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Wednesday, October 16, 2002
Changing the game will take time, dedication

By Brian Engblom
Special to

In the past, steps taken to enforce obstruction rules were met with a lot of head nodding and it wasn't long before it was business as usual. But this year, the NHL has taken the extra step to say, "This is it guys. This is how it's going to be." And it seems like everyone is finally on board and ready to commit to see it through.

So far, I have seen a big differences in terms of referees enforcing calls. And players are now instructed by their coaches to avoid interference because they can't afford to take the penalties.

Still, the key is maintaining this crackdown. Naturally, everyone is a bit skeptical. It's all well and good to start the year with everyone in agreement that the new rules will ultimately make teams better. But it will be interesting to see how long before teams and coaches start to change their minds and let their new mentality slide.

The bottom line is that general managers, coaches and players want to keep their jobs. To keep their jobs, they need to win. When a team starts to lose, they'll want to tighten things down. That's when you start to see players taking advantage defensively with hooking and holding.

This defensive style is so deeply embedded in the game, it's not going to get undone overnight. The hockey mentality that includes hooking, holding and general interference took several years to be adopted into the league. Over time, it was completely entrenched. That's just the way the game was played. To the extent that players were coached on how to get tight on a guy, or put a stick on him. Different ways of interfering (without getting caught), was something worked on in practice.

When you look at the overall picture, the game goes through cycles. Right now, we're getting back to more of a forechecking style. In some situations, we'll see a lot of dump and chase which goes back to the mid-to-late '70s. At that time you weren't allowed to hook and hold, so everyone dumped the puck in, than ran the defenseman through the end of the rink to try and cause turnovers.

This open style of hockey means more play inside the blue lines. Which, in turn, means more scoring chances and more goals scored. Teams will have to be more willing to get into offensive cycles. Philadelphia coach Ken Hitchcock put it best when he said that teams will have to commit more people offensively. In other words, when you get a guy in the forecheck, he can't do it alone. Now you've got to get that second guy in there and a third guy half way between the defense and offense -- so you're committing more people.

Many times, teams didn't throw anyone in. They'd just wait and start to form a trap, backed up just inside the opponents blue line. Trapping occurs from blue line to blue line or top of the circle, to top of the far-end circle -- so you're not in the scoring zone. The whole game becomes 10 men, moving around in units in the middle of the ice. There's no fun in that. That's what gets boring.

Now players have the ability to get in on the forecheck. This will benefit teams that have skill and speed and who like to play that offensive game. Players like Paul Kariya, Mike Modano, Jaromir Jagr, Mario Lemieux should all excel. We haven't been able to see their skill level to the extent that we should and would like to. That's what these new rules are all about.

Hockey, like most sports, will always bolster the "if you're not cheating, you're not trying" mentality. Players will always try to cheat to get ahead. That's fine. That's why there are penalties and that's why we have refs. But if these new rules start to backslide, hooking and holding will come back quickly. They've got to stay clamped down on it, or it will become the same old issue.

Brian Engblom is a hockey analyst for ESPN. He played 11 seasons in the NHL as a defenseman and was on three Stanley Cup-winning teams in six seasons with the Montreal Canadiens.