No mistakes, no excitement.
More fumbles, more goals.
What's been wrong with the NHL the last few years?
From a fan point of view, it would have to be the chess-like games being
played about as perfectly as possible, every man in his place, every trap
perfectly sprung, every turnover carefully contained.
What the NHL needs, according to Ottawa GM John Muckler, is a few more
And the coming obstruction crackdown may be just what the doctor ordered to
relieve long-suffering fans from their tedium.
"It's the greatest thing to ever happen for hockey," Muckler told
the Ottawa SUN a few weeks ago. "I just think it's a great thing to happen
for the sport because this was a sport that was going in the wrong direction.
The forechecking game is the way hockey should be played. Forechecking is a big
part of hockey and it has to be brought back.
"When you have forechecking, you put the possibility for mistakes back
into the game. Mistakes cause turnovers and they make for opportunities. You
want to create opportunities for teams to score goals."
Truer words were never spoken.
Of all the arguments I could possibly dredge up on the potential impact of
the NHL's annual crackdown on obstruction infractions, it was Muckler's insight
which most closely matched the comments I've made in this column before.
Two years ago in this space I made mention of a wildly exciting 7-6 LA win
over Ottawa where the Senators blew a 5-0 lead on home ice, a contest which had
as unpredictable an outcome as you could possibly imagine. Last season, it was
Edmonton diving underwater early before roaring back for a similar error-filled
but wide-open 7-6 win over Montreal.
In both cases, the very scores inferred not necessarily offensive creativity
but rather blown assignments, missed checks and other assorted unpredictable
mayhem, all of which left the participants terrified if not horrified, most in
their post-game comments acknowledging the likelihood of bag skates the next day
under coaches glowering behind furrowed eyebrows.
And that was just the winners.
Both games were about as far from textbook as you could possibly get. But
Like all pundits, I was initially skeptical this summer when the NHL
announced yet another attempt at removing obstruction from the game, figuring
this one would die the same ignomious mid-December death as all the others had,
including the stealth crackdown of last year that wasn't even announced.
Typically these attempts at reform are killed by their very creators, the
people who bring enormous pressure to bear on the league through the summer but
in the end are the biggest complainers by mid-winter when games are three hours
long from excessive penalty calls.
Management and coaches take it even further, standing up at the bench or in
the corridors to scream at officials on behalf of the very players guilty of
"Sure we wanted a crackdown - but we didn't figure it would include
US!!!," is a common wail.
The players, being no dummies, can plainly see their coaches and GM's won't
be sending them to the minors anytime soon and keep on with the illegal play
demanded by their management team even though the penalties keep rolling on.
And the crackdown eventually dies under the weight of 30 similar situations,
all of which blame the officials rather than the guilty parties.
So what's different about this year?
A simple two minute minor, the same minor penalty rather than a misconduct
which gave the NHL's much-maligned instigator rule formidable teeth in the early
1990's, can now be handed out by referees to coaches or players for excessive
objecting to an obstruction call.
In a league where 75% of games are decided by one goal or less, an extra
two-minutes, putting the offending team down two men along with the original
obstruction call, is a freebie no one will want to give the opposition.
"It's going to be zero tolerance," acknowledged Flames coach Greg
Gilbert. "It's going to help negate a lot of that arguing and crabbing back
and forth, which is great for the game."
The extra two-minute minor penalty, putting teams two men down, is an
acknowledgement by the High Foreheads in New York that the referees may not have
been the biggest problem the league faced in eliminating obstruction.
No, the largest problem was everyone else. Players, coaches and management,
all eliciting crocodile support for the officials that disappeared as soon as
the season started.
That two minute minor is the referee's nuclear bomb, his defacto support
blanket from head office.
Scoring is already up in the pre-season, averaging 5.89 goals per game so far
versus the 5.24 goals per game average of the regular season. But a closer
examination showed exhibition games in the last last week averaged 5.53 goals
scored versus 6.08 goals per game in September as teams move closer to their
full NHL lineups, eliminating the incompetent and inexperienced, the guys most
prone to mistakes.
That's the reason some, like Pittsburgh's Mario Lemieux, may have probably
gone way overboard in their expectations.
"If we can do this from now on, it's going to be exciting," Lemieux
said in September. "You're going to see guys scoring 70-80 goals now, and
that's what people want to see. We had only one guy (Jarome Iginla) score 50
goals last year and that's not right. There are a lot of good players in the
league that were not allowed to play they want."
He probably means himself but his expectation that teams are going to
suddenly drift out of his way while he cannons down the centre of the ice are
There will be no 70 or 80 goals for Mario this year and probably nobody else
as a matter of fact. The Canucks led the league with 254 goals last season,
which would have been dead last in 1985-86, the year Mario would like to
re-create. But that's a pipe-dream.
"I don't think we'll see a return to a team scoring 400 goals,"
said Edmonton GM Kevin Lowe. "Players are much more aware defensively than
they were a decade ago or two decades ago."
Travis Green of Toronto echoes that sentiment, arguing something I've stated
in this space before - the average NHL player has never been bigger, faster,
stronger or better schooled in the game. And that in itself argues against
scoring starting a runaway curve upwards.
"I don't know if they can change the game too much,'' Green said.
"I think the players are just getting better and bigger and stronger. The
games are tighter because the game is full of good players. There's not anyone
out there that's not a very good player any more. There's so much talent and
everyone plays their system to a `T' and this (low-scoring games) is what
But that isn't stopping coaches formerly known for their dull, defensive
styles to start rubbing their hands in glee over the latest attempt at curbing
"My standard of play when I first went into the NHL was to play a
similar style as the Oilers of the 1980s," recalls Philadelphia coach Ken
Hitchcock. "I lived and died with it in junior (with Kamloops). We scored
572 goals in junior which is, I believe, still the record for the Canadian
Hockey League. We lived and died with it in the IHL and we got killed with it in
Dallas. So we changed. It's not so much that there's going to be a radical
change in the system. It's just that there's going to be a reward now for the
working people away from the puck. They're not going to be stymied and left out
in the cold. They're going to be rewarded. Some of the risk you take when you
join the rush is that as you join it, you get hauled down. You get taken out of
the play. Now, you can take those risks, knowing that if you do get taken down,
(a penalty) will probably be called. We can now take some of those chances,
hopefully with greater rewards."
Four lines of depth will be increasingly important, particularly with the
crackdown married to the new hurry-up faceoff rules.
"I don't think you're going to be able to take that 45-second or
1-minute shift anymore," Colorado's Greg de Vries said. "I think after
30 seconds you're going to be looking for the bench. I think it's going to be a
higher-paced game. Hopefully they stick with it, and hopefully players will
adjust and there won't be as many penalties. It's certainly going to open things
up and bring skating back into it."
Less rest will be coupled with the probability of a higher incidence of
injuries to defencemen which again speaks to the need for depth.
"I'm all for eliminating the interference that's been taking over the
game, but injuries are definitely going to be the drawback," Rangers GM
Glen Sather says. "You're going to need 14 defensemen."
"Of course a big part of it was, `Let's give the gifted players more
room," said NHL vice-president Colin Campbell of the pressure defencemen
will be under this coming crackdown. "But we also want to give Tie Domi
more room to forecheck. We want to make it easier for guys like Tie Domi and
Chris Neil in Ottawa to get in there and make their hits. That's an exciting
part of the game."
"It's definitely going to be a challenge; I think that defensemen are
going to have to adjust the way they get into position to play the puck,"
Rangers coach Bryan Trottier said. "You're going to need more quickness,
better anticipation, and you're probably going to have to make adjustments on
the angle when you go in to play it."
Brian McCabe of Toronto found his first taste of the new rules in pre-season
"I thought that first (penalty taken in a pre-season game) was pretty
clean," McCabe said. "I just punched their guy in the chest, but my
stick was between his legs. The ref said (a penalty) as soon as you put your
stick there, but how do you control a guy then? I don't know how much easier
they want to make it for the (opponent.) You can't use your stick, so what can
you do as a defenceman? But we'll see where it goes from here. It doesn't make
How does a defenceman control an oncoming rush? Well, as Muckler pointed out
at the start, maybe that's the beginning of the atmosphere of mistakes he's
wanting to see.
"It's a fun game to play, but there's still a little more thinking going
on than I'd like," said Sabres defenseman Jason Woolley. "You prefer
to react a little more, but it's hard because you're thinking, "I can do
this, but I can't do that.' It will get better in time."
"I found myself almost double-thinking," agreed St. Louis
defenceman Bryce Salvador. "Things you're used to doing by instinct, you
can't do anymore. You're told to hold up, hold up, hold up, and now you're told
not to. We can't use all the tricks that made it fair for the D-men."
"I even caught myself a couple of times," said Oilers defenceman
Janni Niinimaa said. "I would hook a guy, pause for a moment and look at
the ref, who was thinking, 'Hold on any longer, you're going to get a penalty.'
"Hopefully by the start of the season, it will be second nature."
Can you see Muckler rubbing his hands in glee?
"We're not eliminating battles for the puck; we're not eliminating
hitting," said referee Paul Stewart. "We're opening up the ice that is
there, the rules that in the past the players have been allowed some slack.
Players that are working harder will get the rewards. We want forechecking with
While defencemen will be under enormous pressure in their own zone, they'll
also be expected to pinch into the offensive end of the ice as well, to prevent
separation when the play reverses. Playing as a unit will never be more
''That's one thing [assistant coach] Jimmy Hughes was saying, when we move up
the ice, it's very important the defensemen get up and follow up the play as
closely as possible so when it does come back on us, we're not two zones apart
and flatfooted,'' said Boston defenceman Sean O'Donnell. ''Overall, it's going
to let the skilled players play. You do have to play the angles more and maybe
play the body more, but at the same time not commit yourself because if you step
up to the blue line and the guy tips it by you, you can't just eliminate your
man because it's going to be interference. I like the changes. I think it's long
Campbell, the NHL's disciplinarian and a prime driver behind the obstruction
crackdown, sees a brutal future for many older defencemen in the league.
"Maybe the 32-year-old defenceman will have to retire like we did in the
1980s," said Campbell half-jokingly, perhaps referring to his own 636 game
career as an NHL defencemen that ended at the same age. "The hardest thing
for a defenceman to do is to turn and pivot and go back. It's easier just to
stand still and try to stop a guy."
From the point of view of forwards, particularly those with speed and size in
their arsenal, life will never get better.
"For the power guys, it'll help if they keep their feet moving and use
their power to get to the net," says Vancouver coach Marc Crawford,
speaking of the Todd Bertuzzi's and Jarome Iginla's of the world. "For the
speedy guys, with their quickness, they can't be held off anymore. If they keep
their feet moving and get held up, it's going to be noticed and they'll draw
penalties, so they should be able to maneuver a bit more. For the good
puck-moving teams, it was tough before because, let's face it, there was a lot
of slowdown by holding people off and fending them off with your stick. So I
think it's a case of zeroing in on how it can benefit your game. There's no
doubt, the guys that'll be hurt will be the guys that don't zero in on how it
can benefit them. I think it'll be interesting to see how it plays out and who
it does benefit."
"The one thing we really notice is you get that extra half-second when
there's no tugging and guys picking and holding up," said Buffalo's Chris
Gratton. "For a guy like Miro (Satan) or Max (Afinogenov) or Timmy
(Connolly) it's going to make a big difference. For bigger guys, being able to
chip it in and skate freely into the corner, it's going to help out
tremendously. The speed of the play will pick up."
From an offensive point of view, it will be all about what happens away from
the puck, says Toronto's Quinn.
"Position is always the key," Quinn said. "What we have done
is to stop the speed away from the play. I remember playing Chicago in the
second round once (while Quinn was coach of Vancouver) and as soon as the puck
was dropped, they'd drill your two wingers against the boards and pin them, and
the league allowed it. It was an awful game."
But hockey technicians loved it. The Ottawa/Philadelphia first round playoff
series last year was a classic example of what Quinn was talking about. Textbook
defensive hockey on the part of Ottawa, a speedy team using its gift for evil
instead of good, generating a near-perfect chess like effect all over the ice
surface resulting in the Flyers only scoring three goals in a five game wipeout.
Nice for guys like me who actually appreciate that underrated and
difficult-to-orchestrate kind of perfection but I'll agree most fans hated that
But that doesn't mean the "trap" is suddenly going to be
eliminated, much to the chagrin of Mario Lemieux. The 7-0-1 pre-season of the
Minnesota Wild should be ample evidence of that.
"There is no such thing as Oiler hockey against a team like that,"
said Edmonton's Jason Chimera after a 1-0 loss to Minnesota in the pre-season.
"You're not going to generate much speed through the neutral zone. They've
got five guys back sometimes."
The "trap," in fact, has been around since the dawn of time and
anyone watching the Canada/Soviet 1972 series would have seen it being used
occasionally then as well. Don Cherry admitted a little while ago the Bruins
were trying to spring the trap when Guy Lafleur and Jacques Lemaire teamed up
for his famous rocket past Gilles Gilbert in the 1979 playoffs.
"The new obstruction rule will do well for the game," says the
greatest coach in hockey history, Scotty Bowman, now retired. "I remember
my very first game when I coached St. Louis and we went to Toronto on Dec. 30,
1967. There was literally no obstruction in that game, but the Leafs lined up on
their own blue line and it was tough to get through. It's been tough for a good
player to play with all that hooking and grabbing. Now there will be zero
As Scotty says, the "trap" can still work, but it's about body
position instead of stickwork now, just like the old days.
"If I don't stop it (obstruction), I'll get 100 penalty minutes for the
first time in my career and they'll all be minors," quipped Toronto's Tom
Fitzgerald. "I've made a career out of hooking and holding, so I've got to
start using my feet and body positioning as much as possible."
"Forwards won't be able to latch on and water ski anymore," agreed
And the weakest teams, particularly the slowest teams, will fall by the
"The thing is, if players aren't allowed to go north/south on the ice,
it's difficult for them to create scoring chances," analyzed Muckler.
"If these rules are (enforced), this is going to become a skating game.
This means it's going to be tough for the lesser teams that try to slow people
down. They're going to find out that if you can't play the game, then you can't
play the game."
"From a coaching perspective it's exciting because it doesn't allow the
teams that are lazy away from the puck to benefit anymore," said Hitchcock.
"They are going to be penalized a lot with this standard of play."
"Although there is going to be less contact in terms of obstruction in
the neutral zone, I think this is going to increase the contact in terms of
bodychecks in the ends of the rink," said Lowe. "I think fans are
going to appreciate the skating and the hitting that will take place."
Will it work? A healthy dose of skepticism isn't out of line given the past
history of similar crackdowns. There are already players looking to test the
"I think guys will want to judge what you can get away with and what you
can't," Toronto's Alyn McCauley said. "And that's how it often creeps
back into the game. Guys think, `I got away with it last game and maybe I'll try
The attempt at a crackdown this year, however, is fairly clinical in its
approach, as though the lessons of past failures have been well learned.
As with the Instigator Rule, the two minute penalty to muzzle loudmouth
complainers, as well as extra penalties that go with delaying the hurry-up
faceoff, will prove to be the key difference between this attempt at eliminating
obstruction and prior efforts. In other words, there's a chance this might
"The game has changed over the past decade, with so much emphasis on
coaching and development of defensive schemes, that everybody from the league on
down to the managers felt it was time to start calling the rules the way they
are and allow for talented players to do what they do best," Lowe says.
"The league's very adamant about enforcing the rules and staying with
them through thick and thin," said Gilbert." The flow of the game is
very important. That's the beauty of the National Hockey League game. This is a
big key to getting that flow back."
"I expected games to be over 10 minor penalties, and players already
have adapted pretty good," said Sabres coach Lindy Ruff. "We had the
officials come in again before the game in Syracuse and just go over everything,
and they're dead serious about making it work. I think the players understand it
this time around."
Muckler will get his wish. There will me more mistakes made in the game. That
should translate into more scoring but nothing near what Lemeiux is
But remember that extra two minute minor for bellyaching.
It may prove to be the key to the whole thing.
THE MARK PARRISH "MONEY TO PAY ME MUST FALL OUT OF TREES" DUMB
HOCKEY PLAYER OF THE WEEK AWARD goes to Toronto's Tie Domi, upset that fans
at the ACC were actually booing Ed Belfour, goalie for a team which hasn't won
the Stanley Cup in 35 years. "It brings the whole team down when we hear
that kind of BS," said Domi after the Leafs blew a two-goal third period
lead. "If people want to do it, stay home." Parrish, of course,
offered up the same rant against Islander fans two years ago before apologizing
the next day. Hey Tie, without people buying a ticket to boo you wouldn't be
paid to beat people up.
"LAST YEAR, THE AVERAGE FACE-OFF TOOK 45 SECONDS. This year's
changes wouldn't have bothered me because I was always ready. Now the coaches
will have to think fast what their next move will be. It'll stop stalling. It
was also interesting to note that Punch Imlach, who coached the Leafs, had
defencemen Tim Horton and Allan Stanley taking faceoffs in their own end."
- Scotty Bowman, always thinking, with his analysis of the new hurry-up faceoff.
Hey Scotty, its spelled R-E-T-I-R-E-M-E-N-T.
"WE KNOW WHAT OUR PHILOSPHY IS AND HOW WE WANT TO BUILD OUR TEAM.
We want a fast-skating team, a hard-working team, a physical team." -
Calgary coach Greg Gilbert.
"SPEED AND SIZE. You look at a Stanley Cup final from 10 years
ago and it looks like it's in slow-motion. But the goal-scorers in this league
are not always the big guys, they're Guy Lafleur size. ... And today, guys are
playing hockey in football equipment." Gerard Gauthier, starting his 32nd
season as an NHL linesman, commenting on the changes he has seen in the game
through his career. Mario Lemieux's Pittsburgh Penguins won the the Stanley Cup
in 1991-92. Feeling a little slow these days Mario?
"MOST OF US AREN'T LOOKING AT THE STOCK MARKET THESE DAYS. It's
too painful. We're just like anybody else. The stuff we have in there, it's not
doing well." Colorado's Rob Blake, an ordinary guy after all.
ANOTHER ZZ IS ON THE WAY with ex-Flame Zarley Zalapski's two year-old
son. His name? Zen. Zalapski's comeback attempt with Vancouver failed when he
was an early cut.
OTHER THOUGHTS ON THE HURRY-UP FACEOFF. "The battle to win the
draw is the same, just everything around it is quicker and changing," says
St. Louis centreman Mike Eastwood. "Everybody has to understand what you're
trying to do. You're going to have to get stung for it to sink in, but if the
other team is snoozing. that's a huge advantage." "Feet on the T's,
stick on the white and the puck drops - it is a pure faceoff," said Steve
Dubinsky of St. Louis. "It will be interesting to see guys that are able to
get that little bit of cheating in and how they're going to have to
change." "You cheat, you get kicked out," says Nashville coach
Barry Trotz. "The integrity of the faceoff is quite fair now."
"YOU'VE GOT TO GIVE THE GOALIE AN OPPORTUNITY TO MAKE A MISTAKE.
Don't you make it. If you miss the net, guess what? You made it.'' - Boston
coach Robbie Ftorek on the importance of getting the point shot on the net on
the power play.
FUNNY THE NHLPA IS GOING BALLISTIC on the elimination of certain
statistical categories like hits and giveaways, saying the league is trying to
suppress salaries by taking away otherwise intangible comparables for defence
minded players to use in arbitration. Yet the NHLPA says nothing about how the
obstruction crackdown, which could lead to higher scoring, could well serve to
inflate salaries in much the same manner when previously suppressed scoring
statistics are suddenly raised.
Quotes for this article were drawn from various news sources.