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That's the novel direction in which the NHL may be headed now that Wayne Gretzky's slick Oilers are the Stanley Cup champions

In wresting the Stanley Cup from the four-time-champion New York Islanders last May, the Edmonton Oilers became the first team to win the NHL title by combining the physical North American game with the speed, creativity and lightning-quick transitions of European hockey.

Says Hall of Fame goalie Ken Dryden: "The Islanders were great champions, but the Oilers are important champions. They radically changed hockey from the way North Americans had been playing it for the last 30 years."

But most teams won't copy the Oilers because most teams can't. Few have the speed and finesse of Wayne Gretzky, Paul Coffey and Mark Messier. For now, slick clubs like the Rangers and the Nordiques will push the game toward the European style, while dump-and-crash teams like the Bruins and Islanders will pull the game back toward North America, making it a test of willpower and the work ethic. At the same time, the Philadelphia Flyers seem ready to return to their bullying ways of the mid-'70s.

But what if Edmonton keeps winning? Says Dryden, "In the NHL you gear yourself to beat the champion. If the Oilers continue to be successful, more teams will begin to pattern themselves after them."

"How fast the game changes depends on how we do," says Barry Fraser, Edmonton's chief scout.

This season, the Oilers should do well, making it a great year for important changes.



The Isles (far left) hit hard; Gretzky (99) and the Oilers are deft; the Flyers (above) may play rough again.



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[See caption above.]