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Friday, June 25, 2004
NHL backs off rules dispute, focus on CBA

By Scott Burnside
Special to ESPN.com

RALEIGH, N.C. -- Radical rule changes designed to improve the flow of National Hockey League games are, like the game itself, now marked by uncertainty.

League general managers were scheduled to vote on several proposed rules changes on Friday, but grievances filed by the NHL Players' Association have put the process on indefinite hold, NHL executive vice president of hockey operations Colin Campbell said.

"I was hoping a lot of these things would have been separate from the economic issues that are going on right now," a frustrated Campbell said. "Unfortunately it's been merged, washed in."

GMs have proposed limiting goaltenders' handling of the puck behind the goal line, reducing the width of goalie pads from 12 inches to 10, reducing the size of catching mitts, introducing no-touch icing and tag-up offsides, and moving the nets back two feet. The players' association had filed grievances over the proposals involving goaltender equipment, charging that the NHL had moved unilaterally on the changes.

Because its primary business with the players' association is negotiating a new collective bargaining agreement, the league decided not to engage the PA in a dispute that may be settled as part of the CBA.

"Whether it's talking about a tag-up rule or talking about an automatic icing it's become an issue that's going to be tied into the CBA," Campbell said. "People have to make plans and that's what we were trying to do. I'm not so sure which way we can turn now when every time you turn one way or the other it's not allowed."

The irony about the current impasse is that the changes, first proposed during meetings in Nevada in early February, were greeted in general with excitement from most quarters, including many players. The most notable complaints came from the goaltending fraternity.

"The players agreed," Campbell said. "Because I thought it was for the players to help the game."

The fact all of the proposed changes have been tabled does not mean the rules won't, at some point, be implemented. However, plans to bring equipment manufacturers on board in time for the start of next season may be jeopardized.

"It's kind of unfair to them, but they have to be ready at a moment's notice. Obviously, if they can't be, we'll have to make some adjustment, whether it'll be a half-season adjustment, would it be a full-season adjustment. Depending on when we get it all resolved," Campbell said.

While the operations office may be frustrated by the inability to move forward on the changes, commissioner Gary Bettman downplayed its significance, saying it's important not to get bogged down in elements that may distract from the top priority, the negotiation of a new CBA.

"In terms of moving forward, I want to slow things down a little bit so I make sure we don't get offsides and create other disputes other than the primary one," Bettman said. "Before we play again, I can promise you it's an issue that will be resolved. It will come together at the same time."

A league-organized blue ribbon panel of hockey officials, players, media and others is still scheduled to meet July 22 to discuss these changes and other ways to broaden the appeal of the game.

What is most likely to happen is that the American Hockey League at its annual meeting next week will adopt most of the proposed rule changes, as well as a standings system that awards three points for a win and possibly breaking tie games with a shootout.

Regardless of whether there will be NHL hockey next fall or not, some general managers feel it's best to see the rules implemented at the AHL level as a test-case scenario, which has been the case in the past with issues like the hurry-up faceoff.

"I think that'd be a good way to proceed," Toronto Maple Leafs general manager John Ferguson Jr. said. "That has been the case in many other rules changes and it's been a great place to do that."

Scott Burnside is an Atlanta-based freelance writer and a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.