Tag Archives: rules changes

New/Old Hockey Makes the Grade

By Jason Menard

It was inevitable, of course. The whispers of discontent regarding the new version of hockey are slowly working their way up to a dull roar. But the danger is that we’re not seeing the forest for the trees – and clear-cutting the whole region is not the answer.

You put certain media types together in a confined space and the cynicism comes out. In their hypercritical, hyperbole-friendly manner of existence sports reporters – especially the bad ones – tend to go overboard in their reactions either one way or the other. That’s why it comes as no surprise that a pair of reporters covering a recent London Knights contest were trying to outdo each other in their negativity.

“So much for that crackdown on holding,” says Mr. Cynic.

“Yeah, it was just a matter of time,” replies Mr. Curmudgeon.

“Look at that – that hook would have got you two minutes at the beginning of the season,” opines Mr. Cynic.

“Yep, it’s back to the old hockey,” concurs Mr. Curmudgeon.

Now, let’s rewind to the beginning of the year when the complaints would have been like this:

“Wow, he just tapped him with the stick and it’s a penalty,” Mr. Cynic notes.

“Yep, you can’t even breathe on a guy without getting sent to the box,” Mr. Curmudgeon replies.

“How can you play defence like this? What’s next, looking at a guy’ll get you five?” retorts Mr. Cynic.

“Yep, this new hockey’s basically pond hockey with boards,” concludes Mr. Curmudgeon.

So you’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t. But beyond the hypercritical who see every missed hook and every minor hack that gets ignored as evidence of a return to the dark ages, today’s game is better than it was just two years ago (well, for the NHL – last year for everyone else.)

After an early feeling-out period where defenders were overcompensating for the stricter enforcement of obstruction-type penalties, players, refs, and coaches alike appear to have come to terms with the new NHL. Refs may not be so quick with the whistle, but that’s in large part to the better mutual understanding of the game.

What we have is a faster-paced game, with more offence. Defence is still a part of the game, but it has to be based on intelligence and positioning, not just goons getting their big meat hooks into approaching attackers. We have games where fans know that even if their team is two or three goals down in the third period, there’s still the opportunity to come back. We have more end-to-end rushes and more counter-attacks. We have, in essence, the game for which we’ve been asking for the past few years.

So why the complaints? Why the grumbling? Simply put, fear. We’re afraid of letting the game deteriorate to the point that it was two years ago. We let the game deteriorate on our watch, and we’re wary of letting it happen again.

What’s worked? What hasn’t? It seems that listening to fans, players, and general managers paid off for the NHL brass. Shocking that those most directly involved in the game would have the most insight into how to fix it.

Simply put, the NHL has scored on most fronts: the elimination of the centre red line has opened up the flow of the game and eliminated the countless – and pointless – offside calls. The restriction on the size of goalie equipment has not turned all goalies into human sieves, nor has it unnecessarily put their lives at risk. Even the contentious no-goalie zones in the corner of the rink has worked out, reducing, but not banning goaltender involvement in puck control. Best off all, we’re enjoying a faster game without having to impact the size of the ice surface. The game got faster without the rink getting wider, so purists – and money-conscious owners – are happy.

Overall the game is faster, the skill players are showcasing their wares, and fans are being treated to a level of hockey they haven’t seen since the late 80s/early 90s. The old/new NHL is working – but it’s not time to rest on its laurels.

The league must do something about making visors mandatory. Fans pay good money and invest in their heart and souls in these players – the least they could to is protect themselves. As well, something has to be done to encourage hitting. While speed is a big part of the game’s resurgence, the body check should not be phased out as a result. Because of overzealous refs and a lack of understanding about how the rules would be enforced, many players shied away from laying the body. But that has to change.

Hockey at its best is fast-paced, hard-hitting, and intense. We’re part of the way there – it’s not time to stop now. For the first time in year’s the NHL is creating a buzz. Now they just have keep on keeping on, and not ruin the momentum.

But for a league that’s long been known to shoot itself in the foot, will reaching this successful height prove to be too dizzying? Fans everywhere are holding their breath (but not their opponent’s stick!) in anticipation.

2006© Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

Hockey’s Game of What If

By Jason Menard

What if?

That’s the question we have to ask ourselves now that we hockey fans have been exposed to the new brand of hockey – complete with its free-flowing action, unimpeded displays of skill, and – for the first time in years – excitement from the drop of the puck to the final buzzer.

And it’s the question we have to ask ourselves now that some of the greats of our game have moved on to less-frozen pastures. Just this year we’ve seen The Golden Brett and now the Russian Rocket hang up their skates. Rugged stalwarts like Scott Stevens and Mark Messier have succumbed to a mounting injury toll and the effects of Father Time respectively.

But the what ifs will remain.

The fact that we’re seeing the grace, speed, and beauty of the game the way it’s meant to be played, akin to the glory years of the late 70s and 1980s when the Flying Frenchmen gave way to the New York Islanders and Edmonton Oilers – all franchises that combined dazzling speed, superlative talent, and enough toughness to keep people honest. But what did we lose during those intervening years?

We lost enough that we have to strive as fans to make sure it never goes back that way again – which means that we have to be as vigilant about the referees as they’ve been in calling the game to date.

Despite the greatness that these four players – and others who plied their trade during the same epoch of hockey – displayed, the fact remains that many more goals, many more highlights, and many more memories were prevented from ever appearing because of the NHL’s willingness to tolerate hooking, holding, and interference.

Too often the blame falls on the New Jersey Devils or, more specifically, their coach Jacques Lemaire who now toils behind the Minnesota Wild’s bench. But Lemaire refined a system that worked. He, along with Scotty Bowman, Dave Lewis, and the bunch in Detroit, determined that the left-wing lock, the neutral-zone trap, and whatever other obstructionist tactic, were the best way to maximize your talent and minimize the effect of your opponent’s gifted players.

It wasn’t illegal, it wasn’t immoral. It was intelligent. While the Lock and the Trap weren’t 100 per cent effective on their own, the fact that they were augmented by clutching and grabbing simply made those practices more effective, and more appealing, to other teams in the league.

And so the league devolved into one where defense ruled with an iron – and closed – fist. And the officials looked away, ironically to not disturb the flow of play — despite the fact that there was no flow of which to speak.

But now we’re here. We’re seeing the best of the best ply their trade on a clean and unimpeded surface. Defensemen need to refine their technique, not their tackling. Teams need to develop puck control strategies, zone defences, and positioning to prevent the puck from entering the net. And speed is at a premium.

We, the fans are winners, even if we can never know what we lost. But imagine players like Brett Hull and Pavel Bure being allowed to display their full range of talents, without a stick digging into their stomach or a hand grabbing their jersey. Think of how many more scoring chances would have been created, how many more potential goals could have been scored, and how many more moments of breathless anticipation the fans would have enjoyed. How unstoppable would Messier and Stevens have been if they were truly allowed to display their combination of speed, size, and skill?

And, most importantly for the league, how many more fans would have been drawn to the game? That’s the biggest What If of all. As the league hemorrhaged fans across North America, as teams struggled to find their footing in shaky markets, and vacated formerly strong ones, how would the NHL landscape look if the game was played then as it is now?

So now, as some of the old guard starts to bluster about the state of the game and the difficulties teams have defensively, the league needs to remember that the fans, overwhelmingly, love it. They don’t want to see coaches and systems rule the game. They have their place, but the games should be decided on the ice, not the chalkboard.

The only reason we want fans’ butts out of their seats is because of an exciting rush or a spectacular save – not because they didn’t bother to show up because they’re bored of the game. As such, the league must ensure its referees are more vigilant, not less, as the season progresses.

Because the question now is what if the next generation of Hulls, Messiers, Bures, and Stevens are allowed to fully shine on the NHL stage? That’s a question each and every hockey fan wants to see answered.

2005 © Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved

Embracing a Tradition of Innovation

By Jason Menard

Good for the NHL for embracing its tradition by taking a serious look at implementing radical changes to the way the game of hockey is played – ironically, much to the chagrin of self-professed traditionalists.

Those who look to reign in change choose to call themselves traditionalists. But, in all truth, they’re revisionists, preferring to look at the game as it was in their youth as the golden age of the sport.

It’s a hue and cry that’s no different than the person who turns on the radio and – channeling the ghosts of generations past – cries out, “What is that infernal caterwauling! Back in my day music was music…” It’s in our nature to believe our memories are the best, and that anything that comes before or after has to be inferior.

You really want to call yourself a traditionalist? Then get up on your puck pulpit and start promoting the return of the rover! How about a throwback to the days where forward passing was prohibited? Why not advocate getting rid of that infernal contraption, added in 1900, that’s done nothing but plague the game ever since – the goal net? Or maybe it’s time that we all recognize what the true tradition of the NHL actually is – a tradition of change.

Since the founding of the league and its precursors, professional hockey has always embraced the idea of change. In fact, during the first half of the 20 th century, significant changes to the way the game was played and officiated came on a regular basis. It was just in the latter half of the century that this movement towards respecting some ephemeral sanctity of the game came to the fore.

The fact of the matter is that the NHL rules are not sacrosanct. Nowhere are they etched in stone. They are like the game is at its best – fluid and dynamic.

For a significant period of the game’s history, its leadership actually worked diligently to make the game better. They understood the need for competitive balance between offence and defence. When penalizing goalies for holding onto a puck stopped making sense, they changed the rules! When they realized that hockey wasn’t rugby on ice and could be a more fast-paced and exciting game, they allowed forward passing.

They revolutionized the game on a regular basis, understanding that doing something “because that’s the way it’s always been done” wasn’t good enough. Yet, during our recent history, we’ve paralyzed the game’s growth with the mentality that hockey’s rules are scripture – only to be interpreted, never modified.

And now, thanks to a mass fan exodus caused by the lockout, that attitude seems to be changing. Understanding that fans are angry and need to be wooed back to the rink when this labour stoppage (or whatever the euphemism of the day is) is over, the NHL’s brain trust is making serious inroads towards revamping the game with its three-day research and development camp.

Larger nets, smaller pads, no red line, wider blue lines – it’s all up for grabs! Even the radical idea that a game should actually result in a winner is being embraced. Yet the traditionalists – sorry, revisionists – are already starting with the idea that a shootout disrespects the history of the game. The hypocrisy of the argument that shootouts turn a team game into a contest of individuals should be exposed when we look at the fact that these same self-professed traditionalists are trying to find ways to curb the trap and limit defence – two shining examples of teamwork at its best.

Today’s coaching is better than ever before. Today’s athletes are in better condition and are more educated about their athletic potential. Yesterday’s rules aren’t adequate on their own. The players and coaches have evolved, yet they game’s rules are being exposed for being antiquated – and they’re weighing down the game’s ability to reach its potential.

The NHL is showing that it’s serious about making significant changes to the game. And while the revisionists can sit back in their chairs and grumble about how much things were better in “the day,” the rest of us can applaud as hockey’s true tradition of innovation is once again coming to the fore – and the idea of change for the betterment of the game is no longer blasphemy.

2005 © Menard Communications – Jason Menard All Rights Reserved