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NHL Can Use Broader Look

June 05, 2003|Phil Hersh | Chicago Tribune

Permit those of us who know and love elite international hockey to contribute a knowing and rueful smirk to the recent discussions about how to increase scoring in the NHL.

The answer, you see, is so simple it is ridiculous. The easiest solution is to play the game on the international-size ice surface, which is 17% wider (100 feet) than the NHL rink (85 feet).

The NHL had a chance to do it when most teams moved into new buildings over the last decade. Its owners apparently were loath to give up prime seats to an expanded ice surface or shuck the Neanderthal attitude that fans come to hockey for the fights.

To the increased size and skating speed of today's NHL players add the increased skill at using the neutral-zone trap -- now a neutral-zone chokehold. The result often is painful to watch: teams dumping the puck into the offensive zone even when they have a two-man power-play advantage.

Dump-and-chase hockey and even stricter-than-usual attention to defense in the playoffs mean few shots and even fewer real scoring chances. New Jersey outshot the Mighty Ducks, 30-16, in Game 1 of the finals.

So what has this done to scoring?

Ten years ago, 15 of the NHL's 24 teams averaged at least 3.5 goals.

In 1970-71, the Boston Bruins averaged 5.11 goals.

This season, the highest-scoring team, Detroit, averaged 3.28 goals. Only five of the league's 30 teams averaged three or more goals.

There have been low-scoring periods in the past, but this era is the worst since expansion, the slap shot and the curved stick increased offensive hockey. That change now has been more than offset by the size of players and the size of goalies' pads, not to mention the generally greater agility of the men behind the masks.

Now let's look at the 2002 Olympics, where two teams of NHL All-Stars met in the final, which Canada won, 5-2, over the United States while outshooting Team USA, 39-33.

"I love it," said Brian Rolston of Boston. "You get a lot of time with the puck, and so many things just open up."

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman tried to explain away the more exciting play as a factor of having the world's best players in one tournament. Truth be told, the difference was the bigger rink and the lack of the two-line offside rule in international hockey. With no red line, there are more long breakout passes and more odd-man rushes, including breakaways. With a wider surface, teams actually carry or pass the puck into the offensive zone. With more NHL players than ever who learned to play on the wide surface in Europe, the skills to exploit it are there.

Other than a goalie, who doesn't love an odd-man rush?

Only those with narrow minds.

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