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For Brendan Shanahan, one of the architects of change, the view from ice level, two-and-half-years after the lockout, looks pretty good. Not perfect, but considering where the NHL was in the not-too-distant past, not bad at all.

"What I like most is people don't call it the new NHL anymore, they're used to it now," Shanahan was saying Wednesday morning, as his New York Rangers began a swing through Western Canada. "Every once in a while you'll see an old playoff series on that hockey channel. You just sit and watch that now and it's 'oh my god, look at that hook, look at that guy getting mobbed or held.'

"As much as players look and laugh at the way goalies used to play the position, now they also look and laugh at the clutching and grabbing. It's just such a thing of the past.

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"For every frustrating penalty that is maybe a little iffy, players would absolutely go bananas if they went back to the old way."

Along with a handful of others, Shanahan became the unofficial conscience of the NHL in 2004-05 at a time when owners and players were going to war over the financial future of the game. It was Shanahan who convened a group during the lockout to debate the merits of the on-ice product, a "summit" that ultimately led to the formation of the competition committee, in which players were given a real say in the direction the game was supposed to take.

Originally, the competition committee members were scheduled to serve three-year terms and as recently as last year's All-Star Game, Shanahan was making noises about stepping down and letting a new generation of players take over.

However, when Paul Kelly, the new executive director of the players' association, made his stop in New York to visit with the Rangers as part of his 30-team tour of the league, he asked Shanahan to stay on for another year at least in a transitional role.

At that point, the competition committee may morph into a new entity, perhaps as part of a larger overall initiative by the players to get more involved in the business of hockey.

According to Shanahan, there is both "a willingness and an openness" on the part of the NHLPA to try new things to grow the game, from playing outdoor games and regular-season games in Europe to playing on Christmas again, things he says "players in the past wouldn't discuss with the NHL.

"Paul Kelly brought it up in our meeting and said, 'I know this is something that traditionally you won't even talk about, but if it does grow the game, would you consider it?' And every player raised their hand and said, 'if it does grow the game, yes, we will.'"

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As the NHL reaches the midpoint of the 07-08 season this weekend, virtually every team in both conferences remains in the hunt for a playoff spot. The Rangers entered Wednesday's action sixth overall - extraordinarily, all five Atlantic Division teams would have qualified for the playoffs had they started today - but only six points separated the No. 2 New Jersey Devils from the No. 13 Atlanta Thrashers. Apart from the two teams at the top, the Detroit Red Wings and the Ottawa Senators, parity appears to have been achieved, something Shanahan didn't necessarily see as a lasting trend.

"I think fans still want great teams and I think it can still be done," he said. "Parity is good, but as revenues go up, you'll see more of an advantage for the larger-market teams that can spend to the limit."

Shanahan saw improvement in the overall quality of the officiating, saying: "There were two problems with the officiating. Right away, they doubled them (with the advent of the two-referee system) - and No. 2, we threw a whole bunch of new rules at them right when they had a huge expansion. They're getting better.

"They are getting better."

Mostly, though, he saw an influx of younger players coming into the NHL that didn't have to deal with the rodeo-on-ice that preceded the lockout. This, he believed, was the most valuable development of all because it acknowledged something that should have been self-evident all along: The notion that if "someone bought a ticket, they need to be entertained.

"I just see this crop of young players coming into the NHL who have been allowed to play junior hockey and midget hockey with skill. They're coming into the NHL with great hands. They're not getting to the blue line or red line and just dumping it in. Guys like (Jonathan) Toews and (Patrick) Kane and a whole host of others are doing these great things with their sticks.

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"I probably didn't have the nerve to do them as a rookie simply because I was afraid of what my teammates would say if it didn't work."

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