


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