It was, at times, torturous to watch, this hockey played on molasses. Defying tradition, the 1995 Stanley Cup playoffs were relentlessly, stultifyingly boring. Following the example of the New Jersey Devils, the masters of the neutral-zone trap and the eventual Stanley Cup champions, teams seemed bent on clogging center ice with large, inert bodies, obstructing speedsters before they had a chance to get going. Breakaways were a distant memory, and two-on-ones and three-on-twos became as rare as defensemen's front teeth. Victimized by hooks, tugs and bumps away from the puck, the smaller, skilled players such as Doug Gilmour of the Toronto Maple Leafs and Pat LaFontaine of the Buffalo Sabres were neutralized. Size and brawn became more pivotal attributes as the playoffs progressed. The big men who could fight through the holding and hooking ruled the ice: the Devils' 6'1", 215-pound Claude Lemieux; the Detroit Red Wings' 6'4", 210-pound Keith Primeau; and the Philadelphia Flyers' 6'4", 229-pound Eric Lindros. These were the stars of the eye-glazing 1995 Stanley Cup postseason.
General managers took note and cast their votes for size over skill during July's entry draft in Edmonton. The average proportions of the 22 nongoalie first-round selections were 6'2" and 193 pounds. Only two of those players were less than six feet, and the tallest, a Finnish defenseman named Teemu Riihijarvi, who was taken by the San Jose Sharks, stood an imposing 6'6". These were 18-and 19-year-olds, some of whom are still growing. The standard NHL ice surface, meanwhile, even in new buildings like Boston's FleetCenter and Chicago's United Center, remains 200 feet by 85 feet. "Players coming into the league are bigger, faster, stronger and better coached," says Brian Burke, the NHL's director of hockey operations. "It's like, Honey, I shrunk the rink."
In 1971-72, the average NHL player was 5'11", 184 pounds; last season he was 6'1", 196 pounds. "You can't just be big, you also have to be able to skate," says New York Islander general manager Don Maloney. "But in the past the game was dominated by people who were 5'11" or 6 feet. Now it's dominated by guys who are 6'3" or 6'4".
Gordie Howe, Bobby Hull, Bobby Orr, Guy Lafleur and Wayne Gretzky were all 6 feet or less. The two best players today, Lindros and Mario Lemieux of the Pittsburgh Penguins, both stand 6'4". "I saw it coming at the end of my playing career," says Flyer president and general manager Bob Clarke, who was a 5'10", 185-pound center in the 1970s and early '80s. "[Devil defenseman] Scott Stevens comes into the league as an 18-year-old, and he's 210 pounds or something. Guys my size were like a fly on him. So how do you combat a player that size? You've got to have big players yourself."
That's exactly what Clarke has in his stable. Already boasting the Legion of Doom line—Lindros, John LeClair and Mikael Renberg, who average 6'2�", 220—the Flyers signed 6'6", 235-pound defenseman Kjell Samuelsson and 6'4", 225-pound center Joel Otto as unrestricted free agents. Philadelphia is now downright huge. "In the playoffs last spring, size and strength were major factors in every series," says Philadelphia coach Terry Murray, whose Flyers lost to the Devils in six games in the Eastern Conference finals. "Restraining fouls away from the puck, both coming into and going out of the offensive zone, became very frustrating for teams geared to an open-passing, skating style."
"Ninety-nine percent of the NHL's problem is interference," says Pierre Pag�, coach of the Calgary Flames. "Players try to move in the neutral zone, and they're hooked. We teach players how to hold. You bump the guy, bump him again, tie him up and run him into the boards—all without the player having the puck. It changes your philosophy—on drafting, on trading, on whom you pick for your team."
The Sabres—small, skilled and perennially disappointing in the postseason—have been giving up talent for size since using their first-round pick in the 1994 entry draft to take 6'3" center Wayne Primeau. In July Buffalo general manager John Muckler traded the electrifying, 5'11", 187-pound wing Alexander Mogilny to Vancouver in return for Mike Wilson, an unproven 6'4", 195-pound defenseman, a first-round draft choice, which Muckler used to take a 6'2", 175-pound defenseman, Jay McKee, and feisty center Mike Peca. Unrestricted free agent Dale Hawerchuk, a 5'11", 190-pound playmaker who has 489 lifetime goals, was deemed expendable, but not tough-guy defenseman Grant Jennings, who is 6'3", 210 pounds. "You can still beat size with speed and talent," says first-year Sabre coach Ted Nolan, "but you have to be allowed to skate to do it. A lot depends on how they call the new rules."
Recognizing that the NHL has an image problem, commissioner Gary Bettman put together a blue ribbon panel over the summer consisting of six general managers, two coaches and two referees. Their mandate was to find a way to open up the ice and inject excitement back into the game. The panel's recommendation was not radical, though it could have a substantial impact. The referees have been instructed to enforce the interference rules as written, which means no hindering or obstructing of players without the puck. "We've told the referees to address it in all zones, but the highest priority is in the neutral zone," says Burke. "That's where a player builds up speed, and that's where speed dies. Last year you could hear players on the bench yelling to their teammates as they skated through center ice, 'Lock 'em up!' "
Lock 'em up, they did. Puckhandling and speed were effectively jailed night after night, as backcheckers were allowed to dig their stick blades like meat hooks into the bellies of the speeding forwards, breaking their momentum. The rush would slow to a crawl, and the puck carrier often had little choice but to dump it in. He then had to fight through a moving pick to chase it. Rather than forecheck, disciplined teams like the Devils usually sat back and waited to counterattack. The games became tennis-baseline rallies, NHL-style.
Reaction so far to the league's directives on obstruction has been skeptical. Players have heard this sort of thing before. Prior to the 1992-93 season, the NHL insisted on eliminating the high hook, but after coaches and general managers squawked about all the penalties that were called in the preseason, things quietly returned to business as usual as the regular season progressed. This time, however, may be different. " Gary Bettman and his staff are so focused on this," says Maloney. "The last thing the league wants to be known as is boring."