Uncalled obstruction fouls have been slowing the flow of NHL games for years, but why would the league wait until six weeks remained in the regular season and teams were battling for playoff berths to institute a long-overdue zero-tolerance crackdown? Sometimes the NHL bumbles so endearingly it could be the Mr. Bean of sports.
Obstruction hooking, holding and interference infractions that referees have winked at for years are suddenly drawing whistles, and teams are incurring four or five penalties a game that a few weeks ago wouldn't have been called. "It's a huge adjustment," says Flames right wing Theo Fleury. "Guys are used to playing a certain way."
The league, which mandated the changes because offensive chances were down considerably this year, should have waited until next preseason to order this otherwise welcome crackdown so players could have adapted during meaningless games. "To change with 20 games left shows a terrible lack of judgment," says Maple Leafs goalie Glenn Healy. "It's like training a dog. One day he's allowed on the couch and the next day he's not, and he doesn't understand why. As players we're the same way."
Thanks to Pavlov we know the players will soon be conditioned to playing nonobstructive defense, which should vastly improve the game. Already forwards are finding more room to skate, yielding more offensive rushes and more entertaining action.
Having redirected its game in midseason, the NHL now must stay the course and not revert under pressure when teams complain, as the league did when clubs reacted negatively to a similar crackdown at the start of the 1995-96 season. Brian Burke, the NHL's director of hockey operations, vows that zero tolerance for obstruction will continue through the season and the playoffs.
Of course this is the same Brian Burke who before that last crackdown said, "Believe me, this is not an experiment. If the players don't pay attention, teams better have the best penalty killers in the history of the league." That stronger enforcement of the rules was abandoned shortly after the season began. "People's skepticism about us sticking with this is warranted," says Burke, "but it will be shown to be misplaced."
Let's hope so. The NHL may have poor timing, but in trying to abolish obstruction, it has its heart in the right place.
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