Kinder, gentler NHL?

Hockey: Rules changes have cut down on the clutch-and-grab tactics, but the rough stuff is alive and well.

Hockey

January 20, 2001|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,SUN STAFF

Hockey has changed? A more refined sport? A less physical sport?

When the Pittsburgh Penguins' Mario Lemieux returned to the NHL ice last month for the first time in 3 1/2 years, that's what he perceived. And others echoed his words. Less clutch and grab, they said. More room for him to skate. The perfect palette for Lemieux's magic skates.

So, what's this going on in Pittsburgh? General manager Craig Patrick spent last week assembling players who could work overtime in the WWF.

Steve McKenna, 6 feet 8, 255 pounds; Kevin Stevens, 6-5, 235; and Krzysztof Oliwa, 6-3, 230, from Minnesota, Philadelphia and Columbus, respectively.

In fact, the three are all left wings brought in to spend ice time protecting Lemieux, who, over the past week, has been reintroduced to hockey's physical side. He's had a "face wash" - the old glove-in-the-face routine - and had the back of his head swatted like a baseball.

"We have to have a deterrent to that in our lineup," said Patrick, acknowledging the obvious.

Getting knocked around isn't what Lemieux came out of retirement for. As he said: "If you look at our past few games, we've been pushed around quite a bit. [There has been] a little bit of a lack of respect for our organization, and that's not good for anybody."

The view from opposing teams' benches, however, is different.

Before Lemieux and the Penguins came to play the Capitals in Lemieux's fifth game back, Caps second-year man Jeff Halpern said it isn't good to give Lemieux too much respect.

"I think that's part of the problem," Halpern said. "No one wants to hit a skill guy like that, but you've got to hit him. You've got to let him know he's not going to have it all his way."

So, has hockey really changed?

In Nashville, general manager David Poile is working to build the Predators into a contender. He eyes the recent moves by the Penguins with interest.

"I do agree with Mario, that the game has changed," Poile said. "By virtue of the rule changes and by the way the refs are calling the game more closely, there is much less clutch and grab.

"But, as has been said, `If you ain't cheatin', you ain't tryin'.' I think what's being mixed up is clutching and grabbing and hard hitting and fighting. There's much less running at other players with sticks, much less fighting, much less trying to eliminate the really good players.

"But this is hockey, and hockey is physical, is hitting, is intimidation."

When Poile was general manager of the Capitals and winger Peter Bondra put together his first 50-plus-goal season, Poile went out and acquired left wing Chris Simon, 6-4, 235. Veteran tough guy Craig Berube, 6-1, 205, was already on the roster and about to see his playing time increase drastically.

This week, Poile would not go so far as to say he acquired Simon to specifically protect Bondra, but that was the take at the time.

"We just felt, playing in our division, that we needed the big, strong guys to play against teams like Philly, Pittsburgh and the New York Rangers," Poile said.

"Berube was recognized as tough with some skill, and Simon's strength was up there and he was showing an ability to score. Look at the year he had last season. That's the type of year everyone envisions for the big, strong guy. It's the ultimate for that type of player."

A matured Simon emerged as the Capitals' leading goal scorer last season, and last week Berube was traded.

"It's all about having the right balance of players," said Caps general manager George McPhee. "For the past two years, I think Pittsburgh felt it needed to be more physical. They've always been a team with lots of skill players. Now they have a balance.

"For us, our skill players have become more physical. You can look at Chris and at Steve Konowalchuk. Kono is going to score 20 goals or more this season, but he's also a real physical player. We want the toughness without the slashing."

Over the previous three or four years, McPhee said, "it almost became a tactic to slash a player going around you and then go for the puck. Now [because of rule enforcement], you can't slash him. It's a much healthier game."

In Pittsburgh, Patrick and his boss, Lemieux - the player/owner - seem to have taken all that into account. They no doubt remember the old days, the Stanley Cup days, when among their skill guys were Stevens, a 54-, 55- and 41-goal scorer, who also dished out punishment to the tune of 254, 177 and 155 penalty minutes in back-to-back--to-back seasons. Tough guy Rick Tocchet was also there. In 1992-93, he produced 48 goals and 252 penalty minutes.

Who has done that for Pittsburgh lately?

Now, Stevens is back - after having spent last summer in drug rehab - hoping to rekindle past glory. And McKenna and Oliwa are there to send a message of retribution even before the game begins.

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