'New NHL' a winner

MORRIS DALLA COSTA -- London Free Press

, Last Updated: 9:40 AM ET

Let's play some hockey. People are really looking forward to watching the NHL this year.

It isn't just morbid curiosity, as it was last year. The league was coming off a lockout year and like an ugly car wreck, fans just wanted to see what had survived.

It isn't just because it's what people do in Canada, no matter how mundane and tedious the game had become.

They're looking forward to watching the NHL because it's a good product to watch, it's entertaining and it's unpredictable. The changes the league made last year in how the game was played and called, allowed it to showcase its most marketable product -- its star players.

It was a long-time coming and it took a lockout to accomplish it, but last season invigorated the league and gave it a chance to become marketable in the U.S.

Colin Campbell, NHL executive vice-president, was one of the architects of the "new NHL" and is pleased with how the season went. "People in hockey liked what we did for the game," he said. "The enforcement of the rules went against the theory that the referee shouldn't affect any part of the game, let the players decide the score, blah, blah, blah. When you do that, you allow them to hook and hold, especially near the end of the game."

It wasn't an easy sell. There were many neanderthals -- er, traditionalists -- still saying there was nothing wrong with the game. As the players adjusted, there was criticism the changes had ruined the game.

Far from it. They brought back fans who had left the game and made the casual fan more likely to watch it.

"The most satisfying thing I've heard in the Tillsonburg area (where Campbell lives) from the casual hockey fan -- and if I heard it once, I heard it 50 times this past summer -- 'the hockey was really good this year. I even watched the finals for a change and I really enjoyed it,' " Campbell said.

Even the best plans have their weak points. Critics jumped on those deficiencies as proof the new rules weren't good for the game. But the league has addressed a number of those weak points.

The focus on eliminating clutching, hooking and interference led to penalties being called during battles in front of the net and in the corners.

"The competition committee is tightening up the grey area," said Campbell, who is using video clips to further train the players and officials on how games should be called. "Last year, our video examples were from situations at a practice with players in Toronto. This year, we have actual clips from during the season and playoffs, actual examples of situations.

"What the competition committee talked about was allowing the battles. You and I are racing for the puck, we look at each other, we're five feet from the puck and we decide to bang each other. We allow that. We allow the battle for ice near the puck. We don't find that to be a problem. We found the problem to be holding up a player who's trying to skate."

The new standard of enforcement led to the evolution of cheaters. Diving and embellishing became a refined art.

"It's become a problem and we knew it would become a problem," Campbell said. "We encourage officials to make single diving calls. It's the hardest call to make but if you recognize a dive, make the call."

Whether a referee makes a call or not, if in reviewing a play the league sees a dive, it will send a letter to the offending player warning him, then fining him and even suspending him.

The learning curve for the officials will continue as well.

"Some guys made soft calls, some officials thought it was a matter of a quota for penalties, some guys say 'I'm going to make a call with two minutes left in overtime' because that's what they thought we wanted," Campbell said. "That's fine. Make the call, but make it because it's the right call."

Campbell uses comments made to him by NHL general managers as a measuring stick on how successful the changes have been.

"Darcy Regier (Buffalo Sabres GM) said there were almost no lead changes (before), that once a team got the lead, it was pretty much over," Campbell said. "Now, there's lots of lead changes."

Bob Gainey, GM of the Montreal Canadiens, told Campbell many players had told him before the changes that they weren't enjoying playing the game.

"He said teams played the methodical trap, the left-wing lock, grab and wrestle and the skills were disappearing. It was get that one goal and lock it up, shut it down. Those were alarming comments," Campbell said.

Now, players are enjoying the game.

And fans are enjoying watching them.


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