PHILADELPHIA - The NHL begins its regular season tonight by presenting a game it hopes will be quite different from the recent past.
"They've raised the bar," said Philadelphia Flyers coach Ken Hitchcock of the league's decision to enforce the obstruction rules that have been virtually ignored for years. "Lazy players or cheaters will be eliminated. If you're slow and slow thinking, the game will pass you by."
That's what NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, director of officiating Andy VanHellemond and director of hockey operations Colin Campbell had in mind when they decided to crack down on obstruction - the practice of hooking, grabbing and otherwise impeding the progress of players headed up and down the ice without the puck.
Hitchcock, the successful veteran coach who was let go by Dallas last year, is in his first season with the Flyers, who are among the top picks to make the Stanley Cup Finals this season.
"I think this rule enforcement is really going to impact teams without puck-moving defensemen," he said. "I think it's a great rule, because it rewards hard-working, hard-skating players."
The Flyers and the defending NHL champion Detroit Red Wings likely will benefit. In fact, most teams with swift, smart defensemen and skilled forwards will benefit.
Though the change is not designed specifically to increase scoring, the league would be happy to see more than one 50-goal scorer this season. Last season, only the Calgary Flames' Jarome Iginla reached the 50-goal plateau (52).
Bruce Cassidy, the Washington Capitals' rookie coach, said that not only will scoring improve among the league's superstars, but the rule enforcement could also benefit smaller players who have had difficulty avoiding the manhandling of bigger defensemen.
In Washington, Jaromir Jagr, who has led the league in points five of the past eight years, is eager to see enforcement of the rule.
"If they call it, we have to be ready for power play," he said. "We can win a lot of games that way."
Philadelphia's Keith Primeau agrees.
"We're a big team, and we create chances down low," Primeau said, a huge smile crossing his face. "Other teams will have to pull us down from behind, and that means power plays."
So what brought this on? Had NHL hockey gotten so bad, degenerated so much that something had to be done?
Bettman, the commissioner, said no.
"I'd say that was an overstatement," he said. "We're not apologizing for the game as it was or suggesting a crisis. But we've been studying this for a long time and determined this is simply a way to make the game a notch or two better."
Flyers forward Mark Recchi said he believes the clutching and grabbing increased as the league expanded.
"But you can't blame those teams and coaches. They don't want to get blown out every night," Recchi said. "But add a lot of new teams and you're going to get some weaker players.
"But this is a real positive for us. ... It definitely helps us. But it helps others, too. The Rangers, Washington have more skilled players now. And teams that don't have that talent and skill, well, they will just have to adjust."
The NHL has tried to do this before. At least twice in the 1990s, officials were directed to call obstruction. Both times, the calls were made during the preseason and early in the regular season, only to fall by the wayside as the season wore on.
"We hope it will be different now," said Flyers forward Simon Gagne. "For players like myself, with skill and speed, this is a big plus. For defensemen, maybe it is harder. But the only question is: Will they call it all year? We don't know. We hope."
One key difference is that this time Bettman called general managers, coaches and on-ice officials to a meeting in Toronto Sept. 10 to state flatly: These calls will be made.
Bettman told the coaches to get used to it and to instruct their players accordingly.
He said during a conference call last week that, beginning with tonight's season openers, the NHL's supervisory staff will watch every game on video to see the standard of enforcement is maintained and will communicate immediately with officials to fix any problem.
"Previously, the officials weren't comfortable making these calls late in the game," said VanHellemond, the director of officiating. "Coaches and fans yelled at them. But now they know that everyone knows the calls are going to be made and that they have to make the calls. And when they get hollered at, they can say, `Too bad, they will be called.' "
Hitchcock came away from the Toronto meeting apparently believing what he heard.
"Because the officials' jobs are on the line now, just like ours are," he said. "And no one is bitching. Everyone loves it."
Well, perhaps not everyone. The enforcement means defensemen are going to have to work harder.
"I think it is good for the game," said Capitals defenseman Sergei Gonchar. "But I won't be able to help my defensive partner as much as I'd like to. Calling obstruction makes it a lot tougher."