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Starkey: The NHL's best apology

| Wednesday, Jan. 9, 2013, 11:04 p.m.
The Penguins' Sidney Crosby practices at South Pointe on Jan. 7, 2013. (Chaz Palla | Tribune-Review)

Ideas are flying on how the NHL should demonstrate its remorse (assuming it has some) and reward fans in the wake of an unconscionable, 113-day lockout.

Free parking on the first game night?

Two-for-one Cokes?

Gag order on Don Cherry?

Two-for-one Cherry Cokes?

All fine ideas. But none compare to this: great hockey.

The league owes fans the best possible product. To that end, it can and must deliver some semblance of the free-flowing game it offered out of the last lockout.

Speed and skill are hockey's greatest assets. Showcase those. Reward talent. Punish ineptness. The physical play will take care of itself.

This isn't about “attracting new fans.” It's about entertaining the legions of loyal fans already in love with the sport.

Obstruction, in all its ugly forms, has slowly crept back into NHL arenas. A tug on the sweater here, an impeded forechecker there. Maybe a quick hook on the elbow. It all adds up to a compromised product.

By the end of last season — a season in which scoring reverted to something out of the dead-puck era (5.32 goals per game) — alarm bells were sounding all over North America.

If the NHL were a radio signal, one could barely pick it up because of all the interference.

“Obstruction did creep in more than usual; I think everyone would admit that,” says Penguins captain Sidney Crosby, who, as a playmaking center, admittedly is biased. “It's something everyone's aware of now, and we've had tons of time to analyze everything. I think that's one thing they'll crack down on, especially early.”

One would hope so. It seems easy enough. But there could be complications.

For one, the speed of the game has become a concern because it leads to higher-velocity collisions. Does slowing down skaters curb concussions?

Then you have an old-school faction — likely some of the same guys keeping certain head shots legal— that endorses hack hockey.

Who needs goals?

You also have trap-loving coaches and their stifling systems. You'll always have those. Their idea of nirvana is one defenseman subtly interfering for another, or, better yet, five defenders forming a firewall around the goaltender.

Some will wrongly see the rules-enforcement issue as a Penguins complaint, though an obstruction-free game obviously would help the Penguins. They were built and systemized for the new-world NHL.

As winger Chris Kunitz puts it, “The more space you can have in-zone, and the way our guys can skate and turn away from guys, (a rules crackdown) would really benefit our team.”

But this is really a league issue.

To the NHL's credit, it opened the topic for debate at a late-August summit in Toronto. A sampling of coaches, players, general managers and on-ice officials attended the event. NHL director of officiating Terry Gregson, manager of officiating Bill McCreary and senior VP of hockey operations Colin Campbell “refereed,” and while there was widespread agreement that the obstruction standard had slipped, there was dissent on just how much.

Teams came armed with video clips of questionable plays. Penguins representatives included general manager Ray Shero and winger James Neal.

“(Obstruction) was something we talked about a lot,” Neal says. “There was good feedback. I think obstruction will be out of the game.”

Once the schedule is sorted out, Shero expects the league to issue rules-enforcement directives for the season. He doesn't know what those will be, but he knows what he'd like to see out of the game.

“We were seeing slashes of the hands, hooks of the hands, things like that,” Shero says. “It's something we have to get away from because you're taking away the skill of the skill player. Guys come around the net looking for an option in front, and what does a defenseman do? Quick slash on the hands. It basically should be a penalty.”

Nobody wants to expunge physical play. Crosby points out, for example, that net-front battles are part of the game. Every player knows he will pay a bodily toll if he wants to stand in front of a goaltender. The problem these days is getting there without having to wade through a gauntlet of interference-minded defenders.

It should be an easy fix, NHL.

Easier than muzzling Don Cherry.

Joe Starkey co-hosts a show 2 to 6 p.m. weekdays on 93.7 “The Fan.” His columns appear Thursdays and Sundays. Reach him at jraystarkey@gmail.com or @JoeStarkey1.

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