Obstruction is the newest dirty word in the NHL.
It is a no-no. No hooking, holding, tripping, cross-checking or holding the stick of a player who does not have the puck.
"We're not talking about the neutral-zone trap," said Bryan Lewis, the NHL's director of officiating.
Indeed, they're not.
That will surprise some observers, because supposedly it was the nasty neutral-zone trap that enabled the New Jersey Devils to sweep up the Stanley Cup in four straight games against the more talented Detroit Red Wings last spring.
Game 1 was barely history when Red Wings coach Scotty Bowman climbed on the soapbox and pleaded for someone to open up the game and eliminate the "getting around the rules" that restrains the most skillful of forwards such as his own Sergei Fedorov.
Fact No. 1: Detroit has been called for 25 obstruction penalties in six preseason games.
Fact No. 2: New Jersey has been called for 11 such penalties in its four preseason games.
"What New Jersey did was outwork and out-hustle their opponents with solid forechecking and backchecking," said Lewis. "What we want to stop is the player who hooks on to another player at the neutral line and never takes another stride."
The league has not designated a new class of penalty. It just wants referees to call interference -- illegally impeding a player who doesn't have the puck -- more closely.
Brian Burke, the NHL's director of hockey operations, said yesterday he believes the enforcement of the rules will create more hard hitting, better flow and put "the little guy" back in the game.
A total of 466 obstruction calls have been made in 68 preseason games, or 6.9 per game. The emphasis on those calls has increased the average number of penalties per game from 14 in the 1995 regular season to 22.6 through the preseason before last night.
"But 60 percent of those obstruction calls were made in the first 34 games," said Burke. "Players are adjusting. But we're trying to change 15 years of hockey culture in three weeks. . . . But players will adapt. It's not negotiable. They will adapt, or they better have the best penalty-killing units in the history of the league."
Clubs have expressed worry about the consistency of officiating. But Burke said the officials also are being watched and graded and will be penalized if they fail to make the proper calls.
Burke said there is still some fine-tuning to do, because there appears to be some confusion about what obstruction is during faceoffs and during battles for loose pucks in front of the net. Officials, to put it nicely, have been overzealous in those situations so far.
Howe hangs 'em up
Detroit's veteran defenseman Mark Howe, the son of Hall of Famer Gordie Howe, has retired from the Red Wings and will move into a newly created position in the team's front office.
Howe, 40, began his career playing with his father and brother Marty in the World Hockey Association. He will be a pro scout and coach the team's minor-league defensemen. His official title: assistant to the hockey department.
Around the rinks
Jason Woolley, the former Washington defenseman who could not find a full-time job with the Capitals and went to play for the Detroit Vipers last season, appears to be making a home for himself with the Florida Panthers. Woolley is leading the team in scoring after collecting six points (four goals, two assists) in his past two games. He will be able to say hello to some old teammates Tuesday when the Panthers play the Caps in Greensboro, N.C. . . Florida defenseman Keith Brown, a 16-year NHL veteran, has retired because of a knee injury. . . . Before their home opener Oct. 7, the Montreal Canadiens will retire goalie Jacques Plante's No. 1 jersey. Plante died of cancer in 1986. The number will be the seventh in the history of the Montreal franchise to be retired.