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NHL's R&D camp makes upcoming World Summit look like hot air


It's not as incomprehensible as the Rules of Golf or even what constitutes a sand trap at Whistling Straits, but it is a bit confusing that there are two hockey summits on the calendar this month in Toronto.

The two-day Research and Development Camp sponsored by the NHL and hosted by newly appointed vice president Brendan Shanahan, which wraps up today (Aug. 19), examines a variety of potential rule changes, ice surfaces and "tweaks" of the game.

The other event is the brewery-sponsored World Hockey Summit, first conceived by Hockey Canada and the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), that runs from August 23 to 27. It is said to be bringing all hockey-playing worlds together to "dissect the current state of hockey and collaboratively identify and address key concerns and issues facing the game today. The Summit's theme, Global Teamwork Promoting the Growth of the Game, will be brought to life through interactive seminars, presentations, and discussions led by the who's who of the global hockey world from the IIHF, the NHL, Hockey Canada, USA Hockey, and the CHL."

One event is designed to keep the NHL game, which has made great strides since the 2004-05 lockout, heading in the right direction. The other -- from this writer's perspective -- is little more than a dog and pony show designed to pat the International Olympic Committee and the IIHF on the back for their efforts regarding the state of the game as well as sing the praises of the 2010 Olympic Ice Hockey Tournament in Vancouver. There will be some participation at the summit by Hockey Canada and USA Hockey regarding the development of youth hockey and the prevention of serious injuries (not at all a bad thing), some discussion of the fate of the women's game, and some prattling about "worldwide issues facing the game." The NHL will be there, but according to several sources it's a grudging participation, a "better to be there than not" approach.

One event put the top 33 prospects in North America on the ice for two days playing games in which new things were tried and, later, evaluated by most of the best minds in the NHL. It is a work product session of the highest order.

The other event is four days of talk in which participants (meaning those who would like to listen) will be charged $450 Canadian to attend. Accommodations are for you to find, but be aware that Toronto is one of the most expensive cities in the world and this is the peak tourist season.

If you sense a bias on my part, well, you are certainly more perceptive than, say, Dustin Johnson, but there is merit to the argument. At the R&D, they aren't just talking about the game, they're looking at it and experimenting with it. Though not many "agenda items" are likely to make it into the game for the upcoming season, things are getting a real look from hockey people, many of whom are in a position to eventually make them happen.

"The focus is on getting the hockey world to examine some things," Shanahan said Wednesday at the opening of the R&D clinic at the Toronto Maple Leafs' practice facility. "We're happy with the way the NHL game is. But you shouldn't wait until something is broken to examine it."

That wasn't always the way of a league that for too long believed in the "it ain't broke if we say it's not" approach, fans and players be damned. The camp put together most of the top prospects available for the 2011 NHL Entry Draft. (Kids are easier to guide, as well as cheaper and easier to get than NHL players who are still enjoying their summer). The kids are being guided by two elite coaches, Ken Hitchcock and Dave King, and are playing live games with new rules. Perhaps most importantly, virtually every team in the NHL has had a representative watching, taking notes and making suggestions. NHL administrators as well as the Professional Hockey Writers Association members attended. The buzz could lead to real on-ice change.

After just the first day, the consensus among GMs and coaches on hand was that there may be merit to the concept of a hybrid icing rule that could help limit serious injuries. The rule being explored was something akin to a half-step, allowing the referee or one of the on-ice officials to decide when contending players reach the faceoff circle dot if one has a clear edge in getting to the puck. It's not a perfect solution, but it goes a step toward no-touch icing (something that many in the game advocate as a way to cut down on serious collisions along the end boards).

The NHL's current rule allows one player to systematically target the other for a big hit rather than make an attempt to play the puck. If an attacking player is clearly going to get to it first, icing is waved off and play continues. If it's the defending player, the whistle is blown immediately to avoid the chance of collision. Ties go to the defender. It may still need to be tweaked, but the hybrid has a chance to make its way into the rule book, perhaps as soon as the 2011-12 season. It's already in place in the USHL and some players from that league were on the ice to show how it worked.

Though not drawing anywhere near universal approval, some in attendance liked what they saw regarding a change in regular-season overtime. In the R&D clinic, OT sessions started with three minutes of four-on-four play, followed by three minutes of three-on-three and then three of two-on-two. There wasn't much support for the two-on-two, but there appeared to be an uptick in scoring when the teams played three aside. The idea is to take away a tactic where teams most often send out more defensive-minded players in OT with the idea of getting to the shootout where coaches have more control of strategy and, conceivably, the outcome. The number of games proceeding to the shootout rose substantially last season, causing some general managers to warn that changes were needed to end more games with a team-wide competition rather than a skills exhibition between shooters and goalies.

Other "experiments" included not allowing a team that went offside to change players after the whistle, with the faceoff going back to their end; not allowing teams killing a penalty to ice the puck; a rink configuration where the surface would have just three faceoff circles -- one at center ice and one in each zone on a line with the center ice circle; wider bluelines to decrease the number of offsides calls without shrinking the offensive zone; a variety of penalties for players who are repeatedly tossed from the faceoff circle; limiting the depth of the goal cage to provide more room for plays behind the net; expanding the size of the crease so goalies become less of a target for impact by attacking forwards; and a second referee located off the playing surface.

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That's an impressive agenda. Contrast it with World Summit's topics: Player Skill Development Initiatives, Addressing the Developmental Shortcomings in Youth Hockey, The Impact of European Migration to the Canadian Junior Ranks, Evaluation of the 2010 Olympics in Vancouver, Growing the Competitive Environment in International Women's Hockey, Does Hockey Need a Common Rule Book.

There are other items and some, including keeping young players safe and interested in the game, certainly merit attention and discussion, but there's a common denominator that the aummit seems to overlook: The game is good. Making it better doesn't require talk as much as making it fun, fast, entertaining and something that kids and women want to play and stay with for as long as they can. The simplest, most effective way to do that is to look at and then initiate the appropriate changes, whether they be in the ultracompetitive NHL and world scene, a Thursday night beer league, or a women-only game at the club, college or even pro level if such a market could be developed.

Talk can be a good thing and, occasionally, something good can come of it, but the view from here is that while the NHL is looking at taking action, the rest of the hockey world is looking at making a buck and, in the case of the Vancouver Games, taking a bow.

Truthfully, what do you really expect to get from that aside from free beer and a serious amount of other people's money?

NHL Deputy Commissioner Bill Daly this week played yet another intriguing card in the ongoing game of what NHL contracts are being looked at and why. At the same time, he avoided showing his full hand.

Daly on Wednesday told house organ that the contracts of Marian Hossa, Chris Pronger, Roberto Luongo and Marc Savard remain under "investigation" as they may have been designed to circumvent NHL rules in the Collective Bargaining Agreement. And though Daly wasn't quoted directly, the article stated that "there is no time limit to the investigations."

That could be perceived as a carefully crafted way of keeping the pressure not only on those four players as to whether they are valid deals even though the NHL registered them, but on the bidding for free-agent forward Ilya Kovalchuk and any upcoming deals that the league might feel are being made in an attempt to ease the salary cap hit on the signing team by front-loading the money for the player's best years and reducing it at a time when he might be considering retirement or a buyout.

By not putting a time limit on the investigation, the NHL holds something of a hammer over the players whose signed agreements could be "de-registered." It also creates a sense of uncertainty as to how far teams and players might be able to go in hopes of avoiding a league rejection.

"If there was a determination that there was circumvention there are a whole host of alternatives in terms of how we approach it and a whole host of remedies in terms of what can be ordered," Daly told "De-registration of the contract is one potential remedy, but it's not the only one. I don't want to get into hypotheticals. The investigations aren't complete, and we haven't made any determinations as to how we proceed with respect to those."

The article went on to say that the investigations are being done "by an independent third-party professional we hired." The players are able to play under the contracts because they were registered by the league. Kovalchuk, who had his 17-year, $102 million contract with the New Jersey Devils rejected via an arbitrator's decision, is not.

"We're at a different stage now that the contracts have been registered, so there is a different procedure that we would have to employ if we ever wanted to do anything with these contracts, and I don't want to create the perception or expectation that we are," Daly said. "It's just that these contracts continue to be under investigation."

Daly told the network that he had "some ideas" as to how to rectify the contract issues. He didn't offer specifics, but did say that none of his ideas involve adding term limits to the collective bargaining process.

"I don't view the issue in (the Kovalchuk) case really to be term limits on contracts," Daly said. "I think a lot of people misunderstood exactly what was at issue, and whether or not we seek term limits on contracts as part of our collective bargaining process. We may, but I don't think that really directly impacted this. What our concern in this case was the ability to tack on what we consider to be illusory years in a contract that neither party had an expectation would be performed as a way to reduce the average annual value of the player's contract and to create more payroll room."

It remains to be seen if Savard, Luongo, Hossa and Pronger investigations will lead to action against their contracts.