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The message, from the National Hockey League's vice-president of hockey operations, was unequivocal.

On the matter of trying to open up the game of hockey to reward its skilled players, he said: "Believe me, we are not going to relax all the obstruction calls in the regular season. This is not an experiment. If the players don't pay attention, teams better have the best penalty-killers in the history of the league."

Those were the words of former NHL executive Brian Burke, exactly 10 years ago, insisting that this time, for sure, the league was serious about getting obstruction out of the game.

It's no wonder there remains a healthy level of skepticism toward the NHL's latest attempt to police all the hooking, holding and interference that gradually crept into the game over the past 12 to 15 years. Any player with a reasonable amount of NHL experience has heard all these pious pronouncements before and thus, can be forgiven if he's feeling just a hint of déjà vu.

Yesterday, it was up to Steve Walkom, the league's new director of officiating, to talk it up once more -- and to explain during a conference call why this year's crackdown will be more successful and longer-lasting than the others that came before.

Walkom gave a number of predictable responses, but he also made one compelling statement that made you think that perhaps this time there really might be a different outcome.

According to Walkom, it wasn't just the culture of hockey that needed changing, it was also the culture of officiating. Too often in the past, referees tended to "manage" games.

Under pressure from coaches, general managers, fans and media, the watchword, as the season progressed, became "let them play."

Of course, "let them play" as a euphemism, was entirely false. It meant just the opposite.

The "let them play" mentality actually prevented the truly exceptional talents from playing at the highest level -- because they spent most of the game carrying a lesser player on his back or fending off one cross-check after another in front of the net.

Just as NHL players will need to relearn how to play the game and coaches will need to relearn how to instruct the game, referees are also relearning how to call the game.

"Every player is going to have a choice," Walkom said. "His choice is: to commit the foul or not commit the foul.

"I'm not going to predict how many penalties there are going to be in a hockey game. All I'm going to predict is that our guys, collectively, are going to go out there and call the standard as they're directed to do. Whatever the result is, it is."

Walkom said that during the inevitable learning curve that would accompany preseason games, his staff would make themselves available to NHL teams to explain why they called what they called.

"I think it's important that we don't underestimate the players," he said. "They will walk the line right to the edge on any rule because it takes them towards their objective . . . winning the hockey game. But I believe by the time we're done the games in the exhibition season, it will be very clear to them exactly what the standard is."

Unlike his predecessor, Walkom believes that in the era of a two-referee, two-linesman system, familiarity is a good thing. To that end, he intends to partner up pools of eight referees that will spend the year together, off and on, as an unofficial unit, learning to work with each other in a more effective manner.

"People are complaining . . . because they don't believe there is consistency there," Walkom said. "So to get the most out of officials, we thought that if we minimize the number of guys they are working with, they should be able to perform at a higher level."

Last month, the 41-year-old Walkom -- a native of North Bay, Ont., who now lives just outside of Pittsburgh -- retired as an active referee to join the league's executive ranks. He replaced Andy Van Hellemond, who resigned from the post last summer.

Walkom spent this past week running a camp for officials in Fort Erie, Ont., the results of which will be seen when exhibition play around the league begins tomorrow. His will be a fresh voice, one that will be heard frequently in the weeks and months ahead, as the NHL plots a new, more viewer-friendly course for itself.

In the end, according to Walkom, it was the desire of the fans for a more entertaining product that pushed the league harder than ever down this well-trodden path.

"It wasn't just a couple of people that got together and decided these were the things that needed to be done to fix the game," Walkom said. "This was a whole process. It took a year to do. There were players involved and GMs and coaches and officials. But more importantly, they looked at the concerns of the fans, and that's why we are where we are today.

"I think the reason that this time it'll work is because our focus is on the puck carrier. . . . If we can free up the puck carrier in the game, we can create the excitement that the fans have desired for some time."

It is a noble goal, to be sure. If they can only remember that directive as the season moves along, maybe they really can fix things this time around.