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Rules aim to speed up play

NHL cracks down on obstruction, slow line changes and arguing.

By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer
© St. Petersburg Times
published September 20, 2002


ATLANTA -- This is how serious the NHL is taking the rules changes it is implementing this season.

Usually such announcements are made via conference call. This time, coaches and general managers were summoned to a Sept. 10 summit in Toronto with the NHL's brass.

"We have a clear directive from the league," director of officiating Andy VanHellemond said this week.

That means a crackdown on obstruction, quicker line changes during play stoppages (which may lead to faceoffs being held with only one player in the circle) and less arguing with officials.

Short-term, the changes will cause havoc during preseason games as referees call everything in sight and players try to adjust. Long-term, the hope is crisper action, more scoring and shorter games.

"They told us they will be adamant about it," Lightning coach John Tortorella said.

The most talked-about change regards obstruction: the clutching, grabbing and stickwork that break the game's flow and make creating scoring chances tough. Referees will have a zero-tolerance policy, VanHellemond said.

Basically, players will not be allowed to use their sticks or hands to slow an opponent's pursuit of the puck, he said. The "slingshot," in which players propel themselves forward by putting their sticks around an opponent's waist and pulling themselves past, also will be called.

VanHellemond said stick-to-body contact will be tolerated only if players are going the same speed and no advantage is gained. That, he said, will force players to keep their feet moving to either stay in front of or pursue an opponent.

"When a player takes his hand off his stick, he's telling you he wants to play lazy hockey," VanHellemond said. "So we're going to put him in the penalty box. People want to see some exciting hockey and we want to create more scoring chances."

The NHL has tried crackdowns before. But the tough officiating always waned as referees interpreted rules differently and, in many cases, swallowed their whistles late in the game.

With scoring down from an average of 7.25 goals in 1992-93 to 5.24 last season, the league decided it had to act.

VanHellemond said the crackdown will work because the subjectivity has been removed. Rules, he said, will be called as written.

"We have two referees and they heard, "You don't manage the game,' " he said. "If they like working here, they should do what they're told."

"It plays a little on your mind," Lightning defenseman Cory Sarich said. "It will give forwards more room to maneuver. We'll have to wait and see how it is called and go with the flow."

Eliminating delays during play stoppages is the job of the fast line change. Once the referee signals the visiting team to make a change, it will have five seconds. The home team then has eight seconds to make its change.

A final whistle means a faceoff will be held in five seconds. VanHellemond said even if only one player is in the circle, the puck will be dropped.

The process was used to great fanfare at the Olympics and cost Russia a faceoff when Sergei Fedorov was late getting to the circle.

And there is no sense arguing about it. A tweak to Rule 41b allows referees to assess a minor penalty to players who argue a penalty against a teammate.

The punishment used to be a 10-minute misconduct, which did not affect manpower, but players and coaches who argue now risk putting their teams down two men for two minutes.

"I guess we just have to be careful," right wing Andre Roy said, "and think before you talk."

Or use your stick on an opponent. Or lollygag coming off the bench.


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