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Denial about obstruction in NHL frustrates coaches, players

| Sunday, April 1, 2012

There is a dirty word that has no place in the NHL among executives, referees or even the rule book.

That word is obstruction, and denial from within the league offices that it is at its post-lockout worst threatens more than the patience of frustrated general managers, coaches and players.

There are the Stanley Cup playoffs, where if the regular-season trend continues, penalties will be called scarcely and special teams may not play a factor.

"You've heard a lot of players -- from a defensive-minded defenseman like Brooks Orpik (Penguins) to a former MVP and scoring champion like Henrik Sedin (Canucks) -- say within the past month that the standard has slipped regarding enforcement of penalties," said Kerry Fraser, a retired NHL referee who officiated in a record 261 playoff games from 1980-2010.

"I don't think it's a good idea to ignore their opinions because, from what I've seen, they are right."

The NHL is on pace for a sixth straight season of decreased penalties per game since the league returned in 2005-06 from a yearlong lockout with an emphasis on enforcing existing rules to promote speed, skill and offensive flow. This also would mark a fourth consecutive season in which power plays per game have decreased.

With a week remaining in the regular season, the average penalties per game (4.35) and power plays per game (3.41) were at their lowest post-lockout levels and below the standard from the last pre-lockout season. During that 2003-04 campaign, average penalties were at 5.75 and average power plays at 4.24.

"It's tough to explain," New York Islanders defenseman Mark Streit said. "Everybody is adjusting, and the rules seem to be different right now because of the headshots and concussions. It's such a fast game, and there's so much skill in the league, but maybe there is something to look at."

Blame game

Scoring is down dramatically from the first post-lockout season, when 16 teams averaged at least three goals per game and the league generated seven 100-point scorers. Only three teams and three players are on similar paces this season.

Analyzing scoring on a team or individual basis is not a fair comparison, Streit and Penguins forward Craig Adams said. Their reasons: Improved defensive coaching, better goaltending and more skilled defensemen -- specifically in terms of skating -- than at any time in NHL history.

Players have zeroed in on the way games are played -- "Just watch one," Adams said -- and on officiating.

"The standard on hooking, holding and interference has slipped in a huge way since post-lockout," Adams said. "It's been a gradual thing. Why• I don't have the answer. Maybe they're trying to protect players because you hear people saying the game is too fast."

Fraser did not dispute that opinion but placed the onus on the suits in the NHL offices in New York and Toronto.

He added that the league likely already has missed a chance to prevent "the normally tighter played second season" from becoming two months of series dominated by clutching, grabbing and holding that turned off fans and frustrated players during the obstruction-dominant period from 1995 through 2004.

"If they're going to be instructed to tighten up the standard for calling penalties, that has to happen before the playoffs or else it won't matter who says what in the playoffs," Fraser said. "Nobody from the league, to my knowledge, has said anything about the officiating. Remember last year when they openly called for an emphasis on boarding• I have heard nothing like that about what we used to call the obstruction fouls. So I am left to assume the league is comfortable with the ways games are being called."

No conspiracy

NHL officials have shrugged off the suggestion that the league is content with referees calling fewer obstruction-like penalties. They do not agree with the premise and lack the power to change anything if a problem does exist.

Unlike in the other major sports, general managers are "caretakers of the game," deputy commissioner Bill Daly said. General managers write the rules and set the agenda for their enforcement.

At the March 2011 general manager meetings, there was an Old Guard/Progressives divide on whether to outright eliminate head shots. The Old Guard won, but a middle ground was a public call for boarding to be more judiciously enforced.

A year later, the majority view out of the meetings was that no proclamations about officiating were necessary.

"You get in that room, and not everybody is 100 percent on the same page," said Lou Lamoriello, longtime general manager for New Jersey and a self-described member of the "old school."

"It was no different this last meeting. I want physicality. I want safety, too. I don't succumb to slowing the game down or changing the fabric of what makes this a great game for the players and the fans -- and we all pretty much agreed on that."

Safety vs. speed

Player safety is a factor, said Ruslan Fedotenko of the New York Rangers.

The number of man-games lost this season to concussion symptoms surpassed 1,000 in early February and will be above 1,500 by the end of the regular season.

The Penguins' Sidney Crosby, considered the "face of the NHL," missed most of this season because of concussion symptoms. High-profile defenseman Chris Pronger of the Flyers is considering retirement because of a concussion. Daniel Sedin, the Canucks' reigning scoring champion, is the latest star sidelined by a head injury. His return for the playoffs is in doubt.

General managers this month discussed measures to promote safety. Restoring the red line and removing the trapezoid were on the docket, and even a progressive-leaning general manager such as the Penguins' Ray Shero thought he favored each initiative before the meetings.

However, he, like a majority of his peers, finished the three-day meetings convinced that putting the red line back in play and removing the trapezoid -- the latter a move that would afford goalies more opportunities to handle the puck behind the net -- would only slow down the game.

Neither implementation would dramatically prevent concussions, based on video evidence presented by NHL senior vice president of player safety Brendan Shanahan, Lamoriello said.

Perception problem

Mathieu Schneider, a longtime player who became the hand-picked special assistant to Players Association chief executive Donald Fehr, said players have told him they are "concerned about the game slowing down."

So, too, are most coaches, but few have publicly stated their displeasure for fear of retribution from officials -- ones who wear striped shirts on the ice and pinstriped suits off it.

If the Stanley Cup playoffs are deemed unwatchable because of obstruction-like penalties, the NHL would obstruct its own growth. A majority of national advertising dollars are tied directly into a league's playoffs, said Kurt Badenhausen, senior editor at Forbes magazine.

"Hockey has a passionate fan base that supports these teams on the local level," he said. "The NHL doesn't have a national following where a big hockey game will get casual fans to tune in. That has to start with the playoffs."

The NHL will hold its breath that fans tune in. Meanwhile, players will keep trying to fight through opponents holding them up with little repercussion.

"We've been at that point for two years where there is a lot of good buzz because of the playoffs," Schneider said. "We can't take a step backward now when everybody is watching. This needs to be a game that in the playoffs people want to watch."

Touting the positives

A big reason NHL officials are loathe to mention "obstruction" is because of a belief that focusing too much on it would detract from positive story lines.

The following were touted during Tribune-Review interviews with league, team and Players' Association officials:

• Strong Stanley Cup Final ratings have translated into improved cable ratings on NBC Sports Network since that channel's rebranding from Versus on Jan. 2.

• Attendance, the lifeblood for many U.S. clubs that lack generous local broadcast contracts, is between 96 percent and 98 percent.

• Only five teams began March without a realistic shot at the playoffs, strengthening the competitive balance that commissioner Gary Bettman said developed from the lockout in 2004-05.

• The NHL matters in its biggest market -- New York -- like it has at no time since the Rangers won the Cup in 1994.

• New faces -- notably the Penguins' Evgeni Malkin, Lightning's Steven Stamkos, Rangers' Henrik Lundqvist, Flyers' Claude Giroux and Blackhawks' Jonathan Toews -- have become recognizable to the general sports audience, limiting the burden on Sidney Crosby (Penguins) and Alex Ovechkin (Capitals) to carry the league.

"I have to think back to (1994) for the last time there was this type of buzz in the States about hockey," NHLPA special assistant Mathieu Schneider said. "Unfortunately, we had a work stoppage the next year, and all that energy seemed to disappear."

The NHL's collective bargaining agreement with the NHLPA is set to expire in September, and there is no guarantee next season will begin on time. Already, plans for regular-season opening games in European markets were scrapped.

Only last week did Bettman say he is open to negotiating with the union.

Penguins CEO David Morehouse said the "game is doing extremely well," but ...

"We should always be cognizant of not letting it slip back to the clutch-and-grab game we've seen at different times in the past," he said. "But I'm not worried right now that it's definitely going in that direction."

NHL disciplinarian: Today's game rewards skill

Most players polled by the Tribune-Review cited speed as what is best about the NHL's current state.

"Guys are starting to respect each other in terms of thinking twice about finishing a check," Penguins forward Craig Adams said. "Sometimes it's frustrating. You skate the whole way down the ice, you want to hit somebody, but you get there, and they're in a vulnerable position. Obviously there are still mistakes ... but I think in general guys are trying to lay off when they're supposed to.

"It's the suspensions."

As of Monday, Brendan Shanahan, in his first season as NHL senior vice president of player safety, had suspended 42 players for a total of 159 games (131 regular season and 28 exhibition) since replacing Colin Campbell as the authoritative voice of on-ice discipline. Here are his thoughts on the current game, head safety and players' respect:

Q: You are seen as the head disciplinarian of hockey, so what do you see as being right about the game right now?

A: The biggest thing is that more than ever before the game rewards skill. I don't think it's right when people say the game rewards offense. Skilled defensemen are more identifiable right now than ever before because there is an art to playing good defense since the new rules went into effect.

Q: Would restoring the red line make the game safer regarding head trauma?

A: We're making efforts to make the game safer, but to try to reduce the speed coming through the neutral zone is like a shortcut or a cop-out. It's not making the hard choices or difficult choices. To me, it's very clear it's the wrong option, and that was very clear at the general manager meetings. When you looked at the data and the video examples of concussions that occurred this year, there was no proof. Very few (concussions) were caused by what we thought was the fact there was no red line. If you put the red line back in, you'd have a whole bunch of injuries at a different part of the ice. You'd have way more (Scott) Stevens-(Eric) Lindros hits, where the forwards couldn't get behind the defense anymore, so they're always taking a pass with the defense stepping up on them. So with putting the red line back to make it safer, I just don't buy it.

Q: If players do respect each other more today, why isn't that the narrative?

A: (Adams) is right, and that was my theme in a presentation when meeting with the general managers. I showed 10 examples of players having an opportunity to really annihilate a guy and making adjustments, but that's a hard thing for a fan or commentator to notice. We do because we're looking for it. In the course of one night, we watch every game. ... We have people talking about players not respecting each other, but what about those other examples of the guy who doesn't go for that dangerous, unnecessary hit• There are usually two dozen examples of that. The players know that we're trying to change the culture, and I see evidence of that happening every night.

Additional Information:

Slipping away

The NHL is on pace to average fewer than five penalties per game for a third consecutive season and fewer than four power plays per contest for a fourth straight season.

This trend represents a shift from the post-lockout league that returned for the 2005-06 season with rules designated to improve offensive flow. In fact, there are fewer average penalties and power plays now than in the final pre-lockout season of 2003-04.

Here is a look at the statistics:

Season Penalties per game/Power plays per game

2003-04 5.75/4.24

2005-06 6.88/5.85

2006-07 5.90/3.86

2007-08 5.47/4.28

2008-09 5.43/3.73

2009-10 4.75/3.71

2010-11 4.69/3.54

*2011-12 4.35 3.41

*Through games played March 30


Additional Information:

Kerry Fraser's tips

Kerry Fraser called 261 Stanley Cup playoff games -- an NHL record -- from 1980-2010. Now a television analyst with a blog ('C'mon Ref!') that often is critical of his former colleagues, Fraser provided the Tribune-Review with these five points for on-ice officials to follow to avoid postseason complaints and controversy:

Restore fear

'From my end, the biggest deterrent for a player to commit an infraction was the fear of being penalized. Players have to know clearly that situations will be penalized, and if they run that risk and do the crime, they'll do the time. I don't see that fear factor from players right now.'

Stay consistent

'I've seen too many avoided calls, too many missed calls, especially late in a game. That has to stop now before the playoffs, which is a whole different animal. Officiating can play a role in a series if this keeps up.'

Make calls early

'Last year, as series progressed, there was an edict passed down from NHL Hockey Operations to clamp down on things (snowing the goalie, blindside hits). But you don't clamp down in Game 5 or 6; that is too late. You do it when it happens. Referees have to have a feel for the game and the moment, and when things take place they have to make the calls.'

Use the rules

'The referees have to enforce what's there because there is an arsenal of artillery they have at their disposal within the rules. There is enough in the rule book to officiate the game properly. Edicts from the NHL shouldn't be necessary. All (on-ice) officials need to do is exercise sound judgment and establish the line so that players know clearly what can and can't be done.'

Establish standards

'I never worked on a stats basis. I never had a quota. If a player committed an infraction, I penalized him. I couldn't say how many penalties I called or what my average was, and I didn't pay attention to time remaining or a situation. If I missed one, it should have been talked about with me. If a referee misses one, it should be talked about with him after every game. Officials should be looked at closer, under the same microscope a player or team would be - and if there is a pattern of problems, it needs to be resolved immediately.'

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