TORONTO - On the first day of the NHL's research and development camp, hockey certainly looked different. But there's no reason for fans to expect any drastic change to the game.
There wasn't exactly a flood of support for having just one faceoff dot in the centre of the offensive zone or starting play with the puck already on the ice and the referee blowing his whistle.
Instead, some of the more subtle changes seemed to appeal to the general managers in attendance at the Toronto Maple Leafs practice facility.
Chief among them is a hybrid icing rule that is designed to reduce dangerous collisions resulting from a race for the puck. The proposed change gives linesmen the ability to make a ruling on whether a play will be called icing based on which player reaches the faceoff dot first—rather than who is first to touch the puck.
"Anything we can do with icing to protect our players we should do," Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray said Wednesday. "If the linesman can make the call earlier, then obviously it will benefit the good players in our league."
Organizers were so interested in the rule that it became a last-minute addition to the afternoon session because they felt they didn't see enough of it in the morning. NHL vice-president Brendan Shanahan, who organized the research and development camp, acknowledged that the proposed change was "gaining a lot of interest and traction."
A similar rule is currently in place in the United States Hockey League and a linesman from that developmental circuit was on the ice to make sure it was called correctly. Over the years, several NHLers have been injured after crashing into the end boards while racing to touch the puck—including former Minnesota Wild defenceman Kurtis Foster, who missed most of the 2008-09 season with a broken leg.
Ken Hitchcock is coaching one of the teams participating in the camp and believes the hybrid icing rule belongs in the NHL.
"It's a competitive and safe way of playing," said Hitchcock. "You would almost completely eliminate those big injuries that come and yet you're still creating the competition for (the puck). ... For me, it's a real good idea.
"There's no worse feeling than what happened to a guy like Kurtis Foster."
The NHL is aiming to be proactive by staging the research and development camp so there will be no rush to try and institute a series of changes. The league's GMs aren't scheduled to meet again until November and they typically draft new rules that must ultimately be approved by the competition committee and board of governors.
One thing they may discuss down the line is having goalies change ends for overtime—leaving teams a long way from their bench when they're in their own zone. A number of odd-man rushes were created when the change was made during the afternoon session.
"It really opens the game up," said Dave King, an assistant coach with the Phoenix Coyotes who is helping out at the camp. "When you have a long change, if you make any mistake with the puck, it's dire straits. So I think that's one that the NHL will look at because I think it's got good potential to open up the overtime."
Other changes that drew some positive reviews were the use of blue-lines that are twice as wide—giving defenceman more chance to hold the puck in the offensive zone—and shallower nets that left more room behind the goal.
Among the more unusual things on display Wednesday:
—Using 3-on-3 and 2-on-2 in overtime.
—Altering the ice surface to have three faceoff dots, one in each zone, down the centre of the rink.
—Placing red mesh in the nets rather than white to give shooters a better look at openings.
—Having the puck already on the ice for a faceoff, which is started by a whistle rather than the traditional puck drop.
One of the complaints GMs had with the variation on the faceoff is that it seemed to remove some of the battle that comes with taking a draw.
"You lose the intensity and the strength," said Florida Panthers GM Dale Tallon. "There's got to be more to it than just finesse. Guys are going to cheat on that anyway.
"I just like the way it is."
There is a nothing ventured, nothing gained feel about the camp. The 33 top-ranked prospects in attendance certainly have no complaints about participating in a simulated games that include some fairly radical modifications.
Above all, the NHL hopes to avoid getting stagnant.
"If you're not tinkering and you're not thinking, you're going to end up stalling," said Hitchcock. "These are some really creative ideas. I think there's two, maybe three (changes), that have merit immediately—just small things that really make the game better."