JANUARY 2002 SOAPBOX ARCHIVES

AN OPEN LETTER TO BRUINS AND BLACKHAWKS FANS.

While there is still another couple of months or so left on the NHL regular season schedule, it seems congratulations are in order to all of you.

It's certainly been a while since your respective teams have done this well. Indeed, when the season began, no one - other than a handful of die-hards - would've predicted the Blackhawks and Bruins would be battling for first overall in their respective conferences.

The last several years haven't been very good to your respective clubs, members of the once-elite "Original Six". I'm sure you're really enjoying the change in your teams fortunes.

And for good reason! Your teams are not only two of the biggest surprises in this wacky 2001-02 season, they're also a lot of fun to watch. The main reason for this, of course, is the style of game both clubs are playing.

The Blackhawks, thanks to new head coach Brian Sutter, have employed a very simple approach to this season: out-work the other guy. Sutter had used this approach previously in Calgary, but the club he had then was still young and developing and consequently, prone to mistakes. All he needed was a club with a good mix of veterans and youth to buy into his game, and he found just that club in the 'Hawks.

Meanwhile, the Bruins have seemingly made a return to the good old days of the 1970s and the "Big Bad Bruins". That's not to say coach Robbie Ftorek's bunch aren't working hard, but there's a nasty aggressive edge to their game that hasn't been seen in Boston since disco was king. It's certainly been a contributing factor to the Bruins rise this season.

Another reason why your teams are fun to watch is their offensive game. Boston and Chicago are deep in offensive talent, the 'Hawks with Tony Amonte, Alexei Zhamnov, Steve Sullivan and rookie Kyle Calder; the Bruins with Sergei Samsonov, Bill Guerin, Glen Murray and Brian Rolston.

Powering both offensive engines have been two players who have emerged as genuine forces this season. In Chicago, Eric Daze, and in Boston, Joe Thornton. Both have had to overcome adversity to become the stars they are today.

Up until last summer, Daze was perhaps one of the most hated Blackhawk player ever, derisively nicknamed "Daisy" by you Chicago fans for his soft game. You Bruins fans, on the other hand, were more patient with Thornton, the golden boy of the 1997 draft, but there was talk prior to this season that, while he was going to be a good NHL player, he wasn't going to develop into the superstar Boston management believed he would be.

I'm betting no one in Beantown or the Windy City is deriding either player now. Daze and Thornton are presently among the top ten scorers in the NHL, both sitting within four points (as of this writing) of Calgary's Jarome Iginla for the lead.

I agree with you it's a sin neither player was selected to play for Team Canada in the 2002 Olympics, but to be fair to Wayne Gretzky and his management team, nobody would've picked these two for the Olympics prior to the start of this season. Rest assured, they'll end on on Canada's 2006 squad (if the NHL still wants to participate in the Olympics by then) should they continue their fine play.

Looking at the defence corps of both clubs, there isn't a Norris contender to be found. Yet they're perhaps two of the hardest working blueline squads in the NHL. Hiring Sutter was a boon for Chicago's Boris Mironov, another 'Hawk who was once so despised, you Chicago fans were screaming for him to be traded last summer. "Bo-bo" has flourished playing for Sutter, as has Phil Housley, plucked off the waiver wire from Calgary. "Phil the Thrill" played for Sutter in Calgary, and is obviously enjoying the experience again. Perhaps the biggest impact player was low-cost free agent pickup Jon Klemm. His leadership, experience and strong defensive play has helped turn around a defence that was one of the worst in the league last season.

In Boston, your're lacking a good offensive blueliner in the mold of a Housley or Mironov, and a season-ending injury to Kyle McLaren will hurt in the long run, but the Bruins are making do regardless. The once inconsistent Hal Gill has been steady on the blueline, veteran free agent acquisition Sean O'Donnell has been a model of consistency, and Nick Boynton is having a good rookie campaign. An overall strong team defence has also contributed to overcoming a lack of depth on the their blueline.

Sometimes overlooked in the success of the Blackhawks and Bruins this season has been the calibre of their starting goaltenders. After seeing two seasons cut short with knee injuries, Boston's Byron Dafoe has had a healthy and productive season. While his stats aren't as strong as they were back in 1999 when Dafoe was considered a Vezina candidate, there's no question the Bruins play better knowing "Lord Byron" is in goal.

The Blackhawks Jocelyn Thibault probably won't get a Vezina nod with his 2.48 GAA and .901 SP (as of this writing). Quite frankly, the 'Hawks and their fans could care less. The scrawny netminder has been a workhorse for Chicago, currently leading the NHL in wins with 28 and games played with 49. He will probably win 40 games this season, a career high, and may have a shot at the NHL record of 47.

Barring the unforeseen, both clubs should easily make the playoffs this season. While nobody is seriously considering them to be Cup contenders, I'll wager those of you who cheer for these guys take comfort in the fact nobody seriously expected your teams to be playoff contenders at the start of the season, too.

There's a lot of good to cheer about with both teams. There are also areas of concern, too. Please understand, Bruins and Blackhawks fans, I'm not trying to rain on your parade with what I'm about to say. I'm merely pointing out that, once the euphoria of this season has passed, there are problem areas that will need to be addressed.

First and foremost, there a lack of depth in goal. Dafoe and Thibault are playing well, but their respective backups leave a lot to be desired. Boston's John Grahame has not developed into the challenger for Dafoe's role as starting goaltender. As for Thibault, there's a very good reason why he's played so many games. Namely, there is a lack of confidence in backup Steve Passmore. While Dafoe and Thibault claim to relish their heavy workloads, fatigue will become a factor throughout the remainder of the season and into the playoffs.

The Bruins have an additional worry, that being their blueline. They so desperately want a quality puck-moving blueliner, they even contacted retired former Bruin Ray Bourque to inquire about a possible comeback in Boston. Instead, they're left with giving former Bruin and unrestricted free agent Gord Murphy a try-out. That doesn't bode well for your hopes of a sustained Cup run this season.

There is also the issue of Tony Amonte and Bill Guerin, two free agents-to-be who in all likelihood won't be back next season. The strong play of both your teams this season has left your respective GMs with a dilemma. Do they hang onto both guys for the playoffs and risk losing them for nothing in July? Or do they trade them and risk upsetting team chemistry heading into the playoffs?

Finally, there's the respective front offices of both your clubs. The owners of the Bruins and Blackhawks have well-earned reputations for an unwillingness to spend the money to retain their better players. Over the years both teams have seen popular stars traded away, due in no small part to the front office hierarchy not wishing to pony up the bucks to keep them.

In Boston, they take it one step further, as every year they force their restricted free agents into protracted holdouts that not only adversely affects the club's on-ice performance, but leaves bitter feelings amongst the players toward management and ownership.

In Chicago, despite their strong season, they're having trouble attracting fans. Many of you Blackhawks faithful been turned off by years of lousy hockey and owner Bill Wirtz's high ticket prices and his stupid decision to black out the televising of Blackhawks games in the Chicago area.

Once the after-glow of this season has faded, both your clubs face a summer of potential uncertainty. Two key veterans will be gone, other key players will be up for new contracts, and they'll have to address the aforementioned weak spots on their respective rosters. This could dramatically affect any possible improvement for next season. What they do this summer will determine if your teams are ready to take the next step.

For you Boston fans, it could send a cold shiver of remembrance down their spines. In the summer of 1999, most hockey publications had the Bruins as potential Cup contenders. You Bruins fans know what happened next. Contract disputes and injuries conspired to sink them. Is this what's in store for both of your clubs next season?

Whether your teams can properly address these potential problem areas remain to be seen. For now, they're months away. What matters now is the fact both your teams have emerged, not just as playoff clubs after several years of mediocrity, but as serious challengers for the Stanley Cup, in my opinion.

So I conclude this letter to you Bruins and Blackhawks fans by wishing your respective teams continued success the rest of the way. It's good to see these clubs riding high in the standings again. Enjoy the ride this season, and let's hope your team's management hierarchy doesn't do anything to screw them up this coming summer!

HAS THE HOCKEY WORLD GONE NUTS?

Reading the latest hockey-related news of the past several weeks, I'm beginning to wonder about the collective sanity of some of the people involved in the sport.

Perhaps it's the time of year that's bringing about some of the crazy behaviour. It's late January, and a lot of us are facing the winter blahs, as well as the post-holiday depression when the credit card bills come rolling in.

Whatever the reason, there's been a genuine strain of what reknowned gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson would call "full-blown weirdness" working it's way into the hockey news.

Take, for instance, the recent sale of the Ottawa Senators to a US-based financial group. Everyone cheers it as a great move, one that will allow the Sens to finally have the funds to remain a competitive team. Best of all, the franchise will remain in Ottawa.

Wonderful news, right? Sure it is. But I'm left puzzled as to why the sale of the Senators to a US-based ownership is touted as a great thing, yet last year, the Canadian media went overboard with hysteria when the Montreal Canadiens were sold to an American. Despite the assertations the club would never leave Montreal by incoming owner George Gillett and former majority owner, Molson's, the Canadian press wailed and gnashed their collective teeth about the sale being a dark day for Canadian professional hockey.

So it's a national tragedy when one Canadian team is American-owned, but it's okay for another Canadian club to be owned by a Yank? That wouldn't be a double-standard, would it? Or perhaps the Senators just don't merit the same type of warmth in the cockles of the heart as the Habs do?

Perhaps it's not so shocking in 2002 for a Canadian team to have American ownership as it was in 2001? Or maybe it was just much ado about nothing in the first place?

Then there's the increase of eye injuries suffered by NHL players. The most recent to be stricken was St. Louis winger Scott Young, who required surgery to re-attached the retina in one of his eyes, and Gary Roberts of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Surely these scary injuries, where the two players in question came within a whisker of losing the sight in their injured eyes permanently, would convince them to wear visors from now on? Surely it would convince them to speak to the Player's Association about making a ruling to make visors mandatory for all NHL players?

I didn't hear what Young had to say on the subject, but Roberts said his injury wouldn't force him into wearing a visor.

Time and again, we keep hearing players, including those who suffer serious eye injuries, say they won't wear visors. They claim the visors restrict their vision, that they fog up, that they're uncomfortable and adversely affects their performance.

Funny, but recently retired defenceman and Hall-of-Fame shoo-in Ray Bourque had a stellar 22 year career wearing a visor. Didn't seem to affect his performance too much.

The reason why there is such reluctance to visors, of course, stems from the macho attitude that such protection is for the weak, that only wimps and pussies wear visors. A visor, you see, is perceived as less than manly in the ultra-macho world of pro hockey.

In other words, it's a good thing to be a stupid blind player whose career was prematurely cut short than a smart one with perfect vision and a long career in the NHL.

Want further proof the NHL is run by nut-bars? How about having an All-Star Game weekend a couple of weeks prior to the 2002 Winter Olympics? And on Super Bowl weekend, to boot!

The players chosen for both the Olympics and the All-Star game don't want it. The compressed schedule this season has been tiring enough. They'd like to have a little bit of time to rest up before the Olympics commence. Some of those chosen for the All-Star game, like Toronto's Curtis Joseph and Dallas's Mike Modano, hinted they might consider skipping the event altogether.

Fear gripped NHL headquarters! What if they gave an All-Star Game, but only average joes showed up to play? Horrors! No one would wanna plunk down their hard-earned cash for over-priced tickets and concessions for that! Well, that just wouldn't do!

So the league circulated a warning letter, letting those players who were chosen to participate in the All-Star soiree they were contractually obligated to participate, and if they didn't , they'd face fines and possible suspension.

Bear in mind, now, that the current Collective Bargaining Agreement is due to expire at the end of the 2003-04 season. Don't think this situation won't be remembered by the NHLPA when it comes time to sit down with the league hierarchy to hammer out a new deal!

Speaking of the All-Star game, how about using the process of letting the fans vote for the starting lineups for the North American and World teams?

An idea that had it's heart in the right place nevertheless was exploited by groups of fans of certain teams who had a lot of time on their hands and access to lots of computers.

Reports last week observed the selection of San Jose Sharks forward Owen Nolan and Teemu Selanne to their respective All-Star team rosters, when neither player is among the top 25 in scoring. This came at the expense of more worthy players, such as Chicago's Jocelyn Thibault, Philadelphia's Kim Johnsson and Minnesota's Marian Gaborik. Evidently, there was ballot-stuffing going on by certain fans of the Sharks, who openly bragged about how many people in their little groups voted thousands of times and otherwise abused the system.

The NHL All-Star game was already a sad joke. These folks merely emphasised the fact.

And how about the compassion shown to Peter Forsberg by the hockey media?

The Avalanche star centre decided, rightfully so, to take time off from this season to rest up a body ravaged in recent years by injury, as well as a ruptured spleen suffered during last spring's playoffs, which required emergency surgery.

During that time, speculation abounded amongst fans and media as to when Forsberg might make his return. Nothing wrong with that. But the media musings were tinged with doubts as to the seriousness of the Swede's desire to rest his body. There were dark mutterings as to the huge contract the Avalanche were paying Forsberg while he sat home in Sweden. There were even suggestions Forsberg, one of the toughest two-way forwards in the league, was trying to milk the Avs for all he could get, that he wasn't willing to put in the effort to earn his big salary.

But lo! January brought reports of "Peter the Great's" imminent return to Colorado, to re-join the Avs prior to the Olympics. Suddenly, the dark thoughts were dispelled. All talks of contracts and hints of Forsberg "faking it" were shoved aside. He was coming back. His NHL team would benefit, and so would the Swedish Olympic team.

However, the comeback was dashed, when an MRI conducted by the Avalanche team doctor revealed Forsberg had tendon damage in one foot, requiring surgery to repair. He would be out for at least four months, possibly longer.

What was the media's response? Were they concerned for Forsberg's health? Did they hope he'd make a speedy recovery? Did they feel sorry for him at all?

Well, a few in the press did. Most, however, were more interested in how this would affect his current contract with the Avalanche. It's touching, in this jaded day and age, to see compassion such as this!

And while I'm on the subject of the media, did anyone catch the article written a month ago in the Toronto Sun after Canadian Olympic hockey GM Wayne Gretzky announced the roster for Team Canada at the Salt Lake City winter games?

In writing of his hopes that Team Canada 2002 would put an end to Canada's fifty-year gold medal drought in Olympic hockey, the writer compared the hockey team to those brave Canadian soldiers of the First and Second World War and the Korean Conflict and their battlefield victories.

Now I can understand feeling patriotic about your country's gold medal hopes in international sporting events. I can sympathize with my countrymen's recent inferiority complex regarding our place in the hockey world.

But comparing a hockey team to those who fought and died for Canada in the major conflicts of the 20th century? There is no comparison! Those who went to war did so for ideals they were willing to die for. They left behind their families, their friends, their homes to go to foreign climes and face death on a daily basis.

In the Olympics, we're sending a bunch of spoiled, over-paid multi-millionaires to Salt Lake City to play a child's game in hopes of reclaiming bragging rights as that sport's top nation. Hardly the same thing!

Somebody needs to hire a new copy editor at the Toronto Sun.

Ah, but the weirdness isn't limited to the National Hockey League. Take a recent court case involving the playing of street hockey in the streets of Hamilton.

An elderly lady, an immigrant to Canada, was upset that the neighbourhood boys were trampling her lawn and flower beds in pursuit of stray hockey balls during their street hockey games. She politely asked the lads several times to either be more careful, or to move their game further down the street.

When the boys refused, she asked their parents if they would do something about it. Probably because she was an immigrant and elderly, they refused to listen.

She calls the city police to break up the games, but they shrug and tell her that as long as the boys aren't obstructing traffic, or other neighbours aren't complaining, there isn't much they can do.

So she checks out the city by-laws, and discovers there's something on the books that prohibits games and sports being played on the city streets. She takes the parents of the boys to court.

The media seizes the story, and next thing we know, this poor woman, who merely wanted her property to be left undisturbed, is attacked by the press. She was pilloried for daring to object to the fine Canadian tradition of street hockey.

When I was younger, I too played street hockey. Only we didn't play it in the street, but in the local schoolyard. Why? Because our parents didn't want us out on the street where we might not only be an obstruction to traffic and a nuisance to our neighbours, but - get this - they were also worried we might get hit by a car!

Can you imagine? Parents who gave a damn about their children's safety, the feelings of their neighbours, and the local laws. Pity we don't see more of that nowadays.

Oh, by the way, the elderly lady lost her case. And what's the lesson those kids learned? Be an asshole and you'll always get your way. Yes, it was a proud day for hockey in Canada!

Weirdness and insanity isn't always laughable or annoying or rude. Sometimes, it's dark and sad, with no winners.

Such was the recent court proceedings of what the catch-phrase happy folks at CNN dubbed "the Hockey Dad Trial".

The trial came about from the beating death in Massachusetts in July 2000 of a pee-wee hockey official named Michael Costin by hockey dad Thomas Junta. The reason for the altercation that led to Costin's death? Junta was upset over the way Costin was running a pee-wee game in which Junta's son was participating, as well as Costin's young sons.

Following deliberation, Junta was found guilty of involuntary manslaughter. Sentencing is to follow, and while the maximum penalty for his actions is 20 years in prison, most believe Junta will receive one-to-three years.

No one emerges a winner from this sad affair. The Costin children face life without a father. The Junta children face life with a father in prison, a convicted felon. Even when he's served his time, Junta will be forever tarred with having caused the death of another human being. Lives destroyed over a parental disagreement in a pee-wee hockey game.

What's amazing is that we haven't seen or heard of more incidents like this. Not all hockey parents, or parents who support their children's sporting activities, are raging, obnoxious buffoons. But a lot of them are, and statistics have shown their numbers are rising.

So what's the answer to combatting potentially lethal violent behaviour from hockey parents? How does one address the obnoxious attitude of street hockey kids and their parents? How should hockey reporters get a grip on their emotions before publishing embarassing articles that threaten their credibility. How do one get a grip and fight the weirdness that has raised it's ugly head?

By remembering one very simple thing: hockey is just a game. That's all. Just a game.

Sure, it's fun to get involved in it. It's exhilirating to get caught up in the emotions of it. It's enjoyable to watch and play.

But it's only a game, people.

It's not worth losing an eye over. It's not worth heightening labour tensions between the professional players and their bosses. It's not worth cheating for. It's not worth comparing to war heroes, nor is it worth adding to a nation's anxiety complex. It's not worth giving up decency and compassion. Most of all, it's not worth dying over.

It's just a game.

We'd all be better off to remember that.

RANDOM THOUGHTS

THE VISOR ARGUMENT REVISITED: One would've thought NHL players might get the hint it's a good idea to wear visors in today's game, after seeing Bryan Berard's career nearly cut short by an eye injury in March 2000. One would think the rise in near-misses of eye injuries, most notably to Toronto's Mats Sundin and then-Montreal Canadien Martin Rucinsky this season, would make players realize the importance of ensuring their eyes were protected.

According to the NHL, the number of players wearing visors is on the rise, which, to quote Martha Stewart, is a good thing. What isn't a good thing is the number of players who refuse to wear one. These guys claim the visor "restricts their vision", that it's "uncomfortable to wear". Even Sundin suggested he might ditch his new visor, despite coming within a whisker of suffering the same fate as his former teammate Berard.

Much has been made of the fact the increase in facial injuries, notably around the eyes, is due to the increase in uncalled highsticking penalties. There's justification for making this assessment, but until the league does something to eradicate this problem, players have to be responsible to ensure their sight is protected.

Indeed, even if the league eliminated high-sticking, there would be enough accidental contact, as well as the fact a flying puck can suddenly ricochet into a player's face, to warrant making visors mandatory.

However, the NHL Players Association refuses to consider such an option. There remains a stupid macho stigma about visors, that those who wear them are somehow less manly, less courageous. There are those who even suggest wearing visors simply encourages high-sticking.

There's an old infantry saying that comes into play when responding to this. It goes, "there's a thin line between hard and stupid". Just how manly and courageous would these players feel, having their careers ended by a serious eye injury? How macho is it to be blind in one, or both eyes, for the rest of your life? Which would be more uncomfortable, boys? Wearing a visor? Or being blinded, your career cut short, and bearing the burden for the rest of your life that your stupidity did you in?

It's time for the league and it's players to drop the macho posturing and employ common sense.

ROY WINS HIS 500TH: Colorado Avalanche netminder Patrick Roy continues to make his mark on the NHL record books, recently winning his 500th career game.

As impressive as that is, Roy is also making an attempt to win his fourth Vezina trophy, the first in ten years. He currently sits atop the league leader board in wins, goals-against average and save percentage.

TSN's Bob McKenzie recently suggested Roy may consider retiring at the end of this season, having reached the milestone of 500 wins. Don't believe it. Despite being in his late-thirties, Roy is showing no signs of packing it in. While 500 victories is an impressive mark, part of what drives him is to make his records unattainable for his rivals, such as New Jersey's Martin Brodeur, to reach.

As long as the competitive fires burn in Roy, and he retains the physical ability to back up that fiery intensity, he'll continue playing for a long time.

And don't think not being made the de facto starter for Canada's 2002 Olympic hockey team hasn't stoked that fire. Again, what was Team Canada GM Wayne Gretzky thinking in making this guy compete for the starter's job?

COULD SABRES SLUMP BRING A COACHING CHANGE? One of the most puzzling stories this season has been the poor play of the Buffalo Sabres. Considered a lock for a playoff berth last fall, the Sabres (as of this writing) sit six points out of the final playoff berth in the Eastern Conference.

Observers claimed the reason for this was the departure last summer of all-world goalie Dominik Hasek, dealt to the Detroit Red Wings for an inconsistent, and now injured, Slava Kozlov and draft picks. However, that doesn't tell the whole story.

While goaltender Martin Biron has struggled at times, he's still posting up decent numbers. They're still playing the same defensive style that was successful in the past, with much of the same cast. The Sabres problem, much like last season but on a larger scale, is their lack of offensive production. This is puzzling, as the Sabres possess decent offensive talent in Miro Satan, JP Dumont, Maxim Afinogenov and Stu Barnes.

The fact is, since their strong performances in 1998 and 1999, which saw them make two trips to the Eastern Conference finals and pushing the Dallas Stars to six games in the '99 Stanley Cup finals, the Sabres have flat-lined. They bowed out meekly in the opening round series against the Flyers in 2000, and failed to put away the Pittsburgh Penguins in their second round series last year.

This season, the Sabres are playing uninspired hockey. While the depatures of Hasek, and former heart-and-soul captain Michael Peca, do have bearing on this, the main reason is head coach Lindy Ruff has been unable to motivate his charges as he could in years past.

It just doesn't make sense for this team, with the talent it possesses, to be playing as poorly as they have. Blaming it on the absence of Hasek isn't addressing the issue, it's merely camouflaging it. Ruff may be a local hero in Buffalo for how he turned around the Sabres in the late-90s, but it now appears his players are tuning him out.

If the Sabres fail to make the playoffs this season, don't be surprised if Ruff gets the axe.

FLEURY LOSING IT. At the risk of sounding crass, is part of Theo Fleury's rehab from substance abuse to act like an ass on the ice?

Fleury has always been one of the league's peskier players, and that hard edge to his talented play has earned him the praise of teammates and the wrath of opponents. Lord knows, everyone is pulling for him to overcome the personal demons that led him into substance abuse.

But despite his apparent triumph over his off-ice problems, Fleury is making it harder for folks to respect him. He's crying the referees are out to get him. He's gone overboard in antagonizing opponents, the most infamous moment being his "chicken-dance" directed at NY Islanders tough-guy Eric Cairns for refusing to fight Fleury's teammate, Sandy McCarthy, earlier this season. He's lost his temper on more than one occasion during the course of a game, the result of which has him sitting third amongst the league's penalty-minute leaders.

His loose-cannon act went too far when he was ejected from a recent Rangers-San Jose Sharks game. The Sharks mascot, "Sharkey", playfully taunted Fleury, who allegedly responded by bumping the mascot and knocking him down. The mascot sustained a rib injury, and Rangers GM Glen Sather had to step in and smooth things over.

The latest came in a recent game against Pittsburgh, when Fleury stormed off the ice with less than 8 minutes remaining in the game, after being assessed his third slashing penalty of the game. He showered, dressed and had boarded the team bus by the time his teammates finished the game and was unavailable for comment. A Rangers spokesman said Fleury has upset over an off-ice personal matter that was unrelated to his rehab for substance abuse.

One could almost understand these antics if Fleury were a young kid trying to make his mark in the league. But he's in his mid-thirties, been in the league 14 seasons, potted over 400 goals and 1000 points, earned a Cup ring and automatic invitations to international tournaments involving Canadian professionals.

It's one thing to be talented and driven by competitive fury. It's another to have that fury overcome your talents. Fleury has skills aplenty, and his battle against substance abuse must be applauded, but his immaturity is getting the most headlines this season.

Grow up, Theo!

ANOTHER CONCUSSION FOR LINDROS: Meanwhile, Fleury's teammate, Eric Lindros recently suffered the seventh concussion of his career.

Lindros and the Rangers tried to dismiss the fears of the New York fans and press by saying it was a "very mild concussion". Lindros proclaimed he felt fine, the Rangers insisted their bringing in a specialist from Montreal to examine him was precautionary, and everyone involved said it was best to allow Eric time to recuperate, to be "on the safe side".

The scary thing about this, however, is Lindros didn't get his bell rung by a brutal head shot in the same way he suffered his six previous concussions. Instead, he got it by laying out a hit on a San Jose Shark player in a recent game. No part of the opponent's body touched Lindros's head in the collision, and the Big E himself wasn't knocked to the ice. This time, it was an average bodycheck that brought about a self-imposed concussion on Lindros.\

It should drive home the point that the talented Lindros is playing on borrowed time. He was away from the game for an entire season. Many thought - or hoped - the rest would make him less susceptible to concussions. Yet, barely half-way through this season, a less than rigourous check, laid out by himself, brought about a mild concussion.

This should be sending up a red flag to all concerned, especially Lindros. But he and the Rangers seem happy to dismiss this as flippantly as one would dismiss a head cold.

Pride goeth before a fall, as the old saying claims, and Lindros's pride is setting him up for a major one. He wants to fulfill the lofty goals expected of him since he was a Junior sensation. He was supposed to dominate this game, the vaunted "Next One" to carry the torch handed down from Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux. He was supposed to accumulate countless individual accolades and awards, and most importantly, lead a team to the Stanley Cup. He has addeded incentive to do this for the NY Rangers, as it would be a slap in the face of his former GM and tormentor, Philadelphia's Bob Clarke. He wants to prove his critics wrong.

But his body isn't letting him do it. While one can admire his determination, one also wonders if such desires are worth risking serious, permanent injury.This latest bell-ringer is a warning. The next one could be much worse.

Remember the image of Lindros getting nailed in the 2000 playoffs, hitting the ice like a sack of potatoes, out cold? You may just see that sickening sight repeated, but this time, the consequences could be much worse for Eric Lindros.

TEAM CANADA AT WORLD JUNIORS: Canada's loss to Russia in the 2002 World Junior Championship is bound to cause anxious hand-wringing among some journalists, who'll trot out the loss as yet another example of the problems in Canadian hockey.

Yes, there are problems in Canada's minor hockey system that must still be addressed. Youngsters in the Canadian system face playing schedules almost as gruelling as NHL stars. Many are forced to leave home before their sixteenth birthdays to pursue their hopes of having a professional hockey career. They have to endure bullying coaches who stress winning above the teaching of fundamental skills, as well as obnoxious, demanding parents. It's becoming more expensive to put kids into minor hockey, and other interests, such as computers, and sports such as soccer and basketball, are having more of a pull on today's youth than in years past. Add this up and it's no wonder the number of Canadian kids involved in minor hockey has been declining.

These problems, however, had nothing to do with Canada's defeat in the 2002 WJC. Indeed, this year's edition was one of the best teams Canada had sent to the tournament in several years, as those who selected the roster wisely went with speed and talent, rather than slow-footed checkers and grinders that were selected in recent years.

Put simply, Team Canada's goaltender, Pascal Leclaire, who has a bright future ahead of him, had an off-game, and the Russians - no slouches themselves in the talent department, who themselves have problems with their system to address - capitalized.

It was a tribute to the talent of Team Canada 2002 that they played as well as they did in the tournament, and in the gold medal game, which was one of the most exciting performances in WJC history. The presence of such talent should give hope to those who fear for the future of Canada's minor hockey system.

AT THE HALF-WAY POINT.

With the 2001-02 season now half-over, it's time to rate the teams and see how well each is doing.

ANAHEIM MIGHTY DUCKS: The Ducks woes continue. They've shown little improvement from their weak start, and it doesn't appear they're going to be in line for a playoff berth by April. Team chairman Tony Taverse recently re-signed amid rumours of Disney seeking a buyer for the franchise, and speculation abounds as to whether or not GM Pierre Gauthier will still have a job by season's end. Worse, there are reports team captain Paul Kariya is getting fed up and might demand a trade by this summer.

ATLANTA THRASHERS: Barring a miracle, the Thrashers have no chance of making the post-season. They possess the worst record in the league and sit in the bottom of the league standings. Their goaltending and defense are awful, and their veteran forwards have struggled. However, there are a couple of reasons to be optimistic about their future. First, rookies Dany Heatley and Ilya Kovalchuk are not only leading all rookie scorers, they're also leading the Thrashers in scoring. Second, should they finish dead-last as projected, theThrashers are a lock for the first overall pick, which will probably be highly touted blueline prospect Jay Bouwmeister.

BOSTON BRUINS: Thanks to the goaltending of Byron Dafoe and the continuing improvement of young stars Joe Thornton, Sergei Samsonov and Brian Rolston, the Bruins have surged to the top of the standings in the Eastern Conference. Some observers now believe the Beantowners have an excellent shot at finishing first overall in the Conference. The trade status of impending free agent Bill Guerin hasn't been a distraction, and many feel the Bruins will hang onto him for the playoffs. One area of concern, however, is their blueline, which still lacks a quality offensive defensemen. It also took a hit when oft-injured Kyle McLaren was lost for the next three months with a wrist injury. If they can address this problem area, the Bruins could be a team to watch in the 2002 post-season.

BUFFALO SABRES: With the talent level this club possesses, it's puzzling as to why they're in danger of falling out of playoff contention. While Dominik Hasek's departure last summer has left a void, a big problem is the team has gotten away from the strong team game they used to play. They possess genuine offensive talent in Miro Satan, Stu Barnes, Maxim Afinogenov and JP Dumont, but they're not producing as hoped. There is also talk of a lack of leadership, proving the now-departed Michael Peca was more valuable than previously believed. While these are contributing factors, the real reason for the Sabres malaise is they're tuning out head coach Lindy Ruff. If the Sabres don't turn things around soon, not only will the miss the playoffs, but Ruff's job could be in jeopardy.

CALGARY FLAMES: After a red-hot start that say them challenging the Detroit Red Wings for first overall in the West, the Flames have cooled noticeably. They're now struggling to hold onto one of the final playoff berths in the West. The reasons for the dropoff? Goalie Roman Turek's performance has fallen noticeably since November; league scoring leader Jarome Iginla's torrid pace has cooled off; injuries have struck their blueline core, and they've gotten away from the strong team game preached by head coach Greg Gilbert. Calgary has the talent to be a playoff club, but they're going to have to work hard the rest of the way to ensure their strong start wasn't for nothing.

CAROLINA HURRICANES: It's about time hockey fans got to know this team better, because they're going to be a perennial playoff club over the next few years. Following a late-November slump that threatened to send them into a tailspin, as well as placed Paul Maurice's tenure as head coach in jeopardy, the 'Canes bounced back with a strong performance in December. Thanks to comeback kid Tom Barrasso's goaltending, the emergence of Sami Kapanen as a true offensive force, and the continued strong play of veterans Ron Francis and Rod Brind'Amour, the Hurricanes are sitting among the top four clubs in the Eastern Conference. Barring a late-season meltdown, the 'Canes could be looking at their best regular season performance in years.

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS: Amazing what the right coach can do to turn around a moribund team. Indeed, Brian Sutter's coaching has the 'Hawks sitting where no one expected them to be back in October: second overall in the Western Conference. Despite an average blueline corps and an overworked Jocelyn Thibault in goal, the Blackhawks have been winning by utilizing their offensive speed to out-hustle and out-work their opponents. While speculation remains as to whether they'll trade impending free agent Tony Amonte, it hasn't been a distraction for the resurgent Blackhawks. The only area of concern is in goal, where it is feared Thibault might wear down from the heavy workload he's faced this season. Still, barring a major collapse, the Blackhawks seem poised to make their first playoff appearance since 1997.

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS: Give it up to the fans in Columbus, as they continue to sell out the Blue Jackets home games. It takes a hearty bunch to show that much support for a team that's doing so poorly. The Jackets simply aren't showing the type of development expected of them in their second season of existence, particularly in comparison to their expansion rivals, the Minnesota Wild. Put simply, the Jackets just can't score, being limited to two goals or less in the majority of their games thus far. GM Doug MacLean has a lot of work ahead of him in addressing this problem. The healthy fan support won't be enough to get Columbus into the 2002 playoffs.

COLORADO AVALANCHE: After a uncharacteristic slow start, the Avalanche surged back up the standings in the Western Conference. Thanks in no small part goes to goaltender Patrick Roy, who's strong play this season has him in line for his fourth career Vezina trophy, as well as whispers of a Hart trophy nomination. The Avs still have room for improvement, as forwards Chris Drury, Milan Hejduk and Alex Tanguay have seen their offensive production suffer. With Peter Forsberg now out for the season due to foot surgery, the Avalanche can stop waiting for him and start concentrating more on preparing to defend the Stanley Cup.

DALLAS STARS: Much was made of the Stars seeking to improve offensively last summer, when they brought in free agents Pierre Turgeon, Donald Audette, Jyrki Lumme and Valeri Kamensky. In fact, these four have done little to help Dallas this season. Audette and Lumme were traded, Kamensky's contract may be bought out and Turgeon has struggled since returning from an ankle injury. Worse, their stalwart in goal, Eddie Belfour, has not played well this season, and is in risk of losing his job as starting goalie to youngster Marty Turco. The Stars scrapped their plans to play a more offensive game and gone back to their grinding defensive style. They should make the playoffs, but they're no longer taken seriously as Cup contenders.

DETROIT RED WINGS: The Red Wings continue to roll along as the top club in the NHL, but there are concerns at the mid-way point. The Wings struggled at times in December, and they need to address their lack of a physical presence on the blueline. Sniper Brett Hull saw his production cool off. There are also concerns about fatigue being a factor, as nearly half the roster will be participating in the Salt Lake City Olympics. The age of many of their top players will continue to be a cause for concern. The Wings are riding high now, and are a lock for a playoff berth, but many will be watching their performance closely over the more strenuous second half.

EDMONTON OILERS: Doug who? Thoughts of the Oilers struggling without former captain Doug Weight have faded, as the Oilers continue to prove they're more than a one-man team. Their blueline depth is such there's talk of trading offensive defenceman Tom Poti, who'd be a boon on most other clubs. Up front, Anson Carter has come into his own, and sophomore Mike Comrie looks like a budding superstar. They also got a shot in the arm with the early return from a broken ankle by heart-and-souler Ryan Smyth. If there is one real area of concern, it's between the pipes. Tommy Salo has been terrific as usual, but the Oilers still haven't found a quality backup to help him share the load. It could come back to haunt them down the stretch and into the playoffs. As things stand for now, the Oilers seem headed for their best regular season finish since the glory days of the 1980s.

FLORIDA PANTHERS: Given the lousy start of this club, it came as no surprise ownership cleaned house by firing coach Duane Sutter and GM Bill Torrey. What was a surprise was the hiring of Mike Keenan, who is proving to have more lives than a cat when it comes to coaching in the NHL. Keenan has his work cut out for him this time, inheriting a Panthers team in disarray. There is a good core of young talent to build on, such as goalie Roberto Luongo and rookie Kristian Huselius, as well as superstar Pavel Bure, who's having an off-year. Unfortunately, the Cats lack experience and leadership, and are paper-thin on the blueline. Keenan will do his best to make the Panthers work harder, but that won't overcome their problem areas, nor will it get them into the playoffs.

LOS ANGELES KINGS: A horrific start threatened to scuttle their hopes of building on last season's strong finish and playoff success. Thankfully for Kings fans, their club reversed their fortunes with a strong performance in December, which has put the boys from Tinseltown back into the hunt for a playoff berth. The acquisition of former Bruin Jason Allison has begun to pay dividends, as he leads the Kings in scoring. The return from injury of key players such as Ziggy Palffy and blueliner Mathieu Schneider should further boost their playoff hopes. Perhaps the biggest reason for the Kings turnaround is their improvement in goal. While starter Felix Potvin has improved from a rough start, the strong play of backup Jamie Storr has given the Kings much needed depth between the pipes.

MINNESOTA WILD: In only their second season, the Wild have made huge strides toward respectability. GM Doug Risebrough has done a terrific job thus far in building this club, and head coach Jacques Lemaire's reknowned defensive system makes the Wild a tough team to play against. Sophomore forward Marian Gaborik looks to be a future superstar. The combination of Gaborik and former Atlanta Thrasher Andrew Brunette have given the Wild a formidable first line offensively, and defenceman Filip Kuba is emerging as a skilled offensive defenceman. The Wild probably won't make the playoffs this season, but they've served notice they're a team to watch for in the near future.

MONTREAL CANADIENS: Despite another season of injuries and bad luck to key players, the Habs are hanging in there. Against all odds, they're playing .500 hockey and staying in close contention for a playoff berth in the Eastern Conference. A big reason for the Canadiens improvement this season has been the goaltending of Jose Theodore, who have given the Habs the type of netminding they've been missing since Patrick Roy was traded away. Forwards Richard Zednik and rookie Mike Ribeiro are improving with each game, giving Montreal's struggling offense a much-needed boost. However, if Les Canadiens are to make the playoffs, they must get more offensive production from struggling forwards Brian Savage and Yanic Perreault, and they must improve their overall defensive play. Otherwise, they'll miss the playoffs for the fourth straight season.

NASHVILLE PREDATORS: The Predators are becoming a more mature hockey club in their fourth NHL season. Few teams play their overall defensive system as well as Nashville. Young players such as David Legwand and Andy Delmore have shown improvement, while aging forward Cliff Ronning shows no signs of slowing down. However, there are problem areas the Preds must address if they're to make the playoffs this season. Their goaltending, which was a pillar of strength last season, has been shaky this season. Last year's 25-goal man, Scott Walker, remains sidelined with injury, while the remainder of the roster is still struggling offensively. Put simply, the Preds need to score more and tighten up in goal if they're to have a shot.

NEW JERSEY DEVILS: Hold off on the regular season obituary! Reports of the Devils demise may be premature. The former Cup champions, who spent the first two months of the season reeling in the unfamiliar territory of the lower half of the Conference standings, rallied in December and have laid claim to the 8th and final playoff berth. The return to form of goaltender Martin Brodeur, and a return to the trapping style they made infamous in the mid-90s have the Devils moving slowly but surely up the standings. However, problems are looming for this once-mighty club. Several players, including Jason Arnott, Patrick Elias and Randy McKay, have expressed their unhappiness regarding ice time. 2000 Calder winner Scott Gomez continues to struggle without a scoring winger to pass to, and the trade status of impending free agent Bobby Holik has cast a pall over the club. The Devils have the talent to make the playoffs, but if things keep up the way they have, they'll be hard-pressed to get past the first round.

NEW YORK ISLANDERS: After an explosive 11-1-1-1 start, the Islanders struggled in December, and while still riding high in the Eastern Conference standings, there are concerns they may have to fight to hang onto one of the final playoff berths. The reason is quite simple: the Islanders blueline has been ravaged by injury. Roman Hamrlik, Kenny Jonsson and rookie Radek Martinek have been sidelined by serious injury. Worse, the Isles defense corps lacked a strong physical presence prior to these guys going down. The end result has been the Islanders losing the battles in their own end of the rink. There's speculation afoot of GM Mike Milbury pursuing former Islander and current Pittsburgh Penguin Darius Kasparaitis to address this problem. If their present slump deepens, Milbury may be forced to act more quickly.

NEW YORK RANGERS: There have been many surprises to the 2001-02 season, and the play of the Rangers ranks among them. Not even considered a playoff contender at the start of the hockey year, the Blueshirts spent most of December battling for first overall in the Eastern Conference. Part of the credit goes to goaltender Mike Richter, who's made a near-miraculous recovery from a serious knee injury. More credit goes to Eric Lindros, who's presence in the lineup this season has made the Rangers a better team. However, they too are facing potential problem areas as the season progresses. Winger Theo Fleury has been a loose cannon this season and appears on the verge of an emotional breakdown. The lack of real depth on their blueline to compliment Brian Leetch has been catching up to them recently. Worse, Lindros suffered a mild concussion laying out a check in a recent game and missed four games. If Lindros gets hurt more seriously and Fleury ends up taking time off, the Rangers could be in trouble down the stretch.

OTTAWA SENATORS: Early in the season, the Senators looked to be missing a quality centre for their second line, but thanks to the surprising play of Todd White and Mike Fisher, that problem appears rectified. The Senators haven't sunk without Alexei Yashin as some believed, but they're not exactly burning up the league either. For every plus, such as the play of White and Fisher, plus Daniel Alfredsson heading for a career season, there have been minuses, such as Marian Hossa's inability to score at home, Shawn McEachern's prolonged slump and Bill Muckalt's firing blanks. If the Sens can't get their act together in the second half of the season, they'll be facing another first round elimination come playoff time.

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS: The Flyers made real strides in December, moving further up the Eastern Conference standings, giving hope to their supporters of a big break-out in the second half. Still, there remains a feeling the Flyers, for all their talent, are having trouble gelling as a club this season. Power forward John LeClair and long-time blueline stalwart Eric Desjardins have both struggled with injury and inconsistent play. Keith Primeau, Brian Boucher and Simon Gagne have also been bitten by the injury bug. There's no question the Flyers have the talent to make the playoffs, but until recently, they have not played like the dominating force everyone expected them to be. Giving their improvement over the past month, perhaps they're finally rounding into form.

PHOENIX COYOTES: More and more, the Phoenix Coyotes braintrust, headed by part-owner Wayne Gretzky, former agent Michael Barnett and assistant GM Cliff Fletcher, are looking like geniuses for dumping their former star players and rebuilding with youth. Rather than wallowing in the cellar of the Western Conference, the Desert Dawgs are in the midst of the playoff hunt, playing .500 hockey in the first half. Goaltender Sean Burke and veteran leader Claude Lemieux deserve part of the credit, but so does workhorse defenseman Danny Markov and two-way forward Michal Handzus. If they can keep up the pace, a playoff spot is not out of the questions for the Coyotes.

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS: Despite injuries to key players, adapting to the loss of their team captain to an off-season trade, and an early-season coaching changes, the Penguins hung in there during the first two months of the season, battling for the final playoff spot in the East. However, there have been recent signs the strain is catching up to the Pens. They struggled badly in December, squabbles amongst players broke out, and they slipped down the standings to 11th overall. If the Penguins are to have any chance of making the playoffs, they'll need their captain, Mario Lemieux, to have a strong return from the hip injury that sidelined him for several weeks. With a healthy and productive Lemieux, the Pens should climb right back into the race for a playoff berth. Without him, the odds aren't good for a comeback.

ST. LOUIS BLUES: The Blues are still a playoff club, and sit as of this writing fourth overall in the West. However, there are clear signs that things just aren't quite right in St. Louis. Former Oiler Doug Weight has struggled to find his scoring groove with his new club, while Cory Stillman has also battled to break out of a scoring slump. 2000 Hart and Norris winner Chris Pronger has played hurt this season, and it's adversely affected his performance. Observers feel GM Larry Pleau made too many roster changes over the past year, with the end result being a Blues club still struggling at mid-season to gel as a team. When the Blues made the Western Conference Finals last spring, there was talk of them taking the next step this season and becoming serious Cup contenders. However, if they don't step up their play in the second half of the season, they'll be lucky to even reach the Conference finals this time around.

SAN JOSE SHARKS: Are they a serious contender, or aren't they? Just when it seems the Sharks are poised for the big breakthrough expected of them, they stumble. A slow start was seemingly erased by strong performances in late November up through to mid-December, which saw flirt with second overall in the West. But as the mid-way point approached, the Sharks began to falter again. Given the depth of talent on their roster, one has to wonder if the problem lies behind the bench. Darryl Sutter deserves a lot of credit for making the Sharks a nasty team to play against, but whether he can take this team to the next level remains to be seen.

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING: Written off by many as a joke, the Lightning are finally showing signs of promise. Rather than wallow in the league basement as they've done for years, the Bolts have made noticeable improvement, so much so there's talk of making the playoffs amongst long-suffering fans in Tampa Bay. Much of the credit for the Lightning's improvement belongs to goalie Nikolai Khabibulin, who has been one of the top goalies in the league after coming off a two-year hiatus. Credit also GM Rick Dudley for adding much-needed depth to the roster, although his handling of Vincent Lecavalier has left much to be desired. It's debatable as to whether or not the Lightning can make the playoffs this season, but for the first time, there's reason for hope and optimism.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS: If the Toronto media are to be believed, this year's version of the Leafs may be poised to end their 35-year Stanley Cup drought. They are a much deeper team than in years past on their forward lines, and they've played a grittier style this season. Captain Mats Sundin has brought in a tougher attitude to his game, and his leadership, long a weak point, has improved. One reason for the optimism of Toronto's Cup chances is they haven't shown signs of faltering at the mid-point as they did over the last three seasons. As usual, they've been getting superb goaltending from Curtis Joseph. But before Leafs supporters start planning their team's Cup route through Toronto, they should remain concerned about the lack of depth on their team's blueline. It could, once again, be the main obstacle that stands between their club and a championship.

VANCOUVER CANUCKS: After such a promising improvement last season, the Canucks have stumbled badly this season. The primary reason for Vancouver's slump has been poor defensive play and a lack of toughness throughout the roster. Some of the promising youth, such as the Sedin twins, have not played up to expectations this season. GM Brian Burke has already made three trades to improve things, bringing in experienced leadership (Trevor Linden), a goal-scoring winger (Jan Hlavac) and depth (Trevor Letowski). Thus far, it's done little to pull the Canucks out of their malaise. Luckily, they remain in striking distance of the playoffs, but they'll need to have a much improved second half to make it happen.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS: When they obtained former Penguins captain Jaromir Jagr last summer, many believed the Capitals were poised to become serious Cup contenders in the Eastern Conference. Instead, the Caps have thus far been one of the biggest disappointments in 2001-02. Injuries have ravaged their blueline. Promising young two-way forward Jeff Halpern has struggled following a contract dispute. Experienced all-round forward Steve Konowalchuk is out of commission due to injury. Former Vezina winner OIeg Kolzig, plagued by a nagging ankle injury, has been ordinary in the Capitals net . Worst of all, Jagr has not come through as hoped. A combination of injury and what is believed to be poor attitude has practically made him a non-factor for the Caps this season. If they're to have any shot at the playoffs, Jagr and Kolzig must round back into form, and quickly.

 

 

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