NHL curbs the clutching, grabbing

Referees' crackdown on obstruction leads to a jump in preseason power plays.

Published September 23, 2005

RALEIGH, N.C. - Thursday night's Lightning preseason game against Carolina was 49 seconds old when the first penalty was called.

The immediate reaction was, "What took so long?"

As the NHL cracks down on obstruction penalties - the hooking and holding and tripping and clutching and grabbing - referees are handing out penalties like nature hands out sunshine. It's becoming constant.

There were 16 penalties in the Lightning's 5-2 loss to Carolina. There were 18 called in the preseason opener against Detroit and 16 in the game with Montreal.

"What they (have done) is what they told us they would do," Lightning coach John Tortorella said. "The league is serious about this."

The rules have always been in the books, but just like jay-walking laws, they've been rarely enforced. According to Tortorella, it has seeped into the culture of the game. The referees allowed it, the coaches taught it, the players practiced it.

"The whole culture of our game has gone to rewarding the below-average player," Tortorella said. "The mediocre player who can't skate with the best player is allowed to cheat by impeding. And that has just become commonplace in our game. The cheating has to come out of the game."

That's the point of this new crackdown. The NHL, looking to draw new fans with exciting offense, is trying to set the tone by calling anything and everything in the preseason.

"It's like a shock treatment right now," Lightning defenseman Dan Boyle said.

In the first three days of preseason games, referees were handing out an average of 19.1 power plays a game. During the 2003-04 regular season, there was an average of just 8.5 power plays a game.

Already Tortorella and other NHL coaches are driving home the point to their players. For example, in Detroit, Red Wings defenseman Niklas Lidstrom chased Lightning forward Marty St. Louis out of the corner. Lidstrom lifted his arm to grab St. Louis but quickly put his hand back down. St. Louis said he wasn't hooked or held all game. "It was great," he said.

"We talked about changing the instinct, about carrying your stick up in the air versus keeping your stick down." Tortorella said. "If you keep that stick on the ice, that's when you're not going get called. If you have it up in the air - that's a key for them to look for."

It's going to take some time, however, to change habits.

"Growing up and all your life, you're taught to hold guys up with your stick," Boyle said. "Defensemen have always played that way, and we're just going to have to make the adjustment."

Few believe bad habits can be changed in the span of a preseason. Tortorella, who believes his speedy offensive-minded team will adjust quickly and benefit from the rules, says his team always has been taught the proper way to play.

However, don't be surprised if the league takes a while to adjust. Wild coach Jacques Lemaire said it might take more than a year, and perhaps as long as three, to create a whole new league free of obstruction.

Tortorella sees why that might be true. A lifetime of habits can't be broken in a couple of weeks. But he hopes the NHL doesn't turn back as in years past when it promised to stop all the clutching and grabbing.

Tortorella believes it's not up to only the players, coaches and referees, but the fans and the media have to help with the heavy lifting.

"I hope everybody understands (all the penalties being called)," Tortorella said. "And this is important: We've gone through this before. To climb that mountain and get this game straightened out and change the culture (takes work).

"When people start writing and talking and yelling about all these penalties, hey, you got to get on the other side of the mountain. Sooner or later, everyone is going to adjust. ... And when we do, we'll have a better game."