It will take time, but we'll see the new game

Updated: September 28, 2005, 12:41 PM ET
By Scott Burnside | Special to ESPN.com

There's a welcoming sign on the ice at the Nassau Veterans' Memorial Coliseum that reads "Thank You Fans!"

It might just as well read, "Be Patient, It's Going To Be Better. Honest. Maybe Not Tonight, But For Sure, Later On. Really."

In many ways, the National Hockey League couldn't have asked for a better restart to its shattered operation than what's taken place in the past two months.

Thank You Fans
Ronald Martinez/Getty ImagesThe league has even tried to reach out to fans with an on-ice message.

Since the capitulation by the players' union and the end of the 10-month lockout that cost the league the entire 2004-05 season, there has been unprecedented buzz surrounding the game, a buzz that continues to grow as the start of the regular season approaches on Oct. 5.

Bona fide NHL stars have landed in cities they'd never have imagined playing in, creating new story lines from Columbus to Atlanta to Anaheim.

Nashville coach Barry Trotz jokes that his team might have called tough guy Scott Nichol in the past (they did, and he'll appear in a Preds' jersey come opening night), but Paul Kariya?

Ha ha. Nice try.

But Kariya is a Predator. And Scott Niedermayer a Mighty Duck and Adam Foote a Blue Jacket, and Sergei Gonchar and Ziggy Palffy are Penguins and Bobby Holik and Peter Bondra are Thrashers, and so on and so forth. From South Florida to Vancouver, the balance of power has been shifted and tweaked to the point that there are a dozen teams that have legitimate Stanley Cup aspirations.

Wayne Gretzky is back on the front lines, coaching his revamped Phoenix Coyotes. Mario's back, and he's got a new houseguest named Sidney Crosby as the Penguins have moved overnight from oblivion to optimism.

In some ways, it's as though the lockout that threatened to wipe hockey off the U.S. sporting map never happened. It's mindful of that season on the primetime soap opera "Dallas," when Bobby Ewing was supposed to be dead but it turned out to be a dream and he just showed up in the shower one morning.

So now it's time for the NHL to wake up and play some hockey.

And therein lies the problem.

Along with recreating itself economically with a $39 million salary cap that precipitated this unprecedented redistribution of both talent and Stanley Cup dreams, the league is also reinventing itself as a fast-paced game in which skill and speed is king and the clutchers and grabbers and the men who coached the game to the edge of extinction are persona non grata.

It's a laudable goal, except no one knows how to play that game just yet.

But they'll learn.

Make no mistake they will learn, because as much as players love the game, they love getting paid for it. So they'll learn not to grab a handful of an opponent or to hitch a ride on the nearest opponent with the blade of their $300 synthetic stick. They will learn or they'll soon find themselves cutting 2-by-4s in Midland, Ontario, or selling cars in White Plains, N.Y.

But they aren't there yet. The learning has been going on since training camp opened and unfortunately, the learning will begin in earnest when the puck drops on all 30 teams Oct. 5.

It is sadly typical of the NHL that it will try to blow out the doors on a new season and a new game with a glitzy Hollywood ad campaign and big-time giveaways, but at the same time beg forgiveness and patience from the same fans it's trying to impress.

Clearly the most patience will be required in the new standards of obstruction.

It is the most important element of the new NHL, and one that is almost universally applauded (Harry Sinden's strange complaints about wanting to allow some clutching and grabbing, notwithstanding). But exhibition games have featured 30-plus power-play opportunities, and it's going to take time for coaches and players to absorb the notion that these standards are here to save the game and they are here to stay.

Beyond putting up with a herky-jerky flow to games brought on by a parade of sheepish-looking players to the penalty box in the coming weeks, there are other adjustments to the new product.

It's going to take time for coaches and players to understand how best to take advantage of the newly legalized two-line pass, the new rules on icing and the other nuances of the game, including the shootout. But it will happen.

As much as coaches have been blamed for coaching the game into extinction, they will now turn their intellect to coaching the game back into vitality. And soon, enough fans will be treated to a bevy of scoring chances and odd-man rushes and those fans will go home talking about what they've seen for the first time in years. It's just not going to happen Oct. 5.

Patience is going to be required in waiting for their favorite players to simply get back into shape. Look around the league. Training rooms are full of players who simply aren't ready to play:

• Kariya has a groin pull. Chris Osgood has a groin pull. Dave Scatchard is out "week-to-week" with a groin injury and rookie of the year candidate Kari Lehtonen is nursing a tender groin.

• Peter Forsberg and Derian Hatcher, two free-agent signees who made the Philadelphia Flyers early Cup favorites, went down before the start of training camp and were expected to miss most of the exhibition season with an ankle and knee injury, respectively.

• Jason Allison, trying to resurrect his once-promising career in Toronto, has missed most of camp with a hip flexor injury.

• Milan Hejduk will be out for a month after aggravating a knee injury.

• Sergei Samsonov has a bad back.

• Patrik Elias will be out for weeks with Hepatitis A, contracted while playing in Russia during the lockout.

• Keith Tkachuk, the highest-paid player in St. Louis at $7.6 million and one of the highest-paid players in the league, apparently didn't get the memo the lockout was over, or else mistook Denny's for the local gym, and has been suspended by the Blues after failing his physical.

But they'll all be back. And in many cases, they will contribute to an exciting brand of hockey that promises to give fans more bang for their buck than ever before.

Just don't expect it to happen on Oct. 5.

Some players have questioned the rationale of making such wholesale changes in such a short period of time.

But there's no halfway for the NHL, a league notorious for both the halfway and the half-baked. These changes had to be tackled en masse. The league has tried "gradual" and it has failed miserably. There are critics who think the changes weren't dramatic enough, but regardless, they had to be done.

When a house burns down, the architect rebuilding it doesn't unveil plans for the basement to the new owners. It's all or nothing. No pain, no gain.

And that goes for the fans, too, who will have to endure weeks, perhaps even a couple of months, of watching a game evolve before their very eyes.

But that has to be better than what they had before, which was nothing.

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