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It's apparent as this season winds down that we're witnessing the end of an era.

I'm not referring to the current collective bargaining agreement, but rather the first signs of a changing of the NHL guard, much as we saw ten years ago when the league was also heading toward a contentious labour battle between players and owners.

In 1994, the dominant franchises were the New York Rangers, Pittsburgh Penguins, Calgary Flames and Boston Bruins. The Detroit Red Wings were also a strong team at that time but were still learning the painful lessons needed to become a champion. The Montreal Canadiens were a year removed from their latest Stanley Cup championship and considered among the best in the NHL.

That year saw the emergence of teams that would build into the dominant clubs at the turn of the century as the Rangers, Pens, Flames, Bruins and Habs faltered .

The New Jersey Devils were blossoming into future three-time Cup champions enroute to becoming the most dominant team in the Eastern Conference for a decade. The Red Wings, built on a core of talent they'd spent years drafting and developing, would also become three-time champions and the most dominant club in the Western Conference between 1995 and 2004.

The Toronto Maple Leafs would emerge at the end of the 1990s as the top Canadian team. The Quebec Nordiques were on the cusp of becoming two-time Cup champions as one of the NHL's top franchises,which would occur after they relocated to Colorado and became the Avalanche. The Dallas Stars were also on the verge of greatness and eventual Cup glory. The Philadelphia Flyers would transform themselves from a perennial also-ran into a continual contender. The St. Louis Blues rose by 2000 to become President's Trophy winners and Conference finalists in 2001

But there is now a feeling that these teams, after a decade of dominance for most, are going to be challenged hard by several promising teams who could supplant them as the top dogs in the National Hockey League.

Topping the list is the Ottawa Senators, who after several painful seasons of slow building made their debut as serious Cup contenders in 2003, pushing the New Jersey Devils to seven games in last spring's Eastern Conference finals.

Despite being held back by financial concerns for years prior to being bought by a billionaire, the Senators built up primarily through smart drafting and trades. Now, thanks to Eugene Melnyk's billions, they can not only retain their best players but can also afford to bring in some veteran help.

Most of the core players on the Senators roster (Hossa, Havlat, Bonk, Spezza, Redden, Chara, and Phillips) are all under thirty and are either in their prime or just starting to reach it. They'll be the foundation that keeps the Sens in legitimate Cup contention for years.

Challenging the Senators are the Vancouver Canucks, who under the management of Brian Burke and the coaching of Marc Crawford have made a steady climb in the past four years from woeful playoff wannabes into legitimate contenders.

Their core players (Naslund, Bertuzzi, Morrison, Jovanovski and Ohlund) are a little older than that of the Sens but remain one of the strongest around. Their second line, once a concern, has shown noticeable improvement as the promising Sedin Twins are blossoming at long last.

The only notable worries are concerns over the calibre of starting goalie Dan Cloutier's play and the future status of Burke as their GM. If the former can improve and the latter is allowed to remain in the front office, the Canucks could be poised to become the Best in the West over the next five years.

A recent arrival among the new elite is the Tampa Bay Lightning, whose improvement over the past two years came so rapidly it continues to evoke surprise from some observers and opponents.

When one considers how well the Lightning have built their club with young talent during their years as the league's laughingstock, it shouldn't come as a surprise. They used that time to draft a solid core of rising talent that includes Vincent Lecavalier and Brad Richards as well as obtaining Martin St. Louis and Fredrik Modin via trades.

GM Jay Feaster took a lot of heat in the 2002 draft weekend by dealing away his first round pick to Philadelphia (which turned into promising young defenceman Joni Pitkanen) for checking forward Ruslan Fedotenko, but that turned out to be the only mistake Feaster would make. But since that deal, he's made several shrewd veteran acquisitions (Cory Stillman, Daryl Sydor, John Grahame) that resulted in a Lightning team that plays a fast, exciting style that's becoming difficult for teams employing the defensive trap to contain.

Their upset first round victory over Washington last spring was a major character builder, and they took valuable lessons away from their second round defeat at the hands of the eventual Cup champion Devils.

The Bolts are no fluke, and could turn into "the Beasts of the East" in the coming years.

A former giant from the early 1990s, the Montreal Canadiens, floundered over the past ten years thanks to inept management, but they've given indication this season that their fortunes are about to turn.

The Habs spent their years in the wastelands making poor trades, but they also quietly stocked up on quality draft picks, thanks to former GM turned head scout Andre Savard and the much-reviled former GM Rejean Houle.

Promising stars such as Calder candidate Michael Ryder, Mike Ribeiro, Andrei Markov, and Mathieu Garon have provided the Canadiens with much-needed depth, in turn helping to take the load off established vets like Saku Koivu, Jose Theodore, and Richard Zednik. Most importantly, they're now helping the Habs along to their best record in nearly ten years and their second playoff berth in the last six.

Additions made by Bob Gainey, hired as general manager in 2003, have also boosted the Habs, most notably recent trades for veterans Alexei Kovalev and Jim Dowd, but it was his acquisitions of twenty-something talents like Pierre Dagenais and Steve Begin who are likely to remain part of the Canadiens base for years.

With the Canadiens among the top teams in terms of prospective talent, the Habs could return to their once-accustomed place as one of the top teams in the NHL very soon.

The Buffalo Sabres still seem like a soap opera at times, but there can be no denying they're well stocked in good young talent that could once again push them into Cup contention in a few years.

The Sabres have a core of good young talent to build upon, which includes Chris Drury, Daniel Briere, Ales Kotalik, and Martin Biron, and plenty more waiting on the farm.

There are only two things that could hamper that development, the willingness of their new owner to pay them increased salaries, and if they'll respond to the demanding coaching style of Lindy Ruff.

Another team to watch is the Florida Panthers. Blessed with riches of young talent, the only thing the Panthers need is time to develop that talent.

Those likely to have long, successful careers with the Panthers include goalie Roberto Luongo (considered by some the best goalie in the NHL), forwards Olli Jokinen, Stephen Weiss, and Nathan Horton and defencemen Jay Bouwmeester, Branislav Mezei and Mike Van Ryn. Expect these players to form the foundation upon which the Panthers future success will depend.

Other promising youngsters include Kristian Huselius, Niklas Hagman and Marcus Nilson, who'll either blossom into key players or could be used as trade chips to bolster the core.

Another Southeast Division club, the Atlanta Thrashers, have been serving notice that they too will be making noise in the years to come. Despite falling out of playoff contention this season after a strong start, it shouldn't be forgotten the Thrashers showed true character in overcoming the death of popular forward Dan Snyder and the loss of star forward Dany Heatley to injury in a much-publicized car crash.

Fortunately, Heatley returned far earlier than expected and in growing stronger in each passing game is thankfully showing few ill-effects from that knee injury. Star winger Ilya Kovalchuk has carried much of the offensive load for the Thrashers, and once he improves his defensive play could become an even greater player than he is now. Their goaltending appears promising for the future in Pasi Nurminen and prospect Kari Lehtonen.

The Thrashers still have to fill up their depth in other areas, but this young club is benefiting from the coaching of Bob Hartley. Given a few more years, the Thrashers could be knocking on the door.

Back in the Western Conference, everything appeared to be coming undone for the San Jose Sharks last season when they dealt off Owen Nolan, changed their management and coaching and missed the playoffs.

This season, however, the Sharks have used their depth in quality youth to rise to the top of the Pacific Division. During that run, head coach Ron Wilson and GM Doug Wilson gave Patrick Marleau, Marco Sturm, Alyn McCauley, Brad Stuart and Jonathan Cheechoo more playing time and responsibility, and they responded well to the challenge.

Well-stocked with promising prospects, expect the Sharks to keep building on their youth as they slowly move out veterans like Vincent Damphousse, Mike Ricci and Scott Thornton. And expect them to make a much more serious run at Cup contention in the near future.

Everyone has been waiting for years for the Nashville Predators to finally blossom into a playoff contender, and this year it finally happened.

It took incredible patience on the part of ownership, management and the coaching staff to resist ripping up their young nucleous, but that patience is being rewarded this season as the Preds appeared destined to finally make their first-ever playoff appearance.

Already well-stocked with a good young nucleus that includes David Legwand, Martin Erat, Scott Hartnell, and Dan Hamhuis, the Preds were also able to afford to make a key veteran pickup in forward Steve Sullivan, whose scoring ability and leadership will also be a boon to this promising young club.

As the next few seasons goe by, we can expect to hear much more from the youth core on this team as they continue to develop into quality NHL'ers.

It's been a long wait for the Calgary Flames to return to the playoffs, as they like the Canadiens are a once-dominant early-90s clubs who fell on hard times. This season, it appears the wait may finally be over for their long-suffering fans.

Thanks to the stability of GM/coach Darryl Sutter, the Flames play a much better all-around game. But it was Sutter's acquisitions of goalie Miikka Kiprusoff and forwards Ville Nieminen and Steven Reinprecht and defenceman Rhett Warriner that have bolstered the Flames and given them a real chance to make the playoffs.

Meanwhile, long-time Flames Jarome Iginla, Toni Lydman and Denis Gauthier are getting help from promising youngsters such as Robyn Regehr, Jordan Leopold, and Matthew Lombardi.

The Flames by no means have a playoff berth nailed down this season, but if they are able to keep most of this team together after this season, fans from the Stampede City may have another Cup contender on their hands down the road.

After shocking everyone, including themselves, with a strong 2002-03 season and going to the Western Conference Finals, the Minnesota Wild fell back to earth this season, due in no small part to contract holdouts by Marian Gaborik and Pascal Dupuis.

That doesn't mean the Wild are a fluke, but rather a growing young team that overachieved but are still on course to become a dominant club in the West.

Gaborik will shake off this lost season and will dominate in this league. He'll be aided by Dupuis and promising youngsters like Pierre-Marc Bouchard, Nick Schultz, and prospects Mikko Koivu and Patrick O'Sullivan.

GM Doug Risebrough has built this club well and head coach Jacques Lemaire has his charges believing firmly in their system. Expect the Wild to bounce back from this season and go on to become a real force in the West.

Of course there is no guarantee for all these teams that things will work out as they hope. Injuries, management errors and financial difficulties could conspire to bring more than one of them down or see them fall short of a Cup victory. But most are going to challenge and eventually displace the dominant clubs of the past decade.

The Red Wings, Devils, Avalanche, Stars, Flyers, Blues and Maple Leafs are top heavy in aging talent, and while some still possess decent depth of younger players, they are relying on their aging stars to carry the load. At some point, these teams are going to see a drop off in their dominance. Some won't fall far, some will.

And most of these rising young teams are going to take their rightful place among the new elite in the latter part of this decade.


The world of professional hockey is still reeling from what happened during last Monday's Vancouver Canucks-Colorado Avalanche game, when Canucks forward Todd Bertuzzi first sucker-punched Avs forward Steve Moore in the head, then physically drove Moore's head and torso into the ice.

Moore suffered a concussion and a fractured neck that presently has him hospitalized, his season effectively finished. Bertuzzi, the game's top power forward with a history of getting involved in on-ice rough stuff, has been suspended indefinitely pending the results of a hearing on March 11, where he'll likely be suspended for the remainder of the season and probably the post-season. He also faces assault charges by the Vancouver police for his actions.

It was an ugly incident, fueled by bad blood between the two teams ever since Moore laid out Canucks captain Markus Naslund with a questionable hit in a game this past February. There was talk of retribution on Moore for that hit by some of the Canucks, which was stoked in part by some fans and media of both cities.

Let me make clear that in no way do I condone what Bertuzzi did. It was a gutless act, regardless of whether or not he meant to hurt Moore as seriously as he did. He deserves whatever punishment is laid down from the league and the law and will have to not only live with those consequences, but also the fact that if he's suspended for the playoffs his absence might be a major blow to his team's Stanley Cup hopes.

In the days following the incident, there were numerous articles condemning it, calling for the NHL to finally crack down once and for all on the violence in the game.

Forgive me for being cynical, folks, but this incident isn't going to change a damn thing.

I remember only too well the Marty McSorley stick-swinging incident against then-Canuck Donald Brashear four years ago, and the storms of angry headlines that produced. Indeed, I was caught up in the anger of the moment, writing my own piece on this site calling out for the league to finally get serious with their rule enforcement.

In the end, McSorley's action killed off his playing career, and he was convicted of assault in a Vancouver court and given an 18-month conditional discharge. He's since moved on to become a coach for the Phoenix Coyotes farm team. Brashear suffered a concussion, missed some playing time, recovered and continues in his NHL career as one of the game's most controversial tough-guys.

And what changes did we see in the NHL? What crackdowns on game violence did we get from them?

We got nothing. No changes in the way the rules of the game are enforced. No crackdown on dirty play and deliberate attempts to injure. Nothing. Nada. The furor died down over time and was forgotten, to be only dredged up occasionally in sensationalistic TV shows and videos highlighting the worst moments of sports.

Nothing was changed, because we the fans don't want it to be changed.

Violence sells. Always has, always will. And not just in our society in this day and age, but throughout history.

Basically, we humans enjoy watching other humans beat the hell out of other humans. That's why movies with violence as it's central theme do so well at the box office. That's why boxing and professional wrestling have been popular throughout the past hundred years. That's why the Romans enjoyed watching the gladiators kill each other in their ancient arenas. That's why even a schoolyard fight attracts a crowd.

Violence is one of the big drawing cards of hockey. For as much as we admire the speed, grace and skills of hockey, we also love the bodychecks and the fights. The oohs and aaahs when one player nails another with a check or a roundhouse right are almost as loud as when a fancy scoring play is executed.

Of course there's nothing wrong with bodychecking when it's done cleanly. The intent there isn't to deliberately injure another player but to physically take him out of the play and knock him off the puck. That's controlled violence, but few are seriously injured from cleanly thrown bodychecks.

It's the fighting and the stickswinging and the spearing and the buttending and the cheap shots that are allowed to be part of the game, even if it's officially frowned upon by the rule book.

For all the bluster within and without the game to crack down on it's violent side over the past decades, the National Hockey League has done very little to actually eradicate it.

And they could do it very easily.

With a stroke of a pen, the league commissioner and the board of governors could sign off on rule changes that would eliminate dirty play from the game forever. A player who fights or intentionally injures or attempts to injure another player gets a hefty fine in the tens of thousands of dollars and a lengthy suspension of more than 10 games. A player who conducts the same act twice in the same year gets double the penalty. A third time, suspended without pay for the season.

And don't try to claim the players wouldn't stand for it. If the league front office put real teeth into those changes by threatening to hit the players in their bank accounts for repeated infractions or take away their livelihood for a year, they'd comply as meekly as kittens.

Some suggest that would never happen because the NHLPA has too much power. If that's the case, then the NHL front office should just quit the charade of being in charge and turn the keys to the asylum over to the inmates once and for all.

It would all be so very easy...if the league really wanted to address the problem.

But they don't, because they know the fans love it as much as some of them undoubtedly do.

The violent aspect helps to sell tickets. Granted, it's not the sole attraction of hockey, for if it were, well, it would be roller derby on ice with clubs.

But it is an attractive part of the game, no matter how much the league's braintrust may deny it.

And the brawling is as popular as it ever was. I noticed that when the Ottawa Senators and Philadelphia Flyers had their recent little tilt that set new NHL records for penalty minutes and fighting majors in a single game.

During lulls in the brawling, the cameras panned around the stands for audience reaction. Every single person in that arena was standing and cheering wildly. Adults, teenagers, children, seniors. All standing. All cheering. All succumbing to their own bloodlust.

There may be a few smart-asses who'll write in and say, "Aw, Spector, whaddya expect, the game was played in Philly!"

To those I say, the same reaction would've been seen if the game were played in Ottawa. Or New York. Or Montreal. Or Vancouver. Or Tampa Bay. Or Los Angeles.

The same scene would've taken place regardless of where the game was played.

So forgive me, folks, for not expecting Bertuzzi's assault on Moore to generate much of a change in the way the rules of pro hockey are enforced.

Bertuzzi will get his lengthy suspension, just like Marty McSorley did four years ago. He'll undoubtedly be found guilty of assault and, like McSorley, given a conditional discharge. Moore will hopefully recover from his injuries and return to the Avs lineup in the fall, where he'll be given a hero's welcome for one night by the fans in Denver and then settle into his accustomed role as yet another faceless checking line drone.

The league will make some noises about stricter enforcement of the rules and stiffer fines and so on, but in the end very little will actually come out of it. And we fans will continue to cheer for our tough guys and their violent acts.

And the same sad story will repeat itself some other time down the road.

Let's just pray that next time, somebody isn't crippled or killed.

MARCH 10, 2004.


With the 2004 trade deadline now past, let's take a look back at what was newsworthy from this year's rumour mill. For a complete list of the deadline deals, go to the link to the Archives at the bottom of this column:

BEST TRADES BY ONE TEAM: The Ottawa Senators landed Peter Bondra from Washington to add scoring depth to their wings, then obtained Greg de Vries at the trade deadline to bolster their blueline, all without giving up much in return. A close second would be the Toronto Maple Leafs, who obtained defenceman Brian Leetch and forward Ron Francis. If those two were five years younger, this category would've gone to the Leafs.

MOST SURPRISING TRADE: The Edmonton Oilers are known more for dumping salary at the trade deadline than in acquiring more, being one of the league's perennial poor cousins. But they shocked the hockey world by picking up forward Petr Nedved and reacquiring goalie Jussi Markkanen from the NY Rangers. It was all the more shocking because the move was seen as a playoff rental, yet the Oilers playoff hopes were believed all but extinguished. Instead, the deal helped rejuvenate the Oilers who are now charging hard for a playoff berth. Not only that, they're indicating they may re-sign Nedved in the off-season.

Honourable mention goes to the Montreal Canadiens for obtaining Alexei Kovalev from the New York Rangers for a pick and prospect. The Habs have not been major players at the trade deadline in the past and nobody anticipated this move, but GM Bob Gainey wanted to make a commitment to his club's playoff hopes without moving anyone from his roster. With this deal, he accomplished just that.

MOST ACTIVE TEAM AT THE DEADLINE: Colorado Avalanche. In the span of twenty four hours, they traded Derek Morris and a prospect to Phoenix for centre Chris Gratton and defenceman Ossi Vaananen, addressed their need for goaltending depth by obtaining Tommy Salo from the Edmonton Oilers, and then brought in forward line grit from the Rangers in Matthew Barnaby. GM Pierre Lacroix remains one of the savviest general managers in the game.

BIGGEST CLEARANCE SALES: The Rangers moved Brian Leetch, Alexei Kovalev, Petr Nedved, Vladimir Malakhov, Martin Rucinsky, Matthew Barnaby, Chris Simon, Greg de Vries and Jussi Markkanen as GM Glen Sather blew up his roster and pursued a rebuilding mode as the Blueshirts miss their seventh straight post-season. The Washington Capitals, desperate to cut their financial losses, dumped Jaromir Jagr, Peter Bondra, Robert Lang, Sergei Gonchar, Anson Carter, Mike Grier, Steve Konowalchuk and Michael Nylander, effectively gutting their lineup of most of their best players.

When the smoke cleared by the deadline, only Jagr and Bobby Holik remained for the Rangers to build around in the long term. The Caps still have goalie Olaf Kolzig and Brendan Witt, although the latter could soon depart via free agency if the team decides they cannot qualify him.

The Rangers and Capitals are now down among the dregs of the league with the Pittsburgh Penguins, the very team they pillaged for Jagr and Kovalev. As Alannis Morrisette would say, "isn't it ironic?"

MOST SURPRISING NON-PARTICIPANTS AT THE DEADLINE: The New Jersey Devils. GM Lou Lamoriello is renowned for his last minute deadline deals to bolster his roster for the playoffs, but this year he didn't participate. Granted, he'd already swung two deals a week before the deadline to bolster his offence by obtaining Viktor Kozlov from Florida and Jan Hrdina from Phoenix. Most observers didn't believe these two addressed the Devils lack of size at centre, which they believed would force "Lou Lam" to go shopping at the deadline. This year, he stayed out of the fray, and his non-participation will be second-guessed from now until the end of the playoffs.

PLAYERS EXPECTED TO MOVE WHO DIDN'T. Olaf Kolzig and Brendan Witt were expected to move at the trade deadline but when the dust settled they remained members of the Washington Capitals. Carolina Hurricanes blueliner Sean Hill was thought to be on the move by March 9th but remains with the 'Canes for the rest of the season.

NO SURPRISE THEY WEREN'T MOVED. Miroslav Satan and Alexei Zhitnik of the Buffalo Sabres were widely believed to be goners at the deadline. But if one read through the pre-deadline hype, the Sabres were claiming they weren't giving up on their playoff hopes. Lacking experienced blueliners and with Satan scoring at a torrid pace over the previous two months, it made no sense for them to shop either guy at the deadline.

WHICH CONTENDERS IMPROVED? The Ottawa Senators, Toronto Maple Leafs, Boston Bruins, Philadelphia Flyers and Tampa Bay Lightning all made significant strides to improve their Cup chances this season. In the West, the Detroit Red Wings, Colorado Avalanche and Vancouver Canucks bolstered their championship dreams with their deals this season.

TRADE THAT FAVOURED BOTH TEAMS: The Philadelphia Flyers dealing winger Justin Williams to the Carolina Hurricanes for defenceman Danny Markov certainly helped both clubs involved. Williams is a promising, speedy winger who could become a key part of the Hurricanes future, while the gritty Markov was a strong addition to the Flyers blueline.

Another was swung at the deadline, when the Colorado Avalanche shipped defenceman Derek Morris and highly touted blueline prospect Keith Ballard to the Phoenix Coyotes for center Chris Gratton and defenceman Ossi Vaananen. In Morris, the Coyotes pick up a top-two blueliner, and by moving Gratton and Vaananen can afford to pickup his salary. The key here is Ballard, who is predicted to be a can't-miss prospect. The Avs get the help for the playoffs they wanted now, while the 'Yotes get a player who can step in right away and make a difference while stocking up for their future.

MOST ONE-SIDED DEAL. Any that involved the Washington Capitals and New York Rangers. Both gave up quality (though expensive) veteran talent for picks and prospects. They might pan out for both clubs down the road, but those deals did nothing to help those clubs in the immediate future.

MOST SIGNIFICANT TRADE IMPACT. There were so many one-sided deals as teams like the Rangers and Capitals dumped salary that their respective "firesales" benefited several NHL clubs. Those moves made the most significant impact on the trade market this season.

BEST TRADE PREDICTIONS BY THE MEDIA: ESPN's John Buccigros and the Ottawa Sun's Bruce Garrioch accurately predicted during the All-Star weekend that Sean Burke would be dealt to the Philadelphia Flyers. Kudos as well to John Dellapina of the New York Daily News and Jason La Canfora of the Washington Post, who were vilified last summer by some of their peers and the GMs of the Capitals and Rangers for claiming the two clubs held trade talks over Jaromir Jagr. They got the last laugh when Jagr himself confirmed the talks occurred, and of course when Jagr eventually was deal to the Rangers. Tim Sassone of the Chicago Daily Herald merits mention for predicting that not only would Alexei Zhamnov be shopped by the Blackhawks, but also Steve Sullivan, Alexander Karpotsev and Nathan Dempsey. Michael Russo of the Ft. Lauderdale Sun-Sentinel deserves acknowledgement for reporting Viktor Kozlov and Valeri Bure would be dealt and sure enough, both are now playing elsewhere. Stephen Harris of the Boston Herald first broke the story of the Bruins not only having interest in Sergei Gonchar, but also that they nearly obtained him before the Christmas trade freeze. Finally, Chris Snow of the Minneapolis Star-Tribune claimed the Minnesota Wild would move out impending UFAs like Brad Brown, Sergei Zholtok, Brad Bombardir and Jim Dowd. By the trade deadline, all were playing elsewhere.

WORST TRADE PREDICTIONS BY THE MEDIA: There were some real doozies this season, but the wackiest rumours came out of Montreal, and every one of them deserves mention here. First, there was last summer's claim that the Habs were about to trade Jose Theodore, Patrice Brisebois and another player to the Colorado Avalanche for Alex Tanguay, Derek Morris and the rights to Patrick Roy. Then came the rumours last fall claiming the Canadiens were offering up Saku Koivu and Brisebois to Washington for Jaromir Jagr, which was followed by the one claiming the Habs were going to shop a package of players, picks and prospects to Calgary for Jarome Iginla and Denis Gauthier. Finally, when the Habs slumped in their first four games following the All-Star break and Koivu sparred with Mike Ribeiro during a practice, some commentators in Montreal were proclaiming with a straight face that all but Ribeiro, Sheldon Souray, Michael Ryder and Theodore were on the block.

Are the Canadiens lacing the hot dogs sent to the reporter's lounge at the Bell Centre with magic mushrooms?

BEST NON-TRADE: The Detroit Red Wings spent last summer and the first half of the season unsuccessfully attempting to peddle goalie Curtis Joseph after Dominik Hasek opted to come out of retirement and return to the Wings. But when Hasek suffered a season-ending groin injury, Joseph was still there and more than willing to regain his spot as their starting goalie. Despite the shoddy treatment "CuJo" received at the hands of Wings management, he was a model of class and patience, and fate has rewarded him with another shot at carrying the Wings to the Stanley Cup.

HATS OFF TO ME! A little self-congratulations for accurately predicting the re-acquisition of Jussi Markkanen last week by the Edmonton Oilers would set the table for that club to trade Tommy Salo. By the deadline, Salo was dealt to the Avalanche. I'll also pat myself on the back over as I was proven right that the Avs weren't going to replace David Aebischer as their starting goalie as so many others claimed.

I will not, however, gloat over the fact that I was proven right when I claimed back in January that the Rangers acquisition of Jaromir Jagr would do nothing to improve their playoff hopes this season. I don't believe in kicking people when they're down. I'm more saddened by the whole thing because so many Rangers fans wanted to believe that this year, things would be different. Instead, not only did their hopes get crushed for the seventh straight season, but they were also forced to watch one of the most beloved players in Rangers history trade away as Glen Sather gutted the roster.


With only a handful of games remaining in the 2003-04 regular season and the playoffs fast approaching, here's a look at all 30 clubs as they head down the home stretch:

ANAHEIM MIGHTY DUCKS: After a hot streak where they came within sniffing distance of the post-season, the Ducks have faltered and it seems apparent a return trip to the playoffs this season won't be happening. Frustrated head coach Mike Babcock is promising changes for next season, but it's up to GM Bryan Murray to determine what those changes may be.

ATLANTA THRASHERS: Despite the amazing recovery by Dany Heatley from injuries sustained in that tragic car accident last fall, the Thrashers have been unable to follow up on their overachieving first half, falling out of the playoff race. There's promising talent on this club, notably Heatley and flashy winger Ilya Kovalchuk, and they're well-coached by Bob Hartley, but this club is still lacking depth.

BOSTON BRUINS: Having recovered well from a mid-season slump, the Bruins find themselves in the hunt for one of the top four playoff berths in the East. That run should be well-bolstered by the surprise acquisitions of defenceman Sergei Gonchar and centre Michael Nylander, who could contribute to a lengthy playoff run in the wide-open East.

BUFFALO SABRES: They're still chasing down the final berth in the East, and made a statement by not only retaining veterans Miroslav Satan and Alexei Zhitnik but also brought in checking winger Mike Grier and gritty blueliner Brad Brown to bolster their roster for a last desperate push at the playoffs. Clearly, the Sabres aren't going to quit.

CALGARY FLAMES: They got a major shot in the arm by the return from injury of goaltender Miikka Kiprusoff, and team captain Jarome Iginla has been lighting it up again when the Flames needed his offence most. They haven't quite nailed down a playoff berth yet, but the recent acquisitions of gritty winger Chris Simon and all-purpose forward Marcus Nilson should give this team the final boost needed to return to the playoffs after eight long years.

CAROLINA HURRICANES: Shocked most observers by trading away captain Ron Francis (after asking him first) and not moving Jeff O'Neill(despite a season-ending shoulder injury, there was interest in him) and Sean Hill(he wanted a two-year contract extension from any club interested in him). The 'Canes are rebuilding in earnest and are giving younger talent more playing time, which doesn't hurt since they're under no pressure to make the playoffs. We can expect to see the same thing from them in the future.

CHICAGO BLACKHAWKS:Their playoff hopes died months ago, key players like Eric Daze and Jocelyn Thibault were out for months with injuries, veterans like Alexei Zhamnov and Steve Sullivan were dealt away and they've been slammed as one of the worst-run franchises in pro sports. If there's anything for long-suffering 'Hawks fans to believe in, it's in promising young talent like Mark Bell, Tuomo Ruutu, Kyle Calder, and Tyler Arnason, who should form the core of a resugent 'Hawks team in the future...provided management doesn't mess things up.

COLORADO AVALANCHE: Loading up on offensive talent last summer did little to improve the Avs, particularly since Paul Kariya has spent time injured and Teemu Selanne has been in a funk. Lacking toughness, GM Pierre Lacroix brought in Bob Boughner (since injured), Kurt Sauer, Chris Gratton, Ossi Vaananen, and Matthew Barnaby. That and their rallying around injured teammate Steve Moore might provide the spark the struggling Avs need for the playoffs.

COLUMBUS BLUE JACKETS: The building continues for this franchise, who once again will miss the playoffs, but have given their fans reason to be optimistic over their future. Sophomore Rick Nash has been among the league's leading goalscorers, goalie Marc Denis has emerged as a capable starter, while rookie Nikolai Zherdev has Jackets fans drooling over he and Nash becoming the future one-two offensive punch that puts their club into the playoffs.

DALLAS STARS:After wallowing in the first half and enduring seemingly endless threats from ownership and management, this veteran-laden Stars club rallied throughout the second half and not only are jostling for a high playoff spot but are challenging the division leading San Jose Sharks. Whoever they meet in the first round would be wise not to take this club too lightly, as these Stars can still burn.

DETROIT RED WINGS: Many of their stars are aging, they've had a goaltending controversy and had key roster players sidelined with injury at various times this season. Yet the Red Wings remain one of the top teams in the Western Conference and must be considered serious contenders for the Stanley Cup. Getting Derian Hatcher back from a lengthy knee injury will bolster their blueline, and when Robert Lang, Kris Draper, Mathieu Schneider and Pavel Datsyuk get back from injury in April, they'll make the Wings a fearsome playoff opponent.

EDMONTON OILERS: They're a long shot to make the playoffs, but don't count the Oilers out. GM Kevin Lowe believes his team can make it, and stunned the hockey world by bring in Petr Nedved and Jussi Markkanen before the deadline to improve his team's chances, in turn dealing away former starter Tommy Salo to Colorado. Whatever happens, they won't go down without a fight.

FLORIDA PANTHERS: They'll miss the playoffs again, but this young Panthers team is filled with promise. Right now in their development they're about where the Tampa Bay Lightning were two years ago . With one of the best goalies in the league in Roberto Luongo, good young talent like Jay Bouwmeester, Nathan Horton and Stephen Weiss, and the offence of Olli Jokinen, this team is poised for a future breakthrough.

LOS ANGELES KINGS: Despite leading the league in man-games lost to injury, which claimed top players like Jason Allison, Ziggy Palffy and Adam Deadmarsh for the entire season, this Kings team simply refuses to quit. Thanks to the coaching of Andy Murray, the Kings are probably one of the hardest working teams in the league, and as a result are still in playoff contention despite the odds against them. All the injuries have given younger players more icetime and they've responded, which bodes well for the Kings future.

MINNESOTA WILD: Unable to follow up on last year's surprising success, Wild management has decided to clear the roster of most impending UFA veterans to clear space for younger talent. Holdouts earlier this season contributed to poor performances by last year's leading scorers Marian Gaborik and Pascal Dupuis, which also contributed to the Wild's fall. Expect them to bounce back next season.

MONTREAL CANADIENS: After a four-game slump following the All-Star break threatened their hold on a playoff berth, the Habs won 9 of 11 games. Not only have they solidified a post-season spot but are closing in on the teams ahead of them in the standings. Pre-deadline additions Alexei Kovalev and Jim Dowd should provide valuable depth for a promising young Canadiens team hoping to go far in the playoffs.

NASHVILLE PREDATORS: Just when it seemed injuries might kill their hopes of a first-ever playoff berth in franchise history, management brought in veterans Steve Sullivan, Alexei Zholtok and Brad Bombardir. Sullivan in particular has made his presence felt with 21 points in 16 games. The Preds are still in a dogfight for one of the final three spots in the West, but these veteran additions gives them a fighting chance.

NEW JERSEY DEVILS: The defending Cup champions are struggling down the stretch, which has Devils followers nervous. It was expected GM Lou Lamoriello would swing a major trade to bolster the roster at the deadline but did nothing except for his pre-deadline acquisitions of Viktor Kozlov and Jan Hrdina. This club hasn't been the same since losing team captain Scott Stevens to a concussion back in January, and are obviously hoping to have him back in time for the playoffs.

NEW YORK ISLANDERS: It's been an up-and-down year for the Isles. Just when it seems they're on the verge of collapse, they rally back and play like one of the better clubs in the league. Currently sitting 8th overall in the Eastern Conference, they're feeling pressure from the Buffalo Sabres. Will they rise to the challenge or wilt down the stretch? They could be looking over their shoulders for the rest of the season.

NEW YORK RANGERS: After seven years of failure with a roster full of overpaid underachievers, the Rangers braintrust decided to dump most of those veterans for prospects and draft picks and finally began a long-needed rebuilding process. Still, expect the Blueshirts to bring in some veteran help in the UFA market to bolster their now-younger roster, but don't expect bloated salary signings as in the past. For now, this season of misery can't end soon enough for long-suffering Rangers fans.

OTTAWA SENATORS: What a difference a billionaire owner can make! After rallying from a slow first half to challenge for top spot in their division, the Sens improved their roster for the upcoming playoffs and increased their payroll by bringing in forward Peter Bondra and defenceman Greg de Vries. Still, there is one area of concern and that's the play of starting goalie Patrick Lalime, who's been inconsistent over the past several weeks. He'll have to step up his game if the Senators are to seriously challenge for the Stanley Cup.

PHILADELPHIA FLYERS: GM Bob Clarke has caught a lot of flak over the years for his methods in team-building from the Flyers faithful, but even his harshest critics have to admit he's done a masterful job of wheeling and dealing to address his goaltending depth and the myriad of injuries afflicting his club. Thanks to Clarke's savvy moves and Ken Hitchcock's coaching, the Flyers remain one of the top teams in the East and a Cup contender.

PHOENIX COYOTES: The rebuilding continues in Phoenix, where the Coyotes recently moved center Chris Gratton and Ossi Vaananen to Colorado for defenceman Derek Morris and highly touted blueline prospect Keith Ballard. Coyotes management have made mistakes over the past couple of seasons and it remains to be seen if this move will work for or against them down the road.

PITTSBURGH PENGUINS: They've been the laughingstock of the NHL this season, but as humiliating as things have been for this young Penguins team, they've been showing signs of life in the past couple of weeks, beating more talented veteran clubs and most importantly, learning to become a team. The road back remains a long one for the Pens, and there's still financial uncertainty ahead, but there is promise on this club.

ST. LOUIS BLUES: A lack of prospective depth and a self-imposed salary cap kept the Blues from dealing for the additional scoring they so desperately need. Now it's up to those already on this roster, particularly veterans Keith Tkachuk, Pavol Demitra and Doug Weight, to step up their game in the final weeks of the regular season if they're to continue the longest active playoff streak in the NHL.

SAN JOSE SHARKS: Last season's disappointment is now a memory as the resurgent Sharks are playoff-bound this season. One big reason is the play of younger talent like Patrick Marleau, Jonathan Cheechoo, and Tom Preissing, who've made the most of the extra icetime and responsibility they've received this season. Two-way forward Marco Sturm was lost for the year with a leg injury and it remains to be seen if deadline pickup Curtis Brown can fill in as the playoffs approach.

TAMPA BAY LIGHTNING: For those few with lingering doubts about the Lightning, it's official: this team is no fluke, they're for real. This rising young club, arguably the most exciting team in hockey right now, has taken over first overall in the Eastern Conference, thanks to Vincent Lecavalier, Cory Richards, Martin St. Louis, Nikolai Khabibulin, Daryl Sydor, Cory Stillman and many more. They cannot be considered a dark horse for this year's playoffs, but potential Cup contenders.

TORONTO MAPLE LEAFS: Another team plagued by injuries to key players that have used their depth in veteran talent to remain near the top of their conference. Recent acqusitions Brian Leetch and Ron Francis will bolster that depth for the upcoming playoffs, but there are legitimate concerns over the health of starting goalie Ed Belfour, who's been bothered for weeks by a bad back. Lacking quality depth behind Belfour, the Leafs Cup hopes could be in serious trouble if they lose "Eddie the Eagle".

VANCOUVER CANUCKS: The season-ending suspension of Todd Bertuzzi for his mugging of Avalanche forward Steve Moore could be a potential crippler to the Canucks playoff hopes. To counter this, GM Brian Burke brought in veteran help in Geoff Sanderson and Martin Rucinsky. Good move by Burke but it'll be interesting to see how these additions gel with their new teammates, and how the Canucks as a whole respond to the fallout from the Bertuzzi incident.

WASHINGTON CAPITALS: Financial losses forced the Caps to dump almost all their key veteran talent over the past two months. Like their long-time playoff rivals from Pittsburgh, the Caps are now faced with a major rebuilding process using mainly untested youngsters. It's a disheartening situation for Capitals fans, as they and their team are going to face several long, painful seasons ahead of them.


In the weeks following the ugly assault by Vancouver Canucks forward Todd Bertuzzi on Colorado Avalanche forward Steve Moore, several hockey reporters and commentators lashed out against what they considered unfair criticism of NHL hockey. In particular, by those in the press who don't regularly cover or follow the sport.

Those media defenders of the game chided those who follow baseball, racecar driving or football for bringing down a "witchhunt" against hockey by the Bertuzzi incident. They pointed out the obvious dirty play in those respective sports (baseball pitchers throwing at batters heads, racecar drivers bumping opponents with their cars, or football players spearing opponents). They criticized those outside the sport, particularly those who don't follow the sport, for their "piling on" attacks on hockey.

They also claimed the only time that most in the "elite media" paid attention to hockey was whenever something bad happened.

Hockey reporters can get as indignant as they want, but it's not just the "elite media" or those who don't normally follow hockey who are calling for changes in the game.

Damien Cox of the Toronto Star, Michael Farber of Sports Illustrated and Roy MacGregor of the Toronto Globe and Mail are respected reporters who have followed the sport for years and are among those wanting the league to change and improve. Hall of Famers such as Guy Lafleur, Mario Lemieux and Mike Bossy have also lent their voices to the cause for change in the NHL product.

Include yours truly in that group. I've followed the game for nearly 35 years, played it for almost as long (although never at the pro level) with the scars to prove it, and covered it on the internet since 1998. I love this game, but I despise what it's become.

Ultimately, getting in a huff over outside criticism of hockey and bringing up the problems of other sports in comparison doesn't improve hockey's status in the eyes of sports fans or those hockey fans like myself who have grown disgusted with the deteriorating quality of today's game. Two wrongs don't make a right.

It's akin to being charged with a crime and whining to the judge that your neighbour has committed crimes as bad or worse. It doesn't make you any less guilty.

What the NHL is guilty of is icing a crappy product where uncalled obstruction passes for "defensive hockey", where there are little regard for the rules of the game and players have little respect for one another, and where so-called "traditionalists" in positions of influence within the game stonewall every attempt to improve the product.

They include those among the teams owners, the league's board of governors, team management and the press who insist there's nothing wrong with the game.

Some of today's hockey commentators are former tough guys who know that, if not for their pugilistic talents, they would never have had an NHL career, which became the basis to launch them into successful careers in broadcasting.

Some of these traditionalists are arguing for the elimination of the instigator rule, believing that it would allow the players to "police themselves" and thus rid the league of the cheap shots and unfortunate incidents like the one committed by Bertuzzi on Moore. More fighting, they claim, will eliminate the dirty play and bring respect back amongst the players, just like it did back in the 1980s glory days.

But does anyone remember that back in the "glory days" fighting was considered to be ruining the game just as much as today's disrespectful cheapshots are? How does bringing back more brawling improve the quality of the game?

Removing the instigator rule would send the game back to the wild brawls that previously marred the sport and kept it a joke in the professional sports world ("The other night I went to the fights and a hockey game broke out.").

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, along with many team owners and their general managers, have proclaimed for years that there's nothing wrong with the quality of their product. "We like our game the way it is," they say.

Many hockey fans, on the other hand, don't agree, typified by the slumping TV ratings and empty seats at most NHL venues, particularly in the coveted US market.

Despite a decade of expansion in the United States, the NHL is no better now in popularity than it was during those supposed glory days of the 1980s, when professional hockey was being out-ranked in popularity by professional bowling, tractor pulls and pro wrestling in the US.

I'm no bleeding heart. I believe there is a place in the game for good, clean physical play, and I confess I've enjoyed a good hockey fight in the past. But there comes a point where you have to mature, and that's the NHL's problem. The game hasn't grown up and it needs to do so if it's to highlight it's best features, win over new fans in the all-important US market, and win back the former fans who have been turned off by what the game has become.

For all the value of fighting by those who support it, we see little if any of it in the playoffs, where every game has meaning as 16 teams battle on the long two-month road to the Stanley Cup. That's because coaches don't want their team to be short-handed in a critical situation because their tough-guy took a stupid penalty.

The benching of the tough guys in playoff hockey weakens the argument of those who say fighting is an integral part of the game. Even the number of cheapshots committed amongst the players drops off significantly as the playoffs progress, although the amount of uncalled obstruction does not.

When it's played well, hockey is a wonderful game to watch. When played by two opposing teams evenly matched in skill, it truly is the fastest team sport in the world, the "coolest game on ice".

This was made clear on the Saturday following the Bertuzzi incident, in a series of games where Toronto and Montreal, Nashville and Calgary, Boston and Buffalo and Vancouver and Ottawa gave hockey fans thrilling end-to-end action, hockey the way it should be played and must be highlighted.

It was the first time since the Heritage Classic back in November that I was able to thoroughly enjoy a hockey game from the opening whistle until the final buzzer without drifting off due to boredom. It was the first time in months that I was on the edge of my seat, totally engrossed in the excitement of those games.

Folks remember the thrilling playoff matchups and international competitions for the high quality of play, not for the thuggery and uncalled obstruction that sucks the life out of the product.

Does anyone remember what it was that made Sports Illustrated tout hockey as "hot" while basketball was "not" back in 1994?

It wasn't because of the toughness of the players, or how well they fought, or how they disrespected each other with cheapshots, or used uncalled obstruction as a defensive tactic.

The reason Sports Illustrated declared the sport "hot" was because of the overall quality of the sport. Back then, over 11 of 16 playoff-bound clubs finished the season with over 90 points. 8 players finished the season with over 100 points. Another 13 had over 90 points. Seven of the top 25 point-getters had over fifty goals. Another seven had over 40. This at a time when 8 goalies with 20 or more games had save percentages over .910.

Most remember the incredible playoff series between the Rangers and Devils in the Eastern Conference Finals, the thrilling seven game Cup final between the Rangers and Canucks, and the amazing first round playoff upset by the upstart San Jose Sharks over the heavily favoured Detroit Red Wings.

They remember how Doug Gilmour became a hockey god in Toronto, and how Patrick Roy returned from hospitalization to help push his Canadiens to a seventh game in their first round playoff matchup against the Boston Bruins.

They remember Wayne Gretzky, his skills beginning to fade, winning his last Art Ross title. They remember the rise of the Russian Rocket Pavel Bure and the Hart Trophy performance of Sergei Fedorov. They remember the emergence of Dominik Hasek and Martin Brodeur as future goaltending superstars, the impressive comeback of Boston's Cam Neely, and the wizardry of Jaromir Jagr, who proved he didn't need Mario Lemieux to become a superstar in his own right.

The majority of hockey fans don't remember who won the fights that occurred that year, nor do they remember any significant cheapshots, and would be hard-pressed to remember without the aid of the internet who led the league in penalty minutes that year. I know I couldn't. Turns out it was Tie Domi. Those who do remember those ugly moments with fondness are in a distinct minority.

It's the offensive and defensive skills, not the goonery and brawling and nastiness, that wins games and evokes fond memories. The skills and talent of the players was what put the NHL product squarely on the cover of America's top sports magazine. That's what made it seem, ten long years ago, that pro hockey was finally poised as a challenger to the "big three" pro sports in North America.

Instead, the game's quality has been chipped away in the ten-year interim by the lousy, boring product on the ice, its reputation once again sullied by dirty play. The game is now referred to in parts of the US as the pro sports equivalent to cockfighting.

The NHL must decide what they're to be. If they want to be a serious player in the North American sports market, they'll have to clean up their game. If they're unwilling to do so, then it's time to admit they're just not good enough to compete in that market, contract half their franchises and return to fringe sport status.

That might thrill "old-school" hockey fans and commentators, but it'll forever condemn the National Hockey League to small-potatoes status in the US sports market. If they fail to clean up the game and improve its quality, they'll also continue to slowly lose fans from their fanatical base.

What are the defenders of the current style of game afraid of? That if the fighting and head shots and cheapshots are banned that the players will get "sissified"? That it'll turn into a wimpy ballet more akin to figure skating than true contact sports?

How can the quality of the game get any worse than it is right now?

If fights and roller derby-type thuggery were the main drawing points of hockey, this game would be pulling in high ratings and full arenas every night. But it doesn't, and it's in large part because of the fighting and cheapshots and dirty play.

Rather than whining over how the mean old "elite media" is picking on pro hockey whenever something bad happens, or slamming US-based commentators for ridiculing the sport's brawling image and knocking US-based media for it's lack of coverage of the game, perhaps those who run and support the league might pause a moment to wonder why their sport is under attack.

I'm not suggesting the NHL take physical play out of their game. Bodychecking is an integral part of the game, and there's nothing wrong with a hard, clean hit.

But why is it that whenever someone criticizes the fighting and the cheapshots, folks speak up in defence of it by suggesting it would be somehow less than manly if these things were eliminated from the game?

The purpose of the sport of hockey is to put the little black disk into the opponent's net. It's not about how much you can physically hurt your opponent in the process with slashes, spears, butt-ends, high sticks and punches.

It's time to put the emphasis back on skating, puckhandling, shooting, playmaking and clean bodychecks. It's time to eliminate fighting and crack down hard on the cheap shots. Also, for the officials to call the game by the rules rather than allowing so many uncalled obstruction penalties that pass for defensive hockey and suck the life out of the sport.

As long as the NHL thinks only in terms of machismo, it'll forever remain a poor cousin to baseball, basketball and football, nothing more than a circus sideshow to serious sports fans.

It's time for this game to grow up.


- Who'da thought the Montreal Canadiens would become the team in the East that most hockey observers say they "wouldn't want to meet in the playoffs" this season?

After most (including yours truly) observers picked the Habs to miss the playoffs this season, they've not only made the playoffs, but recently came off a lengthy points run that has them challenging the top teams in the East as the final jockeying for home ice advantage continues into the season's final week.

During that run, stretching back to late February, the Habs beat Conference rivals such as New Jersey, Ottawa, Boston and Toronto, as well as the Calgary Flames and Colorado Avalanche.

So what's the difference in this year's version of Les Canadiens compared to last season?

New GM Bob Gainey has brought in stability and respect, head coach Claude Julien has ingrained into his players a system involving smart defensive play and quick breakouts, veterans like Jose Theodore, Sheldon Souray and Saku Koivu have stepped up their games, and youngsters like Mike Ribeiro and Calder nominee Michael Ryder have given the Canadiens an additional boost to their offensive attack.

Regardless of the outcome of this year's playoffs, it's clear the Canadiens are a club on the rise.

- The best goaltender in the NHL right now is Florida's Roberto Luongo. He's set an NHL record this season for most shots faced by one goalie in a single season with 2,379 ( or as Don Cherry once said, he's seen more rubber than a dead skunk on the Trans-Canada Highway), yet Luongo has amazingly posted 24 wins, a 2.36 GAA, a mind-boggling .933 save percentage and most incredibly of all, seven shutouts. As one Florida newspaper put it, he was the difference between the Panthers contending for a playoff berth and contending for the first overall pick this season.

Imagine how much better the Panthers chances to make the playoffs this season would've been if they'd improved their defensive game in front of the over-worked Luongo?

And I wonder if NY Islanders GM Mike Milbury, who's made a long series of dumb trades over the years, wishes that he could've had back the deal that sent Luongo to Florida? No offence to Rick DiPietro, who was selected by Milbury with the first overall pick in 2000 that the Isles got in return for Luongo, but imagine how much better the Islanders could've been the past three years if that deal had never been made?

Some suggest Luongo should get at least a Hart Trophy nomination for his efforts this season, but I'd believe he's more deserving of the Vezina Trophy as the league's top goaltender.

And if Wayne Gretzky and company don't pick this guy for Team Canada in the World Cup, they should be collectively tied to hockey nets and be forced to endure a game's worth of the shellacking Luongo faces on a nightly basis!

- Having once lived in Calgary for four years back in the mid-1990's, I'm thrilled over the prospect of the Flames finally returning to the playoffs after a long, painful seven years absence.

Darryl Sutter not only gets my vote as NHL coach of the year, but also executive of the year. He's done a masterful job of coaching and management with a Flames franchise that was adrift on a sea of mediocrity until he came to town and cleaned things up.

The only blight on that record was his incitement of last weekend's brawl between his club and the Nashville Predators.

- I'm still waiting to hear back from the handful of Rangers fans who rather rudely questioned my intelligence and sanity when I dared suggest back in January the acquisition of Jaromir Jagr wouldn't boost their club into the playoffs.

I'm not knocking or mocking the majority of Rangers fans who disagreed with my take. Most of you engaged in an intelligent debate on the topic. I'm not calling you out and in fact respect your opinion.

No, this is aimed at the three or four potty-mouths who used a lot of profanity in attacking my opinion of the deal. Come on, laddies, you said you'd write back at season's end "and then we'll see who's right".

Anyone? Anyone? Helloooooooo?

- I know the race for this year's Calder Trophy winner is between Boston Bruins goalie Andrew Raycroft and Montreal Canadiens forward Michael Ryder, but the best rookie player in my opinion is Chicago Blackhawks centre Tuomo Ruutu.

A slow start to his rookie campaign and the fact he's playing for the sad-sack Blackhawks hurt Ruutu's chances to win the Calder, but he stepped up his game noticeably in the second half of this season, which is all the more noteable since he plays for the sad-sack Blackhawks.

Raycroft and Ryder are fine young players who appear destined for successful NHL careers, but Ruutu is the most naturally gifted of this year's rookies and is headed for superstardom.

If the Blackhawks don't screw things up with this kid and the core of promising young talent he plays with (Tyler Arnason, Mark Bell, Kyle Calder and Brett McLean...get used to those names as you'll be hearing a lot from them in a few short years), Ruutu could be the foundation for a possible hockey renaissance in the Windy City.

Remember, you heard it here first.

- If I've said it once, I've said it a hundred times: it didn't matter how many forwards and defencemen the Maple Leafs management brought in before the trade deadline, because if Eddie Belfour's back acts up in the playoffs, the Leafs can kiss their Cup hopes bye-byes.

GM John Ferguson Jr made some good moves this season to bring in additional veteran talent with playoff experience and resisted the temptation to part with promising youth to bring in more.

However, the one fatal flaw could be his unwillingness to part with a roster player to bring in a quality backup like Anaheim's Martin Gerber as insurance in case Belfour's back sidelined him again.

Another flaw, which was very apparent in recent games against Buffalo, Tampa Bay and Montreal, is the Leafs struggles against hustling, young, aggressive teams. In those games, the Leafs at times look flat-footed and, well, old.

Maybe they'll crank it up in the playoffs, but it's something worth noting for whoever coaches the Leafs first round opponents.

- Why is it that whenever a guy suggests taking fighting out of hockey, some critics immediately question your manhood? And if a female makes the suggestion, she's a hysterical woman?

For those critics, that line of thinking is soooooo 1950s. Just because someone believes violence is hurting the sport of hockey doesn't make them a wuss. Let's grow up and progress into the 21st Century, shall we?

For those of you who believe it'll be better if the players "policed themselves", it was proven twenty years ago that, without the instigator and third-man-in rules, fighting was as much a blight on the NHL as the cheapshots are today. And the vendettas and "vigilante justice" attitude was just as prevalent.

The best way, indeed the only way, to clean up the game is to eliminate fighting entirely, punish players guilty of using cheapshot tactics with lengthy suspensions and hefty fines and have the on-ice officials call the game by the rule book. That would also include automatic misconduct penalties for the first clown not wearing a "C" or "A" on his jersey who starts beaking off at the officials if they don't agree with their calls.

Don't worry, all you macho-men commentators and observers, the players won't become sissies if gratuitous violence is taken out of the sport. In fact, for those suggesting the players would turn into pansies, what's with the homophobia? Got some issues you're burying? Hey guys, 1952 called, they want their attitude back!

The game will actually become better, as the talented, skilled players will be allowed to show off their talents without fear of being blindsided and mugged. And we can still enjoy the physical aspect of the game as bodychecking comes back as the skill it once was, rather than the cheapshots that supposedly passes for it today.

And guess what? The fans will actually start attending games again, and watching them on television. The sport will become popular again, bringing much needed shekels back into the NHL bank accounts.

It's time for the so-called "old school" traditionalist attitude that is currently stunting the sport's development to change!

- My respect for TSN's Bob McKenzie, a former editor of The Hockey News, dropped several notches recently when he defended the spear by NY Rangers forward Mark Messier on a Pittsburgh Penguins player in a recent game, and the two-game suspension Messier received for the infraction, as "part of the game".

I'm so old (just turned 41) that I can remember it being big news whenever an NHL player actually speared an opponent in a game. That player would be singled out as a cheapshot artist, even if it were the only time he ever committed the transgression. It was considered one of the worsts fouls you could commit in hockey.

But today's game has deteriorated to the point where a supposedly knowledgeable commentator like McKenzie claims it's now "part of the game".

Of course, the fact that it was a once-great player like Messier who committed the foul and not, say, someone like Rangers tough guy Dale Purinton may also have had something to do with McKenzie's take on the matter.

Indeed, it was suggested that the reason Messier only got a two-game suspension was that it was so late in the season, the league didn't want it to be perhaps the last act of Messier's career if this indeed proved to be his final season.

In my opinion, that would've been the perfect opportunity to deliver a wake-up call to the players by levelling an eight game suspension on the great Messier, thus ensuring he finished his final season on the sidelines. It would've also assured there was no double-standard in the way punishment is meted out by the league.

And don't gimme the argument that because the Penguin player wasn't seriously injured that Messier wasn't deserving of such punishment. If Maple Leafs goon Wade Belak, who stands about as much chance of enshrinement in the Hockey Hall of Fame as I do, can get eight games for delivering an off-balance two-hander to the head of Colorado defenceman Ossi Vanaanen (who also wasn't seriously hurt, thanks in no small part to the "unmanly" visor he wore to protect his eyes), then Messier deserves a similiar punishment for pitch-forking an opponent.

It's bad enough that an on-ice infraction which has the potential to cause grevious bodily harm is taken for granted in today's game by players and officials, but it only worsens things when supposedly respectable commentators like McKenzie condone it.

No wonder the game is turning into a freakshow.

- And while we're still on this topic, I still cannot believe the disparaging remarks from Toronto Sun columnist Steve Simmons aimed at Toronto Maple Leafs executive Ken Dryden for daring to suggest that hockey is in danger of becoming "an extreme sport" and needs to be cleaned up.

Simmons recently claimed Dryden was "burning bridges" with fellow Leafs executives and players for his comments. Simmons claims many of the Maple Leafs felt "stabbed in the back". The reporter disparages Dryden for being a "deep thinker, dreamer and philospher king".

If some Maple Leafs executives are actually feeling that way about Dryden's remarks, then they're thicker than a old-growth forest. Most comments I've read and heard from the Leafs players suggest that Dryden's entitled to his opinion. Privately, according to Simmons, they're supposedly pissed, but then again, what players supposedly tell reporters in private can stretch said reporter's credibility when those players go unnamed. If the players refuse to go on the record, then it's not worth publishing when the reporter has nothing to back it up.

I've noticed for several years the petty jealousy aimed at Dryden by some in the media. Simmons, fellow Toronto Sun writer Al Strachan and MSG Network's Stan Fischler have been among those who've slammed the Hall-of-Famer for his long-winded speaking style (which usually involves the use of words that have some scrambling for their thesaurses), his "liberal" ideas about the game and other crimes against the sport of hockey.

Dryden never was the typical jock who gave monosyllabic answers to simple questions, but was instead an intelligent, articulate athlete who always sought the best in the sport of hockey, a trait that continued after his playing days in his later incarnations as a writer, documentarian, and now as a Maple Leafs executive.

So when Dryden dares to speak out against the current level of violence in the game, naturally those who feel there's nothing wrong with the game (some of whom are either jealous or intimidated of Dryden's intellect and fame) get defensive because "one of their own" dared to speak out and voice an opinion contrary to most of those in the NHL braintrust.

Not everything that drops out of Dryden's mouth is a pearl of wisdom. His pleas for financial assistance for Canadian teams from the Canadian federal government were in my opinion misguided and embarassing and further proved the NHL had its collective head in the sand when it came to their financial problems.

But more often than not his far-sighted, high-minded ideas tend to be right. For example, he was one of the first to highlight and champion women's hockey when most so-called knowledgeable hockey men dismissed it as a silly fad.

On the topic of hockey violence, Dryden has it right.The game is in danger of becoming a fringe sport, dismissed by serious sports fans as a sideshow, and disparaged by former hockey fans grown disgusted by the deterioration of the game they love.

And rather than disparaging Dryden for his speaking style, vocabulary or "crazy ideas" about cleaning up the violence in the sport, perhaps his critics might actually take a moment and actually listen to the message?

After all, he's only one of the greatest goalies in the history of the game, who wrote the greatest book ever written about the sport (which is obviously the genesis of the envy some ink-stained media wretches feel toward him), is partially responsible for the recent renaissance of the Maple Leafs organization, and has long championed what is best about the sport.

Call me crazy, but Ken Dryden might just know what he's talking about!