- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 11, 2002

Just before the Washington Capitals' impromptu practice yesterday morning, one of the players asked what the NHL meeting in Toronto was about. To announce a new crackdown on obstruction, came the reply.

With one voice, 22 players erupted in laughter.

No, pleaded the messenger. This time the league is serious.

More laughter, longer and louder.

In an unprecedented meeting, the NHL yesterday called together its 30 general managers in a hotel near Toronto's airport. The new law of the land was laid down: Starting with opening night Oct.9, if a player who is not in possession of the puck is held up, a penalty will be called.

What the players, hockey fans and media are inclined to chuckle about is that the same announcement has been made for years. Each season, enforcement of the anti-obstruction rules lasted three weeks, maybe a month. Then it was back to clutch-and-grab, hold-'em-up at any cost.

In the future, players who use their sticks to slow down an opponent without the puck will be hit with a penalty. If yesterday's league announcement is correct, there will be little room for discussion from coaches who enjoy arguing calls; if you place your stick on a player who doesn't have the puck, it's two minutes.

On-ice officials have been saying privately for the last few years that they enforced the rules as long as the league hierarchy backed them. When that backing faded, so did enforcement by on-ice officials.

Who benefits besides fans shelling out megabucks for tickets from enforcement of the obstruction rules? The Caps will be big-time winners if the rules are rigorously followed because they have players who will benefit greatly, namely fast and crafty people like Peter Bondra, Jaromir Jagr and Robert Lang.

The call to wipe out obstruction is not new. In fact, it has been heard since players like Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux established themselves as stars during the 1980s. Lemieux, in fact, said obstruction and the league's inability to control it was one of the main reasons for his short-lived retirement (along with his health).

Lemieux, Gretzky and other highly skilled players complained they were unable to perform at the level fans expected (and paid to see) because they were being restrained illegally. They pointed to the continued decline in goals and with it attendance while the neutral-zone trap, left-wing lock and other defenses enjoyed almost leaguewide popularity.

Apparently seeing this coming, Washington general manager George McPhee has been searching for players for the past two years who have one prime talent above all others speed. Fast players will be able to dart down the ice and forecheck, and fast defensemen will be able to change direction rapidly to prevent odd-man breaks.

"What this will do is open up the forecheck," McPhee said. "This will create more offensive zone turnovers, which should lead to more goals, more excitement and a more entertaining game."

But will it work? Will enforcement of anti-obstruction rules still be the law of the land come Thanksgiving?

"[NHL supervisor of officials] Andy Van Hellemond wanted a crackdown on slashing a couple years ago," McPhee said. "He did a great job of getting it out of our game. Now we're going after obstruction."

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