OCTOBER 2003 SOAPBOX ARCHIVES

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HELL ON WHEELS.

SPECTOR'S NOTE: The following column was written and posted on the morning of October 5. That night, Dan Snyder passed away from massive brain injuries sustained in a horrific car accident. He was 25 years old. On behalf of myself and my contributing writers, our condolences to the Snyder family.

By now most of you are aware of the terrible automobile accident that put Atlanta Thrashers journeyman Dan Snyder in a coma with head injuries and the driver, rising young superstar Dany Heatley, into not just the hospital with a broken jaw and various minor injuries, but also a world of legal hurt.

The lives of both men were forever changed on the night of September 29th, 2003. Snyder may recover from his head trauma, but he may never be the same person again. His career could be finished, and he could face the rest of his life as an invalid.

Heatley will recuperate from his compartively minor physical injuries, but if Snyder's life is forever altered, he'll live with the sombre responsibility of inadvertently changing his friend's life for the worst.

In the wake of the news of this tragedy, many hockey fans expressed their shock, concern and sorrow on message boards, chat rooms and sports talk radio.

Some, on the other hand, used this occasion to get on their high horse, snorting this was yet another case of a rich, spoiled young athlete driving a car he couldn't handle. A few demanded that the parents, coaches, general managers and agents of these players get control of them and not allow them to drive such fast cars, to "stop them before they hurt or kill someone".

These folks need to get their noses out of the air when making such stupid comments to the world.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not condoning Heatley's actions that night. He drove recklessly fast on a winding stretch of road, and he and Snyder are lucky to be alive. Heatley had an accident in the same part of town a year prior, totalling his sports car but walking away unscathed. He should've learned his lesson from that. Indeed, he should've known better.

But those who are dumping on Heatley that he's "getting what he deserves" in carrying the burden of his friend's life-altering (indeed, still life-threatening) injuries, who are accusing his parents, coaches, and agent for not "controlling" him, are way out of line.

There's a biblical saying that goes "let ye without sin cast the first stone".

I'm willing to bet quite a few of those who are berating Heatley were probably speed demons in their youth. Indeed, I'll bet a few of them are speeders or reckless drivers who sneer at those who get into accidents because "they don't know how to drive!"

For those adopting a hypocritical "holier-than-thou" attitude, I'd love to see your driving record and the type of cars you've driven over the years.

As TSN's Bob McKenzie and Darren Dutchyshen recently noted, you're not going to control young men who get behind the wheel of a car - be it a Ferrari or a "beater"- and feel the need for speed.

Sure, Heatley's an NHL star, making millions of dollars playing a kid's game, who until a few nights ago was living a charmed life and felt on top of the world.

But regardless of how much money he's making or how famous or talented he is, Heatley isn't much different from most young men in their early twenties.

And while some in the press have run down a gruesome list of notable NHL'ers who were killed or injured or spent time in jail because of their driving, I can say that this list isn't remarkable when I compare it to the life I led in my early twenties with the guys I hung around with who - like myself - loved fast cars and motorcycles.

Back then, I was still early in my military career and posted to Canadian Forces Base Cornwallis, which in those days was where English Canadian recruits were sent for basic training just after they joined the CF.

We didn't make the kind of money that young NHL'ers do now or did even back then. But living in single quarters, where we paid less than $200 bucks a month for room and board, most young privates and corporals had a lot of disposible income for the first time in our lives. So we'd usually end up buying fast cars or street racing bikes when we could finally afford them and the insurance.

And like most young men who had their first car or bike that wasn't a fifth-hand piece of junk, we liked to drive a lot... and very fast.

We got caught speeding and lost points off our licenses, like the time an undercover Mountie caught me in my '86 Honda Prelude Special Edition going 225 Km/h in a 100 Km/h zone. That cost me 8 points for dangerous driving and I was very lucky not to have lost my license that night.

More importantly, I and the friends travelling with me that night were lucky a deer didn't jump out in front of us, or that I didn't lose control of the car going at such a high rate of speed.

The reason I was going that fast? My buddies and I wanted to see just how fast my beloved Prelude could go.

Losing those points was like a badge of honour, that and the fact I was able to bury the speedometer on my Prelude. It was something I'd brag about for months afterward, to the nodding approval of my peers.

On occasion one of us would lose our license for speeding, like my buddy Tim, who got pulled over twice in one day for speeding. The 8 points he lost that day were added to the four he lost a month before and bingo! No license for six months.

Did it stop Tim from speeding? Hell, no! Rather than slowing him down, it motivated him to buy a radar detector to avoid getting caught in the future, which he happily pointed out worked like a charm.

And on occasion, one of us would get in a serious accident.

There was Keith, who took a corner too fast in his souped-up Toyota and rolled it several times before coming to rest in a farmer's field. Mercifully, he walked away with minor injuries.

Then there was Mario, who knew only one speed - flat out - and lost control of his Honda and crashed into a tree. He totalled the car, but like Keith, walked away practically unscathed.

Tom, on the other hand, drove his motorcycle recklessly and took too many chances showing off to his friends. Even a speed freak like me warned him that he risked killing himself one day.

And then one night, he lost control of his bike while home on vacation, skidding through an intersection before crashing into a storefront window. He spent two weeks in a coma and nearly a year recuperating from a crushed right hand.

Tom was never the same guy after that, and the damage to his hand ultimately cost him his military career.

And then there was an old hometown acquaintance named Randy, who tried to pass a truck, lost control of his sportscar and ended up dead after it rolled six times, with his head striking the pavement through the sunroof on each roll.

You'd think these incidents would be enough to smarten up my buddies and I, but they didn't. Those guys, we told ourselves, were unlucky or just plain reckless. Even those who walked away from totalling their cars never adjusted their driving habits. We drove fast, but we knew how to drive.

In other words, we were young and loved speed...and we were very dumb. And we weren't young millionaire athletes with too much money and too much car. We were average joes earning an average wage buying whatever fast vehicles we could afford.

Contrary to popular opinion, people in their early twenties don't think they're indestructible. I know I didn't and neither did my friends at the time. Nor do the young twenty-somethings I know today.

Rather, they just don't think bad things like serious injuries and disease and pain and death are going to happen to them. Just as I used to think it could never happen to me.

It happens to other people because, in your mind, they were reckless or stupid or just plain unlucky.

But it's not going to happen to you. Because you know what you're doing. Because you can drive fast and enjoy the rush and the thrill, secure in the misguided belief that bad things aren't going to happen to you.

In the arrogance of youth, you think you're in control. Our elders, whom we're supposed to respect, are in our young, overconfident eyes just old farts who've lost their nerve.

I had that attitude throughout my twenties, until the time I was cut off on a slush-covered road in December 1991 outside Antigonish, Nova Scotia.

The guy in the Nissan Pathfinder who cut me off was in the wrong, but if I hadn't been going too fast for road conditions, I wouldn't have lost control of my Honda Accord, gone into two stomach-lurching spinouts before flying over an embankment at 120 Km/H. I struggled vainly to control the car, but anyone who's ever owned a 1989 Accord knows that the height of the ass-end of the car makes it almost impossible to control in a skid.

As the car went over the embankment, I clearly thought to myself, "I'm dead".

The only thing that save me was the deep snowdrift that filled the gully my car crashed into. Miraculously, the drift cushioned the crash, and I emerged unharmed. My Accord suffered minor body damage, less than $1000.00 worth, requiring only a tow-truck to get me out of the gully.

I stuck to the speed limit for the rest of my trip, but on my return trip home a week later, I still exceeded the speed limit.

It was a month later, when I was parked in the driveway of our babysitter waiting for my then-girlfriend (now wife) to pick up our infant son, when out of the blue, the realization I'd had a brush with death suddenly crashed in on me.

Sitting in that car that day, I understood for the first time just how lucky I truly was to be still sitting there, alive and unhurt. I understood that, were it not for that snowdrift, my last thought on earth would've been the acknowledgement I was a dead man.

And I finally understood that, because of my stupidity, my soon-to-be wife and my young son might've had to face life without me.

Since then, I've stuck to the speed limit and drive a lot more sensibly. I'm not perfect, and I do yell at other drivers from time to time when they do something I think is dumb, but my speed racer days are long gone. It also helps that I now drive a mini-van, so even if the "need for speed" ever returned, it would be rather difficult to get up to the levels I used to get to in my old Prelude.

As for Dany Heatley, he is no different than most men in their early twenties.

Most of us love speed, love sports cars or racing bikes, and aren't interested in buying "family trucksters" like mini-vans and SUVs. Those are for older guys with families, or old farts who have no nerve. And we resent having other people trying to control us by telling what we, as adult young men, should drive. We're not little kids anymore, even though our recklessness indicates we obviously haven't matured that much yet.

And most of us, like Heatley before that fateful night, don't believe that bad things like car accidents that involved serious injury or possibly death to ourselves or our passengers will ever happen to us.

Heatley isn't a bad guy. He's a young man who thought he was in control, who didn't heed the advice from his family, coaches and agent to purchase a less flashy, less fast car. Worse, he didn't get the hint when he crashed his car a year ago.

Obviously he wasn't paying attention. Indeed, he probably felt they were treating him like a kid. Hey, it's his life, he knows what he's doing, sure, it's a fast car, but he's in control.

Sound familiar? For most of my male readers, I'll bet it does. That includes those who are dissing Heatley as just another out of control athlete with too much money and too little responsibilities.

We can hope that this tragedy will serve as an deterrent and make other young men think twice before they put the "pedal to the metal".

But then again, we all saw those films in drivers ed when we went to school about the consequences of fast and reckless driving, yet most accidents today involve young men driving too fast or recklessly.

We live in a culture where speed is celebrated and pursued. Many vehicles are made that go far too fast and are designed for maximum speed. Honestly, is there a need for a car or bike to exceed 70 mph or 110 km/h? But despite the high number of accidents involving high speed, nobody's trying to legislate restrictions on the maximum speed of vehicles. And you can bet anyone who tries will be subjected to scorn and dismissed as a control-freak.

As long as there's sportscars and racing bikes on the market, there will be young men who'll buy them. And to paraphrase an old Sammy Hagar song, "they can't drive 55".

The law does what it can, but I'm not sure how much more they can do to enforce it.

In the end, it comes down to personal responsibility. I knew back then what the rules of the road were. I had to know them in order to get my license. Heatley knew them, too.

But it took a brush with death after years of speeding before I finally smartened up. Heatley didn't get so lucky this time around.

Yes, he was wrong and must pay the price, whether it's jail time (unlikely), heavy fines and loss of license (most likely) and the guilt over what his actions have done to a good friend (most definitely).

Sadly, however, I fear that this incident will be quickly forgotten by those who own musclecars or "riceburners", be they rich celebrities or just regular guys.

After all, James Dean died in a tragic car crash nearly fifty years ago. All that did was enhance his legend, rather than serve as a warning that speed kills.

Don't expect Heatley's accident to deter those who feel he was simply reckless and unlucky, while they "know how to drive".

Spector's Note: With the death of his friend Dan Snyder, Heatley now faces a charge of first degree vehicular manslaughter. According to TSN.CA, Heatley faces a prison term of three to 15 years, although it's likely it can be plea-bargained down to a lesser charge of second degree vehicular manslaughter, which is a misdeanour. At this time, it's still unknown if alcohol was a factor in the crash.

For Dan Heatley, the world just got darker...

 YOUTH MAKING EARLY NOISE.

With the possibility of a league shutdown next year and the tragedy that took the life of Dan Snyder and forever changed that of Dany Heatley dominating headlines, I felt this week it was necessary to focus on some good news that came out of pre-season and the start of the regular season.

- For starters, how about Nashville Predators rookie Jordin Tootoo starting the season with the big club? What's so special about that? He's the first Inuit player to ever make the National Hockey League.

Given the limited opportunities available to young Inuu to even get as far as junior hockey, plus the dramatic culture shock to those who pursue careers far from their northern communities, Tootoo's accomplishment is indeed noteworthy.

And just in case any of you think this is a cheap publicity stunt by the usually woeful Preds, guess again. Although small by NHL standards (5'8", 185 lbs), Tootoo plays a big man's game. He plays with a lot of energy, possesses genuine scoring ability and loves the hitting game.

He's been a fan favourite everywhere he's played, so odds are they'll love him in Nashville. It may take a while for his offensive skills to catch up to NHL standards, but as long as he plays that high-energy physical style, Tootoo should have a permanent spot on the Predators roster.

Here comes the Tootoo train!

- How often do you see a goaltender get a standing ovation from the home-town fans even though his team is losing?

It rarely happens, indeed, the last one I can recall was Jose Theodore getting a warm send-off from the Montreal faithful when the Canadiens were eliminated in the 2002 playoffs.

But that was a different situation. Theodore carried the underdog Habs to not only a playoff berth but into the second round of the 2002 playoffs.

I've never seen a goalie get a standing "o" in a losing cause on opening night of the regular season. Never, that is, until the Penguins season-opener on October 10th, 2003.

The player dubbed the future of the Penguins franchise, goalie Marc-Andre Fleury, put on an outstanding display of netminding in a 3-0 loss to the LA Kings. Fleury, only 18 years old, played like a ten-year veteran, stopping 46 of 49 shots.

It may be far too early to start proclaiming this kid a Calder winner. Indeed, he could end up shipped to the minors if he keeps getting a shellacking like the one the Kings gave him in his first-ever NHL game and the pressure gets to him.

Then again, if he keeps playing as well as he did in that game and maintains his poise, Fleury could very well be Calder material.

Regardless of the outcome, it's clear Fleury has endeared himself to the Penguins faithful in a very short period of time. Much like another highly touted first overall pick did in Pittsburgh nearly twenty years ago.

- There hasn't been much to cheer about in recent years in the Windy City, but that may soon be about to change.

Everyone in the Chicago Blackhawks organization, from it's tightwad owner to management to the coaching staff to the Blackhawks players themselves, are buzzing over the play of rookie forward Tuomo Ruutu.

Until the pre-season, Ruutu was notable more for the protracted contract talks he had with the 'Hawks then with anything he did on the ice.

However, once signed, Ruutu promptly set about showing why The Hockey News last year ranked him the best player outside of North America last year. He dazzled with his all-around skills, and already have the 'Hawks and their followers comparing him to Peter Forsberg.

He hasn't made much of an impact in Chicago's first two regular season games, but it would be foolish to write Ruutu off. Once he finds his stride, this kid will start making a big name for himself.

And that could give long-suffering Blackhawks fans some hope for the future.

- How many times do the first three picks of an entry draft promptly make their NHL teams the following fall?

I can't recall off-hand the last time it happened, but I'm not going to forget the 2003 draft and the start of the 2003-04 season.

The aforementioned Marc-Andre Fleury, the 2003 first overall pick, made the starting lineup of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

So did second overall pick, centre Eric Staal of the Carolina Hurricanes, and Nathan Horton, third overall, of the Florida Panthers.

It remains to be seen how long these kids will stick with their respective clubs, or how much of an impact they'll have this early in their careers. Some are tempted to dismiss their accomplishments by running down the depth of their respective clubs.

There may be some validity to that in Fleury's case, for as an 18-year-old, he's the best goalie in the woeful Penguins depth chart.

Still, it's also a tribute to Fleury's skills that he's made it this far.

Ditto Staal and Horton, whose respective clubs are not as weak as some dismiss them to be.

The Hurricanes are a better and healthier club than they were last season and should be back in playoff contention. The Panthers may have a tougher time of it, but with a roster brimming with promising youth, it's only a matter of time before they explode into a contender.

So give it up to Fleury, Staal and Horton. Being good enough to earn a spot on an NHL club straight out of junior is a noteworthy accomplishment!

- Sometimes it's not good enough to have the talent to make the NHL. Sometimes you make it for how hard you work to get there.

That's the case of Montreal Canadiens rookie forward Michael Ryder, who's taken a long road to get to the National Hockey League.

Drafted in the 8th round (216 overall) of the 1998 entry draft, Ryder was considered to have good shooting skills and no fear of doing the dirty work along the boards and in front of the net, but his skating skills and his size weren't considered good enough for the big leagues.

By dint of hard work and patience, the young Newfoundlander steadily improved his game until, in his third AHL season last year, he became the second leading scorer in the Habs minor-league affiliate.

That earned him the confidence of his former AHL head coach, Claude Julien, who now coaches Les Canadiens. Ryder came to camp this fall, worked his tail off and was rewarded with a regular spot in the Habs lineup.

Granted, it doesn't hurt that veteran forward Chad Kilger was lost to an eye injury, thus opening a spot for Ryder. But he still had to earn his place, and Ryder is determined to make the most of his chance.

Like Fleury, Staal and Horton, it would be easy to write this off as a kid cracking a lineup that's short of talented depth, but let's face facts folks: nobody gets a shot in the NHL handed to them on a silver platter.

Especially kids who are 8th round selections from six years ago!

- Lost in the endless chatter over Martin Havlat's contract talks is the fact highly-touted young centre Jason Spezza has finally earned a regular spot on the talent-laden Ottawa Senators.

It wasn't an easy path for this kid. Although labelled as a "can't-miss" prospect as the second overall pick in the 2001 entry draft, Spezza soon found that being a hot-shot prospect didn't automatically qualify him for the bigs.

The Sens sent him back to junior hockey after his first NHL camp with them, something that didn't sit well with the youngster, who wasn't accustomed to failure.

The following season, they gave him 33 games in the NHL and had him spend most of the season with their AHL affiliate, sparking critics to claim the Sens did it to save money on his contract.

However, in the Stanley Cup playoffs, Spezza was called up to play in the Sens crucial fifth game of the Eastern Conference Finals against the New Jersey Devils, with elimination staring them in the face.

Spezza delivered, potting a goal and an assist and earning the game star as the Sens staved off elimination and eventually forced a seventh-game with the Devils.

Although they lost that series, Spezza served notice to the Senators management and coaching staff once and for all that he was ready for prime-time.

Throughout pre-season, he again proved the Sens needed him in their roster, and in with a two-point opening night performance against the Canadiens, it seems clear that Spezza's NHL star is finally in ascension.

But give credit to the Senators coaching and management, too. They had to provide some "tough-love" on their promising young charge to improve certain elements of his game, such as skating and defensive play. Most importantly, they didn't rush him, but stressed patience.

Spezza learned the lessons. Granted, he still needs to improve his defensive game, but he's obviously made enough improvement to finally become a regular on a deep Senators club.

And he'll only get better as he matures.

- Last, but not least, could this be the long-awaited breakthrough season for NY Islanders goalie - and 2000's first overall pick - Rick DiPietro?

It's taken him three seasons of kicking around on the Isles farm club, along with some limited backup action last season, but if this year's pre-season is any indication, the highly touted DiPietro may finally be ready for a starting role.

He had a better pre-season than current starter Garth Snow and in his season debut posted a 6-0 shutout against the Buffalo Sabres.

It helps, of course, that the Isles played a strong game in front of him but that doesn't take away from the fact DiPietro got the shutout.

It's taken three seasons of development, but DiPietro appears to be a man on a mission this season.

Meaning Snow better be checking over his shoulder this season!

NOTES ON THE NHL'S FIRST TWO WEEKS.

OK, lemme start by pointing out the blatantly obvious: the season isn't quite two week old yet, and there's still a lot of hockey to be played between now and early April. These are just observations I've made thus far.

- SYSTEM? WHAT SYSTEM? The talk of Rangers fans heading into this season was how their club was finally going to get their defensive act together, courtesy of a much-vaunted system imposed by assistant coach Tom Renney.

The results, however, leave much to be desired thus far. The bumbling Blueshirts blew a 3-1 lead and lost 5-3 to the Minnesota Wild in their season opener, then followed that up with a 5-0 shellacking at the hands of the (supposedly) lowly Columbus Blue Jackets.

Their home opener against the Atlanta Thrashers was only marginally better, as they eked out a scoreless draw. Rangers fans certainly made their unhappiness known during the pre-game team introductions, booing such high-priced help as Eric Lindros, Bobby Holik and Vladimir Malakhov, but they saved their biggest jeers for GM/head coach Glen Sather.

Now I know it's only early in the season and usually no time to panic.

But in the Rangers case, after six long years of futility and failure, I'd say panic is probably setting in amongst their faithful fans right about now.

After all, if Glen Sather and his coaching staff can't get this overpaid underachieving bunch playing a better all-round game, who could?

No offence to the Wild, Blue Jackets and Thrashers, but this Rangers club is stocked with so much "name" talent that they should've easily won at least two of those games.

The fact they went 0-2-0 further proves this is no team, but rather a collection of overpaid underachievers.

NOW THAT'S A SYSTEM! Conversely, the Montreal Canadiens, whose defensive game in recent years could be compared to chickens running around a barnyard with their heads cut off, finally are playing a smart defensive game.

It didn't look good in their season-opening 5-2 loss to the Ottawa Senators, but since then, the results have been most impressive. The Habs spoiled the home-opener of arch-rival Toronto Maple Leafs 4-0 and followed that up with a 5-1 demolishing of an tired, injury-depleted Washington Capitals squad and whupping the hapless Pittsburgh Penguins 4-1.

It remains to be seen how long Les Canadiens can keep this up. Many observers believe their bubble will burst quite soon. That may be, but for now the Habs are serving notice they are no longer a defensively inept bunch. And their kids, notably Mike Ribeiro, Marcel Hossa, Ron Hainsey, Jason Ward and the likeable Michael Ryder, are serving notice that this club's promising future may be arriving sooner than anticipated.

OUCH! The season was barely a week old and the injury bug has already ravaged the LA Kings.

Last season's leader in man-games lost to injury, the Kings opened the season without Jason Allison and Adam Deadmarsh, who are still recuperating from the ill-effects of injuries they sustained last season (whiplash and concussion respectively).

Since then, they've lost defenceman Matthias Norstrom to a chest injury and Aaron Millar to a wrist injury, while center Mike Cammaleri is out until November with a knee injury.

At this rate, they'll be telling their ambulance personnel to keep their motors running throughout the season!

Amazingly, though, the Kings haven't allowed this to be an issue, jumping out to a strong 3-1 record in their first four games.

Still, they must try to stay out of the infirmary if they're to contend for a playoff berth this season.

NOTEABLE NAMES ABSENT FROM SCORING LEADERS.

A quick perusal of the scoring leaders list in the first week of the regular season showed some familiar names, like Paul Kariya, Jaromir Jagr, Ziggy Palffy and emerging superstar Ilya Kovalchuk, are making noise early in the season.

But the list was notable for the names who aren't there yet. Like Vancouver's Markus Naslund and Todd Bertuzzi, Colorado's Peter Forsberg and Milan Hejduk, and Boston's Joe Thornton and Glen Murray, to name a few.

Instead, we're seeing unfamiliar names like Trent Klatt, Daryl Sydor, Andreas Dackell, and Matt Cooke amongst the scoring leaders.

But don't worry, poolies! The planets will align again very soon and these pluggers and grinders will find themselves dropping out of the list very soon, as the top offensive players warm up and regain their touch!

GRUMPY OLD MEN: Is it just me, or do the Toronto Maple Leafs look like an old, slow team this season?

Now I know I said the same thing this time a year ago, and the Leafs reversed a 3-6-2 October start and easily made the playoffs by season's end. A lot of that bad start could be blamed on Ed Belfour, who didn't have a strong beginning to last season, and the Leafs had to adjust to having "the Eagle" guarding the pipes. Perhaps it just takes a while for those aging bones to warm up?

But this year there seems to be a different vibe about this club. I look at that roster and see the names - Belfour, Sundin, Nieuwendyk, Mogilny, Nolan, Roberts, Reichel, Renberg - and I see a team that appears to be on borrowed time.

Yes, there is still enough talent here for this club to make the playoffs and it would be stupid to write them off.

But I think they're only going to be as good as Belfour this season. Their defensive game hasn't improved at all, Nolan is playing like a spent force, Mogilny is hobbled, Roberts is already banged up, and Nieuwendyk appears to be struggling to adjust. Reichel and Renberg, well, the less said, the better.

Mats Sundin can't be expected to carry this club by himself offensively. If the other forwards can't stay healthy and produce, it could spell trouble for the Maple Leafs.

PURE EMOTION: After the tragic death of Dan Snyder and the loss for perhaps the entire season to injury of Dany Heatley in that now-infamous car crash, a lot of pundits scrambled to re-write their season predictions regarding the Atlanta Thrashers.

The club was expected to make major improvement this season, with Heatley leading the charge, but that car crash had a lot of folks doubting the resolve of the Thrashers in the wake of the tragedy.

They instead responded by going unbeaten in their first four games, setting a franchise record.

While grief can adversely effect a group, the grieving process can also have a bonding effect. Thus far, that seems to be the case with the Thrashers. They've bonded together in their grief and are determined to pull together to overcome.

Whatever happens the rest of the way, you've got to admire the character of that club!

CUP FINAL HANGOVER: The 0-4 start of last spring's Western Conference champion Anaheim Mighty Ducks has a lot of folks comparing them to last year's Carolina Hurricanes, who went from the 2002 finals to the bottom of the league standings in 2003.

Here's a tip, though: don't make that mistake. The Ducks are a much better team than they were a year ago, and certainly better than last year's Hurricanes. They'll bounce back.

THE PLAYERS AREN'T THE ONLY BAD GUYS: I've read some recent interviews with hockey fans regarding the possibility of a league shutdown next season, and most will put the blame on the players if that comes to pass.

The players and their agents deserve their fair share for contributing to the rise in salaries, but remember, the true bad guys here are the owners.

They're the ones who came away from the negotiating table in 1995 with the current CBA believing it would restrict the rise in the players salaries. Most of them then abused it to more than double the players salaries since then and create the situation we have now of have and have-not clubs, where the teams with the deepest wallets have the best chance to build and maintain winners.

They're the ones who found the loopholes via bonus clauses to go above the rookie salary cap. They're the ones who set the market value on the players. They're the ones who pay the salaries. And they're the ones who'll determine if there's a shutdown next season.

FIFTH ANNUAL TALES OF HALLOWEEN HORROR.

It's that time of year again, folks! A time when ghosts, goblins and monsters prepare to prowl the land, when the telling of chilling tales becomes popular.

And like every year at this time, some NHL teams make the frightening realization that all is not well, when their game is bedeviled by terrors beyond their control, where avenues of escape are limited and the wrong decisions could doom their season.

Take the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, for example, last spring's Stanley Cup finalists.

They replaced their star player Paul Kariya in the off-season with Sergei Fedorov, considered a better all-around player. They cast aside veteran centre Adam Oates but replaced him with a younger Vaclav Prospal, coming off a 70-plus point season in Tampa Bay. Best of all, they re-signed Smythe winning netminder JS Giguere and scoring forward Petr Sykora, thus ensuring there would be no distractions of a messy contract holdout.

Going into this season, the consensus amongst observers was the Ducks would avoid the pitfalls of previous over-achieving Cup finalists like Washington and Carolina and would have no problem making the playoffs again.

But just two weeks into the season, the Ducks found themselves with a 2-5-0-1 record, among the worst in the NHL.

Fedorov, supposedly a two-way leader, looked lost and struggled, as did Prospal. Sykora was having trouble finding his offensive game. Even "Giggy" wasn't playing up to the level that had carried his club all the way to Game 7 of the Cup Finals in 2003.

It's obvious the dreaded ailment, Cup Finals Hangover, is taking a toll on the not-so-Mighty Ducks.

It would be folly to write this team off so soon, but obviously it's going to need an adjustment period for its new stars to feel comfortable within the roster, and for the rest to regain the motivation that made them the darlings of underdog fans everywhere.

Still, some Ducks fans are nervously hoping the adjustment period doesn't take too long. The humiliation of the 2002 Hurricanes, who went from the penthouse to the outhouse the following season, is too fresh a memory and not one they'd like to experience.

At least the Ducks stand a fighting chance out of mediocrity. They at least either re-signed key players or found strong replacements for departed ones.

The same cannot be said for their fellow playoff underdogs of 2003, the Minnesota Wild.

After shocking the hockey world with upset victories over the Colorado Avalanche and Vancouver Canucks before falling afoul of the Quackers from Anaheim in the 2003 Western Conference finals, the Wild spent the summer being touted as a model organization for success.

After all, they had the lowest payroll in the league, but GM Doug Risebrough had quietly built a club that willingly bought into the team-first defensive system of head coach Jacques Lemaire. They had upset two heavily favoured clubs in their first ever playoff appearance, and seemed poise to build on that success.

But the Wild entered the season without their top three scoring forwards, and for their pop-gun offence, that was akin to going to war without bullets for their rifles.

They'd let veteran Cliff Ronning go, claiming they couldn't afford to re-sign him, after he rejected a cut in pay.

His absence could be covered, but not those of second-leading scorer Pascal Dupuis and budding superstar Marian Gaborik, both of whom are represented by the same agency, both of whom staged contract holdouts.

In Gaborik's case, the Wild made a more than fair offer of three years, $9.5 million plus bonuses, but his agents insisted on a three-year deal worth $6.5 mil per season. Far more than the Wild, or any other club, should pay for a player coming off an entry year contract.

One couldn't blame the club for balking at that deal, but their treatment of Dupuis is considered by some to be outright cheap. He's seeking roughly $900K per season, but the Wild offered considerably less. Considering he scored 20 goals last season and is asking for below the league average per season, there's a feeling that, justified or not, the Wild aren't playing fair.

The end result is a Wild team that, in its first six games, managed only one victory and struggled offensively without their best scoring forwards.The Wild did finally re-sign Dupuis, but concerns remain that the longer they go without Gaborik, the greater the possibility a return to the playoffs could be more remote.

Then there's the type of horror that for some teams has become an annual occurrence, that of the slow start that kills its fans hopes as it signals yet another long, doomed season lays ahead.

The Chicago Blackhawks are one example. Since 1997-98 they've made only one appearance in the post-season. The futility has been keenly felt by their once-loyal and large but now fading fan base, who are disgusted by the cheapness of the ownership, the ineptitude of the management and the lousy product on the ice.

There were concerns about the club's defence corps, which had been gutted of veteran talent since the March trade deadline, heading into this season. GM Mike Smith made noise about finding replacements but when the curtain opened on the new season, the patchwork blueline still remained.

Since then the bad news has piled up. Centre Alexei Zhamnov had surgery on his back and will be gone for two months. When he returns, it's doubtful he'll be up to playing at full speed. Now comes news big scoring forward Eric Daze, a veteran of two back surgeries, may have to face a third.

Losing their two best offensive powers could be a fatal blow. Despite the promise of rookie forward Tuomu Ruttu, and the gutsy play of overworked netminder Jocelyn Thibault, it doesn't look good for the 'Hawks playoff hopes this season.

Evidently, ownership seemed to think the same way, firing GM Mike Smith over disagreements with head coach Brian Sutter. Whether this has any effect on the team's performance the rest of the season remains to be seen.

Another club that started the season with a depleted blueline is the Washington Capitals. Having lost veterans Calle Johansson to retirement and Ken Klee to free agency, the Caps failed to bring in experienced talent to replace them, relying instead on young call-ups from the farm.

These kids, notably Steve Eminger, have promise and could one day become quality NHL defencemen, but they need the benefit of experienced hands to show them the ropes and cover off their youthful mistakes. Sadly, that's not available, as veterans Sergei Gonchar and Brendan Witt have their hands full with their respective assignments.

Still, with the goaltending of Olie Kolzig and the offensive firepower of Jaromir Jagr, Peter Bondra and Robert Lang, one would think their defensive difficiensces could be covered off while the kiddie-corps blueline learned the ropes.

Kolzig and Lang are certainly doing their part, but not Bondra and Jagr. In the case of the former, it may be due to age creeping up on him, taking it longer for Bondra to reach his goalscoring stride.

In the case of the latter, however, it's a much deeper problem. Jagr is clearly an unhappy camper, and has been for several seasons now, even long before he took his leave of the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Despite being the highest paid player in the game, Jagr is but a ghost of his former high-scoring, fun-loving self. Moody, petulant, Jagr simply goes through the motions, much to the consternation of the coaching staff. His minutes have been cut, making Jagr's black mood even darker. One gets the sense the Caps $11 million dollar man would love to just chuck it all and disappear back to the peace and quiet of the Czech Republic, where his status as a hockey god remains unblemished.

Follow that up with his teammates seeming to tune out head coach Bruce Cassidy, and it's not looking good for the Capitals this season. Cassidy faces the loss of his job if they don't pull out of their funk soon, and Jagr will be dogged by trade speculation for most of the season, and the young defence will likely continue to struggle without experienced linemates to guide them.

Finally, the New York Rangers, who have the dubious distinction of making this list of Halloween Horror for every year since it's inception in 1999. And for good reason!

The Rangers, the highest paid team in the NHL, icing yet another star-studded roster, is once again off to another struggling start. They blew a two-goal lead in the season opener to the Wild, got thumped by five goals to Columbus, and struggled to tie the Carolina Hurricanes and Atlanta Thrashers.

Sure, they rallied to go 2-0-2 after that, but really, haven't we seen this reel before? Yes, they're now at .500 as of this writing, but given how many times this club has collapsed in six years, how do we know this season will be different?

This team chock full o' stars seems incapable of consistently playing a strong team game over the course of a regular season. Few forwards are willing to band and crash along the boards or camp in front of the opponent's net. The defencemen seem equally unwilling to play a physical game, and more often than not are running around mindlessly in their own zone, leaving their goalies unprotected and at the mercy of opposition shooters who find themselves uncovered by a Blueshirt defenceman.

And if that isn't bad enough, age and injury becomes a factor. How long can Sather keep going to Mark Messier as his "go-to" guy? How often will Eric Lindros get hurt? How long will Brian Leetch stay in the lineup when he comes back from another ankle injury?

GM/head coach Glen Sather promised things would be different this season. He promised more accountability, more attention to the defensive game, more commitment to winning. Instead, Rangers fans are seeing more of the same depressing product they've suffered through since 1997, the last time their Blueshirts made the playoffs.

The natives aren't wasting any time letting Sather's squad aware of their displeasure. They loudly booed the coach and Eric Lindros, Anson Carter, Vladimir Malakhov, Bobby Holik and Tom Poti.

Defenders of the free-spending ways of the Rangers hierarchy are becoming fewer with each passing season. Sather can get upset with his players all he wants, and he can get mad at the fans for a perceived lack of support, but he brought this upon himself.

He was brought in to save the Rangers from the regime of Neil Smith, who'd been sacrificing youth for expensive veteran talent. He was supposed to make the Rangers more fiscally responsible, build up its farm system through smart drafting, and replace the greying talent with younger, faster, hungrier players.

Instead, Slats fell into the same trap as his predecessor. Cablevision opened the vault and told him to buy whatever he could, and Sather reacted like a kid in a candy store.

Only problem is all his purchases have made the Rangers and their fans sick.

Woeful on ice. Derided by their fans. Hated and mocked by rivals.

Rather than being a saviour, Sather has doomed the Rangers to yet another season of lousy hockey, with no end in sight as long as the team's hierarchy continues to believe in using their dollars to purchase quick-fixes.

And that is the most frightening thought of all!