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Players cross the wider blue line tested during an on-ice session at the 2010 NHL Research, Development and Orientation Camp on Aug. 18, 2010, in Toronto. (Matthew Manor/Matthew Manor/Getty Images)
Players cross the wider blue line tested during an on-ice session at the 2010 NHL Research, Development and Orientation Camp on Aug. 18, 2010, in Toronto. (Matthew Manor/Matthew Manor/Getty Images)

Hockey camp experimenting with rule changes Add to ...

It's a hockey rink like no other.

The bluelines are two feet wide. The nets are shallower. At the faceoff circle, the puck sits on the ice until the referee blows his whistle.

Brendan Shanahan doesn't look like a mad scientist, but the former player-turned-executive is conducting some experiments with the NHL's version of the game in an effort to continue to improve the way hockey is played at its highest level.

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Shanahan, who became the NHL's vice-president of hockey and business affairs last year after he retired as a player, is the driving force behind the league's first ever research and development camp at a rink this week in Toronto. He's also become the NHL's point man on innovations in the game after his "Shanahan summit" during the 2004-05 lockout resulted in several widely lauded rule changes.

"My focus is on getting the hockey world to examine some things," Shanahan said Wednesday at the Toronto Maple Leafs' practice facility where the camp is taking place. "We're happy with the way the NHL game is. But you shouldn't wait until something is broken to examine it."

The "guinea pigs" are a group of teenage players who will be eligible for the 2011 NHL entry draft. They've been drafted to demonstrate a variety of different strategies, rules and even equipment. Ken Hitchcock and Dave King, both veteran NHL coaches, were brought in to run the players' benches.

"I think if you're not tinkering and not thinking, you're going to end up stalling," Hitchcock said.

And the league is listening. An influential group of NHL general managers, scouts and executives, from commissioner Gary Bettman to deputy commissioner Bill Daly, turned out to watch the experiment unfold.

After Day 1, the consensus among the GMs and coaches is that a new twist on the icing rule aimed at putting an end to serious injuries has the best chance of finding its way into the NHL rule book. Almost 30 variations of existing rules or new rules were demonstrated in scrimmages. But only the icing experiment drew universal praise.

Proponents of no-touch icing, which is the standard in international hockey, say the NHL should adopt it to prevent the injuries - many of them career-ending - that often result from the race for the puck. The traditionalists argue the NHL's approach, in which the defensive player must beat an offensive player to touch the puck to draw an icing call, keeps one more competitive aspect in the game.

A compromise approach the league called hybrid icing was quick to draw approval.

"Anything we can do with icing to protect our players we should do," said Ottawa Senators GM Bryan Murray, who calls himself a traditionalist. "If the linesman can make the call earlier, then obviously it will benefit the good players in our league.

The hybrid icing call puts the onus on the linesmen to determine whether icing will be called with no contact. When the puck is fired down the ice, the call is decided by the first player to reach the faceoff dots in the defensive zone. If an attacking player is first, icing is waved off and play continues. If it is a defending player, the whistle is blown immediately to avoid the chance of a collision. Ties go to the defending player.

The rule is already in use in the United States Hockey League, which provided some of the players for the development camp.

"It's proven to be very effective, I think, in the USHL," said Buffalo Sabres GM Darcy Regier. "It's got a good track record and it's preventative."

Also drawing some praise was a twist on the NHL's regular-season overtime. The session started with three minutes of four-on-four play, followed by three minutes of three-on-three and then three minutes of two-on-two. There was more offence created in the three-on-three session but the two-on-two looked gimmicky. Murray agreed.

However, Hitchcock, who is even more renowned for his love of defensive hockey than Murray, disagreed. He thinks NHL coaches have managed to slow down regular-season overtime because they would rather take their chances in the shootout.

"Too many times in our league we have ways of making sure we keep four-on-four a non-scoring event so we get into a shootout," Hitchcock said. "Two-on-two was a little bit gimmicky but when it went three-on-three it was in the net. In the NHL in overtime three-on three, I don't think you would get to many shootouts. It would be in somebody's net for sure."

Other experiments drawing interest were not allowing a team that went offside to change players after the whistle, with the faceoff going back to their end, and not allowing teams killing a penalty to freely ice the puck.

However, this doesn't mean hockey fans should expect to see any of these changes to become NHL law soon.

"We're really just collecting information," Shanahan said. "This is an opportunity for everyone in the hockey world to take notes. There is no hurry, no timetable."

Judging by the reaction of the general managers to the icing experiment, though, look for the hybrid rule to draw a lot of discussion from them at their meetings this season. It wouldn't be a surprise to see it sent to the NHL competition committee as a proposal following the GMs' annual March meetings.

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