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Tuesday, October 26, 2004
AHL is a perfect replacement

By John Buccigross
Special to ESPN.com

When a love like the NHL has left you, you look for distractions.

Right now, I have the Boston Red Sox, an upcoming REM concert, the Garden State movie soundtrack and the Baltimore Ravens cheerleaders' uniforms.

From the Blackhawks' Mark Bell to Mark Bellhorn. From Rem Murray to REM, from Patrik Elias to Garden State and from the Canadiens' classic uniforms to the Ravens cheerleaders' classic uniforms.

The NHL's big "freeze out" has not quite sunk in yet I write my columns on Sunday nights and on this Sunday night coming up, Halloween, I would have been watching Alexander Ovechkin and the Salary Capitals take on the playoff-bound Florida Panthers. But with the above distractions, I'm getting by. Right now, I haven't got time for the pain.

Another remedy is to go to a game in person. So, last Friday I decided to check out an American Hockey League game and went to the house that Chicken Parm built, the Hartford Civic Center, to see the Hartford Wolf Pack and the Worcester IceCats.

The blue lines and the red line were widened to 24 inches and the nets moved back two feet to increase the size of the neutral zone. Also, a goalie "puck-handling crease" was added to the back of the nets.
My night began meeting Worcester coach Don Granato before the game in the IceCats coaches' room. Donnie is the subject of the Great 8 down below. He is the brother of Tony and Cammi Granato. Don will make a good NHL head coach because of his experience and love of the game. He has a dedication to his craft and a cool demeanor that will work very well with the 21st Century athlete. Players will play and perform for him. He projects authority without being demeaning. He has those deep-set Granato eyes that project intensity, passion and warmth.

From there it was up to the Jim Schoenfeld's suite. Schoenfeld played 719 games in the NHL and has been the Wolf Pack GM for two seasons, after spending a year as a Rangers assistant. Schoenfeld and Hartford head coach Ryan McGill make a good team. McGill's Wolf Pack is well-coached and plays an aggressive forechecking system. Schoenfeld acquires the players for McGill's system, and the two of them demand high effort and tough hockey. Why can't the New York Rangers get a GM and a coach like that?

As the game began the first thing that's noticed are the thicker lines, which are meant to create a couple more feet in the neutral zone. I like them from an aesthetic standpoint, as well. I'd make them a foot wider for even more visual and tactical effectiveness. The virtues of the tag-up offside are apparent right away. It makes for better flow, tired players and scoring chances. I also love the goaltender crease behind the net. It's a trapezoid-shaped area, and the goaltender can only handle the puck in there when behind the cage. I think the size and shape are perfect. The AHL did a great job coming up with that size. That is another NHL must-add.

During the first period, I met Rangers strength and conditioning coach Reg Grant. I asked him if it was hard to motivate Jaromir Jagr to work out. He said it was just the opposite -- Jagr was the guy getting other players to work harder. Reg also said if you're looking for your young hockey player, or yourself, to build leg strength to improve skating, do a lot of one-legged exercises -- one-legged squats, one-legged lunges resting your back leg on a chair, one-legged leaps, back and forth on one leg and so on.

New Rangers goaltender coach Benoit Allaire then stopped by the suite. Allaire spent seven seasons as the goaltending coach for the Phoenix Coyotes prior to joining the Rangers. He's keeping his eye on Michigan's Al Montoya, the Rangers' No. 6 pick this year, and the Wolf Pack's fine goaltender Jason LaBarbera. LaBarbera is off to a great start after going 34-9-9 last year and posting 13 shutouts. As I type this, his save percentage is .966.

I moved down to the lower bowl to watch the second period and saw Worcester's Jon DiSalvatore score on a breakaway. DiSalvatore grew up in the town I live in, South Windsor, Conn. That made for good columnist-hockey player synergy.

Hartford led 2-1 late, and I was hoping Worcester would tie things up so I could witness how the shootout looked and felt. But LaBarbera was strong to the end and the Wolf Pack won 2-1.

LOCKOUT LIP
"Arguing about the accuracy of the report, whether the numbers may or may not be reliable, may just be a diversion. They (the NHLPA) say they see no purpose to a meeting. All this time is being spent on challenging numbers while the clock is running out. Don't talk [salary] caps because that closes down the discussion. It is pretty obvious what has to be done and there are a limited number of ways to do it."

-- Arthur Levitt to the Los Angeles Times on the NHLPA's dispution of his NHL-commissioned report, which concluded that the sport was "on a treadmill to obscurity" unless changes are made. Levitt offered to go over the numbers with union leaders.
It was a good hockey fix. There were 70 shots on goal, two good fights, hard hitting, good skating and it only took 2 hours and 10 minutes. From the view from the lower bowl, the speed of the game is very close to NHL level. Without question the AHL is entertaining and affordable. What it lacks is superstar attractions, rivalries and the laundry of the NHL sweater.

So, in the meantime, the American League will be my league. I'll check the schedule and see when Chicago is in town to check out Kari Lehtonen. When Albany comes to town, I'll go see Zach Parise in action. And when Binghamton's Jason Spezza comes to Hartford, the NHL-AHL gap may be seen better. Eric Staal, Marcel Goc, Brad Boyes, Dustin Brown, Jiri Hudler, Hannu Toivonen, Pascal Leclaire, Dan Hamhuis and other NHL-caliber players are playing hockey at an arena near some of you.

Go to a game. You'll be pleasantly surprised. And for a moment, you can stop the madness.

When you hear the name Granato, hockey fans think of Tony and/or Cammi. Tony is an assistant coach to Joel Quenneville in Colorado. Cammi lives and plays hockey in Vancouver, while also training for the 2006 Olympics in Italy. But there is another Granato in professional hockey. Don Granato is the head coach of the Worcester IceCats.

Granato began his coaching career with the Green Bay Gamblers of the United States Hockey League (USHL) in 1994, the team's first year in the league. He led the Gamblers to back-to-back league regular-season titles and U.S. junior national championships in 1996 and 1997, becoming the only coach in the USHL to do so. The following two seasons were spent as head coach and general manager of the Columbus Chill of the ECHL, who he guided to a division championship in 1998-99 and an overall record of 72-54-14. He spent the 1999-2000 season with Peoria, where he captured the Northwest Division, Northern Conference and ECHL titles. On August 23, 2000, Granato was hired by St. Louis Blues general manager Larry Pleau as coach of the Worcester IceCats, his current position. Someday he will coach an NHL team.

No. 1: The AHL has some new rules this season -- tag-up offside, thicker lines and nets moved back for a larger neutral zone, shootouts and a goalie crease behind the net. What has been the result?
Granato:
Scoring is up, and I think it will stay that way based on what I've seen. We gained six more feet in the neutral zone. The tag-up offside has definitely added to the game, as far as being able to keep a line out there that is tired. When a team chips it out of their zone, we can chip it right back in and prevent the change. At least three times in each game I've seen that lead to a scoring chance. But I think the biggest one is putting the net two feet closer to the back wall. That has added more scoring chances on the forecheck. Defensemen can't gain the back of the net as easily as they could. As far as the goaltending crease, besides the smaller area to handle the puck, a goalie can hardly move to shield themselves or gain momentum to move the puck.

Granato, a native of Downers' Grove, Ill., is a graduate of the University of Wisconsin, where he was captain of the winningest four-year class in the history of the university's hockey program (1987-88 to 1990-91), which included the 1990 national championship.

No. 2: Have you ever been hit by a car?
Granato:
Yes. I was hit by one in kindergarten. My brother Tony and I were walking home from school and we took one of Tony's "shortcuts." We got to a train crossing and the cars were backed up but the train was gone. We started walking across because the cars were just sitting there. But they had started to move from the other way, we just couldn't see them. Fortunately, Tony had my hand. All I can remember is the front headlight of a car coming right at me. Tony yanked me back, but the side of the car swiped and scraped my arm, hip and face. I was out of school for a few days. We told my parents I ran into a tree playing football. I always look out for speeding Zambonis.

Granato finished his career at Wisconsin with with 88 points (45-43-88) in 162 games.

No. 3: Would the AHL rule changes we talked about above help the NHL in its quest for more offense and flow?
Granato:
They definitely change the game without being too drastic. They definitely have created scoring chances at our level, and I think it would do the same at the NHL level.

Don played two seasons for the Columbus Chill of the ECHL, served as an alternate captain and recorded 90 points (26-64-90) in 103 games.

No. 4: How have AHL rosters been affected by the NHL lockout?
Granato:
Well, I don't hyperventilate when the phone rings from St. Louis. It's nice to be able to work on things in practice and prepare for games and know the personnel will be there for the game. (Usually) if there is an injury in St. Louis, I'm going to lose my best player. We can work on something all week and then lose a key player on a Friday.

Granato was awarded the Louis A. R. Pieri Memorial Award as the AHL's coach of the year for the 2000-01 season, his first behind the IceCats' bench.

No. 5: With the lockout, NHL coaches are receiving only portions of their salaries. Has Tony called you for Keno money?
Granato:
Not yet. He's driving everyone crazy. He did take a bus trip to Omaha, Neb., with his son Michael for a hockey tournament. He certainly calls me a lot more.

Granato became the second IceCats head coach to earn the AHL's coach of the year award. He took the reigns of the 'Cats when the 1996-97 winner, Greg Gilbert, departed for the NHL.

No. 6: Ray Ferraro is now your brother-in-law after he wed your sister Cammi. Isn't that a bit unsettling?
Granato:
No comment.

Granato made a big splash in the AHL during his rookie season as coach, leading the 2000-01 club to a franchise-record 48 wins and the team's first ever AHL regular-season title.

No. 7: You have a wealth of coaching experience and have succeeded everywhere you've been. When does someone in your position get itchy for an NHL chance?
Granato:
You certainly do want to move up, but I wouldn't say I'm restless. It's a very competitive field and part of being competitive is wanting to move forward. Each and every year you expect more out of yourself and expect to be closer to the next level.

Don is a left-handed golfer.

No. 8: How big is the talent gap between the NHL and the AHL?
Granato:
I don't think the talent gap is very big at all. I think the gap is maturity. There is world-class talent in our league -- striving to become a world-class player I think is the best way to describe it. We have NHL-talented players but they are not NHL-ready players. What's nice for a coach is I can give a guy who is playing in the AHL because of the work stoppage a lot of responsibility and demands on the ice, where I'm not sure giving a young guy that kind of workload their confidence might not waver.

Dear John,
Trying very hard to find a silver lining in all of this mess. Do you think the lockout will give teams that are rebuilding a chance to develop their young talent? Pittsburgh? Columbus? My aptly named Washington CAPS? Can time off help anybody, in any way?

Jeff
D.C.

If the work stoppage lasts a year and a half it would definitely help the Penguins, Caps, Panthers and Thrashers. When 19-year-olds become 21 and 21-year-olds become 23, that is a big jump. It's like Alyssa Milano, pre- and post-Who's the Boss? But this CBA negotiation is too easy to think there will be no hockey in 16 months. The philosophical shift in the CBA is severe and complicated enough for a three-month work stoppage, but the equation to resolution is, quite simply, simple math.


John,
The talk of scabs is beyond ludicrous. What? The AHL will voluntarily shut down so people can pay $85 to see guys they could see for $16 across the parking lot? No. Not gonna happen. Not with my ticket money. But thank the NHL for shutting down. I finally have the money to redecorate.

Bo TheSportsDiva
Philadelphia

Did you go with the ceramic tile with images of Ilka Sinisalo?


Bucci --
With all the talk about a salary cap, I was wondering what impact a salary cap would have on ticket prices. Do you know if ticket prices went up, down or stayed about the same when the NFL and NBA got their salary caps? And how is Ken the Otter keeping busy during the lockout?

Thanks,
Kim Koerner
Cypress, Calif.

Ticket prices have continued to rise in the NFL and NBA because demand is great. My friend Pete Shankman of Cape Cod used to own two season tickets to the Boston Celtics. He had them since the late '60s. I used to go to two games a year with him just as an excuse to go to Boston, have dinner in the North End and laugh with Pete. His tickets went from $60 to $70 to $90, and then before last season, almost $200!!! Pete said enough was enough, and I'll now only go to the North End when I go to Bruins games. Tickets won't decrease if the NHL has a salary cap, although they might initially go down when the work stoppage ends as an apology to you. Ticket prices go down when demand goes down. If people stopped going to movies, movie tickets would go down. I know the Chicago Blackhawks don't apply, but they don't apply to anything which resembles logic.


John,
I was so ready to pounce on Kari Lehtonen as the next big thing between the pipes. So, Mr. Goodenow and Mr. Bettman please shake hands so I can start up Fantasy Hockey's Puck Hogs Local 242 again!

Adrian Grenier

Through his first four games for AHL Chicago, Lehtonen was 2-2 with an .877 save percentage.


John,
Last night the Blues were supposed to open their season against the hated Blackhawks. Me and a couple other guys (we are all season ticket-holders) just went outside of the Savvis Center and sat in our lawn chairs while everybody was down the street buying Cards World Series tickets. We plan to do the same thing every scheduled Blues game. I want other people in other cities to do the same thing. I was wondering if you could help us in our quest to end this lockout. If you could help it would be great. WE NEED HOCKEY. Keep writing buddy.

Yours truly,
Reggie Gardner
GO BLUES!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!


Hey Bucci,
So how was the summer break, catch any concerts? And how's the golf game? I got two questions for ya: 1) What's your favorite song by a one-hit wonder, an example would be "Wherever You Will Go" by the Calling? 2) What singer(s) produced the best music after going solo or starting a new band?

Praying for some NHL every day,
Jamie Loeffen
North Bay, Ontario

Actually you asked five questions, Jamie. But you're still my boy, Blue.

Summer was, as always, as beautiful as Scott Neidermayer's stride. Ballpark Tour No. 2. Baseball Hall of Fame, Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Detroit, Wrigley Field, Kansas City, St. Louis, Cleveland and Pittsburgh.

Regrettably, I did not catch a concert this summer, but I am seeing REM on Nov. 6.

Golf game was a little off, but I'm reading an instruction book called Tour Tempo that I highly recommend.

"Something About You," by Level 42, is my all-time favorite one-hit wonder.

Tough One. Bob Mould? Eric Clapton? Ben Folds? Neil Young? Dr. Dre? I love Pete Townsend's White City CD.


John,
I am having a new baby soon, and I am looking for your almighty wisdom in choosing a name. We don't know what it is going to be, and want your suggestions. We have a girl, Anna-Renee Labak, and a boy, Kyle David Labak. Bless you and God Bless the NHL.

Ken Labak
Hartford Life Insurance

Labak is pronounced Lay-back, so & Kyle David Labak is a good name, I like how you book-ended the K's in his name. One of my favorite names is Cabel, but it's hard to find last names where it fits. Yours does. So, for a boy let's go with Cabel-wife's maiden name-Labak. Girl? Carla is my favorite girl's name, so Carla Angelina Labak is a winner. Also, while the Labak child is being born crank the Terror Squad's Lean Back in the hospital room. Labak, Lean Back, Labak, Lean Back.


John,
What do you think about 205 of 700 NHLers taking jobs in Europe. I, personally, have no real problem with those going back to their native countries, but there are quite a few who have made moves to places completely foreign to them for fractions of their current contracts. Why aren't they reacting as a union?

Dee Karl
Sayville, N.Y.

A former player told me the same thing -- that wealthy players making money while grinders are out of work and have nowhere to play is a little disturbing. But I'm sure the NHLPA strongly urged players to play where they could to strengthen their position with the owners and that the union convinced the players it would be good for all of them. Also, Ryan Malone of the Penguins recently said the union was going to send some of the lower-paid players some money.


John,
I can attest to the fact that AHL hockey is everything the game should be -- fast, hard-hitting, fun and, unlike the NHL, actually affordable. On an unrelated note, I think Around the Sun is REM's best since Automatic for the People. "Leaving New York" and "I Wanted to Be Wrong" rank among the best they've ever done.

Justin Beland

Funny thing, art. I don't think Around the Sun is better than Automatic for the People. I don't like it as much as Reveal, but it is growing on me. REM's best CDs are usually the ones you don't like right away. "Aftermath" is my favorite song on the new REM CD. I'm going backstage to meet Michael, Mike and Peter on Nov. 6. A dream come true.


John,

It's heaven in South Dakota. Imagine the place frozen over and playing a little pick-up hockey there. That's up there with my teen-age fantasy where Angelina Jolie is in a North Stars jersey (the green road sweaters with the big "N" of course), with a platter of seedless watermelon and right-handed Sher-wood PMP 5030 (Coffey Curve). Dude, I haven't even told my wife about that one.

Tom
South Dakota

And for the love of Basil McRae, don't. You can convince your wife of a lot of things, but Jolie, fruit and wood is not one of them.

John Buccigross' e-mail address -- for questions, comments or cross-checks -- is john.buccigross@espn.com.