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Star-studded gathering weighs in

7/23/2004 - NHL

NEW YORK -- Once NHL players get back on the ice, they might
find a different game that emphasizes offense.

That was the objective of most on a blue-ribbon panel comprised
of hockey royalty -- from Mario Lemieux to Scotty Bowman. That group
got together Thursday to discuss how to create more flow and
offensive chances.

Ideas were exchanged and debated as part of a process NHL
commissioner Gary Bettman hopes will lead to rules changes that
could go into effect after a new labor agreement is reached.

As long as the talents of goalies aren't curtailed and safety
jeopardized, two-time defending Vezina Trophy winner Martin Brodeur
is happy to see some improvements.

"There's a lot of ways they can improve the offense of the game
and the flow of the game without touching the goalies," the New
Jersey netminder said. "The safety of the goalies is one of the
most important things -- having protective equipment that is decent
for the guys that are making the big bucks and making a big
difference in the game."

The spirited talks were praised by players, NHL officials,
coaches, general managers and executives, who made up the group.

"Everybody on the panel really cares about the game of hockey
and is trying to make it more exciting and have more scoring,"
said Lemieux, the player-owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Hall of Famer Wayne Gretzky was expected, but he didn't attend
because of a scheduling conflict. Toronto forward Gary Roberts, and
Nashville forward Scott Walker were joined by referee Stephen
Walkom, several team presidents, Islanders owner Charles Wang, six
general managers, and Bowman -- the winningest coach in league
history.

"I've been involved in a lot of meetings in my life, but I've
never been in a meeting that had the composition this meeting
did," NHL hockey operations director Colin Campbell said.

The atmosphere was positive, something that couldn't be said
about labor negotiations held Wednesday in New York. Without a new
collective bargaining agreement by Sept. 15, the NHL will endure a
lockout that threatens to wipe out the season.

The league presented six concepts to the players' association,
but the NHLPA said each contains a salary cap it refuses to accept.
That philosophical difference between the sides is what makes the
NHL's second lockout in 11 seasons more likely.

"A couple of players came in and we were like, 'It's kind of
hard to get ready for this because there's so much uncertainty for
the season,"' Brodeur said.

Bettman made it clear that Thursday's discussions, which lasted
about six hours, were strictly to address on-ice issues and not the
problems off it -- despite the presence of union head Bob Goodenow.

Following up on recommended rules changes proposed by general
managers at a February meeting near Las Vegas, this panel of 25
discussed the state of the game.

"It's another opportunity to talk more at length about some of
the changes," new Florida coach Jacques Martin said. "We got
different opinions from the players, so it gives you a different
perspective."

The GMs suggested some radical ideas that were met with varying
levels of resistance.

Most came from goaltenders, who didn't like hearing that the
width of their pads could shrink 2 inches, down to 10, and that
they would not be allowed to go behind the net to play the puck -- a
skill Brodeur has used to basically become a third defenseman.

"My view will never change on that. I should be able to do
whatever I want," he said.

Bettman developed this panel as part of a process to create more
flow up and down the ice and create more scoring chances.

"It was very productive," said Lemieux, one of hockey's
greatest scorers. "We talked a lot about the game, different
issues. It was a great discussion."

Bettman went to Las Vegas with a mandate to GMs to produce a
better product after scoring dropped by 2½ goals per game in the
last 15 years to an average of five per game.

"The framework of the meeting was what about the game
fundamentally is good and what are the things that we think we
should focus on," Bettman said Thursday.

The reduction of goalie pads hit a snag last month when the
NHLPA filed a grievance to prevent the NHL from "unilaterally
attempting to implement changes" and trying to circumvent the CBA
and labor laws.

Bettman said at the time that he was not looking to pick fights
with the union, and added Thursday that most of the discussions
regarding goaltenders centered on their play and not equipment.

Other ideas suggested by GMs were moving the nets back 3 feet
toward the end boards to 10 feet. They also supported bringing back
the tag-up offsides rule, which will lead to fewer whistles.

Some concepts, such as wider blue lines and giving three points
for a regulation victory will be tested in the AHL before they are
considered for the NHL.