Sunday, December 9, 2007
Updated: December 10, 11:53 AM ET
Islanders host special week; Penguins post fruitful road trip
By Scott Burnside
There is a tendency to see professional teams as soulless corporate entities and athletes as multimillionaires with little connection to the world as we know it.
Sometimes, though, there are glimpses of the humanity that prove once again this is a game played by real people with real lives.
Many teams in recent years have invited the fathers of not just their players but their coaches, public relations staffs, trainers and management staff to join the team on a road trip.
It's an expensive proposition when you factor in hotel rooms, meals and whatever additional flying costs might be incurred. But try to find a player or father who doesn't think this might be the best thing ever.
Last week, the New York Islanders hosted their fathers on a road trip through Atlanta, Florida and Tampa. Team captain Bill Guerin immediately informed the fathers of their curfew -- no one was to be in the team hotel until after 1 a.m.
Defenseman Andy Sutton has been in the NHL a decade, but this is the first time he and his father, Nigel, have shared something like this.
"This is a huge thing. My dad is just like a kid in a candy story. He's just so pumped. It's a pretty special thing," Sutton said.
Nigel Sutton has been a locksmith in Kingston, Ontario, for 40 years.
"He works hard, naturally, running his own business. He doesn't get a lot of time away, so this is a real treat," Sutton said.
The two were rooming together and, on the first night on the road, Nigel returned to the hotel early.
"I think he broke Bill's rule when he came home a little early. I think he was worried about waking me up," said Sutton, who insisted he and his dad share a room. "Some guys are and some guys aren't. I wanted to do it. That's what it's about. If he snores and keeps me up a bit, it's a small price to pay for all the early mornings and all the money he's had to dole out over the years."
For many of the players, this is an opportunity to show firsthand what all the sacrifices over the years have yielded.
"He's traveled so many miles, so many different countries just to come watch me play hockey," veteran forward Mike Comrie said, "and I feel fortunate that he's going to be able to spend a week with us going on our plane to our hotels to our games. It should be a lot of fun."
The morning of the Isles' game in Atlanta, Mike's father, Bill Comrie, was engaged in an animated chat with another father, Steve Tambellini, up in the stands.
Jeff Tambellini, one of the young members of this Islanders team, didn't even make the first call to his dad, assuming the Vancouver Canucks assistant GM wouldn't be able to make the trip, and called an uncle instead. But as soon as Steve found out, he was in for the whole thing.
Comrie's father runs a successful furniture business in Edmonton and admitted he was touched that Mike was so enthusiastic about the trip.
"The most important part of the whole trip was that Mike wanted me to come," Bill said. "And he said that. I was thinking he's been in the league quite a bit; does he really want me to come? 'No dad, I really want you to come,' he said. So that was probably the most important. And just to be able to see him at his work. It's a wonderful thing that the Islanders do here. For me, I'm thrilled to be here."
If there is one player for whom the trip is bittersweet, it's Guerin. His father passed away on Aug. 28. He invited his father-in-law, but there are moments that his loss seems magnified by seeing his teammates and their fathers sharing these moments.
"Well, you know, I love my father-in-law, he's a great guy," Guerin said. "He understands, too; I definitely miss my father. I'd love nothing more than to have him here. This is the type of thing he would have eaten up.
"But you see everybody with their fathers and stuff like that, [and] I appreciate what kind of guy my dad was even more now. You just tell the guys, you know, their dads do things that tick them off or whatever, [but] just appreciate your dad. They're great guys. They really are."
It was a good week for Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins; they swept the three Western Canadian teams and have won four in a row. But it was a better week for Western Canadian fans, who saw Crosby for the first time and greeted him heroically. Fans showed up at airports after midnight to see him, and Crosby responded by signing late-night autographs. Scalpers had a field day and the media provided wall-to-wall coverage. One Canadian sports network, Sportsnet, sent its Toronto-based hockey panel on the road to cover all three Canadian games.
After more court documents were leaked through Canadian news reports, you have to wonder just how ugly the Todd Bertuzzi/Steve Moore lawsuit is going to get. Documents revealed Bertuzzi and the Vancouver Canucks are preparing to play the blame game if and when a court decides how much in damages Moore will be owed for the March 2004 attack by Bertuzzi that has essentially ended Moore's hockey career.
Documents filed by Bertuzzi's legal team point to former Vancouver coach Marc Crawford and allege that Crawford told his players between periods that Moore had to "pay the price" for his hit on Markus Naslund three weeks earlier that was the genesis of the incident. Bertuzzi and Crawford aren't commenting, but the Canucks say the claim is without merit and designed to whip up media interest. Although, why Bertuzzi would want that to happen is mystifying. Beyond the ugliness of a player and team trying to foist blame on each other, the potential for this case to lay open the dark, vigilante element of the game on a very public stage grows by the day.
Stuck in Neutral
Over in the South-least Division, the Carolina Hurricanes lead the group and are second in the Eastern Conference in large part because they're the only team in the division with a winning record and a playoff position. But the Hurricanes have not won back-to-back games in a month, losing the luster they showed early when they looked much like the team that rolled to the Stanley Cup in 2006. Eric Staal has cooled off, going six games without a goal before scoring in Carolina's 5-1 win over Montreal on Saturday. Erik Cole was without a point in five games before posting a goal and an assist Saturday and two more goals Sunday.
Our top story lines of the week
1. We know the Atlanta Thrashers are 14-8-1 under GM and interim coach Don Waddell, so we're willing to cut him a little slack. But you have to wonder about their move to pick up Mark Recchi off waivers. The Thrashers will pay only half of Recchi's remaining salary, with Pittsburgh picking up the other half; so there's almost no financial risk. But Recchi, who turns 40 in February, has just one goal in his past 18 games and was a healthy scratch before the Penguins put him on waivers last week. The Thrashers have long had a lack of depth at center (a position Recchi does not play) and have struggled to develop their own prospects. In that way, Recchi becomes yet another hired gun the team hopes will fill a void it has been unable to fill internally. Recchi is almost a point-a-game career player (1,341 points in 1,357 games); but if he couldn't produce playing with the likes of Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin dating back to the latter part of last season, we're not sure how lining up with Ilya Kovalchuk and/or Marian Hossa will produce different results.
2. The Montreal Canadiens, one of the darlings of the first quarter of the season with a superlative power play and sterling goaltending, have slipped through the standings and are now sitting uncomfortably in eighth place in the Eastern Conference. One of the main reasons the team hasn't been able to hold its place in the standings has been its abysmal play at home. They are 5-6-3 at the Bell Centre and were waxed by both Detroit and Carolina there in the past week. Only Washington, the last-place team in the NHL, has fewer home wins. Last season, a woeful road record (16-22-3) denied the Habs a playoff berth. Unless they can right the ship at home, they can kiss the postseason goodbye again.
3. It has been a bit of a trip down memory lane for Calgary coach Mike Keenan. On Sunday, his Flames were in Chicago, where he enjoyed tremendous success in the early 1990s before moving on to other locales, including Florida, where Keenan was both GM and coach. Coaching in a hockey market again has reinforced for Keenan how difficult it is for young players in Florida to develop.
"Nobody knows them away from the arena at all, ever," Keenan said. "So their scrutiny is not quite as judicious as it is here [Calgary]. So maybe the process takes a little bit longer because of that. In Calgary, you've really got the accountability built in with the support of the city, as well as the team itself, and [in Florida] it's not as difficult because you're obscure and nobody knows who you are and you disappear." Sounds like the Florida Panthers, alright.
4. At what point do scoring problems of the New York Rangers' move from annoying anomaly to full-blown crisis? The Rangers defeated the New Jersey Devils 1-0 in overtime Sunday, which is pretty much the only way they can win games these days. The Rangers are the lowest-scoring team in the NHL, averaging 2.17 goals per game, and that was before Sunday's tilt. Last season, they were in the middle of the pack in scoring (18th), but were expected to light it up in 2007-08 with the addition of Scott Gomez and Chris Drury. But the additions have essentially become subtractions given the fact that the team's offensive engine, Jaromir Jagr, has essentially disappeared from the team's offensive map.
After recording 219 points in the two seasons after the lockout, Jagr is on pace for fewer than 60 points this season. The five-time NHL scoring leader has just seven goals in 30 games and seems lost without former linemate Michael Nylander, who couldn't be signed after Drury and Gomez were inked and ended up in Washington. After making bold offseason moves, the question now for GM Glen Sather is whether he can fix the problems those moves have created.
5. How good are the Detroit Red Wings? Well, the previously lackluster Central Division boasts five teams with winning records, and the Red Wings are still running away with the Western Conference. After pounding Carolina 5-2 on Sunday, the Wings have 44 points, nine more than second-ranked Vancouver. The win was their sixth in a row. Although the bulk of their offense is generated by Pavel Datsyuk, Henrik Zetterberg and Tomas Holmstrom, the Wings continue to get timely production from throughout the lineup. Sunday, for instance, Jiri Hudler had assists on the first three Detroit goals.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.