Bettman had pretty much been 0 for '98—the NHL having suffered from a dearth of scoring, a handful of foundering franchises, microscopic TV ratings and the wrong buzz from its Nagano participation—until he personally championed the obstruction crackdown. The new policy was approved during the general managers' meetings in February, and the new guidelines were instituted after the Olympics. Some general managers, like Philadelphia's Bob Clarke, failed to grasp the significance of the changes: Clarke sent Edmonton swift-skating defenseman Janne Niinimaa for slow, banging backliner Dan McGillis at the trading deadline in March. Others, like Sather, brought in players more suited for the new game. Even before acquiring Niinimaa, a point man on the Oilers' second power-play unit, Sather had plucked the fast and physical Bill Guerin from New Jersey for Jason Arnott and picked up power-play quarterback Roman Hamrlik from the Tampa Bay Lightning for physical defenseman Bryan Marchment and two minor leaguers.
The only question was whether the get-tough policy of the final two months would carry into the playoffs. There was plenty of skepticism; the NHL had cried wolf about obstruction in recent years, on several occasions implementing strict enforcement for a while during the regular season only to wimp out during the playoffs. "I really didn't believe it was going to happen," Modano says. "I thought it would tail off as it did every time before."
With 2� playoff rounds remaining, the league shows no signs of backing off. At the start of that conference call with the referees, director of officiating Bryan Lewis noted that in the first round in 1997 there were 12 penalties in 16 overtime periods and that this year there were 16 penalties (and one penalty shot) in 12 overtime periods, a reversal that moved him to say, "Keep it up, boys." Lewis also read a list of quotes from players, coaches and management praising the crackdown. The dubious situational ethics of refereeing, under which calls often were based on the time and the score of the game, have been replaced with something nontraditional but more honest.
Not everyone is delighted. A checker can no longer "water-ski" (i.e., hook an opponent and hang on for a 20-foot ride), and a defenseman can't hold up a forechecker with his stick, although most referees will allow the weakside defenseman some latitude to interfere as long as he's skating with the forechecker. "Now they can dump the puck into [ Dallas defenseman] Sergei Zubov's comer, and the forechecker can go hammer him," says Zubov's partner, Craig Ludwig, a tough but slow defenseman who contends that most blueliners dislike the strict rules. "Eve got to step aside and say, 'O.K., go run our best defenseman.' I should almost turn around, give the guy a shove and say, 'Go ahead. See if you can hit him harder.' "
While Ludwig glumly ponders the prospect of Zubov munching shards of plexiglass—it hasn't happened yet—he had better get with the program or get out of the way. This is the playoff present, the game's future. In the NHL's fast lane, the days of punish or perish are in the rearview mirror. As Ottawa right wing Daniel Alfredsson puts it, "If you're a fan, what would you like better: skating or holding?"