The National Hockey League, zeroed out last year because of labor strife, finally begins anew tomorrow night under the mantra of zero tolerance. It promises to be the same old ice game, for better or worse, only this time cleansed of the hooking, holding, and interference that in recent years too often turned the self-proclaimed Coolest Game on Earth into a dreadful tractor pull on ice.
Well aware that their sport has plummeted to a distant fourth in US consumer consciousness, the Lords of the Boards have overhauled the rulebook in hopes of once again emphasizing the game's grace, beauty, and speed. They're positive there will be more emotion and more scoring. They're hopeful the physical play, epitomized by jolting body checks, won't be compromised in the makeover.
Overall, they believe the game will be more entertaining and fan-friendly, and in a symbolic gesture to convey the latter message, they'll hand a miniaturized replica Stanley Cup to every fan in every rink tomorrow night when all 30 teams lace up skates for the official return of a game that went into the cold.
''It's one way of thanking our fans for sticking with us," noted NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly, the league's lead negotiator when it finally struck a new collective bargaining agreement with players in July. ''Obviously, it was a long process."
Ultimately, it took some 10 months, beginning with the start of the lockout Sept. 15, 2004, for the National Hockey League Players' Association to acquiesce to a form of payroll cost-certainty that owners maintained for years they would need to forge a new work agreement. As of 5 p.m. today, all 30 teams must be in compliance with this season's cap figure ($39 million), and if they're not, they'll need to offload salary by opening faceoff tomorrow. According to Daly, all will meet the standard, even if it means trimming back from a typical roster of 23 players to the minimum 20 needed to dress for a game.
For the fans sitting in the stands, or connected via TV or radio, the 2005-06 NHL will have a new appearance in several significant ways. To wit:
The most radical change will be the implementation of shootouts, putting an end to tie games. As in recent years, contests deadlocked after the regulation 60 minutes will move to a five-minute sudden death OT played with one fewer skater per side, four-on-four. If the extra session doesn't settle it, a shootout will commence, with each coach designating three shooters, each to be allowed a free chance at the goalie, breaking in from center ice much like a penalty shot. If the shootout remains deadlocked after the first six shooters, each coach then summons a new player off the bench, and the clubs keep shooting until there is a winner. The team that wins the shootout will be awarded 2 points in the standings, and the loser 1 point.
Contrary to initial speculation, players will keep their helmets on during the shootout. According to league vice president Colin Campbell, the league in some cases offered players the chance not to wear their helmets in preseason shootouts, but in all cases they elected not to shed the protective gear. ''Why? I don't know -- bad hairdos?" said Campbell. ''We didn't get any feedback."
The ice won't look much different, but the rule schematic has changed dramatically. The center-ice red line, still there in paint, is absent when factored into offside rules. Similar to the college game, it no longer figures into a two-line offside pass, opening up the possibility of long breakout passes through the neutral zone. A trapezoid-shaped area has been etched behind each net. Goalies, many of whom were masterful at playing the puck behind the goal line and defusing opposing offenses, no longer can touch the puck back there when it's outside that area. If they do, they'll be hit with a two-minute delay-of-game penalty.
Goalie equipment has been downsized and streamlined, nips and tucks that won't be obvious to the naked eye. Campbell noted yesterday, during a conference call, that smaller sweaters for goalies, collectively bargained during summer rule changes, were late in arriving from the manufacturers. They won't be implemented until they are thoroughly tested under game-like conditions. Meanwhile, just about every other piece of goalie equipment, except for stick and helmet, lost in width or circumference.
''I don't think it will make much difference in the goal scoring," said netminder Andrew Raycroft, the Bruins' returning Rookie of the Year. ''The guys will adjust to whatever they're wearing. I've noticed a little change in practice, when a bunch of guys are shooting at you . . . a lot of those pucks didn't go in, because the pads were big enough, you kept 'em out by just standing there. But one puck, one shooter, I really don't think you'll see a major impact."
Goal scoring, according to league officials, showed nearly a 20 percent increase this season vs. the 2003-04 preseason, from 5.2 goals per game to 6.2 per game.
As seen the last three weeks in exhibition play, referees are committed to calling virtually anything that hints at hooking, holding, or interference. Before the 2003-04 season, exhibition games averaged 11 power plays, but the average this season jumped to 17. Also telling: Power plays were successful 21.3 percent of the time this preseason, a jump from 17.2 percent in '03-04.
Referees now are paying particular attention to the puck carrier, blowing the whistle whenever he is hindered, and they're also not allowing the heavy two-handed crosschecks defensemen for decades have doled out on opposition forwards camped in front of the crease.
''We want it eliminated from the game," said Steve Walkom, the league's new boss of officiating. ''The accepted practice of the cross-check . . . that used to be considered good hockey. It's not good hockey anymore -- it's a penalty."
What became clear in the exhibition season, and is likely to linger for at least a few weeks in regular-season play, is that everyone, including players and coaches and officials, is in a period of adjustment, especially regarding interference. Hooking and holding became a high art, in particular because of New Jersey's success beginning in the mid-'90s, as well as the league-wide penchant for coaches to preach defense first, last, and foremost.
Campbell, a former player and coach, pointed out that no one can expect players and coaches suddenly to adopt a Miss Manners approach to their game.
''We don't expect them to abide by the rules," said Campbell. ''It's the old adage, if you aren't cheating, you aren't trying."
But Walkom's crew will be expected to remain diligent and consistent with their calls. Specifically, that will mean applying the same rules in the third period that were applied in the first. It also will mean, as he pointed out in a conference call yesterday, making the same calls regardless of manpower levels during a game. If a club is already down a man, and commits another minor infraction, the prospect of that club being placed in a five-on-three situation can't influence a referee's thinking. A penalty is a penalty is a penalty.
''I've told our guys, we need to be prepared, game in and game out," said Walkom. ''They'll have to stay the course, call the same standard."
For the first time in league history, referees also will be wired to microphones and will announce their calls to the arena audience, and get patched into TV and radio feeds -- similar to the practice in the National Football League. According to Daly, all arenas are expected to have the appropriate technology in place for the ref's live mike no later than the second game in a particular building this season. Once the ref makes the call live, it will be repeated by the arena's PA announcer.
In many ways, the league is venturing into the great unknown in regard to its attempted renaissance. Initial indications, based on reports of strong season-ticket renewal rates throughout the league, are that customers are eager to return. Once the opening-night hype shakes out, the key indicator will be what happens to attendance levels throughout the US and Canada. Even in the best of times, many US markets were more challenged draws in October, November, and December, then tended to ratchet up after the Christmas and New Year's holidays.
The NHL also has two new broadcast deals with TV partners in the US after ABC and ESPN dropped their long-standing affliations. NBC is the new over-the-air partner, beginning with weekly broadcasts in the second half of the season, and
There is little doubt the NHL understood the issues at hand before the lost season of 2004-05. The game needed to be spruced up, ridded of its mind-numbing trapping defensive tactics. Then came the lockout, the sport's third major job action in 12 years, leading in February to the cancellation of the season. Never in the history of North American pro sports had a league lost an entire season.
Getting the game back was hard enough, a protracted and ugly bargaining process that eventually cost union boss Bob Goodenow his job. Now comes perhaps an even more difficult part, the process of putting all the parts in place again, spiffing up how the game is played, communicating it through new networks, and romancing what is left of an old fan base while attempting to encourage newcomers.
Finally, the puck is about to drop. How it rolls, no one knows.