While the NHL struggles, the game lives on


Actor/comedian Denis Leary lives in the part of Connecticut that Barnes & Noble, Old Navy and Baby Gap have yet to discover. It's a piece of land with rolling hills, trickling streams, towering trees, unpaved driveways, gigantic dogs, imposing horses, and a 125-by-75-foot piece of backyard rink paradise. Norman Rockwell meets Normand Leveille. The next time Normand skates, he'll skate somewhere resembling Leary's Connecticut sheet of backyard ice.

Leary turned 48 last August, but he comes off more like he's 28. He is energetic, creative, chatty, and still hungry after all these years. You probably already know that Leary is a hockey guy. He's done work for NHL Productions and ESPN, hangs with Cam Neely and his charitable quests, and hosts his own charity hockey game with proceeds benefiting the Leary Firefighters Foundation. He loves the game, plays the game and sells the game.

Leary also LIVES the game. Anyone with a backyard rink does. Hockey is at its most exhilarating outside, where the game was born. In many ways, indoor hockey ice is like artificial turf: fake, painted and makes a slappy sound when a bucket of pucks hits it. One of my favorite sounds is when a bucket of pucks is dumped on an outdoor rink or pond. It's a natural, thumping sound that reverberates throughout the ice and permeates any unfrozen water. It's a sound you might hear on a Kenny G CD, if you were forced by a pack of hungry wolves on a back of a meat truck to actually buy a Kenny G CD. Or if you were getting a massage at a hotel spa. Or if you were getting a massage from Kenny G at a hotel spa. Let's move on.

Leary's backyard rink is in the Mercedes Benz class of backyard rinks. It is perfectly level, has underground pipes to aid the freezing process, is lined, and has a tractor/Zamboni contraption for resurfacing. Adjacent to Leary's ice is a skate-changing shed. It's your average backyard rink shed, like one you would find at Home Depot, with an assortment of Bobby Orr autographs, Cam Neely sweaters, and other hockey memorabilia. I felt like I was in the Hockey Hall of Fame -- especially since Neely is inducted next November.

It is Year Four of my backyard rink, "Butch Garden." If Leary's backyard rink is indeed a 2005 Mercedes Benz SLR McLaren, mine is a 2002 Nissan Maxima with 101,000 miles on it. Performs fine, a little rough around the edges, but gets me to where I want to go. My rink is 60-by-40, half the size of Leary's. I have the room to make it wider, but not really longer because I have basketball hoops cemented in the ground at the rink's end zones. Makes for fun games of basketball on ice. But looking back, I have the room for about a 90-by-50-foot sheet of ice and if I had to do it all over again I would have nixed the hoops. Ice surface, potato chips and movie theatre popcorn are the same deal. The more the better. If you are thinking about a backyard rink, make it as big as possible. Do not let your spouse put a cap or cost certainty on your dream.

This year has been an up and down year for my backyard rink. It's mid February and we've had about 18 skates, but it's been a streaky year. I keep track of every skate in a backyard rink skating journal, no matter how long the skate, and this year a record was set with eight straight days of skating. Although the eighth day was one of those Lou-Gehrig-leading-off-the-game-and-then-sitting-the-rest-of-the-game streak extenders -- but what a perfect scenario it was. First, about 2 1/2 feet of snow fell in a three-day span in late January. After arduous shoveling, a wonderful 4-foot-high snow bank bordered our 60-by-40 ice cube. It allowed for a Norman Rockwell winter setting and snow boards, which allowed for checking. The temperature ratio could not have been more ideal. Days in the low 30s with no wind, blazing sunsets, and nights in the low teens to firm up any soft spots the day's sun may have created. There may never be a better stretch of outdoor skating at the Butch Garden than late January/early February 2005.

I was invited to Leary's backyard through a group of guys who play hockey with Hall of Famer Pat LaFontaine on Long Island, specifically by Jim Johnson who works with LaFontaine on his Companions in Courage Foundation. These are mostly a group of guys who have just picked up the game. Barely out of double runners. Barry Melrose would feel right at home skating with this squad. What some of them lack in skating ability they make up for in heart and desire. It really is something to watch. LaFontaine's team is called the Low Tides, because, in their words, they stink. They may stink, but they never give up and play with the heart of Martin Gelinas. A couple of weekend's prior, Leary and his boys, The Rippers, headed down to Long Island to play on LaFontaine's backyard rink and the rematch was to be at Denis Leary's compound.

As I winded down the back roads of rural Connecticut, I approached what I thought was my driveway, although I wasn't certain. Until I saw the hockey stick by the mailbox. I took that as my signal.

I drove up the unpaved driveway to a sign. House to the right, rink to the left. I drove by the house and by a small barn with horses bouncing along the uneven frozen dirt. Where was the rink? Then, down in a valley, to my right, through the naked trees, was the rink. Flat and lined and perfect. I made my way down the hill and parked. The first one there. When I woke up that morning I thought we might be in trouble. We had already moved the skate back to 8:30 to try to beat the warm temperatures and beating sun. To make matters worse my windshield was frosted over when I got in my car to leave for Leary's. This meant there was water in the air and that is the enemy of ice. High humidity and the high temperatures put Leary's rink on the shelf. Soft ice postponed this idyllic skating scenario. Time for an audible. So, Leary put out his cigarette, jumped in his SUV, and we headed to a local prep school where Leary skates when the weather drives he and his boys inside.

We played for about two hours, non-stop. Best-of-five games, four-on-four hockey with the nets placed on the blue lines for backyard-rink dimensions. Leary plays defense for The Rippers, shoots right-handed, moves well, and takes the game very seriously. He is not a comedian on the ice. He plays to win. LaFontaine is, in a word, breathtaking. The way he moves and stickhandles is simply stupid. Talent on loan from God. LaFontaine scored 468 goals in just 865 NHL games, and from what I saw, even at half speed and against a bunch of plumbers, there can not be a more talented hockey player ever created. If he had Mario Lemieux's size he would have put up the same numbers as No. 66. LaFontaine is six inches shorter and 40 pounds lighter and was still able to score 468 goals. I'll never skate with a greater talent.

The series went to a fifth game with Leary's Ripper's winning 5-4. Leary's son scored the game winner. It wasn't the backyard rink, but it was still a memorable day. To play with a talent like LaFontaine is a memory for a lifetime. To spend some time with Denis Leary and come away a bigger fan after meeting him than beforehand is always refreshing. But to witness Jim Johnson and his Long Island buddies mucking and grinding and loving the game is what I'll remember most.

In this season, where it's hard to find the NHL hockey love, it's good to remind oneself that hockey is not inside of New York and Toronto conference rooms and empty expensive suits. It's in the grip of a hockey stick from Sully, a goaltender nicknamed Coffee Shop (because that's where they found him), Leary's Neely glare, LaFontaine's heavenly game and a group of people coming together to skate, swear, and score.

The game is alive and well. At BU and Minnesota, the AHL, Junior B in Trail, British Columbia, in-house programs in Columbus, Ohio, and backyard rinks all around North America. It would have been a better day on Denis Leary's backyard rink, breathing the crisp winter air in the midday sun. But driving home on a picture perfect February afternoon, it was still a good reminder that the game is adored and is still alive and well. It was also a reminder that the heart and soul of hockey decidedly does not reside in the National Hockey League. It resides in the heart and soul of the fan. And there it shall live forever.

The NHL Players are greedy and stupid ... Pretty bad combination ... What they are doing is called "raising with a pair of deuces" ... They have no cards and are bluffing ...

The Players' Union (NHLPA):

1) Is only insuring that 3 to 6 teams will be contracted -- this will mean 60 to 120 lost NHL Player jobs.

2) Is ignoring that even an average annual salary of $1.3M is not like "buying a swamp with curtains"

3) Does not comprehend that Arena Football and Draw Poker is found more fun to watch on TV by most American fans. Think about it -- most fans would rather watch other people play cards. How ridiculous and insulting.

4) Is so self-absorbed that they never mention their "paying customers," the fans. It's always about them.

5) Is unable to understand and accept the fact that the universally agreed "best-run" major sport (NFL) has a salary cap and is unbelievably successful.

6) Is unable to see the "hypocrisy" of their members taking jobs from players in Europe and the UHL. Next year, the NHL players will call them "scabs."

7) Is not able to muster the courage from their members to stop Bob Goodenow (a Donald Fehr wannabe).

8) Ignores the fact that a salary cap really only affects the top 20 or 30 players who would then make $8M instead of $10M per season. Why are the other 670 players losing a year's pay to help the top greed mongers?

9) Lets its members call the Commissioner insulting names.

10) Can't seem to understand Negotiating 101 whereby you give in on a salary cap and get all the other things you want as a part of the new deal.

11) Killing the goose that laid the golden egg.

I have been a Red Wings fan for over 45 years and a season-ticket holder for 10 years. But NO MORE. I have cancelled my tickets.

And will NOT follow the Wings or the NHL any longer!

Good Luck to the greedy NHL Players!

Ken Kuznicki
Oxford, Mich.

P.S. Wings tickets (regular season and playoffs) run for about $13,000 per season. Peanuts to players, but significant money to real people. We have found other ways to use this money in our family.

E-mails like that one make me shiver.

That was a great piece I just it read ESPN.com on 2/5. I ALSO CARE A GREAT DEAL. I cried for 30 minutes last night. I haven't done that since we traded Bourque. It's never gonna be the same, the bond between fans and players is broken and will never be fixed. Bettman and Goodenow DO NOT care about this game. From expansion to this lockout, Bettman has ruined our game. Most of your colleague's think this is funny and say nobody cares all the time on SportsCenter. It's not funny. It's serious to me and people of my "ilk" who love this game and live for the game. It's more than a game; it's a way of life. A lot of guys, like Cameron Neely, said it would be a joke to even play this season. But it's not about this season, it's about next year and starting it on time.
We are in serious trouble.

Angry B's fan,
Matt Foote

I still think it would be better to play this season and get the season going and have someone raise the Cup. Plus, the longer this goes the more there is to make up. Trying to start a season in the middle of an NFL football season is always tough, but this is a long-term rehabilitation process, so maybe it doesn't matter when we get going. The sooner the better.

I gave up on the season and the NHL in January. As much as I loved the NHL, I love the game more. The NHL and NHLPA didn't see fit to provide me with their product, so I must look elsewhere for my hockey alternative. And I will not forget! If and when the NHL returns, I will not be there! I will never go to another NHL game, I'll never watch another NHL game on TV or listen to an NHL game on the radio, and I'll never buy another NHL team's merchandise. The only chance North American major league hockey has to regain my money and me is for the NHL to dissolve itself of its current incarnation and start over. Thanks for your ear (or actually eyes)!

Steve Cornelius

Do the players and owners understand this sentiment exists? And there is no longer any reason to blame Gary Bettman and Bob Goodenow. The two sides could have fired them and cut a deal themselves. I had an agent for a while, but now I'm the only ESPN anchor without one. The lines of communication became too numerous and diluted. Verbs were left out which changed messages and intent. Negotiations took too long. I did my last contract myself with one conversation and an e-mail. I'm sure Mike Ilitch, Mario Lemieux, Jeremy Jacobs and Lou Lamoriello could get in a room with Steve Yzerman, Trevor Linden, Brendan Shanahan and Bob Boughner, deal done in about eight hours, call in the lawyers to hammer out the language details in another eight hours and presto! Hockey season.

My assistant coach and I were standing at the blue line while our bantam players were running drills. My son went to the net hard and got knocked down. He picked himself up and skated over to me. As he approached he took off his glove and reached under his mask. He then stuck out his hand and placed something in my palm. As I looked down, my assistant coach asked, "Is that a tooth?" I nodded that it was, as my son turned to get back in line for the drills without saying a word. The assistant then said with amazement, "Now that's a hockey player. How cool is that!" Here's a kid missing a tooth and playing for free without missing a shift and we can't get millionaires and billionaires to agree. How sad is that?

De Pere, Wis.

Hi John,
With the multitude of articles that are being written regarding the lockout and the "discussions" the two sides are having and the players that have jumped over to Europe to play, please tell me why there hasn't been an article written on this subject: There have been two lockouts under Gary Bettman's watch. Does anyone think maybe he isn't the right guy for the job?

Pete Rose gets banned for life from baseball and the "Best Interests of the Game" is the line you hear constantly in baseball. Maybe in the "Best Interests of Hockey," the league should look into a new commissioner.

John Adams

It will be amazing if Goodenow and Bettman survive this mess. How can they re-sell the game if fans keep seeing their faces? The memory will be too painful for a lot of fans. It will be time for new leadership and new faces.

I woke up in the hospital last weekend after emergency surgery on my spine. I don't really know what the next step is or what happens next but there is a good chance I will not walk again or be able to skate. It scares me, but all in all, I'm lucky and can deal with it. Everyone is taking good care of me, and I'm trying to deal with everything. I woke up in the ICU and one of the first things I saw was a graphic about the lockout and that no one really cared if the season got canceled. It made me cry (I tell myself it was the drugs, but I know better). I care. I miss the game, especially right now, and I know I'm not the only one out there. I always figured they had to work something out and we'd have a stretch run and the playoffs, but I don't have much more faith.

I don't know if there is anything to do about it, but this is one fan's point of view. I miss the NHL. It is important to me and I wish they were playing again.

By way of a small town in Ohio

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