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Changes in penalty shot and interference rules give referees more tools

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Changes to several NHL rules that go into effect for the new season fit right in with the league's ongoing crackdown on interference and obstruction.

Penalty shots can now be awarded when a player breaking away with the puck is fouled outside his blue-line rather than from the centre line in, as was previously was the case.

The interference rule has been altered to allow for a major penalty and a game misconduct when an injury results.

The changes are beneficial for on-ice officials, says director of officiating Stephen Walkom.

"The job of the referee is never easy," says Walkom. "It's a difficult job, and we want to have all the necessary tools in the referee's toolbox so the appropriate penalty can be assessed."

Another change will see all faceoffs conducted at one of the nine dots painted on the rink. This should speed things up. Previously, faceoffs after pucks left the playing surface could be performed on unmarked ice parallel to the dot nearest the place where the puck left the playing surface, resulting in delays while players jockeyed for position on an open section of ice.

"Sometimes the simplest changes have the biggest impact," says Walkom.

During 2006-2007, there were 70 penalty shots awarded and 25 goals were scored. Those numbers might rise now, but don't expect a flood.

Penalty killers might benefit most from this alteration. A point shot can now be blocked and possession gained in the neutral zone for a dash to the net in the knowledge there's less chance of being tripped or hooked, and if there is an infraction there'll be a free shot.

"Historically, you could pull somebody down (in the neutral zone) if they were on a breakaway and all you got was a minor penalty," says Walkom.

Tweaking interference calls to add the possibility of major penalties leads one to wonder if players won't do more acting - like get shoved, go down, pretend a leg is broken and limp to the bench with the aid of teammates to fool the referee into lowering the boom on the offending opponent.

"There are always going to be judgement calls," says Walkom. "We go through a lot of video on what's a minor and what's a major.

"The real reason we put this in was that, if a player is hit really late on a play and there is a degree of force on the interference, we have another tool in the box. Why not give the referee that option? When a player hasn't even played the puck and gets smoked, a major might be just right. My thinking is that it will lead to more correct calls."

Calgary star Jarome Iginla embraces the addition of an interference major.

"I like the change because a guy (could previously) get away with a pretty good cheap shot coming across the blue-line," says Iginla. "It could often be a full hit kind of blind-siding a guy."

Giving referees the power to assess a major will induce offenders to lay off, he says.

Detroit GM Ken Holland doesn't consider the changes to be major.

"I don't see anything that'll do anything significant," says Holland. "They're fine-tuning the package that was put in a couple of years ago."

Referees and linesmen participated in an eight-day camp prior to working pre-season games.

"Most of the team is back," says Walkom.

It is a dedicated group. Before games, referees and linesmen can often be found sprinting and exercising in arena hallways near their dressing rooms.

"They are tremendous athletes," says Walkom. "The vast majority of our guys come to camp in great shape.

"It's a testament to the whole team how they get ready. They're upbeat and eager to go."

The deans of league referees are Kerry Fraser, 55, the native of Sarnia, Ont., who has worked 1,682 regular-season games, and Don Koharski, 51, the native of Dartmouth, N.S., who has blown a whistle in 1,580. The most senior linesman is Mark Pare, 50, of Windsor, Ont., who has been in 1,961 big-league games.

There are perils. Referee Vaughan Rody of Winnipeg missed most of last season after suffering a leg injury.

"At one point, we had four referees who were down," says Walkom.

Rody is back and raring to go.

Referee Craig Spada of Welland, Ont., has retired, and Steve Kozari of Penticton, B.C., moves into a full-time NHL job.

Scott Cherrey will be on the ice for some NHL action this season, too, and he's tinkled pink. The 31-year-old linesman from Drayton, Ont., was the 41st man selected in the 1994 entry draft, by the Washington Capitals.

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