Players' signatures are indelible

I write these columns, or whatever they are, in a space I suppose you would call my office. A 12-by-12 room of stuff in my house. Right now, I can look around and see hockey cards, baseball cards, a persimmon head driver, a guitar with a broken string, an Ohio license plate, Dr. Evil action figure, a Starburst wrapper and the 1967 Boston Red Sox Impossible Dream record album, among other things.

Organization-wise, it is a natural disaster that always causes extreme amounts of discomfort for my dad and Ray Ferraro, who both despise such living conditions. I strive and crave to be organized and orderly, but it just doesn't happen.

Among my Sanford-and-Son, Pergo-floored existence is a 4-by-6 index-type card with a Jesse Owens autograph on it. As a kid, my Dad often shuffled me to active autograph areas. I don't recall ever requesting these trips, but I just went along because I did everything with my Dad and he probably got a kick out of it. Outside stadiums and inside hotel lobbies, I ran down every autograph from Pete Rose, to Lyle Alzado, to Ron Stackhouse. My sister went with us one time to a Pittsburgh Pirates/Cincinnati Reds baseball game, and from the stadium to the Reds hotel. She got Ray Knight's autograph three times. To Christine, baseball players all looked alike. I mean really looked alike.

Dad still has those autographs. Identified, organized and in appropriate binders for easy and organized viewing. It is fun to look through and occasionally recall the exact moment, as an 11 year old, when the autographed was seized. Today, I am a lot less liberal with my autograph requests. It has to have a lot of meaning. Otherwise, a handshake will do.

Perhaps one reason why autograph seeking lost its luster was the utter lack of care and redeeming quality of the autograph. I mean, some of these things are not even legible. In many ways, it's the sign of the times.

As a child, I was mesmerized by John Hancock's signature on the Declaration of Independence -- the flow and the lines and the intricate patterns. After looking at John Hancock's John Hancock, Dallas Smith's penmanship doesn't quite inspire one to run down Bobby Schmautz.

The last few years, as I've narrowed my autograph desires down to a precious few, my demand for a better autograph has increased greatly. The last couple of years, I have bid on autographed items at charity events I have an emotional attachment to. I shouldn't be spending that kind of money, but I feel like I don't give enough to charities and when they have me, I make up for it in one day. Emotional purchasing is my specialty.

The last two years, I have "won" a Larry Bird autographed basketball jersey and a Wayne Gretzky autographed hockey sweater. It felt great to give money to a good cause and get a cool item to bring home. But the fact is, if the autographs were sloppy and written without care, I would not have bid on them. The Bird autograph is beautiful. A silver pen on a green No. 3. Same with Wayne. Stylish and clear. A mini work of art, a reflection of his creative soul.

Too many times, I see autographs that appall me. I mean, they are slapped down with little care. I've yet to see a good Mario Lemieux autograph. I imagine there are a couple, but all the ones I've seen are ones I have no interest in. Pavel Bure is another who comes to mind. And his name only has nine letters! I will not consider an autograph that is sloppy. I strongly recommend that before you get something special of yours autographed you do some investigation work to find the attitude someone takes in signing an autograph. Ray Ferraro collected some autographed sticks for his boys before he retired, and I can still see in my mind the flawless, flowing, careful autograph stick of Paul Kariya. If you give Kariya something nice to sign in a somewhat civil signing environment, you likely will be very satisfied. Anyone can have a bad autograph when signing thousands, but for the most part, there is consistency if they care.

And if you are not sure, I don't think it's rude to say, "Mr. Lemieux, this means a lot to me. Could you make it real neat? Thanks so much." Yes, someone is doing a favor signing, but if you are not going to even write any letters, why bother?

The Jesse Owens autograph on my desk is maybe my favorite. It reads: "Hi John, Best of luck to a very fine athlete. Jesse Owens, '36 Olympics." That alone is so cool, but the beauty and care of his penmanship has greater meaning to me. He took a moment to give his best so someone could have a lifetime of enjoyment. It's over 25 years old and likely will last at least 250 more. Whenever I look at that autograph, I feel good. The man, the message and the sheer look of the ink on the paper causes my eyes to dart in amazement all around the card. People probably felt that way when they saw him run in 1936 -- 68 years later, he still runs.

When I look at my autographed Bobby Orr golf ball, I feel the same way. He did the best he could as he dragged Sharpie over golf dimples to leave his mark. He cared. I've never seen one, but I bet Jean Beliveau has a great signature. Class and caring. One likes the game more when one likes the players more. Does Bob Goodenow tell the players things like that?

Can we get neater autographs in the CBA? Will the players sign off on that?

Players take fans for granted in many ways; one in the way they sign autographs. Yes, fans are not entitled and the business of those who acquire and sell memorabilia can make an athlete cynical, but you know what ... so what?! Maybe the person buying it doesn't have the means to get it himself or herself and probably will care for it more than the kid outside the park who likely will lose his program within six months.

So players, take your time. Make your mark. And you may make an impression that lasts a lifetime.

What's talent? Talent is having a .931 save percentage and making it look easy. Talent is a force that calms everything and everyone around it. Andrew Raycroft has a talent that has calmed the defensive seas in Boston. The Bruins still might not have the defensive corps to make a Stanley Cup run, but they have the goalie. In fact, the Bruins have a lot, but history shows the front office won't go the extra mile to invest in a championship and all the glorious hockey revival it would spawn in Boston. Maybe this year will be different. We'll know by March 9. What we know now is that Raycroft will win the Calder Trophy for rookie of the year and should be considered for the Hart as MVP.

No. 1: Who was your favorite team growing up?
The Montreal Canadiens. I grew up in Ontario and everyone liked Toronto, so I wanted to go against the grain. Patrick Roy was my favorite player.

Memo to Andrew: Don't pull a "Manny" and proclaim in the next few weeks how it would be a dream come true to play for Montreal.

No. 2: Were you always a goalie?
I played out three or four years right at the start when I was a little guy. But one afternoon I decided to be a goalie, and fortunately it worked out. A lot of it had to do with the cool equipment and being on the ice all the time. I like being part of it at all times.

Andrew was a fourth-round pick of the Bruins in the 1998 draft. Patrick Roy was a third-round pick.

No. 3: What was your childhood like? Were you raised by wolves?
Ahhh, no. I was raised by an insurance guy and a bank teller. I had a normal childhood. Small town. I had a lot of good friends. I played hockey in the winter and did everything else in the summer.

Andrew was born May 4, 1980. He shares a birthday with former Cardinals infielder Ken Oberkfell.

No. 4: What does Andrew Raycroft do to chill on the road?
I like hanging out and watching TV. I enjoy going to the movies. I go to a lot of movies. I like a nice dinner, as well. That's the best thing about being on the road, trying out new places. I make it a point to try new places. That's my favorite thing to do.

Andrew was the MVP of the Ontario Hockey League in 1999-2000. He was the first goalie to win the honor in 50 years.

No. 5: What was the last real good movie you've seen?
"Big Fish" was real good.

Andrew has an equipment deal with Koho that ends after this year. Good timing. He might be getting a little raise.

No. 6: Who is the hairiest Bruin? Who is in need of some major manscaping?
The hairiest? There is no one I can honestly say is out of control with the body hair.

Andrew wears No. 1. The only single-digit numbers not retired by the Bruins are Nos. 1 and 6. Andrew said he wears No. 1 because it's old school.

No. 7: You were in my High 5 for MVP in last week's column. Do you feel that you are among the goaltending elite right now?
You know, I really don't. I think so far I've done well, but to get to that point you have to string two or three of those years together. The awards would be great, but I have 20 games left and I'm trying to stay focused. Obviously, I want to become an elite goalie, and if I can stay consistent and win playoff series, then maybe I can approach that.

Andrew Raycroft and Patrice Bergeron may be the best rookie duo in Boston sports since Fred Lynn and Jim Rice.

No. 8: Instead of the goalies not going behind the net to handle the puck thing, I think you guys should just be fair game. Would NHL goalies have a problem with that?
I think for the most part we wouldn't have a problem with that. Fair is fair. Some guys have gotten so good; they wait until a guy is right on top of them because they know they won't get hit. If goalies could be hit, I bet guys would get rid of it earlier; I know I would.

Defense wins championships. In the NHL, that has never been more relevant. That means great goaltending and a corps of defensemen playing great. Look at the recent Stanley Cup champions and you'll find great blueliners. The Devils, Red Wings and Avalanche supported their Hall of Fame goalies with a tough, mobile and smart defensive corps. When making your Stanley Cup predictions this spring, look for teams with a great goalie and multiple talented blueliners. Thus, it's a good bet, the Stanley Cup champion will come from a team with one of these Norris Trophy candidates.

1. Zdeno Chara, Ottawa Senators: No defenseman does as much. First, he has unrivaled wingspan and ice coverage. He's becoming a force on the blue line during the power play, as well in front of the goalie. He has become a great fighter. He's the plus-minus leader. He hits. Blake's injury should clinch the Norris for Chara.

2. Rob Blake, Colorado Avalanche: His injury puts a hamper on his Norris Trophy chances. He does everything Chara does as stated above except fight. As a young King, Blake once told his coach, Barry Melrose, that he couldn't play hard every night. He was wrong. He plays hard every night.

3. Sheldon Souray, Montreal Canadiens: Now that Souray is out of the lineup, we see how big a presence he has in Montreal. The longer he's out, the more difficult it will be for Montreal to hold off Buffalo for the final playoff spot in the East. Would Montreal make an aggressive play for Sergei Gonchar?

4. Scott Niedermayer, New Jersey Devils: Is the shadow cast by a captain's "C" any larger than in New Jersey? Niedermayer truly has stepped up his game another level. When it is all said and done, he will be a final-three nominee for the Norris Trophy. He's poetry in motion.

5. Sergei Gonchar, Washington Capitals (for now): He had 41 assists when the week began. What would he do in Toronto with Mogilny's line on the ice? How would he elevate Dallas? If the Bruins were bold, could he be the difference in their Stanley Cup final chances? It's a great mystery, and one I would love to see play out

Hi John!
The Swedish leagues had a break for the Swedish Hockey Games, but Podes has played two games since. First, he had an assist in the 4-2 loss against Arboga, and then another in the 7-2 bashing of Mörrum. Växjö is in second place (the top two teams advance) with three games remaining, and Podes has 11 points (3-8-11) in as many games. He also has 14 penalty minutes, 33 shots on goal and is plus-8.
Daniel Elmå
Umeå, Sweden

Life expectancy in Sweden: Men, 76.1; Women, 81.1.

Hi John,
Saw Kent Manderville play live for the first time in my life, he's a lot bigger than what he looks on TV. He had two assists tonight and got voted player of the game, he was goooood. Corey Hirsch (a.k.a "the stamp" over here) was sitting on the bench as HV 71's Johan Davidsson copied Peter Forsberg's move at the '94 Olympics on the deciding penalty shot. Now that's a game!
Fredrik Landin
Jönköping, Sweden

I was thinking that too about Manderville this week while I was spooning with my otter.

Regarding your bigger net suggestion: Imagine you are a goalie. You have defended the goal since age 6. Every single move you make on the ice is in relation to the net behind you. Suddenly the size of the net changes. A goalie's positioning is the most fundamental skill they know. To mess with it is to mess with decades of goaltending evolution. Reduce the pad size; allow them to get hit in behind the net, but do not change the size of the net.
Andrew Sharpe

Moncton, New Brunswick

I think it would take two weeks for you to adjust, Andrew. I have called for the net to be just a puck width wider on each side of the goalie.

John -
You mentioned Lauren Hart, the Flyers' national anthem singer (and daughter of Gene Hart) in your column a couple of weeks ago. I'm sure, then, that you recognized that "Miracle" used her rendition for the soundtrack at the pre-Olympic Madison Square Garden game. What an honor!
Joe Eckman
Kennett Square, Pa.

I have Lauren's rendition on CD, and I play it each time before I floss. Floss would be a good band name. Is there already a band named Floss? There must be. Hold me. After I floss.

Hey John --
I got to ref at the Gretzky fantasy camp game yesterday. I got a great shot of me dropping the puck with the Great One. The only faceoff he took that game, as he spent the whole game on D. I was hoping Melrose was going to be there (I heard he played last year) or Clement, Clement, hands of cement, but no luck. Maybe Panger will come out and play goalie next year, or maybe you can make it.
It was a lot of fun.

So, what are your thoughts on the Markus Naslund/Steve Moore situation? This whole thing reminds me a lot of the Claude Lemieux hit on Kris Draper a few years back that really started the Detroit/Colorado rivalry. The Canucks vs. Avs has been a growing rivalry the past couple of years. Is this the incident that's gonna vault it past Detroit and Colorado into the biggest one in the West? I'm counting down the days till March 3.
Dan Remick

That March 3 game should be dynamite, and it's on ESPN2. I have looked at the replay many times of Moore's hit on Naslund. At first I thought it was completely innocent. Then I said, maybe he leaned into him a little bit once he saw his head was at elbow to shoulder level. But let's face it; this is a fast game that changes in a split second, as that play did. Naslund reached for the puck, changed the course of the action, which changed his opponent's brain waves, and Nusland put himself in a vulnerable position with his lunge that Moore instinctively chose not to avoid. Is that worse than Scott Stevens hitting Paul Kariya two seconds after he passes the puck in the neutral zone? It's good that the Canucks defended their captain. It's good that Marc Crawford tried to inject some passion into his team that has been inconsistent. But in the end, Steve Moore is no Claude Lemieux.

I'm thinking of getting a Flyers jersey with the number "32" and the nameplate "Footsteps." Should I go for it? If I do, should I feel obligated to educate everyone as to what it means?
Rick Healey

If I had seen that jersey at a game prior to reading this e-mail, I would have quit my job and volunteered to be your pool boy for life. Even if you didn't have a pool. Or a pond. "32 Footsteps" is a song by one of my all-time favorite bands, They Might Be Giants. The most lyrically correct band of all time.

32 footsteps leading to the room where the paint doesn't want to dry
32 footsteps running down the road where the dirt reaches the sky

Johnny B,
Please, stop this shootout talk! Deciding a team game in a one-on-one situation is not right. The penalty shot is so contrived. It's like saying that a free throw is the most exciting play in basketball. How compelling.
William Sleeman

The Hawks were just nominated as the worst-run professional sports franchise. Attendance at the United Center is pitiful. So what do they do? Trade the team's leader and fan favorite...to Nashville!!!
Ryan Brennan
a.k.a. Big Jammer

If Olive Garden had one of its franchise owners hire poor managers and bad cooks, refused to pay or hire a winning team, and served bad food to a half-filled restaurant, wouldn't Olive Garden force the franchise owner to sell? Or sue to get out of the contract because the franchise was damaging the bottom line of the company and damaging the company name? I sometimes wonder if the NHL could do this. Chicago used to love the Blackhawks as they love the Cubs. It's the saddest story in all of sports -- the systematic destruction and blatant neglect of one of the most beloved and soulful organizations.

John Buccigross is the host of NHL2Night, which airs on ESPN2. His e-mail address -- for questions, comments or cross-checks -- is john.buccigross@espn.com.