NOVEMBER 2003 SOAPBOX ARCHIVES

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MY 2004 ALL STAR TEAM AND LEGENDARY ALL-STAR TEAM SELECTIONS.

The NHL recently released their ballots for the 2004 All-Star Game, and this year you can vote online at their website. Hopefully this season the league can avoid the embarrassment of fans stuffing the ballot box for write-in players who clearly don't deserve to be in the game, such as the efforts of a couple of love-struck puckbunnies from Florida who gave themselves severe writer's cramp voting in then-Panther Sandis Ozolinsh.

Still, it would surprise me if we see further instances of fans or fan clubs organizing to vote in players who clearly don't deserve to be at the game. To those fans who think it'll be fun to participate in this nonsense, allow me to impart a little bit of grumpy old man wisdom upon you: don't even think about it.

You think it's an amusing prank, but you're simply giving the NHL hierarchy (the owners and the NHLPA) yet another reason to dismiss all hockey fans as a bunch of slack-jawed idiots.

We serious hockey fans have bitched for years that the league doesn't pay any attention to us. But when we get the rare opportunity to make our voices heard, such as voting for worthy players to participate in the All-Star game, we make a mockery of it by ballot-stuffing and gleefully bragging about it.

To those dingbats, I say, thanks for nothing, you stupid bunch of twits!

If we can't be trusted to take this tiny bit act seriously, why should the league listen to us when we raise legitimate concerns about the overall state of the game?

Anyway, grumpy rant over. I'll now make my selection of those players from both Conferences whom I deem worthy of All-Star selection. These selections are drawn from the complete list posted at NHL.com. Feel free to offer up a differing viewpoint, which I'll post in my "Fans Speak Out" section at a later date. Mind you, you'll have a tough time convincing me that my selections aren't accurate, but have fun trying!

WESTERN CONFERENCE:

Wingers: Todd Bertuzzi and Markus Naslund (Canucks). The most lethal offensive duo in the NHL. Bertuzzi is the dominant power forward in the league right now, so he gets the nod over aging vets like Keith Tkachuk and Brendan Shanahan. Naslund possesses better all-round offensive skills than Milan Hejduk and Brett Hull and narrowly missed winning the Art Ross last season.

Centre: Peter Forsberg (Avalanche): There shouldn't be any question about this. He's in his prime right now and is perhaps the best all-round forward in the game today. Won the Art Ross and Hart trophy last season and appears to be picking up this year where he left off.

Defencemen: Ed Jovanovski (Canucks) and Niklas Lidstrom (Red Wings): The man they call "JovoCop" in Vancouver has emerged as one of the top blueliners in the game and dominates at both ends of the ice. I foresee him as the eventual successor to Lidstrom, who's been without question the best defenceman of the past four years and remains among the elite players in the game today.

Goaltender: Marty Turco (Stars). He is off to a slow start compared to last season, but there's no reason to believe this will last throughout the season. His regular season stats last year were phenomenal, and his play this season has been better than the aging Dominik Hasek and last spring's Conn Smythe winner JS Giguere.

EASTERN CONFERENCE.

Wingers: Marian Hossa (Senators) and Glen Murray (Bruins). The flashy Hossa posted 45 goals and 80 points last season and is well on his way to another fine season. Murray is a late-blooming star who came into his own as an offensive force with the Bruins. Sure, having Joe Thornton as a linemate doesn't hurt, but in Thornton's absences last season Murray proved he could still post up strong numbers.

Centre: Joe Thornton (Bruins). He finally arrived as a superstar last season with a 101 point campaign and there's good reason to believe he'll come close to that total again. Big, nasty and supremely talented, he's the dominant centre in the Eastern Conference...and he's only 24!

Defencemen: Wade Redden (Senators) and Scott Niedermayer (Devils). Redden's been improving with each passing year and this season he should be in line for a shot at the Norris Trophy. Niedermayer's been overshadowed in New Jersey with Scott Stevens as a teammate, but he was phenomenal last season and was in my opinion a finalist for the Conn Smythe last spring. He too could be in line for a Norris nomination.

Goaltender: Martin Brodeur,(Devils). Last year's Vezina winner is a proven clutch goaltender as his three Stanley Cup rings prove. Yes, other goalies on the ballot currently have better stats but Brodeur isn't far off the pace and should have that margin closed by January. With Patrick Roy's retirement and Dominik Hasek's struggles, Brodeur is now "the man".

NHL LEGENDARY ALL-STAR TEAM.

We also have the opportunity to vote for whom we'd select to the NHL Legendary All-Star Team. The names on the ballot are also available at NHL.com. Sadly, we can't vote for a first and second team all-stars, as there are many players here who are all worthy of merit, so I've decided for create both for my site. Enjoy!

FIRST TEAM ALL-TIME ALL-STARS.

Left Wing: Bobby Hull (Blackhawks): No left winger in NHL history was as exciting, powerful or dynamic as "the Golden Jet" in his prime. His blazing speed and lethal shot made him one of the greatest players of all time.

Right Wing: Gordie Howe (Red Wings). "Mr Hockey" gets the nod over Maurice "Rocket" Richard for his durability and all-round play. Scoring over 700 goals is a noteworthy accomplishment, but Howe got most of them in a much-tougher six team league. An amazing physical specimen, he played pro hockey into his 50s and played it well.

Centre: Wayne Gretzky, (Oilers): Like there was any doubt? The holder of over 50 scoring records, some which will probably never be broken. The league hasn't been the same since he retired.

Defencemen: Bobby Orr (Bruins) and Doug Harvey (Canadiens). There is no question Orr was the greatest defenceman of all time, but his style was pioneered by Harvey, who sits second to Orr (8) in Norris trophies won in a career with 7.

Goaltender: Terry Sawchuk (Red Wings). Yes, Patrick Roy broke most of his records, but Sawchuk accomplished his feats against far tougher opposition in the old six team league and without the benefit of overinflated goaltender equipment. He still holds the record for the best post-season GAA (0.82!)and most career shutouts (103), two records no goaltender will probably ever break.

Second Team:

Left Wing: Frank Mahovlich (Maple Leafs). "The Big M" was a smooth-skating winger who had a lethal scoring touch. He's considered one of the best skaters and most consistent offensive forwards the game's ever seen. Too bad they didn't appreciate him in Toronto until after he was traded away.

Right Wing: Maurice Richard (Canadiens). There was no player more dominant in an opponent's zone than the Rocket. A pure offensive forward, he was the crown jewel of the Canadiens glory years in the 1950s and one of the most exciting, fiery and dangerous forwards in NHL history. The man lived to score goals.

Centre: Jean Beliveau (Canadiens). Grace and class personified, "Le Gros Bill" is considered one of the greatest leaders in NHL history. A Hart, Art Ross and Smythe winner, the player today most comparible to Beliveau in his prime is Mario Lemieux. Oh yeah, and he played on 10 (TEN!) Stanley Cup winners.

Defencemen: Denis Potvin (Islanders) and Ray Bourque (Bruins). Potvin was the cornerstone upon which the Isles dynasty was built. He was incredibly strong, played a punishing physical style, and could light it up offensively. Bourque followed in the path of Bobby Orr and for years was the heart and soul of the Bruins. His smooth style, offensive prowess and leadership over twenty-plus seasons made him one of the greatest of all time.

Goaltender: Jacques Plante, (Canadiens). "Jake the Snake" literally wrote the book on goaltending. Plante was a pioneer and innovator, from the roving style adopted by Roy and Brodeur to his use of the face mask that all goalies wear today. He also found time to win the Hart Trophy in 1962 as well as six Vezina trophies and five Stanley Cups.

OWNERS UNWILLING TO BARGAIN?

Read an interesting piece by Larry Brooks of the New York Post last Sunday regarding the negotiations between the NHL Board of Governors (the team owners) and the NHL Players Association.

According to Brooks, "a variety of sources" who attended recent NHLPA meetings with player agents and the NHLPA's talks with the Board of Governors executive committee and league commissioner Gary Bettman, the players association presented a proposal that addressed several issues that are key to the next Collective Bargaining Agreement.

Brooks writes these proposals include " a five-percent giveback to the league on the full value of all existing contracts; changes to the Entry Level System both in terms of a cap and percentage of the cap that can be paid in signing bonus; a revenue-share system from on a pool collected from an aggregate of payroll luxury tax, regular-season and playoff gate taxes and revenue tax that would be distributed to clubs meeting qualifying criteria, including attendance performance. " Brooks also reported the PA was willing to address such issues as salary arbitration an qualifying offers.

Apparently, these proposals, combined with the recent upturn in the Canadian dollar which has created an additional $75 million for the six Canadian clubs, could produce payroll savings of $75 million in the first year and $200 million in the second year of the new CBA.

Brooks then reports that Bettman rejected the proposal and countered with a one-page counter seeking a hard cap of $31 million US, which supposedly would guarantee each team a $5 million US profit.

If we go by Brooks' sources, the owners have only one goal: to bring the PA to heel by bringing in a hard cap. Everything else is minor details.

It seems almost too simplistic to assume the owners aren't willing to entertain the PA's proposal. But let's give Brooks the benefit of the doubt on this one for one simple reason: we're talking about the team owners of the National Hockey League.

Remember, it was the owners' predecessors who for decades ensured NHL players were among the lowest paid professional athletes in North America. Many of the current bunch were around for the player strike of 1992 and the lockout of 1995. They walked away from the current CBA smug in the knowledge they had imposed the most restrictive free agent plan in North American sports upon their players, only to have most of them exploit it at the expense of their small-market cousins because they couldn't control their greed.

The NHLPA refuse to consider a salary cap, saying the notion was a non-starter for any negotiations of the next CBA. By studying their proposal, the cap is nowhere to be found, but I must admit that PA honcho Bob Goodenow and his charges have drafted up an interesting proposal.

A five percent giveback on the existing contracts may appear to be chickenfeed considering how much the players make , but do the math and it's not a bad deal. Take 5% off the salary average of $1.8 million and you've got $90, 000. Times that by the number of players in the NHL (approx 720) and that works out to $64.8 million dollars.

Now let's look at the full value of an existing contract. Let's say a player has three years remaining on a contract that would pay him $15 million US. That's over $840K he's willing to give up. Another player with four years remaining on a $30 million deal would pay back $1.5 million. And the lowest paid player who has three years on a $325K per season salary would pony up over $48000.

If the average salary per season is $1.8 million and the average contract length is three years, that's $5.4 million. Five percent of that would be $270,000. Multiply by number of players and you're looking at over $194 million dollars on average the players are willing to part with. That a significant chunk of coin.

Looking at this from a payroll point of view, if a team is paying out $45 million this season, the players on that team are saying they're willing to hand back $2.25 million this season, the equivilant of an entire salary. Again, not a small amount to be sure.

Now I'm sure some of you will sneer that the five percent payback is a mere drop in the bucket, but it's actually a reasonable offer from the players, one that shows they're willing to bargain in good faith here. After all, how often are workers are willing to return five percent of their salaries to avoid a labour dispute? Sure, we're talking about millionaires here, but if they're as greedy as they've been made out to be, would they be talking about giving back any part of their salaries?

Next, changing the entry level salary cap and the percentage of which can be paid as a signing bonus. An important concession by the players here. The owners want to close off the loopholes regarding bonus clauses and the players are acknowledging here that they're willing to help them do this. Of course, the fact it was the owners themselves who found those loopholes in the first place and exploited them is ironic, even more so when one considers the Boston Bruins, a team considered one of the hardball negotiators in the NHL, were the ones responsible for the trend when they signed Joe Thornton to his rookie level contract in 1997. I realize the player agents deserve their share of the blame, too, but still, it's the owners who allowed this situation to happen and did nothing to bring it under control.

Still, the PA is acknowledging their willingness to help enforce a cap on rookie salaries, a concession they made in the last CBA. That's not something to be blithely dismissed.

Next, "revenue-share system from on a pool collected from an aggregate of payroll luxury tax regular-season and playoff gate taxes and revenue tax that would be distributed to clubs meeting qualifying criteria, including attendance performance." This is a major change in thinking for the players, who rejected a payroll luxury tax when the owners tried to include that in the 1995 CBA negotiations because they felt the owners would use it as an excuse to keep salaries deliberately low. The players are acknowledging there are small market clubs that are struggling to make a go of it financially, which should win them support from the owners of those clubs.

Combining luxury tax, regular season and playoff gate taxes and revenues taxes to teams like Calgary and Edmonton, who have no trouble filling their buildings but are struggling to keep pace financially with their big market rivals, this is just the sort of help their owners claimed for years they were seeking. It helps keep the small market clubs, particularly those in Canada, alive and healthy and competitive.

Problem is, the mindset of most NHL owners subscribes to the Darwinism of "survival of the fittest". In their case, the survival of those who can afford to survive. And their attitude toward the small market clubs can best be summed up by the words of former New Jersey Devils owner John McMullen, when during the last CBA negotiations he proclaimed, "screw the small-markets!"

A lot of big market owners feel the exact same way. They'd happily push six or eight or ten of their rivals out of business so long as they're still their money. The fact it was their idea to expand to a lot of those markets in the first place because of the expansion fees those teams had to pay them, and the huge black eye it would give the NHL in the eyes of North American sports fans, doesn't seem to enter their tiny, greedy minds.

Revenue sharing? Good heavens, that sounds like communism! Obviously the concept of revenue sharing isn't one the players have any problem with, but I suspect the more hawkish owners will ensure that notion doesn't get factored into the next CBA.

Finally, the players willingness to negotiate the present arbitration system and qualifying offers. I admit I'm surprise the players would consider changes to the current arbitration process, considering it's worked so well for them over the past several years. Usually a player going to arbitration will end up getting a significant raise over what his team was offering, even if it's less than what the player may have sought.

It's believed the owners want to bring about changes to arbitration whereby the arbitrator must decide between the team's offer and the player's request, thus eliminating the current process whereby the arbitrator usually sets the award at some point midway between the two. That's something I didn't see the players willing to accept, as it becomes a 50-50 proposition they'll end up with the team's proposed offer, significantly lower than the mid-way awards they've been getting.

Perhaps the reason for this is the players may be seeking a higher qualifying offer of ten percent, which is all a team has to offer to retain the rights of restricted free agents until they hit the magic age of 31. Usually, players coming out of their entry year contracts are most affected by that ten percent offer, since those who become eligible for arbitration rights later on tend to get higher offers from the team in hopes of avoiding the arbitration process.

Still, at least the players are willing to discuss those issues, which is another big concession regarding salaries I never thought they'd consider amending.

As Brooks noted, Goodenow and the players are being proactive in arriving at this prosposal, holding numerous meeting amongst themselves and working out various models. He also points out that the PA is offering up significant concessions here that could be used to get a new CBA hammered out by Christmas. That seems overly optimistic to me, but I believe that these proposals could be the basis for having a deal in place by the end of the 2003-04 season.

Back in September I noted that it would be up to the players to decide if there is a league shutdown next season. If these proposals are any indication, they're willing to work hard to ensure this doesn't happen.

Which makes the news of the league's rejection of these proposals and a blunt counteroffer of a $31 million US hard cap puzzling, if not downright maddening.

What does the league hope to gain from this? They know full well the players won't accept a hard cap. And why $31 million US? How the hell do they enforce that? Nearly twenty of the 30 NHL teams present payrolls are closer to $40 million. It would be almost impossible for the truly big market teams to accept that cap, let alone reach it with an orgy of salary dumps. Granted a lot of them have contracts that expire at season's end, but there are ten NHL teams who have committed between $24 million to $47 million in salaries beyond this season (In order: Dallas, Philadelphia, Anaheim, Montreal, New Jersey, NY Rangers, Washington, Toronto, Colorado and Detroit). How will most of those clubs ice a full roster next season under a hard $31 million cap?

Anyway, this cap would supposedly double the value of their franchises, or at least that what Brooks has Bettman telling the owners. Apparently, Goodenow was willing to discuss this with the commish if the players could sell in a team's revenues as partners when that club was sold, but Bettman wasn't interested.

There is more to this salary cap than increasing the value of the teams. It has everything to do with crushing the NHLPA. The owners will insist on that cap, and publicly proclaim the players are being unreasonable and selfish and unwilling to compromise to win support for the fans.

There has to be more to the owners side than the stark insistence of a draconian salary cap. There just has to be. These guys are businessmen, they're supposed to be smarter than this.

But again, as I've noted, most of these guys end up shooting themselves in the foot instead of bringing down the PA. As we've seen, the current CBA in place would've worked properly to keep salaries under control while ensuring the players still got a reasonable share of the pie, or at least a better share than what they got prior to 1995, or what their predecessors were getting in previous decades.

But a lot of these guys just couldn't help themselves. They found loopholes to exploit and used them to their own advantage at the detriment of the salary structure and at the expense of their small market brethren.

And now that they've made a total mockery out what could've been a workable collective bargaining agreement, it appears they may be willing to kill the league in order to save it.

Again, if these dingbats think they're going to bring the players down, they're dumbeR than they've been letting on. It'll only prove further that they learned nothing from the 1992 strike and the 1995 lockout.

The players are in far better position now to ride out a prolonged work stoppage than they were in 1992 and 1995. The majority have made so much money over the years that some of their agents are bragging over how many years they could survive without making another dollar again from hockey.

And let's not forget that Europe beckons. The players, especially the North American ones, discovered that during the 1995 lockout. I'm not sure how many pro clubs in Russia, Sweden, Slovakia, Germany, Switzerland, Finland, France, Norway and the Czech Republic will sign up NHL players sidelined by a lockout, but one has to believe there are several giving serious consideration to the idea.

And for those who decide not to spend time playing in Europe, there's always forming "barnstorming clubs" of touring all-star teams, such as the "Wayne Gretzky and Friends" tours during the 1995 lockout, which proved very popular amongst hockey starved fans.

The fact is, the players are in control here. They'll decide how long a lockout will go on, not the owners.

And while some owners may feel they'll be "better off not playing than playing" in order to get the CBA they want, it's stupid, short-term thinking that'll do more harm to them than to the players.

In other words, business as usual for the National Hockey League.

But as Brooks points out, don't put the blame on the players if it comes to pass. They're showing a willingness to negotiate, to make concessions, to help improve the chances for small market clubs to survive and compete, and to work in tandem with the owners to bring some measure of control to their salaries.

WHAT IF?

In addition to my love of hockey, I'm also a bit of a history buff. Recently I've been reading books that take a look at how world history might've been shaped if certain events turned out differently.

It got me to wondering just how different the NHL of today might look if certain teams hadn't made player moves based on lack of money or bad management decisions over the past ten-twelve years.

For example, what might the roster of the NY Islanders look like today if they could've kept most of the draft picks who went on to become stars on other clubs?

Only a handful of teams have drafted better than the Islanders since the early 1990s, and while chalking that up to years of missing the playoffs is a valid point, they've also shown a knack for drafting well regardless of where they were picking.

Were it not for a series of owners who skimped on payroll and some outright dumb trades by GM Mike Milbury, there might be a second dynasty on Long Island today. Consider the following roster:

Goal: Roberto Luongo, Tommy Salo. Defence: Scott Lachance, Darius Kasparaitis, Bryan McCabe, Brad Lukowich, Wade Redden, Zdeno Chara and Eric Brewer. Forwards: Travis Green, Zigmund Palffy, JP Dumont, Jan Hlavac, Todd Bertuzzi.

Or how about the NY Rangers? Much attention has been given over the past ten years to the parade of fading free agents that have graced the Blueshirts roster, but what's often overlooked is how well this club drafted during Neil Smith's tenure as general manager.

Smith's undoing was his abandoning promising young players for quick roster fixes of aging veterans, believing he could capture lightning in a bottle a second time after it worked so well for him in 1993-94.

It can be convincingly argued that the Rangers could've remained a consistent playoff contender, even a Cup contender, if Smith retained most of the promising young talent he'd drafted. Consider:

Goal: Dan Cloutier. Defence: Sergei Zubov, Aaron Miller, Matthias Norstrom, Eric Cairns, Kim Johnsson. Forwards: Tony Amonte, Doug Weight, Rob Zamuner, Niklas Sundstrom, Todd Marchant, Marc Savard, Mike York.

Then there are teams who lost talent simply because of bad management.

The Montreal Canadiens won their last Stanley Cup in 1993, but spent most of the past ten years in decline. But what if this storied franchise hadn't been so poorly managed throughout the 1990s? Imagine how strong the Habs would've been through the remainder of the 1990s if they'd retained the following core players from that 1993 roster:

Goal: Patrick Roy. Defence: Eric Desjardins, Mathieu Schneider, Lyle Odelein. Forwards: Vincent Damphousse, John LeClair, Kirk Muller, Mike Keane and Guy Carbonneau.

Now throw in players they'd traded away for little return between 1990 and 1993: Chris Chelios, Jyrki Lumme, Andrew Cassels, Brian Skrudland, Petr Svoboda and Sylvain Lefebvre.

Then add in players foolishly dealt away in the late 90s under Rejean Houle: Craig Conroy, Darcy Tucker and Valeri Bure.

Obviously there were various circumstances that led to the gutting of the Canadiens over the years. Still, this would've been a roster that, properly managed and coached, would've continued to keep the Habs amongst perennial Cup contenders until the end of the 1990s.

On the topic of mismangement, the Chicago Blackhawks also fit nicely into this category. Stanley Cup finalists in 1992 and considered one of the most punishing clubs in the NHL in the early 1990s, the 'Hawks have fallen so far due to owner apathy and incompetent management that they've driven away their fanbase, once among the most fanatical in the league.

If owner Bill Wirtz hadn't been such a tightwad and if his general managers ran the Blackhawks better, here's a look at who might be on their roster today:

Goal: Ed Belfour, Dominik Hasek. Defence: Chris Chelios, Bryan Marchment, Eric Weinrich, Keith Carney, Bryan McCabe. Forwards. Jeremy Roenick, Steve Thomas, JP Dumont, Michael Nylander.

Granted, Belfour and Hasek wouldn't have been able to co-exist, but surely a great return could've been had for one or the other. As for the rest of the roster, include the good young talent already on the club, like Steve Sullivan, Eric Daze, Kyle Calder and Tyler Arnason, and you'd have another club that could considered a perennial Cup contender. The roar of the Blackhawks faithful at home games would've been as loud as during the club's glory years with Hull, Hall, Mikita and Pilote.

Then there are the small-market Canadian teams stuck behind the 8-ball because of tight finances.

It's acknowledged that playing in a small Canadian market in Edmonton has severely hampered the Oilers development from a seemingly perpetual promising team into a legitimate Cup contender.

If money hadn't been the primary factor restricting the Oilers development, the players they might've afforded to retain may have been enough to possibly bring another Stanley Cup back to the "City of Champions". A couple of smarter player movement decisions wouldn't have hurt either:

Goal: Curtis Joseph. Defence: Janne Niinimaa, Bryan Marchment, Luke Richardson, Roman Hamrlik, Tom Poti. Forwards: Doug Weight, Mike Grier, Todd Marchant, Rem Murray, Miroslav Satan, Bill Guerin, Ray Whitney.

The Calgary Flames began the 1990s as one of the dominant teams in the NHL, but player moves based primarily on cutting salary contributed to their prolonged decline since the mid-90s. If money hadn't been an issue, it's likely they still would've been a dominant club with a roster of the following:

Goal: Mike Vernon, Trevor Kidd. Defence: Al MacInnis, Gary Suter. Forwards: Joe Nieuwendyk, Doug Gilmour, Theo Fleury, Gary Roberts, Michael Nylander, Cory Stillman, Sandy McCarthy, Valeri Bure.

Of course, if one wants to truly examine how tightening finances can change the look of a team, the Pittsburgh Penguins are a notable example.

Since winning the Stanley Cup 11 years ago, they've lost Jaromir Jagr, Ron Francis, Larry Murphy, Shawn McEachern, Markus Naslund, Alexei Kovalev, Petr Nedved, Sergei Zubov, Bryan Smolinski, Glen Murray, Stu Barnes, Darius Kasparaitis, Johan Hedberg, Fredrik Olausson and Jan Hrdina.

Granted, not all those players were lost because of money, but it did play a factor in quite a large number of those moves. If the Pens could've afforded to retain even half the players on that roster, it's no stretch to believe they'd be a consistent playoff club.

It's quite obvious that, if money issues and poor management hadn't affected these clubs, the standings of the National Hockey League would look quite different today.

The Rangers and Flames wouldn't have suffered through their prolonged post-season absences since the late 1990s and probably would've made sustained playoff runs. The Canadiens, Blackhawks and Islanders would've not only made the playoffs more often but would've been Cup contenders. The Oilers would've been able to blossom into contenders. And the Penguins would've remained among the dominant clubs of the NHL.

As I noted earlier in this piece, there were obviously extenuating circumstances that resulted in several of the trades made by these teams over the years. But the recurring themes for most always seems to be money and/or mismanagement.

So what if the National Hockey League hadn't seen the economic upheavel of the past dozen years? What if things had stayed as quiet as they did in the 1980s? Or what if the owners and the NHLPA had worked out a better collective bargaining agreement in 1995 that would've allowed the small market clubs like Calgary and Edmonton to stay competitive? What if Canadiens GM Serge Savard paid closer attention to his club in the early 1990's? What if the Isles had found stronger ownership in the early 1990s and a smarter general manager? What if former Penguins owner Howard Baldwin hadn't started his team down the slippery financial slope with his bloated contracts? What if Neil Smith had used better judgement in his trades? What if Bill Wirtz were a better owner and hired more competent management?

These are moot points now. Things are as they are and no pondering the past will improve things. All the fans of these clubs can hope is those presently running their clubs can learn from that history, and in the case of the Flames and Oilers, that the next CBA allows them the opportunity to retain their players and develop into contenders again.

OBSERVATIONS OF THE HERITAGE CLASSIC.

- Right off the bat, a tip of the hockey helmet to the hockey fans of Edmonton, who turned out nearly seven hours before game time at Commonwealth Stadium in preparation of the game. Edmonton sports fans have always been a hardy breed as anyone who's watched the Canadian Football League will tell you, but you've gotta have a love of the game to spend nearly 8 hours outside in -25 celsius weather!

- Yeah, they don't skate as fast or play as well as they did in their heyday, but the Oilers and Canadiens alumni still put on an entertaining show in their MegaStars game. And while they may no longer play at high speed, what struck me was the basic skills - passing, shooting, stickhandling, strength on skates - never left these legends. Some of those long-retired players handled the puck better than some current NHLers!

- How about the goaltending of Grant Fuhr and Bill Ranford? Seeing Fuhr flash the leather making his patented glove saves is still a thrill, and Ranford showed he's still acrobatic enough to make amazing saves. The Canadiens goaltending was good, but Fuhr and Ranford stole the show and were the reason the Oilers alum beat the Habs 2-0.

- Who'd have thought the game's greatest offensive player, Wayne Gretzky, would be held scoreless in an Oldtimers game? Guess the Great One wasn't kidding when he forewarned us that his level of play had dropped off considerably since his retirement. One thing that hasn't abandoned him is his uncanny sense of going to where the puck will be before it even gets there.

- Most impressive Hab? Defenceman Larry Robinson, who showed he still has the moves even though he's now in his 50s. That end-to-end rush he made near the end of the game brought back memories of "Big Bird" in his prime.

- At least Gretzky can justifiably attribute four years of retirement for his inability to score, but what's Mark Messier's excuse? Just kidding, Rangers fans! It's obvious "the Moose" was out there to have fun and not to show up his retired former teammates and opponents. And wasn't it great to see Messier back in a Oilers jersey one more time?

- Habs legend Guy Lafleur didn't post up any points, but it's amazing this guy can still skate as well as he can in his mid-fifties. And he's still a smoker!

- Moment that brought back flashbacks to my childhood: watching the players between periods using shovels to scrap the snow off the ice. How many times during my childhood did I and my buddies do that when we played hockey on Otis Hamilton's pond in Carleton, Nova Scotia? Too many to count. My father used to grumble, "too bad you don't shovel the goddam driveway as well and as fast as you shovel off that goddam pond!"

- The key thing about this MegaStars game was seeing just how much fun the players from both clubs were having. After years of hockey war in the big leagues, it was great to see these guys laughing and joking and having a ball, the bitterness and rancour of their previous NHL battles now a thing of the past. No high sticks. No cheap shots. No dirty play. No whining to the refs. Just fun. Which is what the game is supposed to be about.

- The Heritage Classic game was, in a word, wonderful. Yes, the boring trap still reared it's ugly head and there was a lot of the usual mucking and grinding, but the added element of playing outside at night in -25 degree weather seemed to add a level of excitement that's missing from most regular season NHL games.

- The Canadiens avenged their alumni brethren by defeating the Oilers 4-3 in a game that just seemed to get better as it went along.

- Habs forward Joe Juneau expressed his concern before the game that the outdoor conditions might play a factor and could potentially cost a team a valuable two points which could make the difference whether or not a team made the playoffs.

First of all, Joe, if it comes down to deciding a team's participation in the playoffs to a mere two points, what does that say about how that team played throughout the season? Yes, two points late in the season could make a difference, but I don't believe two points lost in November makes a difference when you've got another 60 games to make it up.

Second, given the result of this game came out in the Canadiens favour, perhaps this year's bunch should play more games outside?

- One disadvantage of playing outside in extreme cold is how much the puck bounces as the ice gets chippy on an outdoor arena over the course of a game. That played a factor for both clubs.

But hey, that's real hockey. Most outdoor venues don't have the advantage of Zambonis to flood the ice between periods, so the puck is going to bounce and skip and hop around a lot. If you ask me, that improves a player's skills! Handling a puck on perfect ice inside a nice warm arena is one thing, doing it on an outdoor venue is quite another!

- Best fashion sense: Montreal Canadiens goalie Jose Theodore sporting a bright red Habs toque stretched over the top of his goalie mask for the game. He didn't need it to keep his head warm, but rather it made a great homage to those goalies of one hundred years ago. Look at old photos of Georges Vezina, and you'll see him sporting a toque. Of course, Vezina didn't have a goalie mask to protect his face back then, and the toque really was to keep his head warm!

- They heated the benches for both games, but most of the players say they weren't cold at all once they got playing. And now you know why so many kids play the game on outdoor rinks and on lakes and ponds. Sure, it's freezing when you're standing still, but once you get going, you don't feel the cold at all. And no, that's not because hypothermia is setting in!

- Kudos to Hockey Night in Canada for their camera work during both games. I loved the mobile camera that zipped along the top of the glass to follow the flow of the play. It was almost like being on the ice with the players themselves! I don't think they could use it in regular NHL games, as there's bound to be complaints about that camera obscuring fan sight lines.

- The Habs and Oilers alumni are calling for a rematch, with Claude Lemieux saying they should play in Olympic Stadium and would probably fill the place. I say it's a great idea and let's hope they can bring it about.

As for the current editions of the Habs and Oilers, we've yet to get their opinion. Personally, I hope we do get to see more outdoor games, if not between these two teams then with others. Of course, they'll have to be played in Canada and the Northern US in wintertime. I don't think the desired effect would be the same in Texas, Florida and California!

AT THE QUARTER POLE.

With the 2003-04 season now well past the quarter-mark, it's time to evaluate how the clubs are making out thus far. This season I'll be evaluating each club as they sit in the standings of their respective conferences as of November 29.

EASTERN CONFERENCE:

1. Philadelphia Flyers: Their best players (Jeremy Roenick, Mark Recchi, Tony Amonte) are playing like they're supposed too, their goaltending tandem (Jeff Hackett and Robert Esche) sits among the best in the league, they've got a seemingly good balance of young talent (Simon Gagne, Joni Pitkanen, Justin Williams) and veterans and they're coached by one of the best in the business in Ken Hitchcock. So why is there so little buzz about the Flyers strong play this season? Could it be that Flyers fans have seen this act one time too many since Bob Clarke took over as GM nearly ten years ago?

2. Boston Bruins: The B's are much healthier this season compared to last. Their offensive game, led by Joe Thornton, continues to be dangerous. Their defensive game is better than expected. Rookie goalie Andrew Raycroft has been stellar thus far, young defenceman Jeff Jillson shows much promise and rookie centre Patrice Bergeron has earned early raves.. They're off to a great start, but fans seem wary, remembering how last season's strong start fizzled out by season's end. Are they for real this time?

3. Atlanta Thrashers: The season is two months old and the bubble has yet to burst on the Thrashers. They've rallied in the face of adversity and are a very tight group right now. Goaltender Pasi Nurminen has been outstanding. Scoring sensation Ilya Kovalchuk is on pace for a 50-goal season, and Marc Savard returned unexpectedly from injury to bolster their offence. Still, management is seeking more offensive depth in the form of a scoring right winger. The odds are still against them, but I think most NHL fans are pulling for this plucky bunch.

4. New Jersey Devils: Those expecting the Devils to struggle with "Stanley Cup hangover" have been disappointed. The defending Cup champions show no signs of letting up as they've continued to play their strong defensive system under head coach Pat Burns. Goaltender Martin Brodeur remains one of the best in the business, ageless wonder Scott Stevens continues to anchor the blueline, and Patrik Elias appears to have rediscovered his scoring touch. You know things are going well when the only news of note is media rumours that Scott Gomez is being shopped!

5. Toronto Maple Leafs: They've shaken off yet another slow start to rise back into playoff contention in the standings. Thus far they're playing up to expecations. They're good enough to make the playoffs, but this aging bunch isn't likely to make much noise once they get there. The defence still relies far too much on Ed Belfour to bail them out and their offence is over-dependant on Mats Sundin and Gary Roberts. Losing Alexander Mogilny to injury for two-three months could be a blow to the offence already missing Joe Nieuwendyk and Nik Antropov, while Owen Nolan remains a shadow of his once-dominant self.

6. Tampa Bay Lightning: Played the least number of games of the Eastern teams, and are only a few points out of first overall. Any lingering talk of last season's success being a fluke no longer valid. The Bolts are definitely for real and a rising force in the East. Cory Stillman has nicely filled in for the departed Vaclav Prospal, while Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis have picked up where they left off last season. Goaltending tandem of Nikolai Khabibulin and John Grahame among the best in the league. Defence corps appears to have improved but they could still use a strong two-way blueliner

7. Buffalo Sabres: The good news is the Sabres are well ahead of where they were at this time a year ago, when they were plagued by uncertainty over their ownership and their future in Buffalo. The bad news is there are several players who've expressed displeasure with head coach Lindy Ruff. The best offensive player, Miroslav Satan, has struggled this season and there's been speculation he's considering asking to be dealt. As long as the Sabres stay in the playoff picture, it's unlikely Ruff could get fired, but if more players grow disgruntled, things could turn ugly.

8. New York Rangers: Could this be the year the Blueshirts make it back to the post-season? So far the signs are encouraging. Alexei Kovalev appears to be regaining his scoring touch, Bobby Holik regained his gritty form from his Devils days, Martin Rucinsky has been a pleasant surprise, goaltender Mike Dunham has been a rock between the pipes, Vladimir Malakhov has improved noticeably and even the aging Mark Messier is off to his best start in some time. If Anson Carter, Petr Nedved, Eric Lindros and Tom Poti can regain their form over the next 20 games, it'll significantly bolster the Blueshirts playoff hopes.

9. Montreal Canadiens: After a red-hot October, the Habs cooled noticeably in November. Goaltender Jose Theodore is getting back his award-winning form, but the club's defensive system which worked so well in October appears to be abandoned. While youngsters Mike Ribeiro and Michael Ryder have played well, the Habs are the fifth-lowest scoring team in the league. Team captain Saku Koivu's return from injury should help bolster that in the coming weeks, but the rebuilding Canadiens have a lot of work ahead of them this season. GM Bob Gainey isn't opting for trades, wisely deciding to stick with the youngsters on his team and allowing them to develop.

10. Ottawa Senators: The team picked by most experts to win the Stanley Cup certainly aren't playing up to expectations. They've been dropping games to teams they should easily beat. The feeling is the Sens have forgotten the work ethic that got them so close to the Cup finals last season. There's too much talent on this club for this trend to continue and GM John Muckler is preaching patience, but this club will have to get their act together over the next 20 games or doubt could start to take hold of this team.

11. Florida Panthers: Tired of clashes between head coach Mike Keenan and GM Rick Dudley, ownership fired Keenan in November. The effect has thus far been positive for young forward Stephen Weiss, a former Keenan whipping boy who's blossomed since Iron Mike's dismissal. The Panthers remain a young team with plenty of promise, much like Dudley's former club, the Tampa Bay Lightning, were under his tenure. This time, it seems Dudley will be sticking around to oversee the young Panther maturation.

12. Carolina Hurricanes: There's been plenty of speculation that the 'Canes slow start to this season could finally cost long-time coach Paul Maurice his job, but this is a team that's better than they've played. Most of their losses have been close ones, and they're playing a much stronger defensive game than a year ago. The team's problem is scoring, and their best players (Erik Cole, Ron Francis, Rod Brind'amour and Jeff O'Neill) aren't bulging the twine as often as they should. If the draught continues, their season could be in jeopardy and that could very well cost Maurice his job.

13. New York Islanders: Early in November, the Isles appeared to be in good shape. They were playing well for new head coach Steve Stirling and the club appeared poised for major improvement over last season. Then GM Mike Milbury let Jason Wiemer go via waivers as a cost-cutting measure and with speculation of more trades coming to free up payroll, the club's morale, and the calibre of its play, plummetted. Milbury's desire to chop payroll may have done serious harm to his roster. It'll be up to Stirling to get his charges re-focussed on the season, which won't be easy with some players feeling the Sword of Damacles is hanging over their heads.

14. Washington Capitals: As incredible as it seems that a team loaded with name talent like Capitals could be one of the worst teams in the league, it's really not surprising. The defence was crippled by the off-season losses of veterans Calle Johansson and Ken Klee, and it seems head coach Bruce Cassidy is clashing with some key players, notably the moody, overpaid Jaromir Jagr. This is clearly a team divided and in need of a major shakeup, but the big salaries of players like Jagr, Robert Lang and Peter Bondra makes that all but impossible to pull off. It doesn't look as though things are going to get any better as their season progresses.

15. Pittsburgh Penguins: They're a team losing money and its fanbase, and now their best player, Mario Lemieux, is sidelined indefinitely. Still, as bad as the news has been, there are glimmers of hope for the future.Youngsters Marc-Andre Fleury, Rico Fata, Ryan Malone and Konstantin Koltsev gives the Pens a good base for the future. Sadly, that future remains a long way away. Don't expect much improvement this season in Steeltown.

WESTERN CONFERENCE.

1. Vancouver Canucks: After their shocking upset loss to the Wild in last season's playoffs, the Canucks seem to be on a mission this season. They've been spreading their offence around more, thanks in part to rookie Jason King meshing well with the Sedin Twins on their second line. Their defence corps continues to be the most mobile in the league, while goalie Dan Cloutier seems determined to make fans forget about his post-season meltdown. The club's fortunes continues to hinge on the top line of Naslund, Bertuzzi and Morrison. When they're on top of their game, the Canucks are almost unstoppable.

2. St. Louis Blues: Just like this time a year ago, the Blues roster has been ravaged by injuries. This time, however, it's been predominantly to their defence corps. Fortunately, their defensive depth, along with solid goaltending from Chris Osgood, has enabled the Blues to overcome these blows. Indeed, they're to be commended for playing so well in spite of the injuries. They're in no danger of missing the playoffs, but they must stay healthier if they're to make a sustained post-season run.

3. Dallas Stars: Don't let the placement in the standings fool you. The Stars are hovering around .500 and there's much concern over the status of their game thus far. Goaltender Marty Turco has struggled to get back to form, the blueline corps misses the presence of the departed Derian Hatcher and top forward Mike Modano has blamed off-ice financial concerns for his slow start. The fact management has tried to dump the hefty salaries of Pierre Turgeon and Bill Guerin last summer probably hasn't sat well with either player, although Guerin is playing well. There are legitimate worries that this club may have to fight for a playoff berth.

4. Detroit Red Wings: Two years ago, the Wings were the dominant club in hockey. No longer. While still talented enough to make the playoffs, their age is definitely showing, particularly with Chris Chelios and Brendan Shanahan. The goalie controversy between Dominik Hasek and Curtis Joseph can't be helping matters either. Team captain Steve Yzerman has played very well on his surgically reconstructed knee, but can Yzerman carry the team to Cup glory one last time?

5. Colorado Avalanche: Remember all that talk in preseason about the powerful Avalanche offence and how it was going to dominate the league? Turns out that was wishful thinking. In loading up on offence, Avs management neglected to bolster the defensive game by bringing in grittier roleplayers. Injuries to Peter Forsberg and Paul Kariya haven't helped either. Still, there is encouragement in the strong play of youngsters David Aebischer and Alex Tanguay, but this club must find a way to adapt it's game against grittier teams.

6. Nashville Predators: Could this finally be the year for the Preds? After several years of false starts, the Predators find themselves playing over .500 hockey at the quarter mark and sitting in a playoff berth. This young roster may finally be maturing, particularly Scott Hartnell, David Legwand and Kimmo Timonen, but the surprise of the season is rookie defenceman Marek Zidlicky, who leads the team in scoring. There are concerns, however, over the youth of their blueline, and until recently forward Denis Arkhipov hadn't played well. These could be factors for the Preds as the season progresses.

7. Los Angeles Kings: Like the Blues, the Kings have been ravaged by injury. And like the Blues, they've perservered thus far in the face of long odds. Despite the absence of top forwards Jason Allison, Adam Deadmarsh and Josef Stumpel, the Kings have ridden a strong defensive game, plus the offence of Ziggy Palffy and the revitalized Luc Robitaille to stay competitive. However, they'll need some of their injured players to come back soon if they're to remain in the hunt for a playoff berth.

8. Anaheim Mighty Ducks: After a slow start attributed to "Finals hangover", the Ducks seem to be finding their game again. Sergei Fedorov and Vaclav Prospal seem to be getting used to their new teammates, while backup Martin Gerber has done a good job spelling off JS Giguere as he struggles to round back into form. Rookie Joffrey Lupul is showing lots of promise while center Andy McDonald is playing well and showing no lingers signs from last season's concussion woes. The Ducks appear finally pointed in the right direction, but they'll have to continue working hard to maintain their focus.

9. San Jose Sharks: The Doug Wilson era is now underway. After a slow start, the Sharks seem to have adjusted from the departures of Owen Nolan and Teemu Selanne. Defenceman Brad Stuart seems to have shaken off his injury woes and youngster Jonathan Cheechoo is showing lots of promise. They've solidified their goaltending tandem when Vesa Toskala entrenched himself as Evgeny Nabokov's backup. The first quarter has been decent, but they're going to have to kick it up a notch if they're to nail down a playoff berth.

10.Edmonton Oilers: One would think the loss of their top goalie to injury and the prolonged holdout of their top center would cripple the Oilers. Instead, backup Ty Conklin has been rock steady in goal, while the club adapted to the absence of Comrie. Still, they've struggled in the faceoff circle, leading to the signing of veteran Adam Oates. If the young Oilers forwards can also take advantage of Oates'skilled playmaking, they could move up in the standings.

11. Calgary Flames:The good news is the Flames are playing much better defensively, they're playing .500 hockey and staying close to a playoff spot, and in obtaining Miikka Kiprusoff from San Jose, have added much needed depth to their goaltending. The bad news is, they can't put the puck in the ocean. A recent 6-5 loss to the Avalanche aside, their forwards, particularly Jarome Iginla, haven't been scoring, and that could become a critical factor as the season progresses. The pressure's on "Iggy" to get back to his 50-goal ways.

12. Minnesota Wild: After playing over their heads in last year's playoffs, the Wild are struggling to get back to that disciplined style. The holdouts of last year's leading scorers, Marian Gaborik and Pascal Dupuis, has hurt their popgun offence as these two struggle to get fully back into game shape. Gaborik and Dupuis should improve as the season progresses, but can they and their teammates get back that winning work ethic?

13. Chicago Blackhawks: It's gotten ugly in the Windy City. Their best players - forwards Eric Daze and Alexei Zhamnov and goaltender Jocelyn Thibault - are out for months with injuries, and there was the circus that was the firing of Mike Smith as GM and his replacement by Bill Wirtz lackey Bob Pulford. The one good thing they've got going for them is the depth in promising young talent that Smith brought in during his tenure, but as these kids go through their growing pains, the 'Hawks aren't likely to contend for a playoff berth.

14. Columbus Blue Jackets: They've got one of the best home records in the league, but they stink on the road, failing to win a single game in the first quarter of the season. Young teams that are building for the future don't make the playoffs with records like that. Fortunately, the Jackets have a loyal, forgiving and patient fanbase, who are enjoying watching Rick Nash, Marc Denis and Rotislav Klesla develop into stars. Still, there were expectations of a better season, and they must improve that road record if they're to start contending for a playoff berth.

15. Phoenix Coyotes: It's been a weird quarter season for the Desert Dawgs. At first they were relying on Sean Burke to carry them, then he struggled, then they started playing better defensively but struggled offensively and now they're suddenly scoring, particularly Ladislav Nagy, Shane Doan, Daymond Langkow and Paul Mara. Consistency appears to be what the 'Yotes are chasing. They're rebounding from last season's injury-plagued letdown,but they've got to get some balance in their game to get back into the playoffs.