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Wild ideas come and go at RDO Camp

TORONTO – As the teenagers walked toward the rink Wednesday afternoon, Brendan Shanahan(notes) stood off to the side. One of the kids spotted something unusual.

"Sick faceoff circle!" he shouted.

The players weren't even on the ice yet, but already they were figuring it out. In each end, the NHL had erased the two faceoff circles and replaced them with one right smack in the middle. The experiment was designed to move play from the periphery and keep it flowing. Who would want a whistle when the ensuing faceoff would be right in front of his goal?

"Just chip it at the net!" one player shouted.

Shanahan smiled.

"Listen to them talk about it," Shanahan said.

That was the whole point of NHL's Research, Development and Orientation Camp: to try out ideas and talk about them. Shanahan, NHL vice president of hockey and business development, stressed that the league was being proactive, not reacting to major problems; that it was just collecting data, not pressing for immediate changes.

There were some sober, subtle ideas that could be adopted relatively soon. There is a lot of support for the hybrid icing rule, for instance. Why not whistle the play dead unless the offensive player is winning the race to the puck at the faceoff dot? It keeps the racing element but cuts the collisions.

There were shallower nets. There were wider blue lines. There were yellow goal-verification lines behind the goal lines, and there was finer mesh on top of the goals so the overhead cameras could see the puck better. There were twists on faceoffs, offsides and icing.

But, frankly, the funky stuff was the most fun.

The NHL didn't try futuristic bionic men; the league already has Nicklas Lidstrom(notes), so it went with prospects for the 2011 draft. There were no soccer-sized goals; Shanahan said not many pushed for larger nets this year. Still, there was an alien look at times.

There were the three faceoff circles, which the Toronto Sun dubbed a "three-ring circus." Defenseman Keegan Lowe, the son of Edmonton Oilers president Kevin Lowe, said having a faceoff circle in front of the net was "bizarre." Goalie John Gibson said it was "pretty different" and caused him to lose his bearings.

There were gray goal posts and red mesh on the inside of the nets. It was supposed to give the shooters a better target. Longtime coach Ken Hitchcock thought they looked smaller from the bench, but joked he might be nearsighted.

There was a referee stationed off the ice. Referee Scott Ferguson stood on a platform, his head above the glass, looking like a lifeguard or an umpire in tennis. Hitchcock said it was like Big Brother watching. But Ferguson said he didn't see the ice better and had less of a feel for the game.

There was the choose-your-opponent faceoff. If the linesman booted the opposing centerman, the player could pick one of his teammates to take the draw. The natural choice was a big, hulking defenseman. But after center Michael Curtis chose defenseman Adam Clendening, it didn't work out so well.

"He won it!" Clendening's mother, Ann, said as she watched from the stands.

How many draws has Clendening taken?

"I don't think he's ever taken any," she said.

Not everything worked. Not much will make its way into the game. That's fine.

"To me, the exercise is important," Toronto Maple Leafs general manager Brian Burke said. "I think it's important as a league that we look at how we play the game and if there is a way to make it better. Even if none of these things work, it's time well spent, in my opinion."

The NFL, the most prosperous and popular sports league in North America, does this all the time. It hasn't held an RDO Camp because football is so physical, and instead tries out ideas in preseason games.

"But now, with just two preseason games likely to happen, that may be another issue," Indianapolis Colts president Bill Polian said, referring to the NFL's consideration of a longer regular season and shorter preseason. "So it's another reason to keep an eye on this."

Polian was in the stands Thursday, as he was with his team in Toronto for a preseason game against the Buffalo Bills. He grew up in the Bronx rooting for the New York Rangers. He had Sabres season tickets when he was the Bills' general manager. And he became friends with Burke when he worked for the NFL and Burke worked for the NHL at the same time in New York. He went to dinner with the NHL crew Wednesday night and toured the Leafs' facility Thursday during the RDO Camp.

One NHL executive compared changing the faceoff circles to repainting the lines on a football field. Well, Polian, a longtime member of the NFL's competition committee, pointed out that there has been a repainting of the lines on the football field. The NFL moved the hash marks closer to the middle of the field to open up the game.

A lot of hockey people think it's time to tinker with overtime again because there are too many shootouts. The RDO Camp tested two-on-two and three-on-three, plus four-on-four with a long line change. The NFL continues to tinker with OT, too. It just changed its playoff overtime rules in March, so the team that wins the coin flip can't win the game with a field goal, and it is considering doing the same for the regular season.

Think things like gray goal posts, red mesh and off-ice referees are radical? They are. But the NFL has considered radical things like laser technology to spot the ball – from the same company that gave us the glowing puck, by the way – and technology to cancel crowd noise for the players.

"There are lots of different ideas that come to us, as I'm sure they come to the NHL," Polian said. "The vast majority of them don't get implemented. But they're spoken about, and we discuss them and see if there's merit.

"Ultimately the game is about the fans, and you want a game that is fan-friendly, that the fans get engaged in, that they feel is a good game. Sometimes safety becomes an overriding concern. But then when you get past that, it's a question of competitiveness and an attractive game. And so that's why it's fun to see this in action. Great idea."