Uncalled obstruction fouls have been slowing the flow of NHL
games for years, but why would the league wait until six weeks
remained in the regular season and teams were battling for
playoff berths to institute a long-overdue zero-tolerance
crackdown? Sometimes the NHL bumbles so endearingly it could be
the Mr. Bean of sports.
Obstruction hooking, holding and interference infractions that
referees have winked at for years are suddenly drawing whistles,
and teams are incurring four or five penalties a game that a few
weeks ago wouldn't have been called. "It's a huge adjustment,"
says Flames right wing Theo Fleury. "Guys are used to playing a
The league, which mandated the changes because offensive chances
were down considerably this year, should have waited until next
preseason to order this otherwise welcome crackdown so players
could have adapted during meaningless games. "To change with 20
games left shows a terrible lack of judgment," says Maple Leafs
goalie Glenn Healy. "It's like training a dog. One day he's
allowed on the couch and the next day he's not, and he doesn't
understand why. As players we're the same way."
Thanks to Pavlov we know the players will soon be conditioned to
playing nonobstructive defense, which should vastly improve the
game. Already forwards are finding more room to skate, yielding
more offensive rushes and more entertaining action.
Having redirected its game in midseason, the NHL now must stay
the course and not revert under pressure when teams complain, as
the league did when clubs reacted negatively to a similar
crackdown at the start of the 1995-96 season. Brian Burke, the
NHL's director of hockey operations, vows that zero tolerance
for obstruction will continue through the season and the playoffs.
Of course this is the same Brian Burke who before that last
crackdown said, "Believe me, this is not an experiment. If the
players don't pay attention, teams better have the best penalty
killers in the history of the league." That stronger enforcement
of the rules was abandoned shortly after the season began.
"People's skepticism about us sticking with this is warranted,"
says Burke, "but it will be shown to be misplaced."
Let's hope so. The NHL may have poor timing, but in trying to
abolish obstruction, it has its heart in the right place.
DALLAS OVERCOMES INJURIES
Can't Get A Good Team Down
Twenty Stars have missed more than 200 games combined this
season because of injuries. Ten of them--including all-world
center Mike Modano--have sat out at least nine games. Yet Dallas
was an NHL-best 38-15-10 at week's end.
The Stars continued to see their bench as half full rather than
half empty even after their two best defensemen--captain Derian
Hatcher and alternate captain Sergei Zubov--went on injured
reserve last week. Hatcher had arthroscopic surgery to repair
torn cartilage in his right knee and will miss two to three
weeks. Zubov, who suffered a sprained neck, was unsure about
when he would return.
"This is our biggest challenge yet," says coach Ken Hitchcock.
"But we're resilient. You know, the injuries will let us use
some defensemen in different roles. That could actually help us."
The Invisible Immortal
Last Friday night in Phoenix, less than three months after
scoring his 700th career goal, Mike Gartner was dressed in a
charcoal suit, sitting in a skybox with his feet up, as he
watched his Coyotes teammates sputter to their fifth straight
loss, 5-4 to the Hurricanes. Gartner was a healthy scratch from
all those defeats. "This is the hardest thing I've had to handle
in hockey," said Gartner, who through Sunday had scored 10 goals
in 42 games this season and had increased his career total to
706. "I've been playing on top lines for 18 years."
Seven hundred goals. That breathtaking milestone is the preserve
of four hockey immortals who need no introduction--Wayne
Gretzky, Gordie Howe, Marcel Dionne and Phil Esposito--and
38-year-old Gartner, a finesse player and swift-skating right
wing who can't crack the lineup of an underachieving sub-.500
club. Coyotes coach Jim Schoenfeld, who took over in Phoenix
this season, prefers more physical players.
That Gartner's benching has generated little attention outside
Phoenix reflects the understated quality of Gartner's career.
After he scored number 700 against the Red Wings on Dec. 14,
Detroit captain Steve Yzerman said with surprise, "We didn't
know he was that close." When The Hockey News published its list
of the top 50 players in NHL history in January, Gartner wasn't
Gartner's obscurity comes in part because he has never played in
a Stanley Cup finals. Though he hasn't been a postseason force
(his game is ill-suited to the playoff grind), Gartner has
netted more than 30 goals in 17 seasons--the only player in NHL
history to accomplish that feat. For such unparalleled
consistency he deserves greater accolades and respect than he's
Gartner, a born-again Christian long before he joined the 700
club, may soon be traded for the fifth time in his career. Last
Friday, though, he was sitting in that luxury suite when a group
of Boy Scouts were escorted in. They were pleased to meet
Gartner but just as thrilled to be in the company of two
marginal players--third-string goalie Jimmy Waite and seventh
defenseman Deron Quint. Gartner signed autographs, smiled, shook
hands. One of the Scouts was told that Gartner had scored more
than 700 NHL goals. "Really?" he said. "Wow! That's a lot."
BUST AND BARGAIN
D PAUL COFFEY
1997-98 salary: $2.6 million
The 36-year-old future Hall of Famer is in such decline that
through Sunday he had been scratched 13 times this season.
D LARRY MURPHY
1997-98 salary: $2.6 million
The 37-year-old possible Hall of Famer is going so strong that
he's second on Detroit in minutes played and was a Wings-best
+25 at week's end.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN BIEVER CLOSE CALLS Obstruction rules are being enforced more tightly, freeing stars like Jagr to excel. [Jaromir Jagr being defended in game]
COLOR PHOTO: SCOTT LEVY/B. BENNETT STUDIOS [Paul Coffey]
COLOR PHOTO: BRIAN WINKLER/B. BENNETT STUDIOS [Larry Murphy]