The good old hockey game returns, but is it the same? | VailDaily.com
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The good old hockey game returns, but is it the same?

Ian Cropp
Daily file photoIan CroppCroppaganda
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It may have been hard to notice, but the NHL opened its season Wedneday night. After what I like to call a brief sojourn due to over inflated egos, salaries and an Enronesque business plan, the fastest sport in the world is back.Much like you can recognize your high school crush at your 25-year high school reunion, you can recognize the game of hockey. But, upon further review, you know that things have changed, either for better or worse.For bragging rights to your friends, I’m going to say the game is beautiful, unmarried, and without kids.With the major rule chances, the game has returned to a more pure state. Scores will be closer to a baseball game than a soccer match. Gone is the MLB’s have and have-not’s . Say hello to salary caps and NFL parity.If you have the Outdoor Life Network, or a special cable package, you can watch the season unfold. If you don’t, you may have to sift through the mess at Daily Sports Editor Chris Freud’s apartment to watch the games. I think the OLN made a good decision to broadcast games in what looks to be the most exciting hockey in over 15 years.Offense

Already teams are scoring more goals, and this what will happen all season. Finally the NHL has ceased to cry wolf, and has finally followed through on its commitment to call obstruction penalties. For the first half of the season, a larger percentage of the 60-minute games will be played by special teams. This works to the advantage of teams with skilled players and superior coaching. By midseason, expect backchecking forwards and oafish defenseman to let a speedy Paul Kariya skate unfettered.Speaking of oafish defenseman, any team with older, stay-at-home blue liners may opt to bring up more mobile defenseman from the minors. Puckhandling defenseman will take the place of defensive forwards on the franchise depth chart.Without two-line passes, there will be more odd-man rushes and breakaways. Goalies will need to be more active in cutting off angles and coming out of the net to challenge shooters. This, along with shootouts and smaller equipment, may put goalies on the injured reserve as often as NFL quarterbacks.Trickle downThe $39-million salary cap has a broader effect than most realize. Teams like the New York Rangers (2003-2004 payroll of $77 million) that struggled to break .500 before the cap will need to rely on scouting for once. Not only are teams in trouble, but some role players may be better off switching sports, to say, boxing.

Limited cap and roster room may spell and end for the ever popular enforcer. Much like in the old days, the scorers will have to do the dirty work. When Wayne Gretzky played his first game, he had to drop the gloves. Don’t expect Sidney Crosby to do the same, but be prepared for the reinstitution of the Gordie Howe hat trick (a goal, an assist, and a fight).Some teams, like defending Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning have opted to carry a mere 20 players on their roster. This could be a problem come later in the season. Six defenseman used to be superfluous for a team, but that was before uber-conditioned athletes and high-impact body checks. Mix that with an Olympic break midseason, and there will be some skating wounded come April.Big market teams may hate the salary cap, but small market teams are happier than George Steinbrenner on a free-agent shopping spree. In the 2003-2004 season, the two Stanley Cup finalists, Tampa Bay and Calgary, had a combined payroll of less than that of the Detroit Red Wings (Tampa Bay, $33.5 million, Calgary, $35.2 million and Detroit, $77.8 million). Already, some teams are pushing the cap limit (New Jersey, Toronto), while others have little squeeze room for trades and acquisitions come crunch time (I’m still available, but my salary needs to be more than the undisclosed sum I make at the Daily).Can I get a roster?More than 200 players changed teams in the off season(s). So now, Peter Forsberg will be wearing orange and black for the Flyers, while Nikoli Khabibulin will be in black and red for the Blackhawks. Some teams, like my beloved Buffalo Sabres, had a slow offseason, making fewer moves than I made when playing Gary Kasparov in online chess.

Roster changes won’t effect team chemistry, as some NHL players had the honor of centering a line with Pierre and Jean-Luc of the QDAHL (Quebec drinking and hockey league) last year.The Canadian economy, is sure to rebound with this season. (Little known fact: In the Moose Jaw Conference of 1925, the Canadian dollar was pegged to the price of a hockey puck). On Monday, the Ontario Premier, Dalton McGunity, lauded the return of hockey and another Canadian icon, hockey commentator Don Cherry. He also picked the Ottawa Senators to win the Stanley Cup. I love hockey, and would adopt Don Cherry as my Canadian godfather, but I can’t say the Senators are going to win the Stanley Cup Championship. I don’t know who is going to win, but my best bet is that the team will come from the Prince of Wales, I mean, Northwest division. Oh, and that team won’t be the Avalanche. I’m no John Nash, but Patrice Brisebois plus Pierre Turgeon doesn’t equal Peter Forsberg. Enjoy the good old hockey game.Sports Writer Ian Cropp can be reached at 949-0555, ext. 608, or icropp@vaildaily.com.Vail, Colorado


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