Everyone, not just refs, has to buy in

Updated: September 21, 2005, 12:40 PM ET
By Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com

The crackdown on obstruction will be enforced. They really mean it this time.

In concert with new rules, the ice will be opened up so much, rinks will seem to have been stretched to international dimensions and fire-wagon hockey will be back.

Instead of slouching in your seats as you eat nachos and read Architectural Digest in an attempt to get some relative excitement during an NHL game, you will be on the edge of your chair -- or the couch -- every second.

The numbers will jump so high, if this were baseball, we would suspect everyone loaded up on flaxseed oil.

And the check is in the mail.

If I dared to say, "Stop me if you've heard that before," this column would stop right here, as if four guys hooked and held me at once and a fifth wrestled away the laptop and headed for the nearest pawn shop.

But I won't say that, so I can add this: I'll believe it when I see it.

I'll believe the crackdown on obstruction is working when it is enforced through an entire season and playoffs and, more important, when everyone, from players to coaches to general managers chauvinistically judging the officiating from upstairs, buys into it.

The onus can't just be on the referees this time. It can't be only up to Colin Campbell, the NHL's vice president/vice principal, and Stephen Walkom, the respected referee who has moved from the ice to the league office as the head of officiating.

It won't work to brag about how the men in stripes are being lectured via e-mail and attachments and video between games, and to automatically (and wrongly) attribute any lessening in the number of power plays as the season progresses to the players' adapting to the new standards. In the wake of previous alleged crackdowns, the NHL has been in denial, because it was a case of the referees backing off and understandably wearing down, rather than the players adapting.

After the Stars saw themselves on the short end of a 5-on-3 late in the third period and gave up the tie-breaking goal in their exhibition opener against the Avalanche, Dallas coach Dave Tippett could afford to be philosophical.

"Any time you use a stick to impede a guy, it's going to get called," he said, shrugging. "If they called it, it was a penalty. I don't think they went out there with the mind-set that they were going to create a 5-on-3 to make sure they know they were calling them. I think the refs are working at it, and the lessons are going to have to be learned all over the place."

Indeed, this is an issue of mind-set and philosophy.

Normally, about four-tenths of a second after an athlete, or anyone discussing sports, uses the word "respect," they deserve to be tuned out, because it is either egoism, a lame attempt to rally the troops, or a ridiculous complaint about a studio analyst not giving a specific team enough love.

But this time, everyone needs to show the game enough respect to play it -- or want it played -- the way the NHL wants it to be played under the latest alleged crackdown and the new rules.

If a coach or a player complains about a call in the final minutes, summoning any variation of the phrase, "At that stage of the game … " he should be laughed at, scorned and probably fined.

If anyone whines about a parade to the penalty box making a travesty of the game, same thing.

And what about when a coach addresses a rookie third-liner on a two-way contract who hopes he has left the AHL behind for good? What if the third-liner is told to clamp down in the third period, at least as much as the refs will let him get away with after a few weeks of backing off the enforcement? Is he going to be able to say with the wide-eyed wonder of Oliver Twist asking for more gruel, "Gee, sir, we're not supposed to do that," and still avoid being back on an AHL bus by the next afternoon?

That's not the only rationalization for the way the game has been clogged and obstructed in recent years, of course, since teams have trapped their way to the Stanley Cup, having a Devil of a time along the way.

But it all comes down to coaches' thinking that's the way they have to play, given the pressures, competitive realities and parameters of what has been permitted on the ice.

It can't be allowed to happen again. Trying to play that way has to be scorned and rendered counterproductive. And that's up to everyone in the game.

This even ties into the parity issue. At this point, the assumption, or at least the hope, is that a salary-cap based system will close the talent gaps and lessen the need for some coaches to dumb down the game, so to speak, to give their teams chances. When it becomes apparent that parity was a pipe dream, and that gaps still exist, any attempt to obstruct progress should be penalized -- in every way imaginable.

Coaches of under-talented teams can't be praised for "getting the most out of what they have," if getting the most out of what they have involves attempts to clog the neutral zone as much as possible under the new rules and wearing down the referees' resolve.

And even more important, the players have to buy into it, or at the very least be shown that they have to. The "new" rules won't be enough to revolutionize the sport. Both the moving back of the net and tag-up offsides are returns to the past, not revolutionary modifications. Seven years ago, we were told moving the net an extra 2 feet away from the boards was going to create a Lake Superior of room for offensive creativity from behind the net, and that followed a 1-foot move out in 1990.

Absolutely, if moving the net back -- coupled with other rules changes, including adding space to the attacking zones and restricting the goaltenders' handling of the puck -- makes all teams look more like the '80s Oilers than the 2003 Panthers, great.

Bottom line: It all depends on enforcing the obstruction standards. The referees deserve support if they heed and stick to the mandate, and derision if they don't. The men in this sport need to start respecting it enough to stop talking about how the stars need to be unshackled and talent rewarded, and start backing up that view with action. Retain all the passion, but show respect for hockey and allow it to regain its status as major-league sport's preeminent game of skill.

But pardon us if we're not holding our breath.

Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."

Terry Frei

Special to ESPN.com
Terry Frei is a columnist for the Denver Post. He is also the author of "Third Down and a War to Go" and "Horns, Hogs, and Nixon Coming."