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Ryan Kessler of the Vancouver Canucks shows off the team's Heritage Classic jersey (Vancouver Canucks)

Ryan Kessler of the Vancouver Canucks shows off the team's Heritage Classic jersey

(Vancouver Canucks)

Roy MacGregor

Return to old rules would make NHL Heritage Classic more realistic Add to ...

"Awesome.”

Henrik Sedin looked surprised, then delighted at the suggestion.

“That would be awesome,” he said Thursday morning, as his Vancouver Canucks prepared to meet the Ottawa Senators. “They should put it back in our game.”

Sedin was responding to one reporter’s suggestion that perhaps the Heritage Classic in Vancouver on March 2 might involve more than replica jerseys – which should, of course, be called replica sweaters.

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Why not play the national game much as it was in 1915?

The idea, after all, is to replicate the 1915 Stanley Cup playoff series between the Vancouver Millionaires of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association and the original Ottawa Senators of the National Hockey Association.

The game will be played outdoors – though, in fact, the professional game was never played outdoors, meaning there can really be no such thing as these “Winter Classics” and “Heritage Classics” NHL marketing so adores. No matter, it’s a fun idea embraced by players, fans and replica jersey manufacturers alike. And the games have been hugely successful.

To introduce the new/old jerseys to a packed news conference carried live – this is Canada, remember – Senators president Cyril Leeder talked about how whereas today’s team would take only five hours to fly to Vancouver, in 1915 it took the Senators five days by Pullman car.

The two teams met in a best-of-five series and the upstart West Coasters whipped the dynasty Sens 6-2, 8-3 and 12-3 in late March of 1915 at Denman Arena.

Games 1, 3 and, if necessary, 5 were slated to be played under PCHA rules – which allowed limited forward passing in the neutral zone, while Games 2 and, if necessary, 4 would be under NHA rules (which two years later became the rules of the new NHL).

The old rules that so intrigued Sedin, captain of the modern Vancouver Millionaires – 2013-14 team payroll projected by Capgeek.com to be $63,152,134 (U.S.) – are those applied to the goaltenders of that time.

According to A Great Game: The Forgotten Leafs and the Rise of Professional Hockey, the new book by new author Stephen J. Harper: “The goalie had a particularly tough job. He could not hold the puck with his hands and had to remain standing at all times. Falling or kneeling to block a shot constituted a penalty – which had to be served by the goalie himself.”

Sedin would like that just fine if they put it back into today’s low-scoring game.

The forward pass is another matter. The Ottawa players found it hopelessly confusing in Vancouver in 1915. While the PCHA allowed limited forward passing between two blue lines painted into the ice, the NHA had no such thing, forcing players to use drop passes and lateral passes.

(The NHL did not go for forward passing in the neutral zone until 1918, and it took another nine years to allow it in the defensive zone as well. It was not until 1930 the league approved the forward pass for all three zones.)

The current NHL master of the old, once-dominant drop pass is Jason Spezza, the Sens captain oft maligned in conservative Ottawa for his creative playmaking that runs the risk of ending up on opposition sticks. But even he wouldn’t wish to go back to that old rule for the 2014 Heritage Classic.

If you could toss passes backward, Spezza says, the advantage would be all Vancouver Canucks “because the Sedins [Henrik and twin brother Daniel] would just tick-tack back and forth.”

The NHL, obviously, survived and the PCHA did not. But it’s well worth noting that change is not only possible, but can be very good for the game.

The league was started up by the Patrick family. Joseph Patrick had been a lumber baron in the East and moved his family, including hockey-mad sons Lester and Frank, to Nelson, B.C., in 1911. The boys talked their father into starting up a three-team league and building the state-of-the-art Denman rink, with the game’s first artificial ice, for the unheard of sum of $175,000.

According to hockey historians Ron Boileau and Philip Wolf in Total Hockey, the Patricks loved new ideas for the game, bringing in the forward pass, allowing goaltenders to go down to make saves, bluelines, crease lines, putting numbers on players’ sweaters and inventing the penalty shot.

The Patricks were major tinkerers.

Their idea of the game of hockey is the one we all dream of.

“For genuine thrills,” the Victoria Times reported after the first game in the new league, “hockey has every other game faded to a shadow. It is the swiftest exhibition of skill in the sporting world.”

One other point about the “classic” game the NHL is now trying to honour: no coaches. Each team had a manager, but since there was no substitution, there was no need for a head coach, three assistant coaches, a goaltending coach, video coach, strength and conditioning coach …

Neither Sedin nor Spezza commented on the possibility of that idea ever coming back.

Follow me on Twitter: @RoyMacG

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