Amid uncertainty, bigwigs have their say

Originally Published: July 22, 2004
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

Less than 24 hours after the NHL and its players' association threw yet another wet blanket on hopes for a speedy resolution to the game's critical labor woes, a who's who of hockey power and influence filed quietly and with little fanfare into a New York hotel meeting room to try and brainstorm the league back onto North America's sports radar screen.

Against the backdrop of impending labor doom and the prospect that part or all of next season may be scuttled, it is difficult to view anything connected with the NHL, whether it's last month's entry draft or next month's World Cup of Hockey, except with a jaundiced eye.

It was pretty interesting because you had pros and cons about why you would make changes. I've got to be honest, there are a lot of good reasons the game is great the way it is.
Don Waddell, Thrashers GM

And by now, fans are all too familiar with the tap-tap-tap of the rule-change drum beaten by league officials over the past few years and the now-tired "we must change the game" chorus regularly chanted by the hockey media.

Move the nets out; move them back.

Tag-up off-sides, no tag-up off-sides.

More scoring, less obstruction.

We recall with great fondness the excitement that radiated through a Toronto airport hotel in the fall of 2002 when the league breathlessly insisted it was really going to start enforcing the rules, rules that, by the way, have been on the books for decades.

New Ottawa general manager John Muckler predicted a return to the halcyon run-and-gun days of his old Oilers team.

Nice try.

At the draft this year, executive vice president and director of hockey operations Colin Campbell glumly told the media the general managers weren't going to discuss a slate of radical new rule changes that included limiting goaltenders' ability to handle the puck, reducing the size of their equipment, no-touch icing and reintroducing tag-up offsides because the union had grieved over the equipment issues.

Another impediment, temporary or not: to forward movement at a time when the game seems immobilized on so many fronts.

So, what are we to make of the hardy souls who interrupted a fiendishly short summer to trek to New York to share their feelings on making the game better?

NHL Players Association
AP/Jennifer SzymaszekNHLPA president Bob Goodenow, left, and referee Stephen Walkom confer at the NHL rules committee meeting.

Well, we'll start with admiration and a hearty bon chance, but we'll hold the reverence and ticker-tape parade for the day we see the committee's work on the ice.

But any journey starts with a single step and this is a journey of tremendous importance for the league.

First off, the Game Committee (and could the NHL have chosen a less energizing title for a group that has the potential to affect incredible, even seminal change on the game?) isn't a collection of the junior or the powerless.

Among the 25 in attendance Thursday were seven owners and/or team presidents, including Mario Lemieux. Old buddy Wayne Gretzky was initially named to the committee but wasn't on hand Thursday, citing a scheduling conflict.

There were general managers representing the so-called Sun Belt (Don Waddell and Jim Rutherford) and traditional Canadian markets (Kevin Lowe and Bob Gainey).

There were media types, referee Stephen Walkom and the presidents of the two main feeder leagues for the NHL, the American Hockey League and Canadian Hockey League (the umbrella organization for the three major junior Canadian leagues).

There were thoughtful, well-spoken current players (Lemieux, Martin Brodeur, Gary Roberts and Scott Walker of Nashville), and former players still connected to the game in one form or another.

And oh yeah, there was a guy named Scotty Bowman who, one assumes, has some ideas about a game he seems practically to have invented.

Granted there weren't any Europeans or a defenseman for that matter. But these are more quibbles than oversights.

"I thought it was outstanding," Waddell told ESPN.com shortly after the day's session ended and the committee members dispersed. "I thought the dialogue was very positive."

There was no agenda and the group simply went from the basic question -- what elements of the game need to be changed? -- to the question of how to facilitate such change.

There was discussion of how to improve the game for the fan at home and the fan at the game; how to improve the game for skilled players and goaltenders.; how to improve the speed of the game and scoring chances.

Faceoffs, the center red line, and television all came up for discussion.

"The people they had there were all very passionate about the game," Walker told ESPN.com before boarding a plane back to his summer home in Cambridge, Ontario. "Whether they want to see change or not, they all want the game to be the best it can be. It wasn't just 'trash the game.' "

It's important, the Predators' forward said, that any changes are for the long term and good for the game, not quick fixes.

"You don't want to change them and then next year change them again and again the next year," he said.

The different perspectives helped to cut through preconceived notions about how the game really needs to be changed, and whether it needs to be changed at all, Waddell added.

"It was pretty interesting because you had pros and cons about why you would make changes," Waddell said. "I've got to be honest, there are a lot of good reasons the game is great the way it is."

For instance, the notion that scoring needs to be increased where it seems that improving scoring chances achieves the ultimate goal of more exciting hockey. Sounds like some input from Brodeur, no?

"He was good," Waddell admitted.

There were no formal recommendations made by the group Thursday and it seems the greatest challenge facing them isn't in having the clout to make sure that changes are implemented -- that clout is self-evident -- but rather coming to some sort of consensus on what the game should offer, how it needs to evolve.

Given the far-reaching expertise represented there and the powerful personalities involved, there will always be the potential to get bogged down in dialogue.

Still, Waddell remained positive the committee would have a long-lasting impact on the game, that the league would be "foolish" not to listen to the ideas the committee will ultimately pass along to general managers (who will then suggest final changes to the NHL's board of governors).

"I definitely think they'll pay attention," Waddell said.

Campbell, who acted as a facilitator for the group, will synthesize the issues covered Thursday and provide background material for the committee's next meeting although a date has yet to be set and it's not clear whether it will be by conference call or face to face.

The pressure now falls to the league to keep the committee moving forward, to ensure that Thursday's discussion leads to more discussion that leads to real recommendations for change (or not, if that's what they feel the game needs).

It will be difficult.

It is one thing to gather the powerful and influential for a few hours one day during the summer, it is quite another to see that they actually fulfill their mandate.

"Why wouldn't it be good?" Walker asked. "Maybe nothing gets decided this time, maybe tons next time."

Here's to next time.

Scott Burnside, a freelance writer based in Atlanta, is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.

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