- So there I was on All-Star Sunday, plunked down in front of my television set with a pint of Guinness and a bowl of BBQ peanuts, fully prepared to be bored silly with the annual snorefest that is usually the NHL All-Star game.

In the past there have been a few of these games that were actually entertaining, considering the absence of bodychecking and actual defensive play, but these little soirees into the NHL version of a "no-hit" beer league often turn out to be like the Super Bowl, full of promising hype that ultimately fails to deliver.

And after watching the opening ceremonies, which resembled a Latin version of the horrid late-70s Canadian variety show, "Stars on Ice", I was further convinced this was going to be another three hours of my life that I would never get back.

But lo and behold, by the third period, the game was deadlocked at 4, and the play was actually entertaining, or as entertaining as this type of hockey can get. Granted, the crowd was fairly quiet throughout the first two periods, so much so you could actually hear a fan yelling out "F... off, Marty! Just f... right off!" to Devils goale Martin Brodeur as the second period was winding down.

But from the third period on, the game became truly enjoyable. I found myself rooting for Atlanta's young Dany Heatley, who had earlier in the game broke Wayne Gretzky's record as the youngest player in All-Star history to score a hat-trick, and then joined Gretzky and four others in tying the record for most goals in an All-Star game. I'm sure most who watched the game, thrilled by young Heatley's play, were hoping he'd score a fifth and set a new record.

The action in the third period actually stepped up as the Western Conference went up 5-4 on a patented Al MacInnis slapper, only to see the East tie the game when Florida Panther and local hero Olli Jokinen walked in alone to snap one past Marty Turco.

The rest of the game saw terrific scoring chances from both clubs, only to see goalies Turco and Patrick Lalime stand on their heads and bar the door, forcing an overtime period that ultimately solved nothing, but did provide five minutes of action-packed hockey that took place mostly in the Eastern Conference's zone.

It ended with a shootout that was won by the Western Conference, but not before Heatley set the goalscoring record, which was icing on the cake, considering he'd already been voted the game MVP by the end of the third period. (Note: the NHL determined that Heatley's shootout goal didn't count in the final tally, thus Heatley shares the record for most goals at 4).

The shootout, and the third and overtime periods, plus Heatley's amazing performance, turned what could've been another exercise in boredom into something actually worth watching.

Still, would'nt it have been great to watch 24 of the league's best players square off against the defending Cup champion Detroit Red Wings?

- Memo to ESPN's Bill Clement: those rising attendance records you quoted at the end of the All-Star game are misleading!

There's two reasons the NHL's attendance has risen over the past five years. The first is the expansion that occurred during that time period, and the fact a lot of those seats that are already purchased are filled with fans pretending to be empty seats!

The game is in real trouble. Attendence has become a problem in recent years, one that is only more apparent this season. The reasons are those which I and many others have been harping about for years: ticket prices are too high, and the quality of the on-ice product, to quote the inimitable Brett Hull, has sucked for years.

Quit drinking Gary Bettman's Kool-Aid, Mr. Clement!

- I'm all for the players owing it to the fans to come out and play their best in every game, but I'm not siding with those nitwits who are crying over the number of players who've pulled out of the All-Star Game because they're nursing injuries.

Indeed, the fact guys like Mats Sundin, Eddie Belfour and Mario Lemieux have dropped out to rest their sore bodies is due to their giving their all in every game they've played. And for Saku Koivu, who nearly died from cancer last year, dropping out to get a checkup to confirm the non-Hodgkins lymphoma that almost killed him a year ago is in remission is far more important that playing a silly game that means nothing for him or his team over the rest of the season.

And with the all-important playoff stretch run soon to commence, with less than 30 games left to play, I'd say these players have their priorities in order, now wouldn't you?

This isn't a game to decide an Olympic Gold Medal. This isn't something to determine which side of the ocean true hockey supremecy lies, like back in the old days when NHL all-stars were square off against the best of the Soviet Union. This game isn't to decide the fate of the world.

It's a silly little event that lost it's meaning years ago, where defensive play is rare, body-checking an accident and the last attempt at shotblocking happened over thirty years ago, when Bobby Orr slid in front of a Bobby Hull slapper. The end result saw Orr crawling back to the Eastern bench with seriously bruised cobblers for his troubles.

- Brett Hull for league commissioner!

Yeah, you heard me! If there's anyone who is best suited to run this league, I feel it's Hull.

Brett loves to speak his mind, and more often than not, he speaks the truth, even if the truth hurts.

His latest comments, in which he claimed 75% of NHL players are overpaid, struck a nerve with his fellow players. Hull believes there are players earning far too much money, which in turn is jeopardizing the league's economy.

Now, I know Hull's critics will snipe at him for the amount of money he's made over the years, harrumphing "where does he get off making those statements"?

But Hull earned his money during his career. The man is poised to crack the 700-goal mark, which only five other players - Wayne Gretzky, Gordie Howe, Phil Esposito, Marcel Dionne and Mike Gartner - have ever done. He won the Hart Trophy in 1990, and if you could retroactively award the Richard Trophy back to the same year, he'd have won that two or three times.

Hull also adjusted his game after signing with the Dallas Stars, earning respect for going from playing solely an offensive game to becoming one of the league's better two-way forwards. In turn, he helped the Stars win the Stanley Cup in 1999 and did the same thing for the Detroit Red Wings in 2002.

He earned his money. He's a legitimate All-Star who's headed for the Hockey Hall of Fame.

There are many others, third-and-fourth line grinders and muckers, fifth-and-sixth defencemen and second-string goalies earning millions they don't deserve.

Yes, owners have willingly paid them that money and deserve their fair share of the blame.

But Hull strikes the nail on the head when he notes a lot of these players, through their agents, openly sneer at offers that ten years ago only went to the very best players in the game, staging or threatening holdouts to get teams to up the offers, thus earning money they clearly don't deserve but have no gratitude for.

Players like Jeremy Roenick believe the players shouldn't concede anything. Problem is, the owners also believe they shouldn't make concessions.

With that attitude on both sides, it doesn't look good for the upcoming CBA negotiations in 18 months.

JR does make a good point, however, when he said those who criticize the players for accepting these huge offers are hypocrites. So yes, if someone right now offered me $7.5 million US to do what I do now, I'd take it.

However, if I'm already making, say, $4.5 million, and I realize - as most of these players do - that the golden goose is slowly dying, and taking that $7.5 million, when I've already made more money in the past five years than I know what to do with, could contribute to cooking that goose, I'd turn around and say, "Wait a minute, this isn't going to ensure that I'll still be able to earn that type of money five years from now. And it could really screw things up for those who come behind me."

But then, I'm not one for greed, which I find the most repulsive character trait in human beings, contributing to much of what's wrong in the world today. I'm not perfect, in fact, I can be a self-righteous jerk sometimes, but I abhor greed.

Unfortunately, most of the players don't. And neither do the owners. Why do you think the NY Rangers pay out as much as they do, year after year? It's greed. Not of money, but of players. They see who the top UFAs are and they've just gotta have them. The Rangers are an extreme version, but they're not the only ones.

Hull, thankfully, is willing to tell it like it is. Sadly, there's too many people on both sides unwilling to do that.

So I say Brett Hull for Commissioner when his playing career is over.

Hell, he couldn't do any worse than Gary Bettman, Gil Stein, John Ziegler or Clarence Campbell!

- Speaking of the players, did anyone notice which All-Star participants were being interviewed for their take on the league's financial woes?

For the most part, it was guys like Jeremy Roenick, Mathieu Schneider, Scott Stevens, Niklas Lidstrom, Mike Modano, Al MacInnis and Bill Guerin.

Players who were around during the strike of 1992 and the lockout of 1995.

Those guys have long memories and, like the rest of their veteran peers who were playing back then, they haven't forgotten how the owners and their sycophants in the press portrayed them to the fans as the bad guys.

Never mind that, back then, the players gripes were legitimate, as they and their predecessors had been screwed for decades out of their fair share by the owners.

Roenick, Schneider, Stevens, Lidstrom, Modano, MacInnis and Guerin haven't forgotten. Indeed, they anticipate more of the same tactics if the next CBA negotiations in 2004 turn ugly as predicted.

Their memories are long. And their influence on the younger players who weren't in the league in '92 and '95 is very strong.

So for those of you still expecting this to get sorted out without acrimony, you may wish to re-consider your pie-in-the-sky, don't-worry-be-happy position.

- Gotta wonder how those two little love-starved puckbunnies who stuffed the ballot box to get Sandis Ozolinsh voted onto the starting lineup of the Eastern Conference All-Stars feel now?

You'll recall these two ladies, fans of the Florida Panthers and evidently obsessive stalker-type fans of Ozolinsh, both mailed in over 30,000 write-in ballots, proudly proclaimed to the press what they had done when their efforts succeeded, and pausing only to complain of the writer's cramp they got in the process.

Ah, but karma works in wierd and often wonderful ways. In a lovely bit of poetic justice, Ozolinsh was traded by the Panthers to the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, just two days before All-Star weekend.

And lo, the poor groupies looketh upon the news of the almighty love-god "Ozo" being dealt, and they were sore distraught. Indeed, they calleth upon the local media scribe and rent their clothing and wailed and gnashed their teeth. They decried the betrayal of the Panthers hockey fans by their team, and crieth unto heaven for the Almighty to smite their tormentors. But there was no one to hear their cries, for God apparently isn't a fan of the lovelorn sports fan!

Forgive me the secular squalling, dear readers, for I'm writing this on Sunday morning, hours before the all-star game, and I came over all biblical there.

I just hope the little puckbunnies, whose actions went a long way to bolster chauvinism toward more knowledgeable and obviously more mature female hockey fans, enjoyed watching the object of their affection in that Eastern Conference starting lineup in the Panthers home arena.

Because now, they'll only see him, if they're lucky, playing on Panthers home ice once a year!

- OK, so I'm a week or two late with this one, but this is the first opportunity I've had to address Theo Fleury's night on the town in Columbus. Perhaps it's more fortuitous this way, given the media frenzy that immediately followed the event has died down.

To remind those of you who may have missed this, seems Fleury was whooping it up at a strip club after a game in Columbus with two teammates, believed to be veteran blueliner Phil Housley and rookie centre Tyler Arnason. Witnesses claim Fleury was obviously intoxicated and at one point in the evening, one of his group propositioned one of the peelers. She complained to a bouncer, who asked the players to leave. An argument broke out, as inevitably occurs when drunk guys are asked to leave an peeler joint, followed by punches, followed by the bouncers demonstrating to Fleury and company that hockey fights are small potatoes compared to getting your head acquainted with a bouncer's knee over a dozen times before being forcibly ejected out the front door into the parking lot.

Fleury and company apparently then proceeded to a nearly gas station to call a cab in hopes of fleeing before the cops arrived and the media got wind of their little escapade. But lo! An attendant recognized the players, and guess what? He knew someone in the local media! While Mr. Gas Station Attendant is calling up his newspaper buddy (or relative, depending on which story you read), the police arrive just as our misadventurers are piling into their getaway cab.

Now caught dead to rights, one of Fleury's party uses the tried-and-true last resort of famous people when dealing with law enforcement: begging. It goes something like this, "Please, Mr. Police Officer, sir, don't arrest us, for you see, a member of our group is more famous than us, and well, sir, he's battling alcohol abuse and could lose his job if the press find out you've arrested us, and it'll be very embarrassing and we're so very very sorry..."

The cops listen, but decide not to press charges because the players had left the strip club and weren't planning on driving , so no law had been broken. Besides, they probably didn't want to hear any more whining.

After the story broke, the press had a field day throwing blame around. Many blame Fleury's companions that night, and some even went so far as to blame the Chicago Blackhawks organization.

Few, however, seemed willing to blame Fleury. I guess you can tell by that line where I'm going with this.

Look, there's blame to be shared, no doubt. Housley and Arnason know of their teammate's highly-publicized woes. If it was their idea to take Fleury out on the town, that makes them stupid. If it was Fleury's idea to go and they went willingly with him, knowing full well it would be violating the terms of Fleury's treatment, that makes them double-stupid.

And yes, the Blackhawks organization deserves some blame, too. After all, as one reporter pointed out, they're paying a man over a quarter of a million dollars to babysit Fleury. Suffice to say, the 'Hawks aren't getting their money's worth out of this person. But how do they discipline Fleury? By doing nothing. Oh, I'm sure they told Theo how very, very disappointed they were in his actions, how he let down his teammates and brought embarrassment to the team, blah, blah blah. You know, the way parents of gifted, spoiled children will discipline them. With empty words that have no effect and won't change squat.

I'm hopeful Fleury will beat his addictions and the demons that have made him an addict.

But this fiasco was Fleury's doing. His buddies didn't put a gun to his head and force him to go to that strip club. They didn't force him to drink before they left. And one has to believe Fleury was a willing participant in the events that followed.

It's your fault, Theo. It's all your fault. Yes, you're struggling with addiction, but dammit, man, you knew what could happen. You knew the consequences could potentially spell the end of your NHL career. But you went ahead and did it anyway.

The league and the Blackhawks (and the Rangers before him) have coddled Fleury enough. I would've suspended his ass and slammed him back into treatment again. Put some teeth into the disciplinary process.

I'd do this not to be a jerk, but to let Fleury know just what he's risking. When you're dealing with someone who seems unwilling to help himself, and Fleury's actions that night in Columbus are definitely those of someone who falls into that category, it's time for tough love.

The Blackhawks and the NHL, as well as Fleury's family and friends, shouldn't give up on him. It's not an easy road when a person is battling addiction. But in the end, it comes down to the addict to want to beat it. Because if he or she doesn't really want to get clean, there's no treatment in the world, that will help them.

Except perhaps incarceration for a year or so. That's what was needed to help singers David Crosby and Rick James beat their addictions.

And if Fleury's not careful, that could be what he faces down the road.


Most of us usually feel dragged out at this time of year. We've finished paying off our Christmas holiday bills and are often left wondering why we overspend more and more after vowing to be more prudent. Most of our New Year's resolutions are broken, because let's face it, the New Year is no different than the old year. Depending on where you live, the weather is crappy, and we've got another six to eight weeks of it to face before spring comes along to relieve us of our misery.

Some NHL hockey teams get their own version of the mid-winter blahs, only for them, they wait for the coming of spring to end a miserable season that, scant months before, began with so much hope and optimism.

Take the New York Rangers, for example. I know I'm gonna get another blizzard of e-mail from disgruntled Rangers fans accusing me of picking on their team, but face the facts, gang, if your club was playing up to your expectations of last October, there would be no reason to single them out, now would there?

With the highest payroll in the NHL, the Rangers are among the worst teams in the league. Hard to believe for a club possessing a star-studded lineup like Eric Lindros, Pavel Bure, Mark Messier, Petr Nedved, Brian Leetch, Bobby Holik and Mike Richter.

But Lindros has been playing scared since suffering his seventh concussion at the mid-way point of last season and is but a shadow of his former dominating self. Bure blew out one of his surgically repaired knees and is probably gone for the season. Messier plods on, gamely giving his best but looking more and more like a tired 42-year-old former star who just can't admit the game is passing him by. Nedved's performance has been up-and-down like a yo-yo since last season, in turn incurring the wrath of the frustrated MSG faithful. Leetch has been out for some time with injury and it's unknown when he'll return. Holik nursed an injury in the first half of the season, but while healthier now, he's not the gritty forward who tormented the Rangers and other opponents during his Devil days. And Mike Richter's career could be over, thanks to a season-ending concussion.

Bryan Trottier, hired to supposedly guide this group into their first post-season appearance in six years, only lasted until mid-season before gettting the axe from GM Glen Sather, who took over the coaching reins himself. Slats is getting a lot of heat for not turning the Blueshirts around as hoped when he first came onboard as GM three years ago, following the same pattern as his predecessor, Neil Smith, by using unrestricted free agency as his primary tool to rebuild.

Give Sather credit, however, for deciding to jump back into the heat of coaching. He'll either guide this bunch into a playoff berth or he'll be carried out on his shield. But when Sather's best player is career plugger Matthew Barnaby, the odds are against him.

The Rangers aren't the only club watching their early season foundation of hope crumbling. In Montreal, the Canadiens are in danger of missing the playoffs only months after seemingly putting years of misfortune behind them.

This isn't where die-hard Habs fans saw their club back in October. Goalie Jose Theodore was coming off an incredible Hart-Vezina-Crozier performance, personally carrying the Canadiens to their first playoff appearance in three years and a first-round upset of their long time rivals, the Boston Bruins.

GM Andre Savard sought to bolster his club's depth in the off-season by trading for winger Mariusz Czerkawski and signing free agent grinder Randy McKay. Team captain Saku Koivu made a courageous recovery from cancer and led the club in post-season scoring, while his playoff linemate Donald Audette made his own brave return from a near-fatal and near-career-ending injury to become one of Montreal's leading scorers in last year's playoffs. Things were looking promising as the Habs opened the '02-'03 campaign.

Unfortunately, the Habs hopes for improvement are coming undone. Theodore had an awful start to the season, and were it not for the play of now-departed backup Jeff Hackett, the Canadiens would be battling with the Buffalo Sabres and Atlanta Thrashers for the title of cellar-dwellers in the East.

Czerkawski has proved to be an offensive bust, and at one point spent a couple of weeks with the Canadiens AHL affiliate. McKay has only had a handful of games where he's been effective, proving the New Jersey Devils knew what they were doing when they dealt him last season to the Dallas Stars. Audette played so poorly he too is now toiling in the minors. Worse, the Habs were among the worst defensive teams in the league, leading in shots against while having the lowest shots for total.

Firing head coach Michel Therrien and replacing him with Claude Julien in January seemed to reverse their slide, as the Canadiens responded positively, losing only once in their first six games under Julien. But then they went into a prolonged losing skid and looked every bit as inept defensively as they did under the fiery Therrien.

There have been some positives for the Canadiens this season. Koivu has been healthy and leads the club in scoring on nearly a point-per-game pace. His linemate, Richard Zednik, is on pace for a 35-goal season. Young blueliner Andrei Markov has emerged as the Habs best defenceman, and Theodore regained his groove in December and played much better.

However, their lousy defensive game continues to kill them. Two years ago, the Habs could point to their unusually high injury rate as the factor. Last season, it could be blamed on Therrien's coaching. This season, however, with Therrien gone and most of Savard's acquisitions stinking up the joint, the Canadiens have no one to blame now but themselves for their rotten defensive game.

At least the Canadiens are still in the hunt for a playoff berth. The same cannot be said for the Buffalo Sabres, Calgary Flames and Carolina Hurricanes.

The Sabres are undoubtedly the NHL's biggest hard luck story. With the well-documented collapse of their ownership, the Sabres were forced to declare bankruptcy to keep their creditors at bay as the league desperately sought a new owner to keep the club in Buffalo.

With the exception of a couple of mini-winning streaks, they've played poorly all season. A predominantly young team, they've been weighted down with the burden of the off-ice drama.

Now comes news a potential buyer, Mark Hamister, backed out, raising uncertainty over the club's future. Buffalo hockey fans, faced with the possibility their club could fold by season's end, have stayed away, although to their credit, they still pull in more than contending teams like Chicago and Boston.

How can any team, faced with the possibility of being folded or moved, step up and play competitive hockey? It would be easy to point to the Ottawa Senators, but that club is very deep in established talent, and quite frankly, they weren't concerned about moving, confident a way would be found to keep the club in Ottawa.

The same cannot be said for the Sabres, a club with a 33-year history that faces extinction.

Meanwhile, in Calgary, a season that began with hope turned quickly to disaster.

The players tuned out head coach Greg Gilbert, and when Flames management fired him in November, it took over a month before they finally settled on a replaced, former Sharks head coach Daryl Sutter. Unfortunately, the demanding Sutter was unable to reverse the slide of the flickering Flames.

Goaltender Roman Turek has been average at best. Their touted young blueline failed to improve. Forward Chris Drury, obtained in an early season trade with Colorado, started strong but then faded over the course of the season, leading to speculation the Flames may opt to put him on the market, rather than attempt to re-sign him when he qualifies for Group II free agency this summer.

Worst of all, Ross-Richard-Pearson winning forward Jarome Iginla's offensive production dropped dramatically. The only player to score over 50 goals last season, Iginla will be lucky to hit 30 this season.

Suddenly, the big two-year contract he signed with the Flames seems too hefty for this struggling small-market club to carry, leading to rumours they'll put Iginla on the market in hopes of freeing up money to add more depth to their roster.

Give the Flames long-suffering fans credit, for they've continued to support this train-wreck of a hockey club. However, the hopes of making the playoffs for the first time in seven years now appear a pipe dream. One is left to wonder how much longer their patience will be tested, or even how much longer NHL hockey can survive in the Stampede City.

For the Carolina Hurricanes, the fall from grace has been quick and painful. Last spring's dream has turned into a nightmare for the 'Canes, who've gone from Cup finalists to also-rans in a matter of months.

The goaltending has been average, particularly that of Arturs Irbe, who's gone from playoff hero to waivers goat. Promising youngsters like Jaroslav Svoboda and David Tanabe have not developed as hoped. Forward Erik Cole struggled with the sophomore jinx and is now out for the season with a broken leg. Speedy forward Sami Kapanen struggled with a groin injury and a prolonged scoring slump that eventually got him dealt to Philadelphia. Defenceman Sean Hill and forward Bates Battaglia are underachieving, and top faceoff man Rod Brind'amour is out for the season with a hand injury.

More ominiously, it appears the players are tuning out head coach Paul Maurice. He recently singled out seven players after practice for a punishing skate that saw one player collapse and All-Star winger Jeff O'Neill publicly lambast the coach in the press with an expletive-laced tirade.

If Maurice has truly lost these players, no amount of trades or lineup shuffles by GM Jim Rutherford can improve things. Maurice may have signed a five-year contract last summer, but the 'Canes may have to face the prospect of firing him and starting over with a new face behind the bench.

The Hurricanes aren't the only club facing ugliness in February. The Pittsburgh Penguins are having troubles of their own, so much so that owner and team captain Mario Lemieux is beginning to let his frustrations get the better of him on the ice.

In a recent game against the Florida Panthers, where his club was whipped 6-0, Lemieux lost it with Panthers defenceman Brad Ference's chippy play, dropping the gloves and touching off a wild melee that saw Lemieux rack up 29 minutes in penalties and earning himself an ejection from the game.

This may be an isolated incident, but I have a feeling there's more to Lemieux's antics than meets the eye.

And for good reason. After beginning the season red-hot, the Pens have cooled noticeably since November, sliding out of playoff contention in the process.

One major reason for this is the lack of depth on the Penguins blueline. A groin injury to Lemieux didn't help matters any, and of course there's the distractions brought about by his statements his team may not be able to re-signing his linemate, Alexei Kovalev. This sparked a media frenzy that has yet to die down, as rumours abound of Kovalev being shipped out by the March trade deadline.

Lemieux also has to deal with his continuing battle with the city of Pittsburgh to get a new arena built, and his club's struggles at the gate this season. This led to a public plea from Lemieux for more support from the fans of Pittsburgh.

However, that may be getting more difficult to drum up. Since the late 90s, Penguins fans have witnessed a steady parade of talent from their once-powerful team, due to the club's inability to retain their top talent because of the rise in player salaries in recent years.

The end result is the Penguins are now considered "small-market", and Lemieux himself has mused over the fate of his club if the current economic conditions continue in the NHL.

With the poor performance of the team the past two seasons, and growing uncertainty over it's future, is it any wonder Penguins fans seem to be drifting away?

Meanwhile, injuries have played a major part in the struggles of two Western conference clubs who were considered playoff contenders at the start of the season.

The LA Kings and Phoenix Coyotes have both been mauled by the injury bug this season. The Kings saw some of their best players, from Jason Allison to Adam Deadmarsh to Ian Laperriere to Lubomir Visnovsky to Bryan Smolinski all sidelined for lengthy periods because of injury.

The Coyotes, meanwhile, have lost Sean Burke, Ossi Vaananen, Danny Markov, Brian Savage, Landon Wilson, Krystofer Kolanos, Drake Berehowsky and Brad May with a variety of maladies.

When clubs suffer that many injuries to that many key players, it's almost impossible to replace them and remain competitive. However, it's led to a lot of talk over these clubs moving out some of their higher-priced talent to trim payroll and cut their losses.

For Kings fans, that's hard to swallow, given their owner is one of the richest men in America. For the Coyotes, it merely adds to their frustration as they await the building of a new arena, which they hope will entice more fans to come out for their games.

Finally, there's the soap opera that's been the San Jose Sharks. Touted as a potential Cup contender, the Sharks stumbled out of the starting gate and have never hit their stride.

They were hampered first by the contract holdouts of goalie Evgeny Nabokov and blueliner Brad Stuart. Once they were finally re-signed, the team still didn't improve as anticipated. That led to the firing of long-time head coach Daryl Sutter, but his replacement, Ron Wilson, has fared little better.

Upset with his team's performance, GM Dean Lombardi publicly lambasted his club over what he perceived was a lack of on-ice leadership. This was interpreted by the media as meaning he was unhappy with team captain Owen Nolan, who'd struggled offensively early in the season thanks in part to nagging injuries.

While Nolan picked up the pace in January, the press are having a field day speculating over where Nolan will be traded to. Lombardi didn't help matters any by failing to address the situation one way or the other. Meanwhile, his team continues to face an uphill battle if they have any hope of making the playoffs this season.

With all these teams facing little more than 25 games remaining in the 2002-03 season, it'll be interesting to see how many will shake their respective mid-winter blahs to make a serious run at a playoff berth, and how many are simply waiting for spring to put a merciful end to their miserable seasons.


It's been a couple of days now since the Pittsburgh Penguins sold forward Alexei Kovalev back to the New York Rangers, but it remains a hot topic of conversation among hockey fans.

And make no mistake, this was a sale, not a "trade" as the respective GMs of the Rangers and Penguins have insisted.

The purpose of a trade is to either try to make your team better, or if forced to dump salary, to get a healthy return that gives your club depth for the future. Sure, one team usually comes out on the short end of a trade, but generally even the loser can point to a player, prospect or draft pick and say with a legitimate straight face they got the best deal they could.

What happened between the Pens and Blueshirts on February 10th, 2003, certainly doesn't fall into those classifications. Indeed, it could be an ominous portent of things to come, for the NHL in general, and the Penguins in particular.

Several fans wrote in with their comments in a recent "Fans Speak Out" section, to indicate that Penguins GM Craig Patrick didn't panic, as I stated in my initial assessment of the deal. They pointed out, correctly, that Patrick got the best deal he could. The Penguins, based on whatever estimate you read, purged themselves of between $6-$10 million US in salary. They dumped an expensive minor league salary and that of a grinder and an injury-ravaged veteran blueliner whose best years are behind him.

Some also insist the return wasn't that bad, claiming the Pens got a young, inexpensive checking forward, two serviceable defencemen and a 22-year-old prospect who could still develop into a quality NHL'er.

But as several commentators have pointed out, this move was all about the Benjamins.

In my original assessment of the trade, I stated that Patrick panicked, but having taken some time to evaluate this trade further, and taking into consideration comments noted above and in the press, I no longer believe that. It's apparent he had no choice.

Patrick was under obvious pressure to make a suitable cost-cutting deal, and because the Rangers were willing to take away the salaries of three other players who didn't fit into the Pens plans, along with the remainder of Kovalev's salary, and would throw $4 million into the kitty, he obviously felt it was the only move to make.

Let's get one thing straight: no matter how you try to justify the return of players, the bottom line is it does nothing to make the Penguins a better hockey team.

And dealing Kovalev, the league's fifth-leading scorer, to a divisional rival with whom the Pens are battling with for one of the last playoff spots in the East, and getting nothing worthwhile in return is akin to waving the white flag of surrender on the season.

Look at the return for what it is: a pickup of warm bodies with marginal skills, the best of which is a third-line checker, to at least justify that yes, the Penguins did get some players out of the deal. However, these players will do little, if anything, to bolster the Penguins fading playoff hopes.

Mikael Samuelsson plays with lots of energy and possesses good two-way skills. However, in no way is he going to develop into a first or second line scorer someday.

Joel Bouchard has bounced around the league and the minors his entire professional career. Richard Lintner had two underwhelming years with the Nashville Predators and left after a contract squabble to play in Europe. Rico Fata was a former Flames prospect who has yet to prove he'll make it in the NHL, despite Rangers GM Glen Sather's statements to the contrary.

This is not the kind of return Penguins fans envisioned when word first broke over three weeks ago that Kovalev was being shopped.

They understood their club was cash-strapped, and while they didn't like the prospect of yet another big star leaving the team because of it, they were prepared to suck it up as long as the return was a decent one.

Indeed, in the weeks leading up to this deal, Penguins owner Mario Lemieux and GM Craig Patrick were insistent they wanted a better return for Kovalev than what they got two years ago from Washington for Jaromir Jagr.

It was upon these statements that I based my belief in the weeks leading up to this deal that the Penguins, when they finally dealt Kovalev, wouldn't accept a package of picks and prospects, but rather promising, affordable young talent that could help the club now.

Sadly, this return doesn't even come close to accomplishing this goal.

If this deal brought the Penguins, say, Jamie Lundmark and Dan Blackburn and a prospect or Radek Dvorak from the Rangers, it would've been more palatable to their fans. They could've at least believed there was hope for the future, that their club might be able to rebuild and maybe win out in the long run.

Instead, Patrick got a return that would've been considered ridiculous had it appeared as a rumour prior to February 10th. Indeed, I had sneered at suggestions the Leafs could have Kovalev for Nik Antropov, Ian White and cash. There was a report the day the trade went down the Pens were seeking Wade Belak, Karel Pilar, Brad Boyes, Alexei Ponikarovsky and $4 million, but Leafs GM Pat Quinn thought it too expensive for his club to absorb. Too bad for Toronto, but more so for the Penguins.

Worst of all, it highlights how bad things are for the Penguins financially. They needed the cash more than they needed a quality return. It wasn't enough to just dump the remainder of Kovalev's salary and pick up $4 mil in the process. They also needed someone willing to take the salaries of injury-hobbled defenceman Janne Laukannen, checking forward Dan LaCouture, and minor league blueliner Mike Wilson. Plus, they needed someone willing to take Andrew Ference's salary off their hands for a draft pick, ironically in the form of another struggling small-market club, the Calgary Flames.

And don't expect much of that money to go toward obtaining decent talent. The word around the league is the Pens needed the money to off-set potential losses at the gate this season.

Sadly, however, that's a short-term fix. It may address this season's problems, but what about next season?

The losses are bound to be higher at this time next year, for without replacing Kovalev's offence or bringing in better all-round depth, the Pens appear destined to be contending for the title of Conference basement dweller.

That, coupled with low return for Kovalev has set off an overwhelming wave of negativity amongst Penguins supporters. This deal clearly sent the wrong message to Penguins fans, and no amount of pleading by Mario Lemieux for more support is going to change that.

Like the fans in Buffalo, Penguins supporters will be jaded by what they'll see as a lost cause. Why support a hockey team that's reduced to selling off it's players to stave off potential bankruptcy? Why come out to watch a hockey team consisting mainly of Lemieux, Martin Straka and little else? Why support a team that not only may have no chance of making the playoffs, but might not even exist after the impending Labour War of 2004?

It's apparent now the Penguins hope to ride out next season minimizing losses wherever they can, then like many of their other struggling small-market peers, the Penguins will put their faith in a reworked Collective Bargaining Agreement they hope will save them from extinction or relocation.

The problem, of course, is this could well be their last desperate act. If the upcoming CBA fails to significantly address the problems facing the NHL, the Penguins will be finished in Pittsburgh.

A team with a 37-year history, with two Stanley Cup banners, who saw great players like Lemieux, Jagr, Francis, and Kovalev have their best seasons in Pittsburgh, could either move or disappear. A legacy will be over.

This deal sends the message, once and for all, that the Penguins cannot compete in the NHL of today. Making trades for cash rather than for talent for the future is no way to ensure long-term survival in the NHL.

Yes, most of the Pens woes can be traced back to the free-spending ways of former owner Howard Baldwin, but the sharp rise in player salaries, brought about in large part by greedy big-market owners, only hastened what could well be the demise of an NHL franchise in Steeltown.

Patrick and his defenders can try to justify this deal six ways to Sunday, but there was no disguising the pained expression on his face when he faced the press to announce the deal. This was not the face of a GM pleased with the return, or even for the money he was saving, but rather one of a GM who knew the return wouldn't help his team and knew the cash was only a stop-gap for what is undoubtedly a growing financial problem with his team.

If there is one certainty, however, it's the fact the Penguins, regardless of how much money they saved or the quality of the return, are a worse team today than they were they sold Alexei Kovalev back to the NY Rangers.

And the NHL could be worse off for it, too.

How many more teams will be facing this scenario? Could it be the Calgary Flames selling off Jarome Iginla? Could the Nashville Predators be facing a fire-sale of their best young talent? Do the Phoenix Coyotes give up franchise player Sean Burke for cash and crap? Do the Tampa Bay Lightning face deciding between Lecavalier, St. Louis or Richards?

I fear the Kovalev sale is only the beginning.


I recently read about NY Rangers GM Glen Sather defending the sale of Alexei Kovalev to his club by the Pittsburgh Penguins, where he stated it was good business based on "free enterprise".

Amazing how Slats switched in three years from being the champion of struggling small-market clubs to championing the very "free enterprise" he railed against so vehemently when he was GM of the Edmonton Oilers. Money talks, BS runs the marathon, and Sather has plenty of both.

If the Rangers were competing to corner the hockey market and be the only team in the NHL, then free enterprise works. However, his Rangers have accomplished nothing over the past six years except drive up player salaries, while icing a team that can at best be considered a disgrace, considering the amount of money they've wasted in the last six years.

Helping to drive small-market teams out of business isn't free enterprise, it's destroying the very business upon which your team makes it's living. The NHL as it stands can only survive as a legitimate big-time sports league as long as most, if not all, of its franchises can survive and compete on a reasonably level playing field. It's only as strong as it's weakest link.

Unfortunately, there's a lot of folks involved in the game, be they players, management, ownership, media or fans, who just aren't getting it. Sather justifies the money's he's spent in the last three years as good business, that if you have the resources available to improve your team, you should use them.

They also argue for contraction, bluntly stating if a team cannot compete in today's NHL market, they should either be moved or folded. There's no denying the rapid expansion of the 1990's was a poorly-thought-out move, designed more to satisfy the greed of the owners of existing clubs with the quick cash-grab from expansion fees than it was in growing the game and making professional hockey a big-time player in the North American sports market.

And while contraction seems the best suggestion to curing the league's ills, it will also cause irreparable damage to the league's image and forever cement it as a small-timer, which perhaps, it's probably always been.

Thus, Sather's comments serve only to fortify the image of the Rangers as fat-cat, short-sighted free spenders who cannot look beyond their own self-interests to understand their very moves contribute to hurting, rather than helping, the National Hockey League.

So you think Kovalev makes the Rangers a playoff team, Slats? Let's see, you've spent nearly $80 million in payroll this season, and have a club that could still miss the post-season. At best, they're a "first-and-out" team. Even if by some miracle they did pull off a first-round upset, there's no way they'll get to the Conference Finals.

Did this deal do anything to address the Rangers woeful defensive game, which has consistently been among the worst in the NHL since Sather became GM three years ago? He keeps loading up the Rangers with offensive players, seemingly in hopes of resurrecting the run-and-gun style that was so effective during his '80s heyday with the Oilers, but which no longer works in today's NHL.

Sather used to be a hockey genius, but now he's an aging hypocrite the game has passed by.

If the NY Yankees had the same track record as the Rangers over the last six years, their fans would be howling about all the wasted money spent on a loser, and would be calling for change. Yet when the Rangers do it, some of their followersstill believe it justified? Even when they're battling for their playoff lives after the Kovalev trade?

What will they do if the Rangers squeak into the post-season? Will they applaud and commend the organization for spending all that money on a marginal playoff club?

Yes, I'm sure I'll hear about this from some Rangers fans, as I've been hearing it for years. In particular, complaints about the "anti-Rangers" slant in my commentary.

Understand this: I don't hate the Rangers, nor do I hate their fans. They're an Original Six franchise with a long, colourful history who've brought us Frank Boucher, the Cook Brothers, Ivan "Ching" Johnson, Chuck Raynor, Andy Bathgate, Gump Worsley, Bill Gadsby, Eddie Giacomin, Rod Gilbert, Jean Ratelle, Brad Park, John Vanbiesbrouck, Brian Leetch, and Mike Richter. And if any of you Rangers fans don't recognize the names of some of these guys, shame on you!

No, I don't hate the NY Rangers. What I hate is the stupid way they've thrown millions upon millions away in free agency.

Has it made the Rangers a winner? Has it made them Cup contenders? Has it even made them a marginal playoff team?

I could understand them spending what they have over the years if it had kept them in Cup contention. I still wouldn't have liked it, but I could understand it.

Oh, why don't I pick on the Flyers, Red Wings, Stars, Maple Leafs, Avalanche and Capitals, you ask?

Believe me, I'm not enamoured of the amounts of cash they've tossed around in the UFA market, and they too bear their fair share of the blame for the escalation in player salaries over the years.

The difference between these clubs and the Rangers, however, is they at least grasp the concept that free agency shouldn't be the main pillar of team building.

For one thing, most of these clubs have been successful by trading well, correctly identifying their weaknesses and dealing for the right players to strengthen their weak points.

What trade made by the Rangers in the last eight years addressed their obvious weaknesses and made them in turn a better hockey team? A playoff hockey team? A Cup contender?

Another method of team building that worked for the more successful big-market peers of the Rangers is in development of young talent, rather than continually throwing it away in quick-fix trades.

If you ask which players presently on the Rangers roster came up through their system, you could name Dan Blackburn, Jamie Lundmark and the re-acquired Kovalev. The rest of the roster is made up of trade acquisitions or free agent signees.

And therein lies the real root of their problems. They've had few players on their roster who came up through their system and were allowed to grow and develop into stars as Rangers. Too often, these promising players are dealt away for veterans.

In the early 90s, these deals paid off and were key to the Rangers winning the Cup in 1994. Since then, however, they've dealt away players who've gone on to have various degrees of success with other teams.

Wouldn't the Rangers be a better team today if they'd kept Matthias Norstrom, Sergei Zubov, Nicklas Sundstrom, Dan Cloutier, Kim Johnsson, Marc Savard, and Mike York? Include Kovalev in that list, too. Lemme tell ya, they wouldn't have had to throw away as much money on aging veterans and damaged goods as they've done over the past six years.

The Rangers have too many players pledging allegiance to the dollars the club is paying them, rather than to the team and the city in which they play in.

If I were a Rangers fan, I'd be furious at these players, and furious at the people who brought them here. I'd be furious over the number of good young players cast away over the years who never got the chance to grow within the team and to wear the colours of the Blueshirts with pride.

I don't know how many Rangers fans feel this way, or how many are still buying the Koolaid the owners and Sather are selling them, but surely to heavens even their most ardent supporters must be finally awakening to the reality that their club is a laughingstock.

They're hated, not because of jealousy, but because their club is seen as the vanguard of big-market poachers preying on weaker teams that cannot afford to retain their star players.

They're mocked because of the lousy teams they've put together in recent years, despite having one of the highest payrolls in the NHL.

Oh, but it's all justified, right? Because they have the money, they have every right to make big free agent signings, because, after all, New Yorkers won't wait for a winner, right?

I've been hearing the same old song-and-dance from some Rangers supporters for years. Guess what, gang? You've been waiting six years while your team has thrown bad money after good in it's futile quest to buy itself a championship.

And after all those millions have been spent, after all the players the Rangers are saddled with because their hefty contracts make them practically untradeable when they've worn out whatever limited usefulness they had left, you're not only still waiting for a winner, you're waiting for a team that can be at least battle for one of the last playoff spots in the East.

If my favourite hockey club did this, I'd be disgusted with the way they were using my peers and i as an excuse to justify tossing around all those dollars for mediocrity.

Those of you who plan on writing in to take me to task about being "anti-Ranger" should take a moment before you click the "send" button on your e-mail to consider what it is I'm saying but that you're not getting.

Just because I dare to criticize your club's frequent follies into free agency doesn't mean I hate your club. Since when does pointing out the blatantly obvious constitute hatred? Nor do I take any great joy in watching your team finish out of the post-season year after year.

No, my Blueshirt friends, I'm not wildly throwing barbs at the Rangers out of hatred. I'm merely pointing out the fact that, after six long years of futility, your management and ownership have nothing to show for all they've spent. Their record these past six years speaks for itself, far better than anything I could say.

And perhaps, it's time for a long-overdue radical change in thinking at the top.

It's time for Rangers front office to realize they've done nothing to improve themselves, and plenty to contribute in the potential downfall of the National Hockey League.

It's time they stop lying to their fans, among the most fervent and knowledgeable in the game, by insisting going after someone else's talent will make the Rangers a success.

It's time they better develop their young talent, and give them opportunities to flourish and grow, rather than being buried behind over-priced, selfish veterans. It needs to allow a team to grow together, for the youngsters to mesh well with the veterans, rather than shipping them out for the latest quick-fix.

It's time they realize they need players with character, heart and determination to match their talent. Players who are proud to wear the Rangers sweater, who look forward to spending their careers with the franchise, rather than as a last, lucrative stop on their way to retirement.

It's time for imaginative decisions to be put in place with regards to building and maintaining this franchise, rather than continuing to toss money at problems that, quite frankly, cannot fix what happens on the ice.

This must be done, and soon. Otherwise, the Rangers will continue to be an also-ran, mocked and villified, a symbol of unbridled greed gone horribly wrong, the poster-child for all that is wrong with the National Hockey League.

It deserves better than that.


My last Soapbox article, which was essentially a rant against the NY Rangers unsuccessful attempts to buy themselves playoff contention, generated quite a response amongst my readers.

Most of the responses were in line with my comments, with a minority taking exception to my singling out the Blueshirts. I applaud those folks for their passionate support of the Rangers. It's obvious these individuals care deeply about the Blueshirts, and are to be commended, not mocked, for that support.

Unfortunately, I could'nt post up all the dissenting comments. One was cut and pasted from a Rangers website, thus I don't have permission to reprint the entire response. Two of them, I could respect their point of view, but not the offensive language and tone.

The dissenters raised some interesting points, which I believe merit responses in this week's Soapbox:

-"Those who criticize the Rangers and other big-market US teams over rising player salaries are typical, whining Canadians, who find it easier to blame American-based franchises, particularly the Rangers, than to take the Canadian teams to task for their woes."

Were this simply a case of Canadian clubs being unable to compete with their richer, bigger cousins in America, that argument might hold merit.

But the last time I checked on a map, cities like Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Phoenix, Nashville, Miami, and Tampa Bay weren't located in Canada.

I'm not laying the league's financial woes solely on the Rangers, but they are considered perhaps the prime offender, not just by me, but by many other fans and commentators around the league. My opinion is not just "a typical Canadian" one. Check the media coverage around the NHL, particularly in struggling US-based markets.

The complaints about rising salaries, the widening gap between have and have-not teams, and cries for change in the next CBA aren't just coming from north of the border anymore.

- "If Canadian fans aren't happy with their teams losing money or with the unfavourable exchange rate, they should lobby their government to subsidize their hockey teams."

Why should they? Would the good folks in New York State be happy if the Sabres ran to the State capital looking for a bailout? Would taxpayers in Pennsylvania be sympathetic to the plight of the Penguins to condone giving up their tax dollars to bailing out that franchise?

How many US-based teams presently struggling financially are doing this? None. Why? Because they'd be laughed out of their respective capital buildings!

Don't forget, the NHL had the Canadian federal government convinced to subsidize Canadian-based franchises, but when it was put before the taxpayers, the result was so overwhelmingly negative the government quickly scrapped it.

There can be no doubt that Canadian teams are at a disadvantage when paying their players in US dollars whilst their revenues are in Canadian pesos..ahem.."dollars".

However, a mere ten-twelve years ago, most Canadian teams had little problem with retaining their best players and maintaining contending teams. If a Canadian team was doing poorly on the ice, it had more to do with incompetence in their front office and ownership than it did with money.

Case in point: the 1989 Stanley Cup champion Calgary Flames had a payroll of $9 million. Canadian. In a league where the average payroll was $7 million.

The exchange rate was never an issue for Canadian teams until after the 1995 Collective Bargaining Agreement. True, the exchange rate has been more unfavourable to Canadian teams since then. However, when one considers player salaries have nearly doubled in average at the same time, it is further proof as to why Canadian teams are finding it tougher to compete.

- "Your problem is you're a typical Torontonian. The Maple Leafs weren't good enough to win the Cup so you're reduced to whining when things didn't go your way."

Let's make one thing perfectly clear: just because a Canadian hockey fan dares to criticize an American-based team doesn't make them a whining Torontonian. Nor does it make one a Leafs fan.

Comments like that merely reinforces the stereotype that American hockey fans have no concept of the world beyond their borders, ok?

For every Canadian that loves the Maple Leafs, there is another who hates their guts. Despite the self-centred blatherings of the Toronto media, the Maple Leafs aren't "Canada's team", and there are many Canadians who cannot stand the Leafs delusional "we-are- the-centre-of-the-hockey universe" attitude.

The Maple Leafs are every bit as responsible for driving up salaries as are their big-market US cousins. It's a moot point if they were willing to offer Bobby Holik $8 million per season, which was hinted at, but never substantiated, by some in the press, before the Rangers got him for $9 million.

And I'm not a Torontonian. I live in Prince Edward Island.

-"One problem with the NHL is "second-rate teams" refusing to even compete."

This was aimed at teams like the Penguins and Flames, but by that standard, you could include almost three-quarters of the league into that category. Would you prefer a new "Original Six" featuring only the six or eight big-market teams that can actually bid for these contracts?

The numbers of clubs who get involved in unrestricted free agent bidding seemingly shrinks with each season. Most notable was the absence of the Philadelphia Flyers from last summer's UFA bidding wars. The reason for this? Ownership was no longer comfortable with the amount of money they were shelling out for salaries.

Are the Flyers now to be considered "second-rate?"

The Flames did make an effort to compete. They re-signed Iginla, rather than face a prolonged holdout that could hurt their fanbase by having their most popular player on the sidelines. Sure looks like they've been trying to compete to me.

- "Nobody forced Penguins GM Craig Patrick to make the deal that sent Alexei Kovalev to the Rangers. It was his club's own financial mess that made the deal, and besides, Patrick could've found a better deal elsewhere than the one he got from the Rangers if he tried."

The reason the Penguins couldn't re-sign Kovalev is they simply can't afford to. They had no choice, because the Rangers were the only team who'd not only take Kovalev off their hands, but also the salaries of two other players who didn't factor into their future plans, and would also pay for the salaries this season of those players the Pens would get in return, plus they'd pay up $4 million.

The gun was at Patrick's head, because finances dictated it. The Pens are in deeper financial trouble than was believed prior to the sale of Kovalev to New York. The deal didn't make the Penguins a better hockey club. It merely bought them a little financial breathing room.

- "It's not the Rangers fault teams like the Penguins, Buffalo Sabres and Ottawa Senators are in the financial fix they presently find themselves in."

Agreed. Nobody should blame the Rangers for the Senators off-ice woes. The Sens were swimming in red-ink from the get-go, which led to their declaring bankruptcy and that farce of a sale by once-and-future owner Rod Bryden.

However, if we're going to compare the Senators and Rangers, let's examine quickly the returns both clubs have gotten for their respective payrolls.

The Sens are a testimony on how to build a contender with half the payroll of a free-spending also-ran that the Rangers have become the past six years. The Sens build a winner with only half the money, while the Rangers spend and spend and still miss the playoffs.

The Penguins got into their mess largely because of former owner Howard Baldwin's free-spending ways. And the downfall of the Rigas family has been well-documented. The Rangers had nothing to do with those team's financial woes, and anyone who blame them is blinded by their hatred of the Blueshirts.

-"The Rangers aren't solely to blame for driving up salaries. The Blues, Flyers, Maple Leafs, Avs, Wings and Stars over the years all deserve their share of the blame."

Agreed. The fact still remains, however, that the Rangers have had an adverse effect on the market for UFAs. Kasparaitis and Holik are but two recent examples. They, along with other big market clubs, make it difficult, and in some cases impossible, for small-market teams to compete in bidding for the salaries of unrestriced free agents. What the Rangers paid for Holik and Kasparaitis was madness. Just as it would've been if any of their big-market peers had also forked over those amounts, which is quite probable. Still, it was clearly wrong, and set the standard even higher for players of similar calibre who become eligible for UFA status.

- "Small market teams have themselves to blame. After all, it wasn't the Rangers who paid the salaries of Paul Kariya, Peter Forsberg, Keith Tkachuk, Alexei Yashin, Owen Nolan and Pavel Bure."

The fact the Rangers make a huge plunge in the UFA market on a regular basis speaks volumes for how poor off they've been in recent years when it comes to their own Group II free agents. It's shocking that, in recent years, only Nedved was a significant RFA signing by the Blueshirts. The only reason the Rangers have had limited play in the Group II world is because they rarely hang onto players that blossom into significant RFAs.

Don't even try to suggest Yashin, Bure, Owen Nolan, Forsberg, Tkachuk and Kariya wouldn't have been re-signed to huge contracts if they'd been Ranger RFAs.

Speaking of those examples, let's break them down case-by-case:

Regarding Yashin, the Isles have no business making any noise about the Rangers, given the outrageous deal they signed him to. But the reason Yashin got that contract in the first place is because his last team, the Ottawa Senators, couldn't afford to keep him. Nobody will ever accuse the Sens of driving up player salaries.

One person suggested the Canucks were partially to blame for Bure's contract. They're wrong. Remember, they dealt him to Florida because they couldn't afford his salary demands as an RFA, which forced a holdout by Bure. It was Wayne Huzienga, the former owner of the Panthers, who agreed to sign him to that contract.

When the Panthers changed owners, they took over a club swimming in red ink and had to pare payroll. Blame Huzienga for that. The Panthers were under his ownership when they traded for Bure and signed him in 1999. Since they were taken over by new owners last season, they've been cutting salaries and even sought a loan from the league to help off-set their losses.

Tkachuk makes his money in St. Louis, and last time I checked, the Blues were one of the big-market sinners in the league, and haven't been crying poverty since being taken over by the Wal-Mart heirs. Remember, the Coyotes dealt Tkachuk because they could no longer afford his salary demands.

The Avs are also a big-market club, hence their signing of Forsberg to that hefty deal. If Colorado were small market, it's highly unlikely Forsberg would've received that kind of cash from them. Indeed, he'd probably be playing elsewhere, especially if the Avalanche were still the Quebec Nordiques.

As for Kariya, guess who owns the Mighty Ducks? The Mighty Disney, who happily paid out the big bucks to Kariya. However, it's telling they've had the club on the market for the past two years. Doesn't make them small market, it makes them unhappy that they're not making any money on the team. And remember Kariya's old linemate, Teemu Selanne? Dealt to San Jose because Disney simply didn't want to pay him $8 mil per season.

As we can see, almost all of these players were signed to their large contracts by predominantly big-market teams or deep-pocketed owners.

- "The Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks are two example of hypocritical small-market Canadian teams driving up player salaries by overpaying Jarome Iginla and Markus Naslund."

Iginla got the contract he did because he'd come off a Ross-Richard-Pearson winning performance, and lost out to Montreal's Jose Theodore by one vote for the Hart Trophy. The Flames had no choice. If they didn't re-sign Iginla, they risked taking a hit to their season ticket fanbase. If the club had a poor season, it would be blamed directly on an Iginla holdout.

The fact they got him for what could only be called a bargain when compared to guys like Yashin, who've never won squat in their lives, means the Flames are trying to be competitive. That goes against the rant often levelled at small-market clubs, when they're forced to trade away players that become too expensive to retain?

Judging by the amount of interest in Iginla when rumours sprung up he might be available, more than one big-market team would be very happy to absorb his contract. Noticeably, not one small-market club in the bunch was named as a potential bidder.

The problem here is the Flames know it's only a matter of time before they can no longer retain Iginla at the risk of losing depth in the rest of the roster. And they know that time will come after 2004. Depending on the upcoming CBA negotiations, if the league keeps things the way they are, Iginla won't be a Flame after the 2003-04 season.

It's also interesting to note that the New York Post called for the Rangers to make an unmatchable $15 million US one-year offer to Iginla, thus forcing the Flames to accept five first round picks in compensation. Had the Rangers actually done this, they would've incurred the wrath of the league, yet the Post believed it justified to have "the best young forward in the game" playing for "the NHL's most important franchise".

So the Post blames the Flames for driving up player salaries, but believe it's ok to stump for the Rangers to make a ridiculous offer. They single out small-market teams as the real culprits in driving up salaries, but believed it justified for the Blueshirts to do the same thing. Now who's the hypocrite?

The Flames knew they had to re-sign Iginla, or risk losing him. If they didn't pay him what he was seeking, they knew damn well somebody else would've.

As for Naslund, the New York Post took Vancouver GM Brian Burke to task last summer for nearly doubling then-restricted free agent forward Markus Naslund's salary in 2001 from $2.35 million to $4.33 million per season, thus establishing the market value for other RFAs that summer like Petr Sykora and Alexei Kovalev when they went to arbitration.

Since Burke had "all the leverage" on Naslund because of his captain's RFA status, argued the Post, the Canucks GM was the prime culprit for "raising the bar on Group II free agents".

What the Post conveniently overlooked was Naslund coming off what was then his career best season of 41 goals and 75 points in 2001, totals that undoubtedly would've been higher if the Vancouver captain hadn't suffered a broken leg late in the season.

Burke, understanding that his team's success depended on having Naslund in the fold, quickly locked up his captain to a new deal that justly rewarded him for his improvement by nearly doubling his worth.

Sure, that significant raise from $2.3 million to $4.3 million could've blown up in Burke's face if Naslund failed to build on what seemed to be a breakout season. Instead, the talented Swede finished among the top five in league scoring in 2002, potting over 40 goals and 90 points, a career best. Indeed, Naslund's $4.3 mil now appears to be a bargain.

But let's say Burke decided only to give Naslund a ten percent qualifying offer raise. Naslund would've rejected this, and undoubtedly would've held out for a raise over $4 million per season.

So the Canucks would've begun the season without their best player, and Naslund, who had trained hard to recover from his broken leg, would've missed valuable playing time both in pre-season and regular season action.

Perhaps the Canucks would've finally bent after a month and given Naslund what he wanted, but the damage would've been done. Vancouver got off to a poor start last season with Naslund in the lineup, but fortunately, he was in game shape at that time, and was a significant factor in the club's incredible second-half rebound.

Does anyone really believe the same thing would've happened if Naslund had staged a prolonged holdout because of Burke "holding all the leverage"? You'd have to be as smart as a crack-brained mule to buy that argument.

The Canucks would've missed the playoffs, Naslund would've been miffed at Vancouver management, and Burke would've been vilified by the Vancouver press and fans.

But hey! At least he would've been spared the wrath of the New York Post. Then again, they probably would've blamed him for "not competing".

- "Eric Lindros makes less as a Ranger than he did as a Philadelphia Flyer, thus the Rangers are more financially responsible than the Flyers".

You're forgetting about the bonus clauses built into Lindros's contract. He gets bonuses for games played, goals scored, points and additional money for each playoff round the Rangers win, which raises his salary signicantly from it's $2 million-plus base to almost $8 million. Then again, he hasn't earned any post-season bonus money with them yet, so he does get paid less!

- "If these supposed "small market teams" can't compete, they should relocate or fold."

The NHL must do something to level the playing field. Contracting one or two clubs is one thing, but if you're facing the possibility of losing 8 or ten or twelve folding, not relocating, that's an option the league cannot face.

There is no question it was a very bad idea to expand the way the NHL did in the 1990s. It was based solely on greed and not on common sense. However, the NHL simply cannot afford to contract back to 20 or 22 teams. They'll lose money, respect, and whatever opportunity they have left to grow the game.

It wouldn't just be recent expansion clubs like Nashville or Tampa Bay who would face contractions. It would also be clubs with long, rich histories like the Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, Buffalo Sabres and Pittsburgh Penguins.

And where are these clubs supposed to relocate? Hamilton, Ontario? Not if the Maple Leafs have anything to say about it. Portland? There's a belief Microsoft founder Paul Allen wants an NHL franchise, but as a recent article in the Calgary Sun pointed out, that simply isn't the case. Las Vegas? Which high-roller can be found to take on an NHL franchise? Cleveland? Not with the Blue Jackets cornering the Ohio hockey market. Seattle? Only if Bill Gates suddenly develops a hockey jones. Houston? Possibly, but the last time there was interest in an NHL franchise was back in 1998, when the Edmonton Oilers nearly moved there.

As we can see, there isn't much for struggling NHL franchises to move to.

- "You may consider the Rangers a laughingstock, but they're among the league leaders in attendence and probably are among the most popular road teams in the league."

It also doesn't matter how many folks attend Rangers home or road games. The amount of money they've spent for a team that has missed the post-season for five straight seasons and faces the distinct possibility of missing them for a sixth straight season makes them a laughingstock.

How can you justify with a straight face spending all those millions on big-name players who, year after year, fail to get your club into the playoffs? Entertainment value? Yeah, I can hear the sales pitch now: "Come on and all to see the most expensive freeloaders in the NHL dash your hopes and take your cash! Nothing's too good for Rangers fans, and that's exactly what we'll give them...nothing!"

- "The Rangers may lack on-ice success in recent years, but they've been successful in terms of revenue generated to Cablevision, who owns the club. "

So the Rangers are contributing lots of money to the Cablevision coffers. Good for them. I'll bet most of their fans aren't tickled about it. And imagine how much more money they could have if they'd built a playoff contender? Sorry, but all that cash did nothing to make them a better team. If the only results was making money for the ownership, where's the good in that? Yeah, that'll get out the fans: "Come see the richest non-playoff team in hockey!" Hell, why don't they just come out and tell Rangers fans the truth: "Come support Cablevision, because we need your cash more than you need a winning hockey team!"

-" Your problem is that you don't understand how free agency works. UFA contracts have no impact on RFA salaries, as they cannot be used in arbitration cases and cannot be used in comparison when negotiating RFA contracts.

I understand the current CBA quite well, thank you. Ever wonder why we rarely see small-market teams get into the bidding for big-name UFAs? Why is it always the same six or seven teams, while the rest of the league is left on the wayside to bid for whatever more affordable scraps remain?

Only those in the few markets that can actually afford to get into the bidding for UFAs support it. If you don't believe it's unfairly balanced, you're simply denying the truth.

- "There is collusion at NHL headquarters which is keeping big-market teams from out-bidding small-market teams."

Is there really collusion? Or perhaps a rare display of common sense amongst NHL governors?

The UFA market has become a feeding frenzy amongst big market teams. Can you imagine what it would be like if they did the same for RFAs? Indeed, that would only further highlight the gap between the "haves" and "have-nots". Would that be good for business?

That's what makes the argument of small-market clubs driving up salaries that much more absurd.