Since Bryan Trottier blasted NHL referees in a 1987 column in The Hockey News, league officials have promised to crack down on interference and return the game to skilled players. This year, finally, they are doing it.
In preseason, referees were ordered to enforce strictly Rule 62a, which says, "A minor penalty shall be imposed on a player who interferes with or impedes the progress of an opponent who is not in possession of the puck."
A league directive also ordered referees to apply a tighter standard on restraining fouls such as holding and hooking. Referees have been told to call these obstruction fouls throughout the regular season, which opened Friday night, and call late-in-the-game penalties as consistently as first-period fouls.
The directive is a result of last season's scoring average (5.97 goals a game), the NHL's lowest since 1969-70. NHL senior vice president Brian Burke said referees who do not call enough obstruction fouls will get poor ratings and ultimately could be fired.
The league's hope is that forcing defenders to skate and get body position rather than using sticks or hands to restrain attackers will open up the game by giving smaller, faster, skilled players more skating room.
"They're sweeping," Islanders coach Mike Milbury said of the standards. "People don't realize how the face of the game will be changed by these rules if they are called. For guys who can't get there, they'll have a tough time staying in the league. . . . We [the coaches] have been teaching the strategy of interference since 1970."
Fourteen penalties were called in an average regular-season game last season. In the first 68 preseason games this year, the average was 22.6. A total of 466 obstruction penalties were called in those 68 games -- about seven a game or 37 percent of all penalties. Burke said 60 percent of the obstruction fouls were called in the first 34 games.
"That says to us, players are adapting," he said.
Still, the Islanders (11) and Rangers (15) had 26 power plays in their last preseason game and it was farcical.
"I think games are going to take eight hours," Lightning GM Phil Esposito mumbled after a game.
"Hockey as we know it has ceased to exist," Milbury said. "It's nice to open it up a bit. I know the intentions are great. But it really has changed the face of hockey."
Islanders center Kirk Muller, who said he was not called for an obstruction foul in the preseason, said it will take time to unlearn ingrained habits.
"You have to skate," he said. "The moment a guy gets one step on you, the way the rules are now, you're toast. It's not like before where you could cheat. On developing plays, you're fine. It's times when there's a quick transition when you have to make a quick decision. Your initial reaction is to hold the guy up. You're breaking habits we've had since juniors."
Some players believe more injuries will occur. "If your best defenseman has his head down going back for the puck in the corner and his partner can't hold up [a forechecker], the guy's on his own," Jets left wing Jim McKenzie said. "If a guy's coming in with a head of steam, he's going to run him through the boards. Of course, catching Paul Coffey is another thing."
Burke said rules against charging and boarding are designed to prevent injuries and will be enforced. "Defensemen still have a right to set a pick," he said.
Islanders defenseman Mathieu Schneider said, "We don't have as much time with the puck in our end. . . . But we're able to go offense easier."
That is what the NHL wants. Burke said when players adapt, games will have better flow, more speed, more offense. "We're trying to change 15 years of hockey culture in three weeks, when coaching has taken obstruction to an art form," he said.
Neutral-zone trap defenses will be tougher to apply. The gap between talented and untalented teams should widen. Parity should lessen. Scores should be more lopsided. "The message is simple," Burke said. "You will skate or you will die by the power play."