- The Washington Times - Saturday, July 23, 2005

NEW YORK — The NHL will be contested on the ice rather than at the bargaining table in October, but the games won’t resemble the ones played in the league’s last season in 2003-04.

The red line doesn’t serve much of a point. Goalies no longer will resemble mascots for Bob’s Big Boy, with all of their equipment being reduced. And the less-than-satisfying tie game is no more after the institution of a shootout.

The NHL’s board of governors officially ratified the new collective bargaining agreement yesterday, ending the 310-day lockout that canceled the 2004-05 season. The 30-0 vote came after the players voted 464-68 Thursday to approve the deal, which includes a salary cap limiting players’ gross income at 54 percent of league revenue. The league also revealed a series of rule changes to speed up the game.

“I’m so happy to be back in business,” Ted Leonsis, principal owner of the Washington Capitals, said after the governors’ meeting. “I’m going to spend the next three months talking to fans trying to figure ways to regain their trust and rebuild the game. I’m thrilled with the deal, but more than anything, I’m thrilled to be back in business.”

And so are the Pittsburgh Penguins. Yesterday they won the draft lottery, giving the financially struggling club the right to draft left wing Sidney Crosby, at 18 already a legend in Canada and called the next Wayne Gretzky — an assessment even the Great One doesn’t dispute.

The Penguins picked second in the 2004 draft, selecting talented Russian center Evgeni Malkin right after the Caps took left wing Alexander Ovechkin with the first pick overall. Leonsis, a promoter at heart, immediately saw the connection.

“There’s already a great rivalry between the two teams,” he noted. “Maybe this could become something like the Larry Bird-Magic Johnson rivalry. Wouldn’t that be great?”

The series of rule changes were designed to allow more scoring chances in a game slowed down by defensive measures. Goal production decreased to just 5.1 a game in the 2003-04 season.

“Over the past 18 months, we have spoken with players, managers, coaches, executives and fans who have expressed the opinion that rule changes will make the game better,” said Colin Campbell, NHL director of hockey operations. “We have listened, analyzed and debated. While we will never reach complete agreement on what the changes should be, we felt it was our obligation to recommend changes that will succeed in doing one thing: entertaining our fans, both in the arena and watching on television.”

One of the major differences will be the shootout. A regulation game that ends in a tie still will be followed by five minutes of 4-on-4 hockey. If there is no winner, three skaters from each team will take penalty shots. If the tie still isn’t broken, the shootout will go to sudden death.

There is nothing new about another objective — eliminating interference — as the league tries to reinvent itself. The NHL said there would be “zero tolerance” from officials when they detect interference, hooking, holding or obstruction — all tactics designed to slow the offensive flow or impede individuals.

“The objectives of these new rules are to let skill players play, to increase the number and quality of scoring chances, to maintain the physicality of the game, to discourage the utilization of defensive-orientated ‘tools’ in order to encourage more offense and to provide a more entertaining product,” the league said in a release.

Translated, that means the neutral-zone trap and the wholesale mugging of offensive players in front of opposing nets no longer will be tolerated — at least until coaches find a way to get around the new enforcement.

Other changes:

• The attacking zones will be expanded by four feet by reducing the neutral zone from 54 to 50 feet and by moving the goal lines back by two feet to 11 feet from the end boards.

• A team that ices the puck cannot make a line change before the faceoff.

• “Touch” icing will remain in practice, but linesmen have the discretion to wave off infractions if a long pass is attempted, hopefully reducing the number of injuries from players chasing loose pucks (Pat Peake’s career-ending shattered heel being one example).

• A player who instigates a fight in the final five minutes of a game will receive a misconduct and an automatic one-game suspension; the suspension doubles for each additional incident.

• Two-line passes — from inside the blue line to the edge of the opposing blue line, for instance — are allowed, eliminating the red line.

The league also is revising the scheduling format. Each team will play eight games against each of its four division rivals, four games against each of the 10 nondivision clubs in its conference and 10 interconference games.

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