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NHL has big plans for return to ice

Michael McCarthy USA Today

NEW YORK – To get its house in order after a 10-month lockout, the NHL is skipping the remodeling process, leveling the old model and building a new one from scratch.

That was the message Friday when the league’s board of governors approved 30-0 a six-year collective bargaining agreement that slashes player salaries by 24 percent and caps player costs at 54 percent of revenue, projected at $1.7 billion this year.

The NHL trails the NFL, NBA, Major League Baseball and now NASCAR in popularity. Commissioner Gary Bettman promised the league would remake itself from top to bottom to lure back fans and win a new cable TV contract in the USA. The NHL is canceling its 2006 All-Star game to send its stars to the Winter Olympics.

“We couldn’t continue the way we were,” Bettman said. “We couldn’t have operated another season. The best thing I can say to our fans is we’re back, we’re going to be better than ever and we’re going to make it up to you.”

All 30 teams will take the ice opening night Oct. 5. The new mantra will be scoring and more scoring. Both the league and players are convinced hockey has lost much of its speed and creativity due to constant hooking, holding and slashing.

What’s in the NHL’s brave new world:

• Shootouts: The penalty shot is one of the single most dramatic moments in sports. The league will do away with ties by adding shootouts for regular season but not playoff games. If both teams fail to score during four-on-four play in a five-minute overtime, three snipers from each team will go one-on-one with the opposing goalie. If the score is still tied, the shootout moves to a “sudden death format.” Players scored 18 goals on 57 penalty shots in 2003-04, a 32 percent success rate.

• Old-time hockey: The league is rolling out a slew of rule changes to increase scoring and bring back some of the entertaining run-and-gun offenses of the 1980s. The most important: zero tolerance for the holding, hooking and obstruction that has slowed the game to a crawl over the last decade. The NHL is ignoring the red line, allowing two-line passes that were previously whistled offside. “We want to encourage players to try home run passes,” says the Detroit Red Wings’ Brendan Shanahan.

• More divisional rivalry: Fans love long rivalries like the New York Rangers vs. the New Jersey Devils. A new schedule pits divisional rivals against each other eight games a season rather than six. The length of the regular season stays the same at 82 games.

• Smaller goalie equipment: The equipment worn by goaltenders, recently grown to monstrous proportions, will be reduced by 11 percent. Leg pads will be reduced by 1 inch to give shooters more net to aim at. Puckhandling goalies will be limited to an area behind the net.

• Rink dimensions. To give the game’s top offensive talents more room to do their thing, there will be changes to rinks. The size of the neutral zone, where most obstruction occurs, will shrink to 50 feet from 54 feet. The offensive zones will expand by 4 feet.

The NHL has made promises about improving the game before. But hockey experts say the game is in such dire straits that both management and players have no choice but to put their money where their mouths are.

“The things that make hockey great are guts, goals and glamour,” says Stan Fischler, MSG Network analyst and author of dozens of hockey books. “The game has to stay tough. But you have to have goals.”

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