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Thursday, March 25, 2004
Updated: May 20, 5:23 PM ET
I still love this game

By John Buccigross
Special to ESPN.com

Emptying out my hockey mind after a week in Florida to get ready for the playoffs ...

  • Twelve teams have a realistic shot at making the Stanley Cup final. Only the New York Islanders, Calgary Flames, Nashville Predators, Edmonton Oilers, Los Angeles Kings, or St Louis Blues would shock me as a conference champion.

    SHOT OF THE WEEK
    Every week, we will present an NHL photo and I'll provide a caption. E-mail me your suggestions (include your name and hometown/state) and next week we will use the best ones and provide a new photo.

    LAST WEEK:
    The Sharks' Rob Davison shows the world why men don't pierce their belly buttons.

    Stars' rookie Justin Timberlake wows the crowd with his signature move against the Sharks' Rob Davison.
    -- Alan, Atlanta

    After much negative publicity, Rob Davison apologized for the "uniform malfunction."
    -- Sean Keck, Chicago

    "Are you sure this is how you tie a tie?"
    -- Eric MacCuish, Malden, Mass.

    "Ouch! Hurry up and get it out, the otter is biting me!"
    -- Kim Koerner, Cypress, Calif.

    "Here, let me show you ... this pad goes here and that one goes there."
    -- Barb Jacobs, Winter Park, Fla.

    Rob Davison's six hole ...
    -- Bryan MacKinnon, Westwood, Mass.

    "Suspenders?? Man, that is sooo 1980s!"
    -- Tim Findlay, Vancouver, B.C.

    THIS WEEK:

    Curtis Brown celebrates winning the "Ray Bourque smiling in a hockey helmet and visor look-a-like contest" for the third consecutive year.
  • I went to a Panthers-Rangers game while in South Florida and really enjoyed the game presentation by the Panthers. I was there with my college bud, Mike Torres, and we actually were able to have a conversation during the stoppages in play. There wasn't blaring music to obliterate the senses. The rink was almost full and Olli Jokinen scored in overtime. Nathan Horton is a future All-Star. I LOVE his game. Hockey can be successful and profitable in Florida. And Sunrise should host EVERY All-Star Weekend.

  • Todd Bertuzzi. I think the video says it all and raises debatable issues on fighting in the game. I have no problem with the suspension length. As far as hockey's image after the mainstream media ignorantly assessed the sport and commented on it? I've said it before and I'll say it again. I don't care. If the sport doesn't attract another fan, the game will be a billion-dollar, international industry with hip, fun, friendly, fans who love their game. And TV critics, please stop with these Bowling, Arena Football, blah, blah, blah comparisons. When the PBA and Arena Football are billion-dollar industries, with millions of fans worldwide, come talk to me. I am so insulted when Arena Football is compared to the NHL. Look at a picture of Rocket Richard's eyes. A province, a nation, a league, a planet of hockey fans, lives inside those eyes. NOT ONE Arena Football player or fan will EVER have eyes like that. The Stanley Cup playoffs is the best two-month tournament in the world. We have the coolest and most revered trophy. We are unified, passionate, and lovers of life. PLEASE don't let anyone foist his or her ignorant, misinformed drivel upon your soul. I am ECSTATIC about the future of this game, from Mites to Martin St. Louis. The economic landscape will hopefully be tweaked, the rules finally fixed, and the young talent only getting better and better. THESE ARE THE GOOD OLE DAYS. After a short break.

  • That being said, for the short term, this is an industry on edge. From owners, players, fans, team employees and broadcasters. With a few exceptions, everyone's immediate future and income is up in the air. I think that has led to some of the ugly play on the ice and the ugly words off it. I can tell you first hand that these are very tough, intense times. I am optimistic and positive in the long term, but there is an undeniable force of uncertainty that is playing on a lot of people's minds and effecting their decision-making and overall temperament.

  • If I'm Detroit, I don't want to play Nashville in the first round. They play physical, can skate and have a goaltender that has a chance to "Jiggy" a playoff opponent. They also play the Wings pretty tough. Nashville's Achilles' heel is a smallish defense and the propensity to take penalties. But, some of their penalty numbers are from fighting majors that they will not accumulate in the playoffs. Detroit would have no problem with St. Louis, Edmonton or Los Angeles in the first round. But if Nashville gets in there and steals a game in Detroit on a 50-save performance by Tomas Vokoun, it will be interesting. Still, the Preds are not set up as well as the Ducks were last year. The Ducks' top defensemen were bigger, they had better centermen and they were overall a much better defensive team with experience.

  • Montreal is the team that most resembles Anaheim of a year ago. They have the best faceoff man in Yanic Perreault, nice centermen, and a good-sized, physical defense in front of a good goalie. I didn't think they were going to make the playoffs, but they got unexpected years from Michael Ryder and Sheldon Souray. Did they really think those two would combine for about 40 goals by season's end?! If Alexei Kovalev can get hot, this team will be a very tough out. No team has scored the first goal of the game more than Montreal.

  • Columbus will win the draft lottery, draft Alexander Ovechkin in June, and have an all-Russian line of Alexander Svitov, Nikolai Zherdev and Ovechkin. They then need to go out and get a right-handed centerman for Rick Nash. Gosh, I would love to see a Nash-Chris Drury-David Vyborny line in Columbus. Too late for that. Jason Allison is a free agent this summer, but not unrestricted. He's obviously a bit of a risk, but he can't command a lot of money because of his health and contract insurance issues with his pre-existing condition. But he's the perfect guy for Nash.

  • And finally, Shjon Podein is back from Sweden. From his home in Minnesota he sent me two things: an autographed Swedish hockey card of Hakan Loob and a personalized autographed postcard of his Loobness. Shjon obviously told Loob what to sign on his message to me, but something got lost in the translation. It says, "To John! You had me and hello." Shjon was obviously trying to go Renee Zellweger on me, but instead of, "You had me at hello," Loob penned, "You had me AND hello." While it potentially paints a disturbing picture, it makes the autograph twice as priceless -- a perfect way to cap off another fun regular season and a good bridge to the playoffs. I will never again write a column in this space without these two Loob artifacts taped to the border of my computer monitor.

    Loob is watching over me and watching over you. Life is good. Let the games begin.

    It was a surreal spring this time last year in Minnesota. The high school championships provided memories for a lifetime experience, the Minnesota Golden Gophers were on their way to a second straight NCAA crown, and the Minnesota Wild were one of the Cinderella story of the postseason, coming within four wins of reaching the Stanley Cup final. The Gophers may make it three NCAAs in a row next month at the Frozen Four in Boston (on ESPN 2 and ESPN), but the Wild will not be in the playoffs. We talked with future NHL television analyst Andrew Brunette on the state of the Wild.

    No. 1: Describe the tone and demeanor of the Wild organization right now.
    Brunette:
    Optimism. We've played well of late and a lot of the young players are playing better. There is a lot of hope that these guys are the players of the future.

    The Wild will draft anywhere from 7th to 12th in June, depending on how they finish.

    No. 2: How has the team's play on the ice differed than last year?
    Brunette:
    We've been extremely inconsistent. Last year we didn't lose more than three games in a row during the regular season. This year we've gone stretches where we haven't won games. We'd close to .500 and then drop back.

    The Wild had 95 points last year. They'll finish with around 80 this year.

    No. 3: Evaluate your game this year.
    Brunette:
    I've played a similar game. I play when we are behind and we have been behind a lot, so I've played more. Last year, everything went our way and we just didn't blow leads. It's been a frustrating season.

    Bruno has missed one game in three years with the Wild. He leads Minnesota in goals, assists and points this year. Oddly, Bruno was a minus-10 last year; this year he is a plus player.

    No. 4: Marian Gaborik appears to be playing like an elite player again. When did that start happening?
    Brunette:
    He epitomizes our team. He's been inconsistent. It's hard, when you hold out, to come back and put a string of games together. He shows signs and then he falls back

    The Wild paid Gaborik over $3 million this season to score 14 goals (with six games left). He wasn't paid for time missed, so it comes out to less than $3 million.

    No. 5: Where are the holes on your team?
    Brunette:
    We could use a power-play defenseman. Our power play has struggled at times. We could use a few guys who can crash the net and a centerman to compliment Marian Gaborik.

    As I type this, the Wild have 39 power-play goals through 76 games. Tim Kerr had 34 power-play goals in 76 games during the 1985-86 season. The NHL record.

    No. 6: Will Joe Mauer win the AL rookie of the year?
    Brunette:
    I think so. From what I'm hearing he is a stud. Everyone I talk to in the small baseball circle that I have says he is the real thing. It will be a lot of pressure. He's around .400 at spring training.

    Joe Mauer was selected by the Twins with the first pick in the 2001 draft. Mauer played for Cretin-Derham High just eight miles away from the Metrodome. He was one of the top high school prospects in the nation, and also high school football player of the year, and was recruited by Florida State.

    No. 7: Do you have a work stoppage savings account or will you be hitting me up for the occasional $20?
    Brunette:
    I'm gonna hit you up, Butch. I was thinking we could play a little fantasy baseball and/or football and start living off that.

    Andrew had his fantasy baseball draft recently and was able to draft the left side of the Yankees' infield.

    No. 8: Assuming there will be no hockey, at best, until next January, that means about seven months for you with no hockey. How will you keep from getting fat?
    Brunette:
    Stay away from the Coors Light and stay away from the ballpark, too.



    ... former NHLer Dan Quinn.

    Golf is a major part of many hockey players' lives. Brett Hull played in a U.S. Open qualifier last year, Grant Fuhr has attempted to qualify for the Canadian PGA Tour, and Barry Melrose likes to employ his thunderous, Canadian cackle in the middle of my back swing.

    Then there is Dan Quinn. Quinn played 805 NHL games, retiring in 1997. Since then he has embarked on a golf career that has seen him attempt to qualify for the PGA Tour at Q-School and win over a million dollars golfing in Celebrity events.

    This week, Quinn WILL be inside of the ropes of The Players Championship at the TPC at Sawgrass, caddying for Jesper Parnevik. So, if Parnevik is in the hunt this weekend and thus gets plenty of airtime on NBC, when you spot his caddy, you'll know that's the man who once was on a power-play unit with Mario Lemieux.

    I talked with Dan Quinn this week, as he drove from his home in South Florida to the TPC of Sawgrass to begin his weeklong loop on Jesper Parnevik's bag.

    What is up with the caddy thing? Are you living vicariously through Danny Noonan?: Jesper and I have played a lot of golf the last couple of years, our families are friends and I love being inside the ropes. I actually caddied for him twice at the end of last year when he wasn't doing so well. He's off to a good start and I don't have much to do this time of year, so the Florida swing is a perfect time to do this. It's helped MY game by observing tempo and mind-set. I caddied for him at the Honda, Doral, and after the TPC I'll be done and then start playing myself. I'd do it again for a big tournament if he needed me and I was free. He's tough to club because he can hit a 7 iron anywhere from 170-210, but I'm not afraid to give my opinion.

    Parnevik has made all 8 cuts this year and has already made over $668,000. He's 23rd on the money list. With Dan on the bag, Parnevik made $36,000 at Doral and $30,000 at the Honda Classic. Caddies average 10 percent of a player's check, which means Quinn has made about $6,600 in his two weeks looping for Jesper.

    Learning from the pros: Everyone thinks he can do it, but it's very hard to play on the professional level. There are probably 1,000 guys who could play on the Tour. It's a very fine line. It's like young guys who think they can play in the NHL; it's very difficult.

    Most vivid NHL memory: Being a part of a team in the '80s when the game was fun to play and there was more camaraderie. The game wasn't as international so players had more in common with more of the team. Line combinations were more stable so you developed an intimacy with your linemates and it was always a lot of fun. I was lucky enough to play on a power play with Al MacInnis in Calgary and we had a 30 percent power play. Then I was traded to Pittsburgh and played with Mario and Paul Coffey and we scored like 120 power-play goals. That was back when goaltenders didn't have pads the size of a car.

    In a three-year span with Pittsburgh, Dan scored 102 goals in 213 games.

    The state of the game: I came into the league in 1983. I bet the players are bigger on average by two inches and 20 pounds. And they are quicker and stronger. More than anything, the goalies are better athletes with better equipment. The way to get offense is to get lopsided scores early in games so teams open it up. It's hard to get that now with the trap and style of play so the game stays 0-0 longer. One of the biggest things they took away was the tag up rule. You could keep the puck in, get a team tired, and score quickly, especially at home. Then you can get the visiting team to open it up. I think that would create more offense.

    Hi John!
    I'm sorry to inform that Podes' season is over. Växjö lost the best of three series against Skellefteå but have still had a great season. They won game one in overtime, 2-1. Then they lost game two in the same fashion, only 3-2, and in game three they fell behind in the first period and could never recover. Final score: 5-1. In the five playoff games (including the two wins against Sundsvall) Podes failed to register any points, had two penalty minutes, eleven shots on goal and was minus-3. Loob over Luleå was a good bet in the Elitserien Quarterfinals. Färjestad won the series 4-1 and will face Kent Manderville's Timrå in the semis.

    Thanks,
    Daniel Elmå
    Umeå, Sweden


    John,
    I loved the piece on Walt Poddubny. I grew up in Jersey a big Ranger fan and was shocked when Trader Phil dispatched the 40-goal guy to Quebec. A couple of years later, he made his return to the NYC metro area with the Devils and I got a chance to meet him at their suburban practice facility. While all the other kids flocked to the marquee Devils of the day, Muller, Burke, Shanahan and Co., I headed straight for the Dubber and told him how upset I was when the Rangers traded him. He smiled and let out a big playful "Ahhh, the Rangers suck!"

    Suffering Rangers fan,
    Andy
    N.J.

    Some things never change, eh Andy?


    John,
    I recently played pond hockey for the first time this January. It was my first time playing hockey in well over nine months. I had the greatest time and it sparked, all over again, my love for this game. We played for well over seven hours, which is the longest I have been on my ice skates. I am hoping this makes you fell the tiniest bit better. Next year will be a different story for you and you will break that record.

    Neil

    I took down the rink this week. It felt like an Air Supply video. I fell upon an Air Supply video the other day on VH-1 Classic while flipping around. It was the "Making Love Out Of Nothing At All" epic. I watched the entire video laughing my *** off. The tall blonde reminds me of Dumb and Dumber's Jeff Daniels, and the lead singer is a dead ringer of Al Morganti. It's now my favorite video of all time.


    John,
    Unfortunately, you can't help us name our child, but two years ago we could have used help. We settled for Kelton Thomas. Do you think with that kind of name he'll be destined to be the rough, hard-nosed defenseman we hope for?

    With love from St. Louis,
    Stephanie Back

    Kelton Back? No. Kelton Back will be a local weatherman, GUARANTEED. How didn't you NOT name him Jack?


    John,
    Todd Bertuzzi let a situation get out of hand and his action has resulted in an injury to a fellow player and a black mark on his occupation and sport. That is fully deserved and he will pay huge penalty. Let's just hope the next time Roger Clemens beans a batter in the jaw or some Bill Romanowski wanna-be puts his helmet to the chin of an unprotected quarterback, the American media/couch-potato reacts with the same disdain. Somehow, I doubt anyone will demand the police dust the baseball for Roger's fingerprints.

    Graham Beattie
    Seattle


    John,
    Fighting's days may be numbered in the NHL, unless we as fans do something. The media is now littered with all of these chattering idiots who know nothing about hockey parroting each other. Maybe I am hitting the panic button too soon, but I just don't believe Bettman has the guts to withstand this firestorm Bertuzzi unleashed, which didn't even involve a fight.

    People need to start writing letters to the editor, going on hostile message boards, supporting hockey and its traditions. The NHL needs political cover, which we as fans can provide. I live in D.C. and have seen what these people do when they get their feeble minds set on something. If Congress wasn't so distracted by doped up ball players, then there would be a hearing on this.

    In the end I wonder who are they trying to protect? The fans? Fans love fights. The players? The players would prefer to police themselves. The poor, helpless kids? Generations have grown up with Tom & Jerry and few of us are mallet-wielding psychopaths.

    Dane VandenBerg


    John,
    I'm sure you've been flooded with emails about the Bertuzzi incident. Couldn't help but think of your column about a month back painting a scenario of someone dying on the ice from an incident in an altercation. I think we came frighteningly close to that two nights ago. As an orthopedic spine surgeon I'm shocked Moore's injuries were limited to a concussion and vertebral fracture. Seeing the hit, I was sure he was going to have a more severe closed head injury. With the NHL and NHLPA acting like spoiled children over the CBA situation, this daily front-page negative projection of our sport is the last thing needed.

    Tom Puschak
    Indianapolis


    John,
    In regards to the whole Bertuzzi beating ... When you wrote your anti-fighting article a while back, you started with a hypothetical situation of a player killing another with a single punch. I thought you were going way over the top. Pure hyperbole. My bad. It was sick seeing Moore slump to the ice. I think the fights have to go. One a much happier note: I will never fear baldness. While watching NHL2Nite, the wife constantly remarks that Panger is cute and Barry needs a haircut. BTW -- Baby boy on the way. I'm struggling for a name. Throw me a freaking bone man! Loob is not an option.

    Chris Dansie
    Shark fan in Stars-land

    Damon Christopher Dansie. GREAT name. God, I'm good at this.


    John,
    I too know the affliction of having a large cranium. Naturally, I tell people it's because I'm smart. I know how difficult it can be to find a baseball cap. I wear a 7 5/8. When I was playing hockey I would have to pull my helmets apart and drill new holes for the screws to go in so it could fit properly. My wife refers to me and "Gigantor Head" sometimes. Life is good because I wear "the head" well.

    Chris Reed

    While playing Babe Ruth baseball in Wintersville, Ohio, I needed to use a helmet with none of that foam padding because the other helmets wouldn't fit me.


    Hey John --
    My friend Gerardo was recently hired at ESPN Deportes. I was wondering if you and Barry could show him the ropes up there in Bristol?

    Thanks,
    B. Patrick
    Massapequa, N.Y.

    Si.


    John --
    Lee Trevino was struck by lightning the day I was born, June 27, 1975. One of the coolest autographs I have is a book of things that happened in 1975, and it is autographed by Lee Trevino.

    Steven Wojtowicz

    Cris Collinsworth and Keith Olbermann were born on the same day in 1959. Seven years later, on that date, I was born. So was Tamlyn Tomita who was in Karate Kid 2. The next year former 'Peg defenseman Dave Manson was born and was immediately given a two-minute penalty for elbowing the doctor. Two years after that, Phil Plantier was born, a guy I swore was going to hit 338 career homers. He hit 91. Seventeen years later L. Ron Hubbard died.


    John,
    I am currently developing and patenting a pair of French toast hockey gloves which upon completion of the 103rd prototype will reap me untold financial rewards. By this weekend I will have finished the last model to test, which I will slightly warm in the oven, dip in syrup and then punch my brother in the face with them.
    Delicious.

    Your hockey pal,
    Dave

    French Toast Slam. Available at Denny's.

    John Buccigross is the host of NHL 2Night, which airs on ESPN2. His e-mail address -- for questions, comments or cross-checks -- is john.buccigross@espn.com.