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The Rick Tocchet Betting ScandalYeah, that was a swift kick in the you-know-what for the NHL, which was riding high on its post-lockout renaissance until New Jersey authorities unveiled Operation Slapshot (someone stayed up late thinking up that title). Phoenix Coyotes assistant coach Rick Tocchet was charged with money laundering and promoting gambling and conspiracy and was linked via law enforcement leaks to organized crime figures in Philadelphia. Among the many bettors from whom police allege Tocchet took action was the wife of Phoenix head coach Wayne Gretzky, Janet Jones Gretzky, who allegedly put down $500,000 in a brief period leading up to last year's Super Bowl. Has anyone noticed that Tocchet hasn't yet appeared before a grand jury as the case closes in on its one-year anniversary? Two things will be made clear in the coming months. Either prosecutors have gotten a whole bunch of nada on Tocchet, in which case they're planning an exit strategy that won't cost too many of them their jobs, or they've got the goods and are being especially cautious, in which case Tocchet is looking at jail time. The good news for hockey? No suggestion from anyone connected to this case that anyone placed bets on NHL games.
Olympic Meltdown Part IIn general, the Olympics were a disaster for the NHL. The IOC and IIHF wouldn't alter the schedule once they learned the NHL was going to take part, and that left many players playing eight games in 10 or 11 days. The pace was grueling and led directly or indirectly to injuries to key players Dominik Hasek, Jaromir Jagr and Sami Salo, among others. Those injuries had a direct impact on the NHL's playoff run and almost guaranteed the NHL won't be doing the Olympic thing after Vancouver in 2010. On the ice, the competition was keen, as it always is at these events, although the Swedes' admission that they would be happy to lose to Slovakia to ensure a quarterfinal matchup against the surprising Swiss -- which is exactly what transpired -- did take a bit of the shine off the Swedes' well-earned gold medal win over the plucky Finns.
Olympic Meltdown Part IICanada's much-anticipated defense of its Salt Lake City gold turned sour in a hurry as the star-studded favorites couldn't have deposited a puck in the ocean, let alone in an opposing goal. Showing a puzzling lack of leadership, Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley, Jarome Iginla et al. could not produce goals in the clutch, and Canada went home after a quarterfinal loss to Russia. The collapse left executive director Wayne Gretzky open to criticism after he left emerging stars Eric Staal, Sidney Crosby and Jason Spezza off the Canadian roster. As for the U.S., a poorly assembled squad that ignored many emerging young players also bowed out in the quarterfinals and finished the tournament with just one win. The absence of both Canada and the U.S. in the medal games resulted in a sharp decline in interest in spite of top-notch play by the remaining countries.
Jumbo Joe Goes WestWith the Bruins in disarray (how many times has that phrase been written in the past decade?), soon-to-be-ex-GM Mike O'Connell dealt captain Joe Thornton to San Jose for Marco Sturm, Brad Stuart and Wayne Primeau. Thornton would go on to win the scoring championship and edge Jaromir Jagr for the Hart Trophy as MVP. It would take the Bruins until late in 2006 to start seeing that perhaps the deal wasn't the stinker many Boston fans believed. And wouldn't a Sharks-Bruins Stanley Cup finals matchup be full of delicious ironies?
|Come to think of it, it looks like it is so, Joe Thornton.|
Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Houston, Waterloo & Your Guess Is As Good As the NHL'sAfter years of posturing and threatening and cajoling, the Pittsburgh Penguins' future in Pennsylvania remains as murky as ever. With the failure of casino company Isle of Capri, which had promised to build a new arena for new owners, to obtain a slots license for the city, local officials are going to have to come up with a pretty sweet deal for whoever takes over the team -- or the Penguins will be gone at the end of the year.
Crosby, Ovechkin -- To the Moon, AliceIf the future of the game is in the hands of Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, then the future should be bright indeed. After becoming the youngest player to record 100 points (he finished with 102) in his rookie season, Crosby has taken his game to a new level and began 2007 as the NHL's leading point getter. Meanwhile, defending rookie of the year Ovechkin leads the NHL in goals and both have their teams in an unexpected hunt for a playoff berth. In the bigger picture, both seem to embrace their roles as the face of the new NHL.
Carolina on My Mind The Hurricanes emerged from the lockout with modest expectations but soon set the NHL on its collective ear with a potent, lightning-fast attack and terrific goaltending from Martin Gerber and rookie Cam Ward. Led by inextinguishable Rod Brind'Amour, who emerged from retired captain Ron Francis' shadow, the Hurricanes followed up a stellar regular season with exciting playoff wins over Montreal, New Jersey and Buffalo before edging Edmonton in a compelling seven-game finale. Best moments? The pregame tailgating festivals in sun-drenched Raleigh and the full-throated rendition of "O Canada" produced by the Carolina fans.
|Rod Brind'Amour carries himself -- not to mention the Cup -- well.|
Chris Pronger Has Left the Building -- and the City -- and the CountryMoments after the Oilers' loss in the Cup finals, all-world defenseman Chris Pronger stunned fans and management by announcing that, for a host of unspoken reasons but most having to do with his unhappy family, he would be asking for a trade. GM Kevin Lowe acquiesced and sent Pronger and his suddenly happier family to Anaheim for sniper-in-waiting Joffrey Lupul, Ladislav Smid and a couple of draft picks. Pronger is turning in a Norris and Hart trophy-worthy season, and the Ducks are the best team in the NHL by any measure. The Oilers once again look to be a last-minute playoff team, which, oddly enough, could set up a Ducks-Oilers first-round matchup. How delicious would that be?
|Hey, Chris Pronger, you did you say "Disneyland," right?|
Todd Bertuzzi-Steve Moore: The Show Never EndsSteve Moore, the former Colorado Avalanche forward brutally attacked late in the 2003-04 season by then Vancouver star Todd Bertuzzi, filed a civil suit against Bertuzzi and others, setting up the possibility of an ugly court battle in which the NHL's "code" would be laid bare. Commissioner Gary Bettman, hoping to put the ugly spectacle behind the league -- not to mention save the NHL from potential (further) embarrassment -- interceded and, late in 2006, was meeting with representatives from both parties in the hopes of finding a resolution. In the end, Moore's appetite for vengeance (or is that justice?) will say much about how this sad story plays out.
Bertuzzi? Tall Guy? Scowls a Lot?The biggest trade of the offseason saw the Vancouver Canucks deal Todd Bertuzzi, defenseman Bryan Allen and netminder Alex Auld to the Florida Panthers for Roberto Luongo and prospect Lukas Krajicek. Although Bertuzzi recorded seven points in his first seven games as a Panther, a bad back has made him mostly irrelevant and invisible in South Florida. As for Luongo, he has been mostly terrific as the Canucks have shaken off a slow start to jump to the Northwest Division lead heading into the new year.
The Islanders Circus Never Leaves TownThe New York Islanders, always high on the "What the heck?" charts, made news during the Stanley Cup finals by hiring former New York Rangers GM Neil Smith and blackballed former coach of the year Ted Nolan to guide the Isles. That lasted for about an hour before owner Charles Wang got the shakes when Smith started making hockey decisions on his own. Smith was dispatched, and backup netminder Garth Snow was promoted to GM. Then, while heads had barely stopped shaking in wonder over that move, the Isles locked netminder Rick DiPietro in to a mind-numbing 15-year deal. The wonder of all this? The Isles remain very much in the playoff hunt as 2006 comes to an end and could be the Cinderella team in the East.
No. 19 Sails Into the Hockeytown Sunset One of the finest players of his generation, Steve Yzerman decided he'd had enough and announced before the start of the season that he was done. A date with the Hall of Fame awaits, but more interesting will be Yzerman's future in the game. After taking a post in the Red Wings' front office, Yzerman has been at the board of governors' meetings in Florida, then off to the World Junior Championship in Sweden. He's a dedicated student of the game, so we imagine Yzerman's impact is not yet over.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.