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A sound tactic but what a bore

Jim Kernaghan, Free Press Sports Columnist   2003-05-09 11:31:30  

Almost a half-century after Hap Day invented it, it crosses hockey lips that are either curled in disdain or pursed by pouting -- the trap.

Sounds like a deep pit with stakes at the bottom, and in a sense it is. It's driving a stake through the heart of more entertaining hockey.

Day, a Toronto Maple Leafs coach, came up with the neutral-zone "wall" to put the brakes on the Montreal Canadiens' firewagon back in the 1950s. Nowadays, everyone uses it in some form or another, and the result has been a Stanley Cup playoff spring of blunted offences.

In the U.S., the trap has sent TV ratings through a trap door. This spring could mark the absolute lowest-rated prime-time sports broadcasting in American TV history, and could actually underwhelm pro bowling, which outdrew the NHL on ESPN this season. ABC is averaging a 1.1 rating for Saturday matinee broadcasts, 21 per cent down from last season.

A good part of the reason is the neutral-zone trap, strategically clever but esthetically numbing. Even the high-scoring Ottawa Senators, a team with no shortage of attack, used it to defuse the tiring Philadelphia Flyers and advance to the Eastern Conference final. That'll be against the titans of trap, the New Jersey Devils. Will it be exciting? Sure, but not as exciting as a flow of end-to-end rushes.

Essentially, the trap is designed to consistently outman the opposition in the neutral zone and cut off pass routes to either send the puck-carrier curling back or force a bad pass that can be pounced on for a lightning strike in transition.

It's a sound tactic but as boring as another Don Cherry rant.

So, what to do about it? Leagues hesitate to alter their rules but there is plenty of precedent for the NHL to have a look at restoring the kind of hockey all fans appreciate. And all fans in a U.S.-dominated league has to include those in the U.S., whose television numbers have been almost obliterated.

Widen the rinks to Olympic-sized proportions? Great idea that's been bandied about for years, one that would answer a couple of problems.

It would open up the ice for everyone, especially the superior skaters, and help the league tap a new source of players -- the small, fast player teams won't even look at nowadays.

That costs money. You may be sure some NHL owners would balk even after watching the speed and creativity engendered by large rinks at the current world championship.

Can you imagine the perennially sold-out Toronto Maple Leafs cutting out rows of Air Canada Centre seats to accommodate 15 more feet of ice width (100 feet, instead of 85)?

Plan B is nothing new, but that doesn't mean it isn't worth a closer look. A lot of people are impressed by the openness of four-on-four overtimes and also wouldn't mind seeing an experiment in regulation time.

That, too, would widen the talent pool to include the small speedster. Everyone knows a rink surface established a century ago for smaller players is too crowded for the giants of today. It might even create a re-think of the two-referee system.

There is a natural hesitancy to tinker with tradition, but it has been done before when deemed necessary.

Hockey teams, don't forget, once had a sixth skater -- the rover -- and that was done away with. Heck, there was a time when you couldn't pass the puck forward over your own blue-line, and passing it backward resulted in a penalty.

It's worthwhile to remember the NBA was heading for the dumpster until some critical rule changes, especially the ban on zone defences (which was lifted this season). The tinkering, along with rising stars to take advantage of the new legislation, resulted in soaring popularity.

A further thought, if four-on-four hockey is tried: Consider revamping the penalty structure. Instead of a player going off for one of the lesser fouls such as holding, let the opposing team put a fifth man on instead.

Copyright © The London Free Press 2001,2002,2003

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