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Ice hockey ain't what it used to be, and the Augusta Lynx don't mind a bit.
The sport no longer allows the near thuggery that slowed the tempo of games for years, the clutching and grabbing that kept scorers off balance without punishment.
As coach Bob Ferguson so eloquently puts it, "The days of the knuckle-draggers are over."
Hockey is to be a skill game again, and the Lynx, who open the season tonight against the Columbia Inferno at James Brown Arena, are built with that in mind.
A new standard of rules enforcement is being instituted by the ECHL this season, one that cracks down on almost all forms of interference, holding and obstruction.
Speed, skill, finesse and scoring are supposed to be the results.
"What we want is to allow players to move freely about the ice and not be impeded," ECHL commissioner Brian McKenna said. "The result is a faster pace with more flow, more scoring chances and more excitement for the fans."
Clutching and grabbing used to be the strategy for many teams, especially if they took a lead.
The adjustment should allow smaller, quicker forwards like Augusta's Louis Goulet, Jamie Johnson and Ryan Lang to showcase their skills and boost creativity.
"It helps us for sure, especially with our forwards because we have speedy forwards," said Johnson, who Thursday was waiting to clear immigration in order to be able to play tonight.
"There should be no excuse for us not scoring goals," he said.
The rules in question haven't actually changed in the book.
Hockey simply made the decision after the NHL lockout two years ago to begin enforcing them the way they were intended.
"They're trying to put the skill and finesse back in the game and make hockey the speed game it was always intended to be," said Ferguson, entering his second season with Augusta.
There no doubt will be a steady flow to the penalty box early in the season, which might frustrate fans to some degree - 55 penalties were whistled in the two preseason games Augusta played.
But everyone seems confident the growing pains will wear off and produce the kind of excitement exhibited in last year's NHL Stanley Cup playoffs.
"With these new rules, things are going to open up a lot more," said Lang, the team's captain last season. "There should be a lot more opportunities to score, and we've got to be able to put up numbers."
The tougher enforcement will most affect the play of defensemen, whose job it is to stop scoring.
"It's different. We have to keep our feet moving more," Lynx defenseman Ken Scuderi said. "The bigger guys with slower feet might have a few more problems because you have to always be in good position now."
An additional emphasis also will be placed on goaltenders, who must now face forwards with more open ice.
With Brett Jaeger, who is 40-15-14 in the past two seasons, in net ahead of rookie David McKee, the Lynx look sound in that capacity.
Contradictory to what some think, the games shouldn't lose much physicality, as the changes encourage body checking and hitting.
"You have to play the body now, instead of hooking and grabbing," Ferguson said.
And while the changes have pushed some of the enforcer-type players out of the game, don't expect a complete lack of fisticuffs.
"Oh, there will still be fights, I'm sure," Scuderi said.
"Guys will still be getting in each other's faces and dropping gloves."
Reach Steve Sanders at (706) 823-3216 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
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