Cracks may be showing in crackdown

KEN FIDLIN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:36 AM ET

For a month, Mats Sundin watched the new NHL in action, twitching in anticipation of all that free-wheeling action he could make out with his one good eye.

For years, the game plan to stop the Maple Leafs was simple: Stop Sundin. Opponents had many dirty tricks at their disposal in that endeavour and the referees were more than willing co-conspirators. Sundin's size, speed and skill were no match.

But, as this season dawned, the tables had turned. Skill was rewarded and Sundin, injured in the opening game, couldn't wait to get his revenge. But the view that Sundin has found back on the ice this month is not the same one he had from on high, wearing street shoes. He sees some subtle backsliding on enforcement.

"If you compare the first two weeks to now, it's a big difference," said Sundin, moments after scoring the winning goal in overtime against Montreal on Saturday night.

"I talked to one of the refs during the game. Now it's not back to where it was (two years ago) but I told him there's more clutch and grab out there. There's some hooking and holding going on.

"Guys are getting away with it. I have nothing against it. But the game is not exactly every call where it was earlier when, if you put a stick on a guy, you were sent off.

"It hasn't gone all the way back, but it's definitely different than it was at the beginning of the year."

And how did the referee respond to Sundin's theory?

"He said: 'You think so?' I said: 'A little bit. I don't mind it.'

"He said: 'Well, maybe ...' "

Now before the folks down at Paranoia Central, otherwise known as NHL Headquarters, get their knickers in a knot, Sundin wasn't throwing darts. This was not a rant against the holy grail of rules enforcement that has become a no-fly zone for players and team officials. Just a mild observation. And perhaps an observation that's off the mark.

Had you walked down the hall to the Canadiens room, there would have been a rather different, profanity-laced perspective being presented. They would have suggested that Sundin needs a whole new battery of eye tests because his vision is obviously blurry.

The Habs felt as if they had been gooned by the referees, specifically on a late third-period call against defenceman Craig Rivet that helped decide the outcome. Rivet was still in the box when Sundin scored at 1:29 of overtime.

Rivet dove at Nik Antropov, trying to knock the puck off the Leafs forward's stick near the goalmouth. Antropov went down and Rivet was fingered for tripping.

"He (Rivet) doesn't trip the guy. The guy trips over him," said coach Claude Julien, who is acutely aware the NHL is ready and willing to fine anyone who even thinks about being critical of the new product.

"Guys, I can't answer too many of these questions," Julien said. "You know what that's going to mean and my wallet isn't thick enough."

Even Sundin's new linemate, Kyle Wellwood, could have presented an argument in dispute of the captain's view, had he cared to.

Wellwood, who once went something like two years between minor penalties in junior hockey, was penalized for a phantom hook early in the second period. Wellwood's stick was poised to impede the player, but he never actually touched him.

"We had already had three (power plays)," Wellwood said. "I don't think it was a penalty, but that's gonna happen sometimes. When the ref sees the stick in the air, there a chance for a penalty."

Another Leaf, Jeff O'Neill is somewhat guarded on the subject of enforcement, clearly for some of the same reasons as Julien.

"Now don't try to get me in sh--," O'Neill said. "Sometimes, when the game gets really fast and furious out there, it's almost as if the refs can't keep track of what's going on. It's definitely different out there. It'll be interesting come playoff time when the intensity picks up a lot and things happen. We'll definitely see then."

The league doesn't like to hear these things. But players are seldom wrong. They're the people on the cutting edge, night after night. A little free speech never hurt any enterprise. After all, how did the game get fixed in the first place? By constructive criticism, is how.


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