The league made videotapes for all the clubs, delineating which interference infractions will be whistled this year. "A big team should thrive under this system," says Burke. "The new rules should result in more hitting, because there'll be clearer lanes open. Coincidentally, it should bring the smaller player back into the game, because they'll be able to come through the neutral zone unobstructed."
The early returns have been good. The referees have cracked down on interference in the preseason, and, as a result, the play has been faster and more wide open. Whether the officials will have the resolve to call obstruction penalties in April, when the playoffs begin, remains to be seen.
"If the rules change works out, it's to the advantage of the little guy," says Anaheim Mighty Duck general manager Jack Ferreira. "But, even so, the trend toward bigger players will continue. You never eliminate talent, but if the talent is equal, you always take the bigger guy."
That's certainly the feeling in Toronto, where the Maple Leafs have been bulking up since being ousted in the first round of the playoffs last season, after having reached the Western Conference finals in 1993 and '94. Toronto general manager Cliff Fletcher traded clever playmaker Mike Ridley to Vancouver for Sergio Momesso, a 6'3", 215-pound grinder blessed with more courage than skill. Fletcher signed unrestricted free agent Mike Hudson, a 6'1", 205-pound checking center, before training camp, and he used his first-round draft pick to select 6'4", 220-pound defenseman Jeff Ware. Since July the Leafs have unloaded five finesse players—Patrik Augusta, Nikolai Borschevsky, Alexei Kudashov, Dmitri Mironov and Terry Yake—to make room for big, tough, unskilled enforcers Ken Baumgartner, Tie Domi and Warren Rychel. "I don't see any situation under the new rules that will significantly take away the advantage of size," says Fletcher.
In many ways hockey is evolving like basketball, a sport that had to invent the three-point shot to counteract the growing size of its players and open up the game again. Dribbling and stickhandling, once essential skills in hoops and hockey, respectively, and whose finest practitioners tended to be little guys, are less important in the offensive schemes. Speed, power and size—those are now the essentials for both offense and defense.
In the absence of a "two-goal shot," there's talk around the NHL of eliminating the two-line offsides rule, enabling defensemen to make long breakout passes to speeding wingers. It works in college hockey, and a number of general managers, including Clarke and Ferreira, would like it to be allowed in the league. Some coaches suggest moving the net out from the rear boards three or four more feet, taking that space from the neutral zone, to give the skilled offensive players more room to operate, a la Gretzky, behind the goal. The most effective solution, of course, would be for Bettman to mandate that ice surfaces be made, say, 5% larger, a change that nearly every owner opposes because it would mean sacrificing a couple of rows of seats.
But that day is coming. It has to, because the players—better trained, better nourished, better equipped—are going to keep getting bigger, and every general manager in hockey lives by the credo that a good big player will always beat a good little player. "Even with all these rules changes," says Burke, "you're still going to take the side of beef."