Star-studded gathering weighs in

Updated: July 23, 2004, 7:33 PM ET
Associated Press

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.


Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press

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