In the past decade, many people felt that professional hockey went from a game of spectacular offense to one of slow, grinding defense, and that hurt its popularity. Before the NHL returned this year, a number of rules were revised to open up the game, increase speed and scoring opportunities and generally put a more exciting product on the ice. Here are some of the more dramatic changes:

DIMENSIONS OF THE RINK: The size of the neutral zone (the middle of the ice) was reduced, while the goals were positioned two feet closer to the end boards than they were previously. By effectively adding four feet to each offensive zone, this extra space should encourage offensive playmaking and sustained attacks, especially on the power play.

FEWER STOPPAGES: Two new offsides rules should improve the flow of the game by reducing the number of stoppages. Passes from the defensive zone will be legal all the way to the attacking blue line. Before, they were not allowed to pass the center red line, but now the "two-line pass" restriction has been eliminated. "The Tag-up Rule" will permit play to continue if players who precede the puck into the offensive zone return to the blue line and "tag" it before pursuing the puck.

ICING: Icing occurs when a player hits the puck from the defensive zone all the way to the other end of the ice. Previously, this was used by teams in need of a drastic line change. Now a team that ices the puck cannot make a line change prior to the next stoppage of play. Referees also will have the discretion to wave off apparent icing infractions if they are deemed the result of an attempted pass. These measures should reduce the number of infractions.

LIMITS ON GOALTENDERS: The size of a goaltender's equipment was reduced, and goaltenders are only allowed to play the puck behind the goal line in a restricted trapezoid-shaped area. This is the most controversial of all the rules changes, as many goaltenders feel they are being unfairly singled out.

SHOOTOUT: Say goodbye to ties. Following a scoreless five-minute overtime, three players from each team participate in the order the coach selects. Each team takes three shots. The team with the most goals after those six shots is the winner. If the score remains tied, the shootout will proceed to a "sudden death" format.