AUGUST 2002 SOAPBOX ARCHIVES

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 MID-SUMMER BABBLING.

Yes, I'm back from vacation, folks! For better or worse, it's time for another week of rantings and ravings from what one reader once called me, "the biggest bitcher on the internet!"

Ah, if only that were true. I'd headline my main page with that dubious distinction. However, there are others out there in cyberspace who do a far better job of complaining about the NHL's ills than I. Some of them even write for legitimate newspapers!

But I digress. Time to turn my refreshed eyes upon the latest happenings in the National Hockey League...

*****

Everyone's favourite draft bust, Alexandre Daigle (the poster child for a video idea of mine, "When Number One Draft Picks Go Bad"), announced to the breathless unwashed that he would attempt a big-league comeback with the San Jose Sharks this fall.

All this after a report appeared in several newspapers last spring of Daigle's heart not being in hockey growing up, that he only played to satisfy the demands of his father. Daigle claimed he was much happier having left the NHL for the world of entertainment in Hollywood.

We're now supposed to believe "Alexandre the Grate" has had a change of heart and really wants to mount a comeback. Sorry, but I'm not buying it. Judging by the response of those who answered a Sporting News poll as to who was the biggest underachiever in NHL history, most hockey fans aren't buying it either. Daigle won that poll by a large majority...

*****

My nominee for hard-luck case of the year is Pittsburgh's Martin Straka.

You'll recall (as no doubt suffering Penguins fans did throughout last season) Straka played only 13 games for the Pens last season, thanks to a combination of a twice-broken leg and a broken bone over his left eye.

Now, training in preparation for next season, Straka suffered a fractured vertabra when a weight-training machine fell on him. He's in a back brace for the next six weeks, after which he'll be re-evaluated. Suffice to say, Straka is facing missing the opening months of the upcoming 2002-03 season.

If it weren't for bad luck, Straka would have none at all...

*****

It's been a dark year for fans of the Buffalo Sabres. Just three scant years after losing out to the Dallas Stars on a controversial overtime goal in the 1999 Stanley Cup finals, the Sabres are facing the possibility of playing their final season in Buffalo.

Thanks to the corrupt ownership of John Rigas, who was recently pictured, along with one of his sons, being taken away to jail in handcuffs by federal agents, the league has been forced to take possession of the club for next season, in hopes a local buyer will purchase the club and keep it in Buffalo.

This caps a year from hell for Sabres fans, who witnessed the trading of superstar goaltender Dominik Hasek to Detroit for peanuts, the bitter falling-out between team captain Michael Peca and his subsequent trade to the NY Islanders, and the team's failure to make the playoffs for the first time since 1996.

According to a recent report in the Buffalo News, the league is having difficulty scaring up a local buyer to purchase the club. Meanwhile, season ticket sales hover under 7,000, and there are rumours of the team being relocated to either Portland or Hamilton, or possibly disbanded altogether.

Funny, isn't it (as in funny, sad, not funny "ha-ha") that while all eyes were focussed on the plight of the Penguins, Islanders, Flames, Oilers and Senators in recent years, major trouble was brewing, right under the league's nose, in Buffalo.

Then again, the Rigas saga wasn't as embarrassing to NHL headquarters as John Spanos's attempts to purchase the Islanders with money he didn't have. But for an organization once considered stable, if fiscally prudent when it came to player salaries, as the Sabres were, the shock of the Rigas's fall from grace begs the question: are there other NHL clubs with owners who themselves may be teetering on the brink of an unexpected collapse?

*****

Speaking of Peca (which I was, about four paragraphs back), he's vowing revenge on the man who put him out of commission with a torn ACL in his left knee.

The Isles captain told a New York newspaper he would make Toronto forward Darcy Tucker pay for his low-bridge hit in last spring's playoffs that put Peca into surgery and rehab and costing him the first three months of the upcoming season.

Tucker has been taking a run at Claude Lemieux's title of "dirtiest player in the NHL" in recent seasons with his diving and his cheapshots. If Peca makes good on his threat, you can bet there won't be many folks outside of Toronto who'll take pity on the Leafs super-pest.

What's struck me as odd is the fact the league's disciplinary arm hasn't taken Peca to task for his comments. For right or wrong, Peca has publicly served warning his intention to injure another NHL player.

Maybe Peca's claim his upcoming attack on Tucker would be "within the rules" mollified the head office. Surely it couldn't be the league is turning a blind eye toward a premeditated attack on one of it's dirtiest, whiniest players?

Yeah, a cheapshot within the rules. This oughtta be worth watching...

*****

More than one reader has e-mailed me to ask my opinion of the Jarome Iginla and Jose Theodore contract situations. There is legitimate concern amongst Flames and Canadiens fans that the two players responsible for their team's respective improvements last season could miss portions of the upcoming season due to contract holdout, thus jeopardizing their teams chances of improvement.

Prolonged contract holdouts by both players is a real possibility and shouldn't be ruled out. That being said, however, I expect the Flames and Habs to get Iginla and Theodore under contract prior to the opening of training camp.

While it's obvious the respective management of the Flames and Canadiens are taking their time negotiating with these two, neither club can afford to start next season without them.

The Flames are desperate to make the playoffs, and have to entice their increasingly cynical fans into coming out for their home games. While GM Craig Button has made moves to improve his team's second-line depth, it's obvious the key to Calgary's playoff chances is a healthy, re-signed Iginla playing the full season. A protracted holdout could be fatal to their playoff hopes, as well as to any hope of building up their season-ticket fan base.

In Montreal, it's widely acknowledged that, while the Canadiens improved overall, they wouldn't have made the playoffs, or pulled off the first-round upset of the Boston Bruins, without the goaltending of Hart-and-Vezina winner Jose Theodore.

The fans in Montreal were deliriously happy to see their plucky club, carried by their emerging superstar goalie, end their three-year post-season absence. However, they're also very demanding. They'll expect Les Canadiens to build on last season's unexpected success, and to do it, the Habs need Theodore onboard.

I'd expect both teams to stretch negotiations for as long as possible, in hopes of squeezing out some sort of deal more favourable to them. However, by the time training camp nears, look for the Flames and Canadiens to move quickly to sign their respective superstars.

They'll be fools if they don't have either guy in their respective camps. The Flames and Habs cannot afford to start next season without them. Simple as that.

It's easy to make those signings when you really have no choice...

*****

The Sabres financial woes has prompted the question of whether or not contraction could become an issue in the NHL as it has become in Major League Baseball.

To which I reply, you bet your ass it will!

The league is already bloated with thirty teams, when it's apparent they could do without at least five of these teams. Most of my readers thoughts on this subject is to do away with clubs like Anaheim, Tampa Bay, Atlanta, Florida, and Nashville.

It's all very fine to pick on clubs that are perennial losers since their inception into the league in recent years. However, as the Sabres situation has painfully pointed out, teams that have been around for several decades, which have built up a history of varied success during that time, are also at risk.

The Pittsburgh Penguins filed for bankruptcy a few years ago, and are having a difficult time convincing the city of Pittsburgh to build them a new arena. Without the new arena, warns owner Mario Lemieux, the Penguins won't be able to generate the revenue to build and maintain a competitive club.

This is a team that came into being 35 years ago, won two Stanley Cups, and gave us superstars such as Lemieux and Jaromir Jagr.

The Edmonton Oilers and Calgary Flames have rich histories of their own, with Stanley Cups on their ledgers and memories of Wayne Gretzky, Joe Nieuwendyk, Paul Coffey, Lanny McDonald, Grant Fuhr, Theo Fleury, Jari Kurri, and Mike Vernon.

The Vancouver Canucks have been around as long as the Sabres (32 years), and like their peer in Buffalo, they made two appearances in the Stanley Cup finals. They've given us memorable stars like Pavel Bure, Marcus Naslund and Todd Bertuzzi, as well as Roger Nielsen's "Terrible Towels".

All three of these clubs are victims of the weak Canadian dollar, as well as being small-market when compared to teams like Toronto, New York and Dallas.

It's easy to say clubs with a limited history and no success should be chopped, but it's a lot tougher to swallow when teams with tradition and history are also facing extinction.

Thus, as long as the NHL's fiscal house continues to be mismanaged, contraction becomes an issue that cannot be ignored.

*****

As expected, Paul Kariya is not leaving the Anaheim Mighty Ducks. At least, he won't be during this upcoming season.

Kariya re-signed a one-year deal with the Ducks for $10 million US. Evidently, the recent moves by the club's new GM, Bryan Murray, had much to do with Kariya's decision.

Landing Petr Sykora, Freddy Olausson and Adam Oates should make Anaheim a more improved club. However, it's obvious that by taking a one-year deal, Kariya is hedging his bets on the club's improvement next season.

Let's face it, if the Ducks falter again despite the additions, the "Kariya-on-the-block" rumours will flare up again when the March trade deadline approaches. And despite the insistence of the Ducks captain's desire to remain with the Ducks and building them into a winner, one has to believe his patience will only go so far. In this case, one season.

*****

Can you believe that some in the press were willing to believe Wayne Gretzky was actually planning a comeback?

The fact it came from Philadelphia Flyers motor-mouth forward Jeremy Roenick, who last month claimed his ol' buddy from Chicago, Chris Chelios, was interested in playing for Philly during "Chelli's" few days as an unrestricted free agent, should've served as a warning this tale of "the Great One's" comeback was not to be believed.

Of course, once word got out Gretzky was seen training with several Coyotes recently, it fanned the flames of a "99 comeback".

Thankfully, Gretzky subsequently squashed the comeback talk, claiming his participation with the Coyotes training was solely to help strengthen his neck and back, which plagued him with injury during his final seasons and contributed to his decision to retire.

Besides, why should Gretzky stage a comeback? What's the motivation? To show he can stage a better comeback than his old rival, Mario Lemieux? That's ridiculous. Lemieux's comeback was primarily based on boosting the Penguins revenue.

The Coyotes, on the other hand, won't need a Gretzky comeback to bolster attendance in Phoenix. They're coming off a surprise playoff appearance, recently signed Tony Amonte to a long-term contract, are well-coached by Adams winner Bobby Francis, and are loaded with promising young talent.

All the Desert Dawgs have to do is improve on last season's surprise success, and they'll have no trouble at the turnstiles.

That's one thing I hate about the summer. Too many hockey reporters with too much time on their hands dreaming up wild stories to help sell newspapers.

MORE SUMMER RAMBLINGS.

Folks, we're really in the off-season "black hole" when it comes to interesting hockey stories. There's a lack of juicy trades rumours, while the only free agent speculation left is if anyone is willing to take a chance on signing recovering alcoholic and free agent, Theo Fleury. There's no major contract wars, as talks between Jarome Iginla, Jose Theodore and their respective teams, appear cordial, leading me to conclude the Calgary Flames and Montreal Canadiens will have these guys under contract when training camp opens.

Oh, for the days when Eric Lindros and Bob Clarke used to snipe at each other through the press! Or when Alexei Yashin was beginning his ill-advised year-long holdout with the Ottawa Senators! Or when the Leafs signed Curtis Joseph, sparking a six-month flurry of speculation as to the future destination of Felix Potvin!

Yes, those were the days of interesting off-season hockey news. I suppose no news is good news for most hockey fans in the summer, but when one is trying to cover the game through dog-days like these, a quiet off-season can be a killer.

Fortunately, there were a few nuggets of newsworthy info over the past week or so, sparing me the problem of trying to come up with something newsworthy to comment on, and sparing you yet another rant of my displeasure with how the NHL is handling it's finances.

Just remember, gentle reader, training camp opens in less than three weeks. Hang onto that while we slog through this quiet summer together...

*****

The main news this past week was ESPN's announcement they were cutting their broadcasts of NHL games from 102 to 71 next season. That marks the second consecutive year the US sports cable network has cut NHL broadcasts. Last year, they reduced their coverage from 128 games to 102.

The reason, as explained by ESPN VP Mark Shapiro and NHL Chief Operating Officer John Litner, was to avoid over-saturating the network with NHL games.

Naturally, ESPN denied the reduction had anything to do with increasing their coverage of NBA games beginnning next season.

Some in the press took Litner to task for his comments the league wanted to be careful they didn't "over-expose" their products. However, it's pointless to shoot the messenger. Litner is merely one of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman's footsoldiers, and part of his job description is to spin-cycle negative news into a positive and hope the great unwashed who support the league will swallow it without question.

I mean, does anyone really believe the NHL would publicly admit what they're no doubt privately worried about: the continued free-fall of interest in their product in the United States?

No way in hell Bettman will admit that his grand scheme of boosting interest in professional hockey in the US is failing. So he trots out one of his lackeys to say the reduction of NHL broadcasts by America's top sports channel is not a bad thing, no, no, it's smart marketing. The product is so hot that, by golly, the best way to whet the appetite of the American sports fan is to show less of it.

Folks, whenever you hear someone proclaim that "less is more", you're entering an Orwellian realm of deception. I know about that first-hand, having served with the Canadian Forces for twenty years. On a regular basis, myself and my increasingly shrinking number of comrades-in-arms have been fed this type of bafflegab for years. We're so numb to lies now that we just shrug our shoulders, accept the BS for what it is, and wait patiently for our pension time to approach so we can bugger off for better paying jobs in the civilian world.

But the gist of this isn't to vent my spleen over my frustration with the Canadian military and it's political masters. What I'm trying to say, in my rambling way, is that no matter how much the NHL tries to warp the take on ESPN's continued hacking away of coverage of regular season games, the truth is the NHL product, as it presently stands, is so devoid of real entertainment that it's turning off viewers in the all-important American market.

Americans would much rather watch the fast pace of pro basketball than the dull, plodding stylings of the bulk of NHL regular season games. NHL headquarters have blithely ignored the warnings from the media and fans like myself for years, but sportschannels cannot and will not ignore shrinking ratings for a product they air.

The life that has been sucked out of the NHL regular season has adversely affected the ratings of their TV broadcasts, and it's something the league must finally address in order to save their great plans of building the sport in the US market.

But you don't expect Mr. Bettman and his cronies to admit that publicly, do you?

*****

The dominant theme of most e-mails I've received recently is that of Jose Theodore's contract talks with the Montreal Canadiens.

Most ask my take on this, whether I believe the Habs will re-sign Jose before training camp opens (I do), or if I consider Theodore a flash in the pan or a real superstar (he is - a superstar, I mean).

A few, however, have intrigued me. There are some Canadiens supporters out there who genuinely believe Theodore is being greedy. They feel his demands for $6 million per season is far too much for a goaltender "who's had one good season". A couple believe he's "sticking it to the fans" and is "letting down his teammates". One even believes the Habs should "trade his greedy ass" for a top-two defenceman and/or a power forward, let Hackett be the starter, and bring up prospect Mathieu Garon as his backup.

I can understand the frustration of people like these. They're tired of watching players demand huge salaries from their teams at the threat of holding out. Those of you who have been regular readers of my work know where I stand regarding the maddening spiral of player contracts and the adverse effect it's having on the small-to-mid market clubs.

In the case of Theodore, however, I must disagree with those who are labelling him a greed-head. While I think $6 mil per season is too much for any player, when compared to the existing market value of top NHL goalies, Jose's salary demands are actually quite reasonable.

A quick examination of Theodore's stats indicates a goaltender who's performance has been increasingly on the rise over the past three seasons. Granted, his statistics for the Habs horrific 2000-01 "season from hell" aren't as impressive as those from the 99-00 season, or his award winning performance from last season. But given how awful the Canadiens were that year, the fact he won 20 games, and posted a 2.57 GAA and .909 SP is impressive.

Yet it's the statistics from that season which forms the basis of the argument for those knocking Theodore salary demands. They forget the 2.10 GAA, .919 SP and five shutouts in 30 games in 1999-2000.

Instead, they've focussed only on his performance last season, with some even draw comparisons to mid-80s Habs netminder Steve Penney, or mid-90s goalie - and Vezina winner - Jim Carey. They're afraid Theodore's performance will go into the toilet if he gets $6 mil per season, leaving the Habs on the hook with a crappy netminder holding a big contract they can't dump.

The comparison to Penney is ridiculous, as he never won anything and essentially only had two good years. The one to Carey has more merit, but is also unfounded. Carey's first three seasons were impressive, but after winning the Vezina, for whatever reason, his game went downhill fast. Perhaps there were personal problems for Carey's decline. Maybe his motivation went south after becoming the NHL's best goalie in 1995-96. Maybe he did peak early. Who knows.

But for every Jim Carey, there's a Dominik Hasek, a Grant Fuhr, a Billy Smith. Goalies with promise who take some time to develop into stars, but once they do, they dominate at their position for years. That is the category where Theodore finds himself.

Theodore served notice as a promising future NHL star with his gold-medal performance at the 1994 World Juniors. He's been with the Habs since 1996-97, first showing what he was capable of in spelling off Jocelyn Thibault during the 1997 playoffs, and then again in the '98 post-season.

Yes, he's had his ups-and-downs, and there was a time even I wondered if he was going to make it as a quality NHL goaltender. His performance since the '99-'00 season has convinced me he's more than a quality goalie, he's the next superstar goaltender in the NHL.

As for whether or not he's worth $6 million per season, a quick comparison with the salaries of other top netminders clearly shows what he's asking for is not only market value, but actually a bit of a bargain.

Colorado's Patrick Roy, the gold standard by which goalie salaries are measured, earned $8.5 million last season. Detroit's recently retired Dominik Hasek made $8 million. Former Dallas Star Ed Belfour made $6 million. New Jersey's Martin Brodeur earned $4.7 million last season and will see that bumped up to over $6 million. Former Leaf Curtis Joseph made $6.5 mil in Toronto and will make $8 million with the Wings. New York's Mike Richter made $6 million last season. Washington's Olaf Kolzig made $6 million.

Theodore, who won the Hart and Vezina trophies, is seeking less than Hasek, who was the last netminder to turn that trick, and until he won the Cup with the Wings, made over $7 million with the Buffalo Sabres, in addition to the $8 million with Detroit. He's also seeking less that Cujo, who has never won an individual award in his life, yet demanded over $9 million from the Leafs before taking $8 million to play for Detroit, a team that has a better chance of winning the Stanley Cup than the Maple Leafs.

In seeking $6 million, he's asking for the same money that the Capitals Kolzig, a former Vezina winner, received. In other words, market value.

One Canadiens fan pointed to Theodore's collapse in the second round against Carolina as a rationale that paying him $6 million is a risky proposition. Another doesn't believe Theodore is worth the money because he "didn't carry the Canadiens to the Cup like Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy before him.

In both cases, the readers overlook the fact Theodore carried an injury-ravaged Canadiens team from early December right through to the playoffs and a first-round upset over the heavily favoured Boston Bruins. The Canadiens gave up more shots than any other team in the league, yet there was Theodore, with an impressive 2.10 GAA and an eye-popping .931 save percentage.

That's an extremely heavy workload for any goaltender to face. The fact Theodore did it for so long before wearing down under the pressure of it is more than commendable, it's amazing. As for the comparisons with Dryden and Roy, that reader forgets those two netminders had far better, and healthier, teams in front of them than Theodore did last season. If Theodore had had the advantage of having teammates like Jean Beliveau, Yvan Cournoyer, Frank Mahovlich and JC Tremblay like Dryden did, or Larry Robinson, Bob Gainey, Mats Naslund and Bobby Smith like Roy did, I believe he would've been just as capable of carrying those clubs to the Stanley Cup.

No offence to Jeff Hackett, who was Montreal's main man through some of their darkest days in recent memory, but he wasn't able to carry the Habs in the same way Theodore did. And last time I checked, he hadn't won any hardware to recognize his tremendous single-season achievements.

Those are the reasons why the Canadiens will re-sign Theodore before the upcoming season begins, and why he'll probably get $6 million, or pretty damn close to it.

Well, there is one more reason. The Canadiens need to build on their suprising return to the playoffs last season. They simply must improve to appease the Habs faithful and increase attendence in the cavernous Molson...er, ah, Bell Centre.

If they allow Theodore to hold out, and they have a slow start, that will translate into less numbers at the turnstiles. And that, folks, is simply not good business.

*****

One can certainly understand why the Canadiens, and the Calgary Flames, are taking their time negotiating new contracts with Theodore and Art Ross and Pearson winner Jarome Iginla. They're both seeking over $6 mil per season, and both clubs are hoping to dicker them down a mil or two to get a deal more suitable to their needs.

By comparison, the Philadelphia Flyers callow treatment of emerging star Simon Gagne makes one wonder if GM Bob Clarke has finally gone round the bend.

Since joining the Flyers as a hot-shot rookie in 1999-2000, Gagne has been steadily improving into one of that team's most dangerous offensive threats. From his 20-goal, 48 point performance in his rookie campaign, through his 27 goal, 59 point sophomore season, to last year's 33 goal, 66 point effort, the flashy French-Canadien appears to be on a rapid climb toward superstardom. Indeed, his play earned him not just an all-star berth last season, but also a place on Team Canada's gold-medal winning 2002 Olympic hockey team.

Gagne did all this while earning less than the league minimum, making $975 K last season. Naturally, he expected a raise for his efforts, and Flyers GM made him an offer of two-years, $4 million US.

Not bad, but Gagne's agent turned down the offer, seeking a two-year deal worth $5 million over two years, which is what Gagne's value would be as a restricted free agent in comparison to his peer from the 1998 draft, Vincent Lecavalier. Many observers would agree Gagne, thus far, has had a much better career than Lecavalier.

Clarke and the Flyers have been reknowned, notoriously so in some cases, for paying whopping contracts to land pricey free agent players. The Flyers overpaid for impending UFAs like John LeClair, Jeremy Roenick and Mark Recchi. No one will ever forget how Clarke also overpaid for restricted free agents like Keith Primeau,Chris Gratton and Alexandre Daigle, the latter two subsequently flopping and getting shipped out of Philly.

Which begs the question: why is Clarke playing hardball now with Gagne? After all, we're talking about an extra $500 K per season, which in the past has been mere peanuts for the formerly free spending Flyers. And at $2.5 million per season over the next two years, he'd be an incredible bargain, should he continue to improve with each passing season.

Admit it, Flyers fans: Should Gagne pot, say, 35-40 goals and 75-80 points next season, you'd all agree $2.5 million would be a smart investment.

So why is Clarke butting heads with Gagne? Are the Flyers finances much tighter than we've been led to believe? Was Simon instrumental in getting former head coach Bill Barber fired? Has he been complaining about the medical staff? Is his parents getting involved in the contract talks? Did he get liquored up during the team Christmas party, spike the punch with rubbing alcohol and Spanish Fly, then go on a wild rampage that involved stampeding rabid llamas through Ed Snider's home and blowing up Clarke's lawn ornaments with a sawed-off shotgun?

Questions, questions, with no easy answer. And it adds more fuel to those stumping for Clarke's firing.

*****

Finally, I read a report on TSN.CA's website that forward Valeri Kamensky and defenceman Igor Kravchuk may decide to leave the NHL and return to Russia to play out their days.

To which I respond: about damn time!

I knew Kamensky was getting past it during the 1998-99 season, when he managed only 44 points in 65 games. I remember getting into a pretty good debate with a buddy of mine, who pointed to Kamensky's being injured as the reason his stats were down from previous seasons.

However, I noted that Kamensky's injury didn't happen until his 65th game. Leading up to that, he was playing with such notables as Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Claude Lemieux, Milan Hejduk and Chris Drury, yet he was struggling to post up points.

Still, my buddy was adamant that Kamensky was still capable of another 25-goal, 65-point season, and as we were both GMs in the sim league NAHL (shameless plug!), I parlayed Kamensky, who was on my roster, into Tommy Salo in one of the best trades I've ever made. I still like to needle Bobby about that, but then again, he was able to use Kamensky as a tool to land a high-quality player in a subsequent deal, so he came out of it okay.

But this isn't about my sim league dealings, but rather how I knew Kamensky was no longer an quality offensive forward. By 1999, Kamensky was 33 years old, with lots of hockey behind him, what with his years with the Soviet Red Army teams in the mid-to-late 1980s prior to joining the Quebec Nordiques in 1991. Age was catching up to him, which was very apparent by the 1998-99 season.

Ditto for the well-travelled Kravchuk, who was also a product of the Central Red Army of the 1980s before making the switch to the NHL. He'd been on the slow slide over the past four years with his best seasons in the mid-to-late 90s far behind him.

I knew the end was in sight for Kravchuk when the Calgary Flames claimed him off waivers from the Ottawa Senators. At that time, several sportswriters took this as a sign of cost-cutting by the Sens, which it was, but what these hockey reporters missed was the fact Ottawa could find no market for this guy. The only way to dump his salary was to put him on waivers.

The Flames seemed to believe Kravchuk would provide their promising young blueliner corps the benefit of his experience and leadership. If that's so, it was a failed experiment. The Flames put Iggy on waivers last season, but nobody wanted to claim him.

The fact that teams seeking blueline depth this off-season haven't made Kravchuk, an unrestricted free agent, a contract offer is the final nail in his NHL coffin.

Kamensky and Kravchuk were once valuable players, but the sad fact of life as a pro athlete is that age catches up to everyone, and it caught these two several years ago. 

THE STUNNED SHALL INHERIT THE EARTH.

That's right, dear readers, I'm fully convinced of this truth. Forget the meek, who may be deserving, but their most admirable trait - knowing when to keep their pie-holes shut - is also their downfall. It's the truly stupid, who have no problem shouting their idiocy from the rooftops, who shall inherit the earth.

The stunned are all around us, folks, and I'm convinced they're growing in number. Or at least, they're multiplying at an alarming rate in the world of professional sports in general, and the NHL in particular. Indeed, one need look no further than to some of the real doozies that made the news around the NHL this past week.

Exhibit "A" is the announcement by the Pittsburgh Penguins they've invited everyone's favourite draft bust, Alexandre Daigle , to attend training camp next fall.

Either Penguins GM Craig Patrick has a heart of gold (witness his giving troubled winger Stephane Richer a comeback shot last year), or else he's so desperate to shore up the depth on his forward lines (made weaker by the serious back injury suffered recently by Martin Straka) he'll grasp at any straw, no matter how rotten, twisted and limp it is.

And they don't get more spineless than the poster child for underachievement that is Alexandre "the Grate". Remember, gang, Daigle is the guy who is blessed with more hockey talent than most of us will ever have, who was a millionaire at 18, and a bust at 24. He's the guy who had it all, who could've been the cornerstone of the Ottawa Senators, but instead, he frittered his opportunity away, sinking several dumb but otherwise well-meaning Sens executives in the process.

This is the guy who last winter told a Quebec newspaper he never enjoyed playing hockey. He sang the same old sob story that is heard with disgusting frequency by spineless waterheads who refuse to accept the blame for their own problem: he blamed it on his parents. Yes, he only did it to please his father, who must be some kind of evil monster to taking such an athletically gifted young man as Alex and turning him toward a fate worse than death: a career in professional hockey. I can only hope the RCMP are enroute to the house of pere Daigle immediately to arrest him for retroactive child abuse and anything else they can think of! Society must be made safe from such horrid bastards!

Daigle then claimed back then he didn't miss the game, and was having a more enjoyable life setting up a production company and chasing silicone enhanced Playboy centerfolds and whiny-voiced, stick-girl folk-singers out in Hollywood. And why not, eh? When you're a millionaire in your early 20s for playing a child's game, why work at building something out of your life when you can live the good life and high times in the City of Angels?

But lo! Mr. Daigle awoke one morning this summer and an epiphany! He found he had a passion for the game of hockey after all. This lost-long and newly-found passion took him up the California coast to San Jose, where he asked to try out with the Sharks. GM Dean Lombardi was happy to give Daigle a shot, but they only with his minor league affiliate. Lombardi, you see, isn't a man who gets the wool pulled over his eyes, and certainly not by an obvious flim-flam artist like Daigle.

Fortunately for Daigle, the Penguins come calling, and tell him he can try out with them first, rather than suffer the indignity of riding buses in the AHL.

Forgive me my cynicism, but I'm just not buying Daigle's story of re-discovering the joy of hockey. As one of the good folks on Broadcastmonsters.com's "Face-off" show recently put it, it's more likely Daigle finally discovered the bottom of his wallet!

If that's not proof enough for you, how about "Exhibit B": the whiny ranting of the Vancouver Province's Neil Macrae!

Macrae recently wrote of his amazement as to why free agents like Luke Richardson and former Canucks Scott Lachance and Andrew Cassels would decide to sign in that notable "hellhole" of the midwestern United States: Columbus.

While acknowledging that he understands "it's all about the dollars" for most unrestricted free agents, Macrae states he'd have to paid paid "millions more" to sign in Columbus, or worse: Carolina or New Jersey. Macrae then petulently writes Cassels only took the Blue Jackets money as a retirement signing, but wonders why he didn't at least sign with a team where he could've had a shot at winning the Stanley Cup. He believes Lachance and Richardson are second-rate defencemen who were carried by their better defensive partners on their former clubs, and their weaknesses will be exposed playing for a weak club like the Jackets.

This kind of tripe is what I'd expect to read on a message board, not from someone who supposedly has a journalism degree and writes for a major Canadian newspaper.

Hey, I'll grant Macrae is living and working in one of the best cities in North America in Vancouver. I know this from personal experience, having worked near there and visited several times. I've never been to Columbus, or Carolina, or New Jersey. Those whom I've spoken with who hail from these respective areas assure me it's quite nice, and I'll take them at their word, although I'm willing to wager they don't measure up to the majestic beauty of Vancouver.

Then again, Carolina has a hockey club that went to the Stanley Cup finals last spring, and New Jersey possesses a club that has won the big mug twice. Accomplishments that are more notable than anything the Canucks have done in recent years.

But I digress yet again. The bulk of free agents signings is "all about the Benjamins", on that, I have no argument. So why did Richardson, Cassels and Lachance sign with Columbus? A fair question, once one gets past Macrae's "Vancouver is the center of the universe" attitude.

Cassels obviously wasn't finding much of a market for his services, based solely on his injury history. Teams tend to shy away from free agents with concussions problems. It's a safe bet, however, that if Cassels didn't have "health issues", he'd have been snapped up by any of the major players in this year's UFA market.

The lure for Cassels was the opportunity to play again with his former teammate from Hartford, Geoff Sanderson. But let's put the credit solely where it's due: at the desk of Blue Jackets GM Doug MacLean.

The Cassels signing is just the latest in a series of major coups by MacLean, by his surprise trading up to land the first overall pick and drafting Rick Nash, to signing Richardson and Lachance, two coveted UFA blueliners on the same day less than a week into the summer UFA market.

It's MacLean's management skills and salesmanship that sold those three free agents on coming to that "desolate wasteland" called Columbus. Sure, these guys could've signed with potential contenders, but MacLean convinced these three, who certainly aren't stupid men, to sign with a building young team. Perhaps MacLean sold them on being leaders with a building young team with a bright future? Or maybe he has pictures of them in compromising positions with farm animals. Regardless, he got them inked, and for a young team trying to build into contendership, that's an impressive bit of management.

But I wouldn't expect Macrae to pick up on this. Undoubtedly, he'll ponder why anyone would leave Canada's Lotusland to toil for a three-year-old franchise in Ohio to his dying day. Then again, maybe Cassels and Lachance were sick and tired of all that damn rain!

But the clinching argument for the stunned inheriting the earth is Exhibit "C": a report that the NHL is determined to crack down on uncalled obstruction.

Now stop me if you've heard this one before, but apparently, NHL commisioner Gary Bettman is very perturbed over all the overlooked hooking, hacking, slashing and holding is slowing down the game and reducing the number of goals scored.

In fact, "the commish" is so concerned that, by gosh, he's announced the on-ice officials will have a mandate to call the games more closely, in hopes of eliminating uncalled obstruction and bringing about a rise in offence.

What a stroke of brilliance by our Gary! No, I really believe you this time, Mr Commisioner. Just like I believed you the first time, way back in 1992-93, when you first made this proclamation. Just as I've believed you when you've made this announcement prior to the start of almost every season since then.

I'm sorry, folks, but Bettman is so full of crap that he gets a brown ring around his neck whenever he's down a quart!

The sad part is that, this time, he had several NHL general managers come forward from a recent meeting to trumpet this announcement. Maybe Bettman believes the fans will buy his snakeoil it if it's coming from a general manager. Of course, when one considers most of what you hear from many GMs is to be taken with a grain of salt, Bettman couldn't have made a poorer choice to be the voice of his new "anti-obstruction" decree.

Naturally, cracking down on obstruction would be the best way to bring about an increase in offence in the NHL. The problem is, every time we hear this, the following pattern emerges: the officials call everything in October, but gradually swallow their whistles over the course of the season until, by the playoffs, the most blatantly obvious obstruction goes uncalled. It's so predictable, you can tell the time of year by it without even consulting a calendar! Indeed, it's like a tape on an endless loop, which Bettman replays over and over again.

Bettman has to do something, because the NHL has been in trouble for years, although you'll never hear it from his lips. ESPN recently announced they were once again reducing the amount of coverage they'll provide of the NHL. Despite his rosy announcement of new highs in attendence, Bettman realizes that, just because the seats are bought, doesn't mean people are turning up to the games. He also knows the numbers are skewed because of the addition of the four expansion clubs since 1998 have contributed to this "rise" in attendence.

The amount of empty seats in NHL arenas during the regular season was a recurring theme of many news reports last year. That in turn means there's less money being spent on concessions and NHL merchandise. That's threatening his dream of building the game in the valuable American market.

Bettman's true legacy, however, has been the dramatic drop in offence during his ten-year tenure. Where 50 goal and 100 point players abounded, they're now almost as rare as Siberian Tigers. For someone whose primary goal as commissioner was to build the game, the fact he'd allow the true selling points of the game - speed and scoring - to be stifled doesn't say much about his business sense!