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BOWMAN FAVORS SOME RADICAL CHANGES TO REVIVE HOCKEY

uring the 2003-04 season, way back when the NHL staged nightly events across North America called "hockey games," league bigwigs summoned the greatest coach in the history of professional sports to help spice up a game that had become less appealing than your average hangnail.

Scotty Bowman coached longer than most active players have been alive. He has a Stanley Cup for every finger and a thumb, most of which were won when the NHL was a simpler but more riveting league. He's 71 years old now, so you might think he's a traditionalist, but his ideas suggest he's 71 going on 17.

Bowman's newer, better, fresher NHL would effectively turn hockey upside down and, in some ways, reinvent the sport while restoring its skill. Folks, that might be a good thing.

It would include four-on-four for the final five minutes of regulation, three-on-three in overtime, shootouts, less goalie equipment, more scoring chances and much more forechecking. He would wipe out the red line, but not altogether. He would adopt some rules from the American Hockey League, but not all.

"I know when they go to shootouts in the American League, the fans stand up," Bowman said. "They're going to have to be fan-friendly initially because that's the trick to getting them back. Franchises that drew a lot of people, they won't have much of a problem. A lot of places need new fans. That's going to be a tough chore."

The game he once knew was played at the high school level Friday night during the Scotty Bowman Showcase in HSBC Arena. It was a reminder that hockey can still be played the way it was designed. It also reaffirmed that those days are gone in the NHL, where players are too big and too fast to bring back hockey from a past generation.

Bowman's radical, progressive proposals might sacrifice the NHL's sanctity and perhaps leave others to question his sanity. Before dismissing his ideas, however, remember that Bowman more than anybody sees the game through analytical eyes that allow him to calculate cause and effect, absent emotional ties to the past.

Whom would you rather trust to fix the game, the greatest coach in history or, say, Gary Bettman & Co.? Now that we have that settled, let's listen to the man.

For starters, Bowman wants to add two red lines, not simply remove one.

Bowman's NHL would include a thin red line drawn across the top of the faceoff circles, an idea he borrowed from ringette, a game in Canada using rings and sticks without blades. Any passes starting north of that line could travel to the far blue line without being whistled for a two-line pass. Passes starting south of that line must be touched before the red line or a two-line pass would be called.

Granted, it's confusing at first, but it makes sense. It would reduce the dreaded neutral-zone trap's effectiveness because teams would be more aggressive in the attacking zone but more vulnerable to the long pass. It would force teams to forecheck more because they would want to keep the puck inside the new line, not just the blue line. It would create more scoring chances, which means more excitement.

If that's the case, hallelujah, praise Scotty.

Simply removing the red line, Bowman believes, would merely make teams more adept at dumping the puck. It can actually become pingpong on ice with fewer chances and more pucks being flipped into the air. There's a misconception that teams playing without the red line don't trap. They do. They simply move it back.

"If you dump the red line altogether, you're going to have coaches teaching a defensive style," Bowman said. "You're going to tell the defensemen to dump the puck off the glass as hard as they can with your forwards playing high. You gotta get the red line out, for sure, but it should come out in my modification. My red line comes out where you want it out. That's what I'm trying to sell."

My solution is keeping the existing red line and removing both blue lines. It would eliminate the neutral-zone and, thus, the trap.

But if he's selling, I'm buying. Reduce goalie equipment, he says. "The catching glove is a basket," he said. Implement tag-up offsides. "That prevents whistles and keeps the play moving," he said.

Nets? Keep 'em. Ties? Chuck 'em.

Scotty, whatever you say.

For years, he thought hockey was fine when games ended in a deadlock, but he also understands that fans nowadays want a winner and loser. You don't have ties in baseball or basketball. They have been eliminated in football at the high school and college levels and are rare in the pros.

"Things have changed," he said.

And so has Bowman, which is why he says the NHL should play four-on-four for the final five minutes of regulation and play three-on-three if overtime is needed. If games still aren't decided, Bowman believes the teams should move toward a shootout using five forwards who accumulated the most ice time.

"My reasoning for three-on-three is that there wouldn't be many whistles," he said. "You would have scoring chances. You would have a good chance of breaking the ties. It wouldn't take long to play five minutes of three-on-three. If they wanted to have a shootout after that, it wouldn't bother me."

If it doesn't bother sports' greatest coach, why should it bother anybody else? Bowman wants any rule changes to be tested, of course, so he suggested playing under his rules in the AHL or, perhaps, hold scrimmages using NHL-level talent.

Certainly, a few twirls with his rules wouldn't hurt. What does the NHL have to lose?
e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com