JULY 2002 SOAPBOX ARCHIVES

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July 7, 2002 

FALLOUT FROM THE FIRST WEEK OF FREE AGENCY!

As expected, the dollars were flying fast and furious during the first week of the unrestricted free agent market. And as expected, there were only a handful of clubs willing to toss their money around like drunken sailors on weekend shore leave. And as expected, most of the "marquee names " in this year's market made out like bandits.

Indeed, what some of these guys signed for, they should be arrested for robbery. But that's the fun of free agency for some players. Get as much as you can, and drive up the market value for those who'll follow you in subsequent UFA years.

But I had my free agent rant last week, so no sense venting my spleen for a second consecutive week and boring my readers. No, this week it's more important to examine how some of this past week's signings have altered the landscape of the NHL for the coming season.

Topping the list of the big winners was centre Bobby Holik, a career 25-goal scorer who nonetheless plays a strong, nasty two-way game and has plenty of experience of playing well in big game situations. The NY Rangers have been lacking a player of Holik's calibre for some time ( or at least, one that's still in his prime!) and happily ponied up a five-year, $45 million US deal for the big Czech.

While the Rangers offer to Holik raised some eyebrows, it wasn't totally unexpected. The New York media had been trumpeting for months Holik could stand to garner a contract of this size. What was unexpected, however, was the reaction of Holik's former general manager, Lou Lamoriello of the New Jersey Devils.

Lamoriello expressed "shock" at his best all-around forward signing with the Rangers, as well as the amount of the deal Holik got. The Devils GM maintained he believed all along he could get Holik re-signed.

What makes Lamoriello's tale of surprise so difficult to swallow is that he could've had Holik re-signed last summer for far less money than the Rangers paid out this year for the centre's services.

According to one account, Holik was hoping to re-sign with the Devils last summer to a six-year deal worth $5 million per season. However, Lamoriello balked at this offer, which resulted in Holik going before a salary arbitrator, before whom Lamoriello essentially stated Holik simply wasn't worth what he was seeking. The Devils GM was citing Holik's supposed sub-par offensive statistics during the regular season, blithely ignoring the other contributions Holik made, not to mention his strong performance during the 2001 post-season.

The end result saw Holik getting less than he was seeking from the arbitrator, which naturally led to bad feelings on Holik's part toward Lamoriello. He stated throughout the 2001-02 season he would test the UFA market, but "Lou Lam" seem almost oblivious to Holik's statements and bruised ego, telling almost anyone who'd listen he fully intended to re-sign Bobby and, by golly, he'd go so far as to match any offer from other clubs.

Instead, Holik will now play for the Devils most-hated rival, the Rangers, for considerably more money than even he thought he was worth when he made his multi-year pitch to Lamoriello a year ago. And it's tough to argue against the theory Holik went to the Blueshirts, not just because they were tossing an obscene amount of cash at him, but to get back at Devils management for, in his eyes, treating him shabbily after all the years of hard work he given them, and his contributions to bringing two Stanley Cups to the Meadowlands.

And what are we to make of Lamoriello? Was he serious about trying to make amends for his treatment of Holik last summer? Did he really believe he could get Holik to re-sign as an unrestricted free agent? Or was it smoke and mirrors for the press and Devils fans?

A darker question also entered my mind as I mulled this story over. Holik clashed with Lamoriello favourite, former head coach Larry Robinson, on more than one occasion during Robinson's tenure as the Devils bench boss. Might that have played a part in Lamoriello's decision? Indeed, was Lamoriello's mind made up, once and for all, to cut Holik loose after his hand was forced to fired Robinson? It strikes me as an interesting coincidence that players who publicly slammed Robinson during his final weeks coaching the Devils - Holik, Jason Arnott and Randy McKay - are no longer with the club. Perhaps Lamoriello decided to rid himself of whom he considered the troublemakers on his roster?

Ah, but that's just speculation on my part, of the kind that could get me a charter membership in the Conspiracy Theorist Club. Devils fans are feeling bad enough as it is over Holik's departure. Best to leave this one lie.

For as upset Devils fans may be over Holik's signing, that's nothing compared to the torment of Toronto Maple Leafs fans over the departure of goaltender Curtis Joseph.

As expected, the Detroit Red Wings came calling for the man nicknamed "Cujo" after his contract talks fell through with the Leafs. To refresh the memory, Joseph was seeking a four-year deal worth over $9 million per season, while the Leafs, after offering and withdrawing a couple of lesser offers earlier in the '01-'02 season, tendered the same money the goaltender was seeking, but for one less year.

The Wings were offering a lesser deal (three years - one a option year - worth $24 million), which should've put them out of the running. The Rangers were interested, but not at Cujo's asking price, so signing with the Leafs should've been automatic.

Instead, Joseph jumped at Detroit's offer, shocking and disappointing legions of Leafs fans.

Much was made of Joseph's tearful press conference announcing his departure, and how Cujo's moving to Detroit was interpreted to mean the popular netminder believed he stood a better chance of winning the Stanley Cup in Motown than in Toronto.

Leafs fans may have difficulty swallowing this, citing instead Joseph's contentious relationship with Toronto GM and coach Pat Quinn as the factor that drove Cujo out of town.

Sorry, Leafs fans, but the press interpretation is the correct one. While Joseph never came right out and said the Maple Leafs aren't good enough to win the Stanley Cup, his statements about being 35 and not having won a championship said it all. If the Leafs were good enough to win it all, Cujo would've stayed, regardless of what he thought of Quinn.

And that's the toughest part of Joseph's departure for not ony Leafs fans to accept, but also the rah-rah Toronto press, who've spent the years of Joseph's tenure as Toronto's starting goaltender - and arguably, the club's best player - trumpeting the Leafs as a Cup contender.

In reading the reports coming out of Toronto, one got the sense the press got as rude a "slap upside" as Leafs fans did with the real reason for Joseph's departure. Reality bit the Toronto media as hard as the fans. With Joseph, the local press and fans alike had reason to hope the Maple Leafs could end their prolonged Stanley Cup drought. It didn't matter that Joseph had never won a championship, or even an individual accolade, during not only his NHL career, but also at the international level.

Instead, they pointed to how Joseph had played for "weaker teams" in St. Louis and Edmonton, and had lifted them to stunning first round upsets in the playoffs. With a stronger club like the Leafs, went the argument, Joseph would carry them all the way to Lord Stanley.

The reality was Joseph was good enough to carry them to two Eastern Conference finals in four years, and two consecutive second round beatings at the hands of the New Jersey Devils. Joseph's insistence on $9 mil per season was based on his perceived value to the Leafs, but it was galling to fans of goaltending great Patrick Roy, who made less than what Joseph was seeking, but twice carried two Montreal Canadiens teams with less talent than Joseph's Leafs to two Stanley Cups.

Joseph is not in the same class as Roy, or for that matter, Martin Brodeur of New Jersey, who also carried an underdog New Jersey team to the Stanley Cup in 1995 and was, in my mind, the rightful winner of the Smythe trophy that year.

Regardless of Joseph's calibre, he was still good enough to dramatically improve a Maple Leafs team with an average defence corps into four consecutive post-season appearances and two Conference Finals. If Cujo isn't in the same class as the game's very best netminders, he was still good enough to cover up the Leafs obvious flaw: their defensive game.

There's no guarantee Joseph will finally win the Stanley Cup playing in Detroit. You don't get the Cup by divine right, you earn it by playing your ass off, and even then, that's not always good enough. But it's hard to argue against Cujo turning the trick with a stacked club like Detroit.

Sure, the Wings won't be the same club. Head coach Scotty Bowman is retired. So are Dominik Hasek and Fredrik Olausson. Steve Duchesne sprurned the Wings club option, and team captain Steve Yzerman will miss most of the first half of next season recovering from off-season knee surgery.

But the rest of the coaching staff remains, Yzerman will be back for the second half of the season and the playoffs, young blueliner Jiri Fischer has turned into a quality defenceman, Chris Chelios has re-signed with the team, and the remainder of the roster remains intact. Yes, most of the veterans will be a year older, but I made the mistake, as many observers did, of making age a factor against the Wings going all the way last season. I'll be damned if I make the same mistake twice.

The bottom line is, whatever the Wings problems, they're still a better team than the Maple Leafs, and have a better shot at winning the Cup. That's what Joseph wants, and that's why he broke the hearts of his fans in Toronto.

As Toronto fans and press were roasting the Leafs for losing the popular Joseph, as well as failing to land one of the other big names available in this year's UFA market, the Leafs, to their credit, wasted little time in finding a replacement for Cujo in Ed Belfour.

"Eddie the Eagle" is everything Joseph wasn't: a proven winner, with both individual accolades (the Calder as rookie of the year, two Vezina Trophies), and a Cup ring from his 1999 championship season with the Dallas Stars.

Belfour also comes with baggage, something the approachable Joseph didn't have. He's got a well-deserved reputation for his moodiness, for clashing with coaches, and for off-ice behaviour that continues to dog him years after the fact.

Still, Leafs fans will happily ignore Eddie's dark side if he can do the one thing Joseph couldn't: bring the Stanley Cup to Toronto after three-and-a-half decades of futility.

But can Belfour pull it off? For all his accomplishments, he's now in his late thirties and has a history of back problems. He's coming off his worst season in years. Most importantly, during his glory years in Chicago and Dallas, he had the luxury of backstopping clubs that were superior defensively to this Maple Leafs team he's joining.

He claims he's motivated and wants to prove his critics wrong. But how will Belfour adjust to a Leafs club whose defensive concept on many nights was to let Cujo bail them out? Can Eddie cover for Toronto's average defensive game like Joseph, or will he further expose the Leafs achilles heel?

Holy cow! I've gone off on a real tangent here regarding the Leafs and the Joseph and Belfour situations. That's the unfortunate thing about living in Canada. The Maple Leafs, thanks to the Toronto media, have become the dominant sports team in this country. Perhaps that's apt, an average team deluding themselves they're on the path to greatness. Much like Torontonians themselves, an average people who aspire to greatness but cannot grasp the brass ring.

But I'm off on another tangent here, and there were other important signings that took place.

Like Bill Guerin doing what everyone expected, heading off to the Lone Star State to sign with the Dallas Stars for the same kind of dollars Bobby Holik signed with the Rangers.

By signing Guerin, along with Scott Young later in the week, the Stars addressed their lack of offensive depth on the wing. Guerin is still in his prime and one of the best wingers in the league, while the Stars are gambling they can match Young up with his former Blues teammate, Pierre Turgeon, to get the kind of offensive production they were expecting out of Turgeon when he joined them as a free agent last summer.

It was no shock Guerin went off to Dallas. The real story here is how much this will affect Guerin's former club, the Boston Bruins.

Notoriously tight-fisted, one cannot fault the Bruins for not wishing to pay out the huge salary Guerin received from the Stars. Indeed, like most of the major signings thus far, it was far too much.

However, the question being asked in some circles is why the Bruins didn't take the opportunity to lock up Guerin long-term for less money last summer when they had the chance. After all, player salaries keep rising, and like Holik in New Jersey, signing a guy to a five year deal at $5-or-$6 million per season would be considered a bargain in three or four years time, even for a team that manages their player payrolls as tightly as the Bruins.

Or would it? If we're to believe the press, some NHL owners are worried there will be a salary cap placed on all NHL teams in the next Collective Bargaining Agreement that would force them to dump players to make room to keep those they signed to large, multi-year deals when the old CBA was in place.

That's possible, but if it is, it hasn't fazed teams like the Stars and Rangers.

The reality here is the Bruins have a long history of being disagreeable in contract talks with their players. So much so, in recent years it's disrupted team chemistry and hampered their chances to grow into a Cup contender. Protracted holdouts crippled them in the 1999-2000 season, when they were being picked by some experts as a Cup finalist. After rebuilding from that and the following sub-par season, the Bruins appeared poised to once again take the next step toward Cup contention.

OK, so their goaltending let them down in the 2002 post-season and they lacked a good offensive blueliner, but these were areas that could be improved on if they could keep their key players, like Guerin, in the fold.

Supposedly, they had the chance to do that last summer, but passed on it, with the end result the guy they traded Anson Carter for the previous season is now gone, and the Bruins have nothing to show for it. Sure, Guerin was a better player than Carter, but Guerin took several seasons to develop into the power-forward he's become, and there's no reason to believe Carter won't improve as he matures. And Carter would've come far cheaper if the Bruins were only willing to budge a little.

Instead, Carter is now playing elsewhere, and so is Guerin. Forgive me if I sound a bit snotty here, Bruins fans, but that doesn't seem like smart management to me. Wouldn't it have made more sense to sign Guerin long-term, even to a two-or-three year deal, for $5 mil per season when the Bruins acquired him? After all, the reason the Oilers peddled him for Carter was they knew they couldn't afford to keep him. The Bruins have the luxury of being able to afford a player like Guerin, if they had struck when the time was right.

Besides, if Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs was willing to fork out $5 mil per season to career third-liner Martin Lapointe in a fit of pique last summer, surely he could've made the more rationale decision to pay Guerin, a genuine scoring star in a league where natural goalscorers are tough to obtain, the same kind of money, right? Right?? Oh, never mind....

So once again, it's the same old story in Boston. They lose players who could've made a difference if their ownership had been willing to negotiate, and Bruins fans spend another summer pondering what might have been.

Not every free agent player jumped ship to chase big bucks with other clubs. Chris Chelios and Teemu Selanne both re-joined their former teams for two-year deals. Why did they come back to Detroit and San Jose respectively? Was it because they couldn't get better deals elsewhere?

Hardly. The handful of big spending teams in this year's market all had various degrees of interest in these two, but the simple fact was, neither Chelios or Selanne wanted to leave their respective clubs. They wanted to return, but couldn't agree on the dollar amount to re-sign. So they put themselves on the UFA market, took the best offer and shopped it back to their old clubs to see if they could match it, or at least come close.

It's unusual to see big-name UFAs re-sign with their former clubs once they've decided to test the market. Sharks GM Dean Lombardi alluded to this when Selanne announced he was going to become an unrestricted free agent. But there's nothing like using the market to nail down a player's true value. This was undoubtedly the intent between these two players and their respective clubs all along. It could become a trend in future UFA markets.

That wasn't the only surprise in what turned out to be a relatively predictable free agent market. Previous marquee-name UFA bidders like Colorado, St. Louis and Philadelphia surprised everyone by their inactivity, thus reducing the number of serious bidders to the Rangers, Stars, and Red Wings. The NY Islanders, whom everyone thought would jump in from day dot with big bids for long-coveted players like former Islander Darius Kasparaitis and forward Tony Amonte, have stayed out, citing the high asking price of both guys.

The Washington Capitals got involved, but not to the level some believed, when they signed UFA centre Robert Lang to a five-year, $25 million US deal. The Caps needed depth at centre, and Lang was a former teammate of Jaromir Jagr, so this move made sense in the eyes of Washington management.

Meanwhile, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks signed Adam Oates to a two-year, $7 million US deal that was far less than the $5 mil per season many thought he was seeking. Maybe that's what the veteran wanted and couldn't find it elsewhere. That's what I believed when this deal first went down, but in hindsight, the fact Oates signed so quickly with Anaheim, barely hours into the first day of the UFA market, indicates otherwise.

In signing with the Mighty Ducks, Oates will be centering Paul Kariya's line. It's accepted Kariya is a superstar who's been toiling on a team going nowhere fast. Putting a smooth set-up man with Kariya will almost certainly boost the Ducks offence and in turn make them a better team. The recent acquisition of Petr Sykora from New Jersey will only bolster it further.

But there's dark mutterings from some that Oates took this deal because he's only interested in "padding his stats". By playing with Kariya, this line of thought goes, Oates will keep his offensive statistics among the best in the league, further improving his market value in two years time.

That may be, but his age (he's nearing 40) and the possibility of a long-term work stoppage in two year's time works against this. Factor in the unknown outcome of the next CBA and it just doesn't make sense, unless Oates has given up hope of ever playing for a Cup winner and is looking to pad his Hall-of-Fame resume instead.

Perhaps the biggest surprise is no one snapped up former Chicago Blackhawk captain Tony Amonte in the first week's frenzy.

During mid-week, Amonte's agent claimed his client was mulling over offers from five teams. They included the Dallas Stars and NY Islanders, who were long believed interested in him, as well as the Rangers and Maple Leafs. As week's end neared, speculation out of Dallas had the Stars leaning toward signing Amonte, while in Toronto, there were rumours the Leafs were "close" to a deal.

Yet the week came to a close with Amonte still out there.

The reason given by supposed interested parties like the Islanders and Leafs was Amonte's asking price was thought to be too high, believed to be around $8 million per season, while they were countering with offers of between $5.7 to $6.2 million US.

The problem for Amonte could be he's priced himself out of the market at this time, and for good reason. His offensive stats have dropped over the past two years, and while there's talk that had more to do with Amonte's strained relationship with Blackhawks GM Mike Smith, there is a suspicion the former Chicago captain isn't the player he once was.

Nobody wants to overpay for a player whose best seasons are behind him. That's another reason the Stars took Scott Young over Amonte. Sure, Young's stats suffered last season, but Amonte is considered a superior winger to Young. The perception in Dallas is Young could re-ignite his chemistry with Pierre Turgeon, but surely a Tony Amonte in his prime could have the same, or perhaps greater, effect on Turgeon?

Unless Amonte is getting past it. Unless his skills really are in decline. How do you justify forking out a five-year, $40 million deal for a guy who could end up struggling to pot 20 goals within a couple of years? The big market bidders aren't afraid to throw their money around, as long as they're getting value for those big-ass contracts.

Hence the remarks from the Isles and Leafs of their willingness to sign Amonte, but only if he'll come down in price. Which has to be galling for Amonte, who supposedly spurn a multi-year deal from the Blackhawks worth between $6 -$7 million per season, so he could get "John LeClair" money as a UFA.

But if you think Amonte is stewing right now, how does former Bruins netminder Byron Dafoe feel? While guys like Joseph and Belfour got big bucks from new clubs, and even Mike Richter meekly re-signed with the New York Rangers for less money, Dafoe is about as popular as a stinking drunk guest heckling the head table during a wedding reception.

Dafoe did himself no favours with his lousy performance in the Bruins opening round upset defeat at the hands of the Montreal Canadiens, which tarnished an otherwise fine regular season. "Lord Byron" was thoroughly outplayed by Habs goalie Jose Theodore, who joined the elite of the league with his amazing play in a season that garnered Hart and Vezina trophies.

Had Dafoe managed to beat the Canadiens and perhaps carry the Bruins to the Conference Finals, his value would've been sky-high. Instead, Dafoe was the goat of that series, and his value is now dirt. He's going to find it tough to find a deal worth more than $3 million per season, and could face the humiliating prospect of signing for the same money he made in Boston, or possibly even less.

Good Lord! This Soapbox is becoming a weed, getting long and tangled. It's taken on a life of it's own, and I've gotta wrestle it to the ground. And what better way to do it than to look at the team that made the biggest splash thus far.

Yep, I'm referring to the NY Rangers, who did just what everyone thought they'd do: buy themselves the players they need to end their playoff drought.

And really, GM Glen Sather had no choice. In his first two years as GM, he resisted the temptation to chase the marquee name free agents, hoping instead to rebuild the Rangers with trades and draft picks.

To his credit, Sather had some success following this path. Drafting goaltender Dan Blackburn last year was a stroke of genius, landing the obvious heir to Mike Richter's role as the Rangers starting netminder. He made bold trades for Eric Lindros and Pavel Bure, two high-priced marquee players who come with baggage, but also with undeniable talent.

Still, the Rangers missed the playoffs during those two years, and added to the three years of futility under Sather's predecessor, that made five long years when NHL playoff hockey wasn't on display at Madison Square Garden.

There's an old saying that money talks, and bullshit runs the marathon. Sure, Sather could keep talking about wanting to get away from trying to "buy" a playoff contender on the free agent market, but as has been pointed out ad nauseum in the press, the Rangers have the biggest media market in the NHL. Each year the Blueshirts fail to make the playoffs is not just an embarrassment, but takes valuable coin out of ownership's pockets.

Sather has to feel his job is on the line. He came to Broadway with a reputation of being a winner, based on the Edmonton Oilers powerhouses he built back in the 1980s, and the way he was able to keep the Oilers competitive in the late-1990s when the fiscal realities of being a small-market Canadian team in the modern NHL came home to roost. Sather was supposed to use his trumpeted expertise as one of the league's savviest GMs to properly rebuild the Rangers into a winner. No more shelling out for overpriced, over-rated free agents. No more trading away promising players only to see them blossom elsewhere. Most importantly, no more missed post-season appearances.

But "Slats" was heading into his third year as the Rangers general manager with nothing to show for it, except a team heavy in offensive talent but lacking players who could willingly play the dirty game of defensive hockey. Guys who, as the saying goes, weren't afraid to get their noses dirty.

Feeling the heat, as well as the direction from higher, Sather went out and did what he needed to do: obtain a top-calibre two-way forward and a hard-hitting, stay-at-home blueliner. It didn't matter that he overpaid to land Bobby Holik and Darius Kasparaitis. The point was, he got two players of the calibre the Rangers had been missing for a long time.

So are the Rangers now a slam-dunk to make the playoffs? Potentially a Cup contender? How can a team with marquee names like Lindros, Bure, Holik, Leetch, Kasparaitis and Richter miss the playoffs again? Certainly the depth brought in by dealing for the likes of Rem Murray and Tom Poti should help, shouldn't it? Dealing away Petr Nedved, who now appears to be a goner with Holik on board, will bring in another good return to bolster the roster, right? Surely, young players like Dvorak and Kloucek and Blackburn will improve next season? And any team captained by Mark Messier isn't going to stand for missing the post-season for a sixth straight year, will they?

So many questions, yet none with clear answers.

Naturally, there are the unforeseen that could come up and screw up this mix. Lindros could suffer another concussion. Bure could pout and sulk if he's leaned on to improve his defensive game, or could blow out his surgically repaired knee. Leetch could struggle again. Poti could continue to be a one-dimensional, soft-as-a-marshmallow blueliner. Richter could re-injure one of his knees. The kids could struggle. Holik and Kasparaitis could chaff at the pressure being brought on them. And Messier could take himself out of the equation by retirement or another long-term injury.

It could well be the guy Sather hired to coach the Rangers, rather than signing Holik and Kasparaitis, who could have the biggest impact on how well the Blueshirts do this season.

It's going to be Bryan Trottier's first kick at the cat as an NHL head coach, after a Hall of Fame playing career and good reviews as an assistant coach with the Colorado Avalache. The task before him will be a daunting one: molding a room full of high-priced egos and under-used kids into a contending hockey team.

The Rangers are loaded with talent, of that, there is no question. But these guys need a strong whip hand to keep them focussed. They need someone who can convince Messier to buy into his system. They need someone guys like Lindros and Bure and Holik will respect and play hard for. Someone who'll be able to develop the young players whilst simultaneously ensuring the veterans don't get pissed off at losing icetime to the kids. They'll need someone who can handle the incredible pressure of coaching the New York Rangers. And they'll need someone who can resist Sather's attempts at second-guessing his coaching decisions during the games.

In the end, it's all going to come down to Trottier who'll determine if the Rangers have spent wisely, or if they've once again sunk more cash into the money pit of mediocrity.

July 14, 2002

MID-JULY MUSINGS.

With the majority of the major unrestricted free agent signings completed near the end of the first week of July, the rest of the month now seems to be winding down, in terms of real NHL hockey news.

And quite frankly, I'm welcoming the summer wind-down. As my site continues to grow in popularity, I'm now finding there is less and less of an "off-season" for myself. Sure, there was a slow couple of weeks following the March trade deadline, but once the playoffs kicked into high gear, I was as busy as ever, following each series, flipping madly from channel to channel, attempting to stay on top of the drama of each matchup in order to post up my analysis in this column.

Once the post-season ended, boom! It was draft weekend, and while there weren't many major trades as in past years, the days leading up to the draft were filled with media speculations over potential moves, as well as a flurry of e-mails from readers musing over potential moves, thus ensuring I was kept busy right up to and throughout that weekend.

There was little time to catch my breath once the draft weekend passed, for there was the run-up to July first and the start of the unrestricted free agent market. I took the first week of July off from my "day-job" to provide almost hourly coverage of the first week of UFA madness, which resulted in little rest for this weary hockey scribe. It's little wonder some sports writers are chain-smoking alcoholics with crumbling marriages and heavy debts.

Ah, but I digress. It's the days of wine and roses now, not whine and noses. What? Yes, it's definitely time to take some time off when I'm resorting to bad puns to fill space. Soon, very soon, I'll be outta here for a week, relaxing at a cabin on a lake somewhere in the deepest woods of Nova Scotia, sitting on the wharf with my son, fishing rod in hand, soaking up the sun and not caring whether or not we catch any fish.

But that's not until the end of this month (heads-up, faithful readers!), so while the sun shines outside and my deck cries out for a paintjob, it's time to post up my take on the latest happenings in the NHL.

Topping our list is none other than the recent signing by the Phoenix Coyotes of one of the few quality UFAs left in winger Tony Amonte.

No one, and I mean no one, saw this deal going down. Amonte signed his contract the same day as the rumours first broke of the Coyotes and the Boston Bruins pursuing him.

The shock wave was palpable. The hockey world had been regaled for a year by stories of the Coyotes tight fiscal situation, which had seen them dump high-priced talent like Nikolai Khabibulin, Keith Tkachuk and Jeremy Roenick, opting instead to go with a team of young, and most importantly, inexpensive players.

How then did the 'Yotes pull this off? What did they have to offer Amonte teams like the NY Rangers, NY Islanders, Toronto Maple Leafs and Dallas Stars were lacking?

Put simply, the length of the deal. According to reports, Amonte had been seeking a four-or-five year contract worth between $40 -$45 million US. As the bidders in this year's market were limited to six teams, most of whom had obtained the players on their UFA "wish-lists", Amonte was forced to drop his monetary price, but steadfastly insisted on a four-year deal.

That put off favoured suitors like the Islanders and Stars, along with the Rangers and Leafs, who were willing to pay him $6 mil per season, but were only proferring two-year deals.

Why were these clubs insisting on a shorter deal? No one would say it out loud, but the perception is Amonte may be a fading star whose best days are behind him. Apparently, none of the few "high-rollers" wanted to risk being stuck with an washed-up veteran carrying a contract too hefty to unload.

Just when it appeared Amonte would be spending weeks waiting for one of these clubs to change their minds, in jumped the Coyotes with the four-year deal Amonte was seeking. According to reports published the day following Amonte's signing, he's going to defer part of his salary throughout the next three seasons.

It's a bit of a risk for the Coyotes, but the team hierarchy obviously identified a need for more scoring, as well as a "marquee name" to entice more fans to attend the home games. If Amonte regains his highscoring ways, it'll be a risk that'll pay off handsomely, both on the ice and at the gate.

Amonte may claim to be happy with the deal, but I think he's probably disappointed he got a lesser deal while a scoring machine (heavy emphasis on the sarcasm here!) like Bobby Holik earned a king's ransom with the Rangers. At this point, however, he's grateful he got the deal he did with Phoenix, rather than face the embarrassing prospect of the new season rolling around without a contract or a team.

This wasn't the first time during the week the Coyotes made news. In the days leading up to the Amonte deal, they were linked in trade rumours with the NY Rangers as potentially having interest in centre Petr Nedved.

With the Blueshirts signing of Bobby Holik, many observers believe Nedved is on his way out of the Big Apple, possibly for either a scoring winger or a top-two blueliner in return.

There were two unsubtantiated rumours of Nedved heading to either Phoenix for winger Shane Doan, or to Calgary for blueliner Derek Morris, which were subsequently shot down by the respective GMs of both clubs.

Nedved's salary ($9 million over the next two years) is certainly a factor hampering any trade opportunities, but as John Dellapina of the NY Daily News pointed out, it could be a big mistake by the Rangers to ship out Nedved.

Sure, he had a lousy year last season, but as Dellapina noted, there were mitigating factors involved in his sub-par season. The loss of winger Jan Hlavac in the Eric Lindros deal, the sub-par season of his other linemate, Radek Dvorak, and his being knocked from the first line with the arrival of Lindros last summer all contributed to Nedved's drop in offensive production.

At first glance, Nedved does appear the odd-man out at centre, what with Lindros, Holik and Mark Messier around. However, I like Dellapina's idea of moving Nedved to the wing on the first line. It also means he'd be an insurance policy, given Lindros's health, Messier's age, and Holik's inability to fill the role of first-line centre.

Meanwhile, in Boston, the Bruins lost out on two tendered offers to high-profile free agents Amonte and Teemu Selanne when the former signed with Phoenix and the latter re-signed with San Jose.

Of course, the Bruins wouldn't have found themselves in the role of twice-jilted suitors if they'd signed Bill Guerin to a long-term deal last summer for roughly the same money they paid out to third-line checking forward Martin Lapointe.

Ah, but I raised that ugly point last week, didn't I? One shouldn't dwell on the past when they can't change it, I suppose. Best to look to the future if you're a Bruins fan. And what's on tap? Joe Thornton and Sergei Samsonov will be up for new deals next summer. Yep, that's right, more holdouts guaranteed to continue hampering the Bruins development as a potential Cup contender.

Well, if Bruins fans are grumbling, they're doing it quietly. Or perhaps they're being drowned out by the whining coming out of Toronto by disgruntled Leafs fans.

In case you haven't noticed, and here in Canada, where the Toronto media makes ignoring their city a impossibility, Leafs fans aren't happy with their hockey team.

Obviously, losing Curtis Joseph hurt. Eddie Belfour is not seen as a suitable replacement. They failed to sign at least one of the big-name UFAs that were available, their blueline woes have thus far gone unanswered, and they remain saddled with overpaid floaters like Robert Reichel, Jonas Hoglund and Mikael Renberg. In the eyes of Leafs critics, something stinks in Toronto, and it ain't just the rotting garbage piled up by a two-week city workers strike.

The bloom is off the rose for general manager and head coach Pat Quinn. The Toronto press have unsheathed their knifes and aimed them in Quinn's direction, openly calling for his replacement as general manager by former Dallas Stars GM Bob Gainey, who's an old friend and former teammate of team president Ken Dryden.

Team owner Steve Stavro defended Quinn publicly, proclaiming he was happy with the job Quinn has done. Other team executives pointed out the Leafs performance last season (a 100-point year and going to the Eastern Conference Finals) as proof the Big Irishman is doing a good job.

But in a city where the last Stanley Cup parade took place three-and-a-half decades ago, that's not good enough.

Not all the complaints coming from the Toronto faithful are coming from whining bitch-artists. Indeed, there is some justification for their rants.

Apart from the obvious one - the impatience over ending the long Cup drought - there is the fact the Leafs haven't drafted a genuine superstar since they landed Darryl Sittler and Lanny MacDonald back in the early 1970s.

The last time a Leaf player won an individual award was back in 1993, when Doug Gilmour won the Selke and was runner-up for the Hart Trophy. The last time a Leaf won the Hart, in fact, was way back in 1955 when Teeder Kennedy got the nod. The last time a Leaf won the Vezina was in 1965, when Johnny Bower and Terry Sawchuk took the honours. You don't wanna know the last time a Leaf defenceman won the Norris, or a Leaf forward won the scoring title.

The Maple Leafs raised ticket prices for next season, but they've got no new stars to justify the hike, thus pissing off the fan base.

Quinn has done a decent job since being hired as coach in 1998 and taking over as general manager in 1999. The Leafs made two trips to the Conference finals under his tenure and have had regular season success in that four year period. He's used free agency and trades to bring in the talent to keep the Leafs competitive.

But with Joseph gone, there's a feeling in Toronto the weakness he covered for so long - the average defence corps - will rise up and bite the Leafs and Quinn on the ass next season. The failure to address this problem area over the last four years could be his undoing if the Leafs struggle next season.

And finally, with the free agent market now quieting down from the frenzied roar of it's first week, the fact only a handful of teams got involved in the bidding almost made as much news as the free agent signings themselves.

Nobody believed the GMs of the Philadelphia Flyers, St. Louis Blues and Colorado Avalanche when they proclaimed they wouldn't get involved in this year's high-stakes bidding as they'd done in the past. Yet, once the initial wave of major signings had crested, those clubs were nowhere to be found as "players" in the UFA market.

There's speculation the respective ownership of these teams tightened the purse strings of these former high-rollers, and for good reason. Given the hefty payrolls of these clubs, already placing them among the elite in the league but bringing them up short for a berth in the Stanley Cup finals, one can certainly understand the squeamishness of their respective owners at tossing more cash into what could become a money pit. Indeed, the owners of these clubs have learned well the lesson of the New York Rangers, who've bought only futility over the past five years.

This summer's limited interest by the majority of NHL clubs raises the question of whether or not players salaries are reaching a point where interest in bidding for unrestricted free agents on the open market is waning.

Certainly, under the current Collective Bargaining Agreement, there is no level playing field for most small-market teams to get into the action. And of course, there are teams whose ownership simply refuses to pay out ridiculously high salaries for "hired guns" regardless of whether or not they can afford them.

I'm beginning to suspect, however, that more and more owners are getting turned off from free agency, because of the limited success it has as a tool in building a Cup contending team.

Since free agency exploded in the National Hockey League in the late 1990s, it has failed as a means for a club to "buy" themselves a Stanley Cup championship.

Critics will point to the Detroit Red Wings of 2002 as proving otherwise, but take a closer look at the Wings and you'll find the majority of their roster was composed of players they drafted and retained (Yzerman, Fedorov, Lidstrom, Fischer, Dandenault, Datsyuk, Williams, Holmstrom, McCarty) or traded for (Shanahan, Larionov, Draper, Chelios, Maltby, Devereaux). That's not to suggest the players they signed as free agents (Hull, Hasek, Robitaille, Olausson) didn't play a significant role, however, it's clear that, without the depth they built using traditional methods of drafting and trading, the free agent signings wouldn't have brought them a Stanley Cup this season.

Wings ownership has plenty of money, but while they invested in free agents, they used the bulk of their payroll to retain the core of the roster.

Of the Stanley Cup champions we've seen since 1995 under the current CBA, all four teams - Detroit, the New Jersey Devils, Colorado Avalanche and Dallas Stars - relied heavily on the tried and true methods of team building - the draft and shrewd trades.

Of these four, the Wings, Avs and Stars have used the bulk of their money to keep the core of their rosters intact. Only the New Jersey Devils failed to do so, thanks to bungled mis-management by GM Lou Lamoriello over the past two years since winning the Stanley Cup in 2000.

Unrestricted free agency has come into play in a different manner, that of the richer clubs preying on their poorer rivals by trading for impending UFAs, then signing them to long-term deals before they qualify for free agent status, thus ridding themselves of the annoyance of losing that player to the highest bidder on the open market.

That is where the true impact of unrestricted free agency is measured. Knowing they cannot possibly re-sign players bound for unrestricted free agency, small market teams deal them to richer clubs in hopes of getting something back, rather than losing them for nothing.

Sure, trading for, and signing, an impending UFA player would be considered part of the "tried and true" method of team building, but it puts the small-market clubs at a distinct disadvantage. That, more than the UFA market itself, is the real problem facing them.

Ah, ramble, ramble, ramble. Look at me go! Time to wrap this up for another week and get back to painting that deck. But before I do, let me direct your attention, dear readers, to the current plight of Major League Baseball.

See how the players are threatening to strike if the owners refuse to compromise their stance on such issues as league contraction and salary caps? See how the MLB owners are refusing to budge? See all the sports shows telling us this situation is similar to what we saw in the summer of 1994, when MLB shut down and the entire season was lost? See how many articles and reports are appearing warning of irrepairable harm to the "grand old game" if the owners and players refuse to pull back from the abyss?

Not a pretty site, is it? Yet that's exactly what we hockey fans will be facing in two years time. A work shutdown, the possibility of an entire season lost, as well as the potential contraction of the league. All because neither NHL owners or players are willing to reach a compromise.

I hope I don't have to point out to you who the real losers will be if that should come to pass.

JULY 15 2002.

OFF-SEASON BLUES

In the four years since I first began offering my take on the National Hockey League, the only problem I've found commenting on the latest news from the pro hockey world is that, by late-July, the pool of off-ice happenings grows so shallow, one risks serious injury attempting to dive into it head-first.

Indeed, we're now reaching the time of year when almost everyone involved, from players to agents to coaches to management to journalists to fans, are taking a much-needed break and heading out to enjoy the summer.

And soon, as in next weekend, I'll be taking a much-needed sabbatical of my own. It can't come quick enough, because quite frankly, much of the news that spews out of the National Hockey League at this time of year is grim, heavy stuff that people suffering from depression shouldn't read without first whapping themselves up with an extra dose of whatever they use to get through a down day.

Feelings of foreboding and gloom are out of place when the weather is warm, the sun is shining, and every fibre of the being is yearning to be outdoors doing something else than hunkering down in front of a computer screen in a darkened room, spitting venom via the internet at those responsible for my morose feelings.

No, it's time to get away from all this for a week. Pack up the family and head to the backwoods of Nova Scotia, far from computers and the internet and the sports-channels. Time to recharge the batteries on a daily dose of swimming, fishing, lazy living and family reconnection. Leave the madness of the NHL behind and catch up on my reading whilst stretched out in a reclining lawnchair on the deck with a cold beer, feeling the warmth of the sun on my face.

But before I can do this, I have to comment, God help me, on the latest round of bizarre happenings that only further convinces me the National Hockey League, as we know it, is careening toward a meltdown in 2004 that will, for probably more ill than good, change the face of the pro game forever.

The biggest news came out of Toronto, where the Maple Leafs and it's GM, Pat Quinn, were slapped with fines totalling $110,000 by the league head office. Quinn, you see, dared to speak the truth, claiming there would be a lockout by 2004, based on how poorly the league was being run.

Quinn was commenting on the whopping size of the dollar amounts of the recent free agent signings when he made his remarks about a lockout. Some have said Quinn's a fine one to talk about salaries, given how much money he's ponied up for free agents during his tenure as the Leafs GM.

I rarely agree with any of the decisions made by Quinn, but the fact remains, the Big Irishman this time spoke the truth. While NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and his sycophants in the press try to pretend otherwise, a lockout or strike is looming in 2004, unless both the league owners and the NHL Players Association can work out an acceptable Collective Bargaining Agreement when the current one expires.

Bettman, to his credit, tried to get talks kick-started a few months ago when he suggested talks on a new CBA should begin prior to 2004, but NHLPA honcho Bob Goodenow shot that down. If the Commish has problems with the size of the salaries being paid out, said Goodenow, he should take it up with the teams that are paying out that kind of cash, rather than taking his frustration out on the players association.

And it's not just Goodenow who's starting to bark at the unbridled spending of several notable NHL clubs. Some general managers, like Quinn and Vancouver Canucks GM Brian Burke, are making it known they're not impressed with the frenzied spending sprees by some of their peers.

Burke was especially vitriolic toward clubs like the NY Rangers and Dallas Stars for their high-priced signings of Bobby Holik, Bill Guerin and Darius Kasparaitis suggesting fellow GM Glen Sather was crazy for spending so much money on players who, in Burke's estimation, were second-line talent. In the eyes of the Canucks general manager, the Rangers and Stars free-agent frenzies were contributing to the continued escalation of player salaries, further tilting the free agent market in favour of big market teams.

While Quinn's and Burke's comments are commendable, they're also hypocritical. After all, it's difficult to picture either man not doing the exact same thing Sather, or Dallas Stars GM Doug Armstrong, did if they were in their shoes.

In the end, it's the owner who signs the cheques. It's the owner who gives his GM instructions on what he wants, what players he should go after, what kind of team he wants to ice.

Were Quinn and Burke working for Tom Hicks or Madison Square Garden, they'd have flung money around faster than a ecstasy-addled teen who'd swiped his parents ATM cards and PIN numbers.

Their comments didn't go unnoticed, as Larry Brooks of the New York Post took Quinn and Burke to task.

In Quinn's case, the Post reporter was spot-on in observing Quinn certainly knew the market value of players like Holik and Kasparaitis to make the first pitch of a five-year deal for the former and a six-year one for the latter.

But any validity in Brooks's argument was blown away by his claim it was the Canucks who contributed more to the escalation of player salaries than the Rangers, Stars, Philadelphia Flyer and St. Louis Blues.

He cities Vancouver nearly doubling then-restricted free agent forward Markus Naslund's salary last summer from $2.35 million to $4.33 million per season, thus establishing the market value for other RFAs last 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, Brooks reasons, the Canucks GM is the prime culprit for "raising the bar on Group II free agents".

I've long suspected Brooks lives in a different plane of existence than the rest of us. Those comments reinforced my belief he's completely out of his tiny little mind.

It's true that many teams - large and small market alike - have been guilty of coughing up far more than they should to RFAs over the years. But "Leisure Suit Larry", as I like to call him, went way over the edge of stupidity in trying to deflect blame on Burke for the rise of player salaries. His favouritism toward the Rangers and his obvious personal hatred against Burke, the former director of NHL hockey operations and league disciplinarian, clouds his judgement and weakens his silly argument.

Naslund was coming off what was then his career best season of 41 goals and 75 points, 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 this season, potting over 40 goals and 90 points, a career best.

Indeed, Naslund's $4.3 mil now appears to be a bargain, considering Jarome Iginla is seeking over $6 million per season, and a fading sniper like Tony Amonte sought, and received, the same as an unrestricted free agent.

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.

Surely Brooks could've found better examples to buttress his contention the rise of Group II free agent salaries is the "root of NHL evil" than Burke's re-signing of Naslund. That's what a supposedly responsible hockey journalist would do. Instead, he allowed his bias against Burke to get the better of him, and in turn, further contributed to his plummeting credibility amongst knowledgeable hockey fans.

Indeed, one would be hard-pressed to find a Rangers fan who considers Brooks an impeccable source of hockey knowledge. I know of a few who exist, from my days of surfing AOL's hockey message boards, but they usually wound up the subject of ridicule from their peers.

Brooks was the guy who, back in April, stumped for the Blueshirts to make an impossibly high offer sheet of one-year, $15 million US to Calgary Flames superstar - and restricted free agent - Jarome Iginla. The type of offer that the small-market Flames couldn't possibly hope to match without screwing up their payroll, either next season or the year after.

He acknowledged this would incur the wrath of the League front office, as well as that of the other clubs, but Brooks justified it because the Rangers were the NHL's "most important franchise", and as such, it needed to have the best young forward in the game playing on Broadway, regardless of the consequences.

If the Rangers had taken Brooks's advice, they'd be more guilty of raising the RFA salary bar than the Canucks ever could. The Rangers front office has already done enough damage to player salaries over the years with their mindless pursuit of aging veterans and high-priced, selfish prima donnas.

But in Brooks's "Wally World", the end justifies the means. It's okay for the Rangers, and other big market clubs, to lay waste to the rest of the league, as long as it buys a playoff berth and thus brings in the much-needed revenue of the New York viewing market.

Some of my Canadian readers have written off what Brooks has to say as the ravings of a bloated, brain-dead New York homer sensationalist, but remember, north of the border, there's plenty of nonsense belching forth from that self-proclaimed centre of the Canadian universe called Toronto.

There can be perhaps no better example of "homerism" than the June ravings of the Toronto Sun's Al Strachan, who reported the Toronto Maple Leafs wouldn't raid their small-market Canadian cousins like the Flames and Montreal Canadiens for their high-priced RFA superstars like Iginla and goaltender Jose Theodore.

The reason why? Because, by golly, the Leafs are Canada's team, and Canada's team doesn't want to offend hockey fans in other Canadian cities.

I learned a long time ago not to take very seriously anything that Strachan writes, because he's obviously worshipping at the same alter of insanity as Larry Brooks. But to claim the Leafs wouldn't make a big pitch for the top free agents of their poorer cousins set me off, even though I should know better.

If the Leafs could get away with slitting the throats of the Flames and their dear, long-time and long-hated rivals from Montreal without bringing down the wrath of the league upon their heads, they wouldn't hesitate to strike. They would subsequently trot out team president Ken Dryden to justify their actions.

Any Canadiens fans who believes Dryden wouldn't allow the Leafs to scoop up Theodore hasn't been paying much attention to what the formerly "most thoughtful man in hockey" has been saying in recent years.

After all, in Dryden's mind, Toronto isn't just the centre of the Canadian universe, but also the centre of the hockey universe to boot, the "Mecca of Hockey" if you will.

That's a slap in the face of the organization Dryden played his entire professional hockey career with in the 1970s. Those six Stanley Cups he helped bring to Montreal are six more than he's helped bring to Toronto since taking over as the Maple Leafs prez, but obviously that doesn't bother Dryden. He said he wants the Leafs to win the Cup, but for now, selling the team and it's history, or at least, the least embarrassing aspects of the past 35 years of their 75-year team history, will do quite nicely.

Still, when he was questioned about any possibility his club would pursue Iginla or Theodore, Dryden dismissed the idea. He stated that making huge offer sheets to restricted free agents never works, except to force the team holding their rights to match and sign them, thus driving player salaries even higher.

Fair enough, hence the reason we've seen very few offers sheets made to big-name RFAs since the current Collective Bargaining Agreement was implemented in 1995. But again, if it were possible to make these offers without bringing down the hellfire of Bettman upon them, the Leafs would make these deals and tough titty to either the Flames or Habs if they couldn't match. In this business, money talks and bullshit runs the marathon.

Losing first round picks as compensation to either of those clubs wouldn't upset the Leafs, since they've done such a crappy job with their previous first rounders over the years. Better to dump picks they would've wasted anyway, when the payoff is either the best young goalie or best young forward in the business.

In the end, it would have nothing to do with wishing to avoid offending Canadian hockey fans, as that smug weasel Strachan proclaims, and more to do with it being bad business.

But as certifiably whacked as Brooks and Strachan are, they don't hold a candle to perhaps the most truly deluded man of the hockey press, Stan Fischler.

It hurts me to make this statement, because I owe my love of hockey in part to Fischler. I grew up in the 1970s reading his books, which not only dealt with the players of that day, but also of the game's rich and exciting past.

But somewhere along the way, Fischler took a trip down the garden path and never came back. In recent years, he's become a source of ridicule among hockey fans for publishing trade rumours so wacky they put Brooks and Strachan to shame. During my AOL days, any post that had the line..."Stan Fischler reports.." regarding a trade rumour was greeted with a deluge of mockery and disgust.

He also hasn't helped his "cred" with his fawning articles regarding the league commissioner. Recent cheerleading articles regarding Bettman's choice of music and restaurants seem more appropriate to Tiger Beat than to covering hockey issues.

One recent report from "the Maven" trumpets the NHL hitting a new attendance record last season of over 20 million and a 60 percent increase in attendance over the past ten years as proof critics of Gary Bettman are wrong.

Only problem here is those statistics are misleading. Those figures go by number of tickets sold and not by how many fans actually show up for the games. Over the past several years, I've read many comments from reporters in NHL cities, including New York itself, over how often the actual number of fans in the stands is often lower than the announced attendance figures.

Another reason for the "increase" is the league expanded from 22 to 30 teams in that time period. Naturally, attendance figures will be higher when you increase the number of teams in the league!

That doesn't mean, however, that you're getting full houses in all of those cities. In 2001, the average attendance was down in 12 NHL cities, by various degrees, which seems to be the average since 1999. As some teams improve and more fans turn out, other teams go into the tank and their respective fans stay away.

Fischler appears to be in denial that a lockout or strike will happen. Articles written by him in recent months suggest the opinion both sides will reach an agreement without having to revisit the extremes of 1994-95, which shut down the league for half a season and forever altered the face of the game. Never mind that all signs are pointing toward another work stoppage, Fischler is convinced they're mere illusions.

God, I hope he's right. I want to believe you, Stan, I really do. So, I think, do all hockey fans.

But there's too much evidence to the contrary. Bettman and Goodenow cannot stand each other. The owners want the players to accept a salary cap, claiming the rise in salaries is forcing many teams into financial hardship. The players, many of whom went through this bitter process in 1992 and 1995, refuse to accept that line, pointing out how many clubs are willingly ponying up big dollars, year after year, to free agent players. They mistrust the owners, for obvious reasons, convinced the league wants to turn back the clock to when ownership made millions and gave the players a pittance.

Now, they're talk of some players not wishing to go along with their brethern in resisting a cap. Meanwhile, some owners are squabbling amongst themselves over how much they're paying out in salaries. Ticket prices continue to rise, forcing away the core upon which the NHL fan base was traditionally built, that of the middle-class hockey fan. Reports are appearing in the press of the league and the players associations stocking up respective "war chests" to sustain them financially through a prolonged work stoppage.

How can anyone look upon these warning signs and still whistle, "Don't worry, be happy?" That's like those appeasement idiots in Europe in the late 1930s who refused to believe Hitler and Nazi Germany was gearing up for the biggest war in human history.

The worst part of this, however, is Fischler has taken Bettman's side in the upcoming labour war, which in turn, is clouding his objectivity.

His recent articles on the topic depict a gung-ho Commissioner, with all the owners in lock-step, preparing a hard line approach to the proceedings against an NHLPA apparently divided and squabbling amongst themselves. Fischler reports the player agents and reps won't stand for a prolonged labour war against the league, because "they've never had it so good"

To me, this sounds exactly like the same sort of wishful thinking among the owners and their supporters leading up to the 1992 strike and the 1995 lockout. Sure, there may be uneasiness amongst the players regarding a work stoppage, and some may genuinely want to bring in some form of a salary cap.

But make no mistake, many of the players were around during the last go-around with the owners. They have long memories of the bitterness of the strike and the lockout. If Bettman and the owners try to come at the players with a hard-assed, "take-it-or-leave-it" approach, it'll blow up in their faces. The league didn't respect the power of the PA in 1992 and 1995. If they believe they can cripple their resolve by talking tough, they'll not only make a tense situation worse, it'll be further proof the league is run by arrogant nincompoops with the memory retention of formica.

Another reason Fischler believes a strike or lockout could be averted is the addition of Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux, now owners, into the mix. Gretzky and Lemieux, Fischler reasons, could be pivotal in the upcoming negotiations.

Fischler could be right, but not in the manner he believes. For if I've learned anything from watching former players going to work in a team's front office, it's that their influence over the players is not one of a positive nature.

How much impact did former players turned GMs Bob Clarke, Bob Gainey, Serge Savard, Glen Sather, Pat Quinn and Phil Esposito have in averting a work stoppage in 1995? How much impact will Clarke, Sather, Quinn, Larry Pleau, Mike O'Connell, Kevin Lowe, Dave Taylor, Doug Risebrough, Andre Savard, and Mike Milbury have now?

But they're not actual owners, right? And they aren't as well respected as Gretzky and Lemieux, right? Surely these two hockey legends will convince the NHLPA of the error of the ways and agree to the type of agreement the league will be seeking, right?

Sure, anything's possible. And I'll be among those standing and cheering if Gretzky and Lemieux were to be instrumental in putting into place a CBA that makes sense.

But just as a player's attitude changes when he stops being a player and starts running a team, whether it's as a GM or an owner. Many of the players respect Gretzky and Lemieux. That doesn't mean they'll agree to whatever those two are selling. Indeed, there's a risk they could be seen as just "front men" for the more powerful of the league owners.

Now do you all see why I need to take a break? What began as an examination of the week's latest happenings tailed off into a rant against three of the least credible reporters covering the National Hockey League, and gloomy prophesizing of a work stoppage at the end of the 2003-04 season!

Without playoff races to follow, without the interesting scenarios of post-season match-ups, without draft speculations, with a slowdown in trade rumours and potential UFA signings, my mind gets absorbed with the absurdities of free agency, bargaining agreements and the ravings of the more bizarre reporters in the hockey press!

The sad part of all this is that, in two years time, this could be all we have to read about. Unless the league and it's player association can reach some common ground "for the good of the game".

Given everything I've commented on in this rambling report, however, it certainly doesn't look good, does it?

No, this is too dark to dwell on any further. Time to shut it down for a few days. It'll be early August when I come back, refreshed in body and soul, with a more cheerful outlook on the league's immediate future. Hopefully, there will be more interesting hockey news to distract me from the potential doomsday scenario the league is facing two summers from now.

There will be plenty of time then to moan over the damage the NHL will have done to itself. Plenty of time then to pick on Brooks, Strachan and Fischler for their delusions.

See ya in a coupla weeks, folks. You need the break as much as I do...