- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 11, 2005

ETOBICOKE, Ontario — Many key NHL decision-makers met for four days this week at a suburban Toronto ice rink, attending a “research and development camp” to study possible rules changes for the game.

Labor issues aside, interest in the NHL game in recent years has plummeted — at least in the United States — for a variety of reasons. Scoring is down nearing 30 percent; a defensive-oriented game has replaced the wide-open sport that dominated the ‘80s and early ‘90s; the neutral zone trap and similar tactics have removed speed and flow from the sport; the clutching and grabbing resembles a subway platform at rush hour; and the Michelin Man is more svelte than most NHL goalies.

In short, said Boston Bruins president Harry Sinden, who has been involved in the league for nearly half a century, “We’re really in trouble.”

Added New York Islanders general manager Mike Milbury: “We all say it’s a great game, but it’s been coached and goaltended to death. It needs to be adjusted, open it up to create more space, create more scoring chances to get a rise out of people.”

For four days the NHL fraternity looked at variations that ranged from radical new ideas to suggestions that go back a decade. Some of the scrimmages strongly resembled the free-flowing game with little contact, the way it is played in Sweden; others looked like more of the same old game — endless scrums along the boards while the puck is inched up the ice with kicking motions, forcing still another faceoff.

There have been no radical rules changes to the NHL for more than 60 years, from the day in 1943 when the center red line was introduced to increase scoring. Now, ironically, the league may remove it to do the same thing.

“It took more than 60 years to bring the present system to its knees,” Sinden said, “but it’s only the last three, four years that it’s really jammed up the game. So if we put in a system that takes them another 60 years to catch up with, we’ll be OK.”

A proposal by Sinden was the first tested. It proposed two “passing lines” near the top of the faceoff circles and all other lines eliminated. Once a skater gained a passing line, he was free to pass anywhere else in the rink — as much as 150 feet if desired. Icing and offside calls would rarely be needed, and the neutral zone trap would be a thing of the past.

“Anything that would help defeat the trap I’m in favor of doing,” said Toronto coach Pat Quinn. But he also was quick to criticize the one element that was distinctly missing from the Sinden plan: body contact.

“It’s a possession system,” Sinden said. “The idea is to hang onto the puck and make plays that are available as opposed to shooting it in, shooting it out.”

It also was obvious with the Sinden plan that the length of games could be easily cut to less than two hours (from 2:18), a fact that television representatives complained about immediately.

Other proposals tested included one where two-line passes across the red line would be allowed, but the center line would still be used for icings. A third plan was proposed by retired coach Scotty Bowman, one very similar to Sinden’s except that it extended the offensive zone even further.

It does not appear the proposals changing the location and function of the lines will win approval of the general managers (who then pass suggestions along to the board of governors for approval), but it appeared some of the ideas tested will be incorporated into the game.

These include shoot-outs, larger nets, smaller goaltending equipment, approval of the two-line pass, reintroduction of the tag-up offside rule and stiffer, no-nonsense application of the obstruction rules already on the books. If the latter is accomplished, offensive output would immediately — and perhaps dramatically — increase.

The introduction of shootouts to the NHL would mean every game would have a winner. The shootout has been used successfully in other leagues and while it is hated by purists, fans seem to love it, and they buy the tickets. The system would be employed if a five-minute overtime period failed to break a tie.

“I personally have never seen anything wrong with a tie hockey game, but it seems there is a real push to settle games, and that’s obviously one way of creating excitement at the end of a game,” said Ottawa (and former Washington) coach Bryan Murray. “There is an element of excitement there for fans, [and] I think that will be considered very seriously.”

Of course, to put any of these ideas into practice, the NHL first must achieve peace on the labor front. But that’s another story.

Note — The Washington Capitals and Arlington County will break ground on the NHL team’s new training facility and community center at 2p.m. today in the lower level of the Ballston Common Mall in Arlington. The event is open to the public.

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