Now that the NHL’s players and owners have worked out the terms of their collective bargaining agreement, the long road to restoring hockey’s place among America’s top-tier sports leagues has begun.

The league hopes that leveling the playing field with a salary cap at $39 million and a floor at $21.5 million will allow more of the league’s teams to compete for the Stanley Cup — without spending the $77 million that the Detroit Red Wings did in 2003-04.

While the exact implications of this salary cap remain to be seen until the new season has elapsed, one can imagine that it will change the playing field drastically, likely giving mid-market teams a better chance to compete.

The Chicago Blackhawks, for example, have a long and storied history, but have fallen off the map since their Stanley Cup Finals appearance in 1992, when the average payroll was $10 million. By 2003-04, it had risen to $44 million.

Having spent just $31.6 million in that season, the Blackhawks management realized that instead of being $12 million below the average, they were just $7 million below the cap, giving them a legitimate shot at a return to dominance. General Manager Dale Tallon and his staff have acted accordingly, signing 2004 Stanley Cup Champion goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin, former Detroit Red Wings’ forward and two-time champ Martin Lapointe, seasoned veteran and 1995 Cup winner Jim Dowd and 2004 All-Star defenseman Adrian Aucoin.

Acquisitions like this point to a turnaround for teams like the Blackhawks, allowing for a potential boost in attendance and general fan interest for those teams,

But the NHL needs to capture a more nation-wide audience to be as successful a league as the NFL.

In trying to do this, the changes move from the front office and onto the ice, where the league hopes to create a more fan-friendly, offensive game. One of the biggest additions is the shootout, which is intended to create an electrifying atmosphere for fans. If teams remain tied after the four-on-four overtime period that has existed in recent years, the game will go to a shootout. The idea might not be a hit with all the players, according to Michigan alums and current NHL players Mike Cammalleri, Mike Komisarek and Marty Turco — who all recently attended the Alumni Hockey showcase at Yost Ice Arena. But they all agree that the it will be exciting for the fans.

Another change to the game is the elimination of the two-line pass rule, giving teams the opportunity for quicker transitions. Instead of being limited to short passes through the neutral zone, there is no longer any restriction. The neutral zones have been shrunk by four feet.

Without the two-line pass rule, the game will become more open like it is in college hockey. Turco is happy to see the more open offense reminiscent of his days in Ann Arbor.

“It’ll bring back some glory days from playing here at Michigan,” Turco said. “It will be interesting to see how teams use their goalies. It gives the opportunity for some quick changes and to get out there as quick as possible. But I still need to focus on just stopping the puck.”

This change gives fast and youthful teams the chance to create odd-man rushes, and can even give goaltenders a better opportunity to participate in the offense. Recently departed Michigan goaltender Al Montoya is excited for the change.

“(The lack of blue lines) will give me a better chance to be involved in the offense,” Montoya said. “I definitely like to play the puck a bit.”

While the league has given more freedom to goaltenders with respect to being involved in the offense, there are greater restrictions on them defensively. Goaltenders’ leg pads must now be 11 inches as opposed to 12, and their blockers, trappers and jerseys have been made smaller as well. This will begin to open up lower parts of the net for shooters, which have been essentially off-limits with the large pads and athletic goaltenders of the modern NHL.

The restrictions on goalies don’t end with their pads. The new rules limit the area in which goaltenders can handle the puck behind their net, allowing forwards a better chance to dig pucks out of the corner. Goaltenders will also be penalized for delay of game if they freeze the puck unnecessarily.

These changes to the goalie’s game don’t sit well with many netminders. Turco, for example, is less than thrilled about these new regulations.

“I kind of think it’s a little bogus,” Turco said. “I appreciate what they are trying to do for the game. But in my opinion it’s taking away skill.”

While there are more changes to the game, the theme is the same throughout — more offensive, free-flowing hockey. Bigger attacking zones, no two-line pass, no line changes after icing, no-tolerance policies on obstruction and hooking and stricter penalties for fighting all point to a more open game.

These changes will certainly allow for a more free-flowing game, but their impact on the fan base is hard to gauge. The league hopes that more goals will produce the same success that Major League Baseball enjoyed during the great home run chase of 1998, just four years after a strike that cancelled the World Series.

But the NHL also hopes that the effects will last longer than they did for baseball.

American fans certainly seem to appreciate a more offensive game and might respond positively in the short term, but Turco makes an interesting point about the league’s long-term future.

“We definitely want exciting hockey,” Turco said. “Everyone loves exciting hockey and goals do help. But soccer is the most popular sport in the world.”

The key to soccer’s success — despite being a low-scoring, cerebral and defensive game — has always been the pride that fans have for their local teams. In order for the NHL to restore itself among the major sports leagues in North America, it will need to create parity to generate interest in typically less hockey-oriented regions like Atlanta, Raleigh, Nashville and Miami.

The interest will always be there in Detroit, Montreal, Toronto and Edmonton. Now it’s up to the league to create or restore it everywhere else.

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