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The Globe and Mail

NHL tinkers with the game at hockey research camp

If you have a bent for constant tinkering, the next two days at the MasterCard Centre for Hockey Excellence here are just what you need. Those in the if-it-ain't-broke-don't-fix-it crowd are best advised to stay away.

This is not to say the now-annual NHL research, development and orientation camp is a showcase for rule changes and rink modifications that will soon be adopted by the league. Indeed, the first experiment going back to the first camp last year has yet to be put in place but there are a couple items back for a second look so it may happen after fresh tries on Wednesday and Thursday.

Not that anyone should look at the camp as the engine for change.

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"We should be evaluating the product at all times," said Toronto Maple Leafs president and general manager Brian Burke, who will be an interested spectator along with most of his peers.

Burke believes the brand of hockey employed by the NHL is "at its highest level now." But he also thinks any outfit that is not constantly looking at ways to improve risks seeing its product decline.

Most of the experiments are aimed at creating more offence, such as not allowing player changes after the whistle for any team that goes offside, not permitting icing for a shorthanded team, all penalties being served in their entirety and a number of variations on faceoffs and delayed-penalty calls.

Based on informal surveys of NHL people, the best candidate for adoption is the hybrid icing rule. This seeks to eliminate the devastating hits defencemen sometimes take in the chase for the puck when forwards blast them into the boards from behind. It's been a regular issue at the annual general managers' meetings for several years.

Once again, the players at the camp – more than 30 of the top prospects for the 2012 NHL entry draft – will experiment with no-touch icing. That is the practice in international hockey, where the whistle is blown as soon as the puck crosses the goal line. But this does not have much support among NHL GMs, who argue the chase to touch the puck first makes the game more exciting.

Under the hybrid rule, the linesmen will have to make a judgment call. When the puck is fired down the ice and icing is indicated, the closest linesman has to determine, by the time the first player reaches the faceoff dot, which player is going to win the race. If it is the attacking player, icing is waved off and the race for the puck continues. If it is the defending player, the whistle is blown to stop the play.

This one received the most attention at the camp last year but did not find its way into the rule book. Burke, who likes the hybrid rule, said the GMs decided boarding penalties could be assessed for any hits that were out of line and, "There is also supplemental discipline, so it's not as if the GMs washed their hands of it."

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Its return for another look indicates some GMs and the NHL's hockey operations department think there may be a place for the hybrid rule.

Burke has a personal stake in the camp. One of the experiments concerns his suggestion, known as the "bear-hug rule." Burke's proposal is to allow a defenceman to wrap an opposing player in his arms when they are within two metres or so of the boards and guide him into the boards instead of propelling him into the boards with a body check.

This is to combat a growing habit by forwards in possession of the puck of turning their backs on defencemen. The ensuing hits have resulted in more than a few concussions.

"You see some frightening hits from behind when forwards are trying to protect the puck," Burke said. "At the GMs' meetings [last March]there was some support. Others said, 'Gee, it's a slippery slope when you allow a player to take his gloves off a stick and grab someone,' so we'll see."

Another idea Burke likes is back for another look. A rectangle will be painted on the ice in front of each players' bench and designated as the change zone. It is used in lacrosse and changes on the fly can only be made when the player coming to the bench is in that zone. Burke said the purpose is to make it easier for the game officials to see which changes are legal and reduce the number of penalties for too many men on the ice.

"Let's face it," he said. "Some teams do cheat."

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