Committee helps keep players, and game, in check
In the years leading up to the lockout that scuttled the entire 2004-05 NHL season, the game had deteriorated into a morass of hooking and holding and goaltenders with equipment that blotted out all but the scarcest glimpse of the netting behind them.
The players and coaches who deployed these tactics weren't cheating per se but rather taking advantage of an atmosphere in which the lowest common denominator thrived instead of creating an environment in which the best could showcase their skills. By failing to adequately enforce the existing rules and think outside the box about other innovations, the NHL had been pushed to the brink of irrelevance for most of the American sporting public.
But as the lockout came to a close in the summer of 2005, a group of players, managers and owners had a clean slate to write a new chapter for the game and eradicate the old practices that doomed it.
Thanks in large part to the vision and determination of a group that included veteran player Brendan Shanahan and senior executive vice president and director of hockey operations Colin Campbell, the NHL and its players formed a competition committee that was to determine what steps needed to be taken to save the game from itself.
Shanahan told ESPN.com that when you look at tapes of games from even a couple of seasons before the lockout, "it's really shocking how bad we let it get."
The committee was a groundbreaking venture, the first of its kind in pro sports, and its challenge was significant.
Made up of five players (Shanahan, Rob Blake, Jarome Iginla, Trevor Linden and latecomer Martin Brodeur, who has since been replaced by Marty Turco), four GMs (David Poile, Kevin Lowe, Don Waddell and Bob Gainey) and one owner (Ed Snider of the Philadelphia Flyers), the committee was promised that its recommendations would carry significant weight with the board of governors. To date, all the committee's recommendations have been added to the league rulebook.
Those changes included downsizing goaltenders' equipment by about 15 percent, taking out the center red line, giving linesmen discretion on icing calls in an effort to cut down on stoppages in play, restricting the areas in which goaltenders can play the puck, penalizing players for shooting the puck out of play from their own zone and introducing the shootout to decide regular-season games. Most significant was the commitment of the league to enforce its own rulebook by flagging players for the hooks, holds and obstruction that had become commonplace.
But although the post-lockout product on the ice has been almost universally applauded, the committee -- and the game itself -- continues to face more significant challenges.
Within the next year, at least half of the committee's 10 voting members will be replaced as part of a plan to infuse new blood on a three-year basis. Shanahan says this first transition cycle will be crucial to the committee's legacy.
"We're coming to a crossroads," Shanahan said. "The transition to the next group is crucial. I'm very optimistic [about the future]. But I also realize that it's a challenge. There are some who would like to hijack the committee and others that would like to destroy it."
The key, according to Shanahan, will be to get players on board who are not driven by a "union" or some other agenda but by the desire to improve the game. Getting GMs, most of whom are former players, to put aside the management perspective isn't as big a challenge. In the two years since the committee's inception, Shanahan said, there has never been a vote that has run strictly along party lines, with owners and GMs on one side and players on the other.
Now, the challenge facing the committee is to keep the wheel moving forward. If there's a sense that somehow the job is done, that's a problem because it's a job that might never be done.
Poile said the committee strives to examine all options, big or small, revolutionary or subtle. He estimates that the group has considered more than 100 proposed changes to the game, a list that has been whittled down to the handful that has been implemented.
"It was beholden to us to be in contact with everybody," Poile said. "I think we were able to get everybody's attention."
"The concept of forming a competition committee was an early subject of agreement as part of the collective bargaining process," NHL deputy commissioner Bill Daly told ESPN.com. "We think the committee serves an important role in providing perspective and insight on issues affecting the way the game is played on the ice and ways to make the game as entertaining and appealing as possible.
"Through their willingness to participate, all members of the committee -- management and player representatives both -- demonstrate a real commitment to the game and a desire to see it grow."
Among the issues the committee will continue to look at is possible ways to increase scoring. There is a belief that even further reductions in goaltending equipment are needed to improve scoring, which dropped by 5 percent last season over 2005-06 (as a point of reference, scoring in 2005-06 was up 15 percent over 2003-04).
Some of that reduction can be attributed to fewer penalties being called, presumably because players have caught on to the new standards of enforcement by referees. But there are those who believe coaches are catching up to the systems and imposing defensive strategies that are blunting offensive attacks and thus believe changes have to continue to improve the offensive flow.
The fear, for some purists such as Shanahan, is that at some point the league will make a dramatic move to bigger nets, which many believe would be an unconscionable attack on the roots of the game.
Given the focus on the netminders, one might expect Turco to be a vigorous defender of all things goaltending, but he said as long as changes make sense and don't represent a danger to a goalie's health, "We'll be the first ones to agree to it."
A case in point: At a recent committee meeting, Shanahan recalled how Turco explained that there might be ways to reduce the padding on the inside of goalie pads, which acts as a buttress for goalkeepers and allows them to get up and down more easily. Shanahan said elite goaltenders are like elite players. Instead of supporting rules that protect the mediocre, "They want to reveal who the great ones are," he said.
Turco soon replaced Brodeur, who quit in late June after complaining that the committee didn't seem interested in his concerns about protecting goaltenders from increased traffic in the crease. "I just don't want that responsibility any more," Brodeur told The Toronto Star on June 26. "I thought I would be able to make a difference, but I guess I was wrong." Shanahan said that Brodeur never made it to any competition committee meetings.
"We're trying to push the league forward from an entertainment perspective," Turco said.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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