Players need time to shake out the kinks

First Period -- The Players Are The Thing

The owners are the producers, providing the capital to invest, sustain and grow the game.

Fans are the investors and directors, providing the passionate fuel to lift the game to emotional heights and the cash flow to line the pockets for a lucky few.

Most media are the PR engine, providing information, perspective and access to augment the joy and pain of being a fan. The media also provide free advertising for NHL teams.

Still, none of this works without the player. They are the fulcrum. The actors. The leading men that make or break the show. Their commitment is what defines the game. In almost every hockey issue, you start with the actor.

Much is being made of the "new" NHL and what it has wrought. There is speed and there is scoring. There is exhilarating stick-handling and gorgeous passing that those of us who were two-line pass advocates were sure we would see. There are come-from-behind wins and punctuating shootouts that are now leading SportsCenter.

Last Thursday, SportsCenter began with TSN's Gord Miller and Pierre McGuire's perfect call of Sidney Crosby's shootout winner against the Montreal Canadiens. That never would have happened without the shootout rule. And while it's a small byproduct, it is a byproduct. Millions of people in the United States saw that goal with the announcers' call because of the shootout rule. They saw the beauty, skill and exhilaration of hockey before they saw anything else. Terrell Owens included.

But, back to the game. There are also rampant examples of games without hitting, with an All-Star Game feel. Why is this happening?

1. The Lockout

The players took an economic and egotistical beating. They sacrificed a year's salary and then gave 24 percent more of their salaries back.

Fans largely turned against them and sided with the millionaire (and, in some cases, billionaire) owners. As I've written before, nothing baffles me more in sports than this, whether it's the NCAA and the issue of paying student-athletes, or professional sports. (Revenues go up and tuition goes up?)

Why do most fans turn against the athletes and side with the big-money entities? I believe players are still a bit shell-shocked and have yet to find their groove. Add that to the escrow issue and players having more taken out of their paychecks, and you have all the elements of a brooding workforce. I'm not saying this is a palpable and bubbling issue, but I do believe it affects the players' subconscious. These players largely stood side by side for over a year, and now we expect them to beat each other's brains out? That's going to take some time.

2. Roster Turnover

A lot of rosters changed drastically. Two classes of rookies entered the league this season, some of them young Europeans with language barriers. These teams don't know each other. They've only seen each other for two months. These things take time. The more road trips, the more togetherness and solidarity there will be. And the more emotion and contact there will be on the ice.

3. Patience

The rule book has drastically changed. As golf went from persimmon to titanium, so hockey has drastically changed the elements of the game. Once golfers figured out how to utilize the new golf clubs and balls, they began to pulverize shots. Tiger Woods' stubbornness, which makes him the champion he is, actually delayed his conformity to the new game. This past season, we saw Tiger finally utilize the new technology to its fullest and he again dominated. NHL players are playing with new equipment and they are slowly adapting to the new game.

I have seen many instances where players could have delivered bone-crushing hits this season. Whether it's been lack of stamina, lingering solidarity, lack of focus, lack of purpose or lack of understanding of what they can and cannot do, the hit didn't happen.

As the snow falls and about 100 players feel the magic of the Olympics and players gain experience in the new game and the Stanley Cup begins to come into focus, I think we will see things amp up. In fact, the new speed will result in even more high-quality hits as opposed to redundant, superfluous hitting that was more interference than a skillful, well-timed, exciting hit. After all, almost all of the new rules have nothing to do with taking out contact. They've taken out what the player does from behind the player. The tugging, the hooking, the interfering.

The players are getting it. They are trying.

It's after midnight early Monday morning as I type this, and I'm watching the Wings and Canucks play. There is plenty of contact, long passing and great skating. Todd Bertuzzi has a hat trick and both Manny Legace and Dan Cloutier have made acrobatic saves as a result of the top-notch puck movement.

Yes, there have been physical growing pains during this revolution. But, in any revolution, you have to believe in what you are doing and then see it through. This revolution has its roots in democracy after Brendan Shanahan brought all the tentacles of the NHL universe together. If everyone remembers that, has patience and the stewards apply thoughtful alterations, the game will bloom like it never has before and people will find it hard to ignore.

Something that they've never seen before.

Second Period -- Boo-T-Call

The 5-on-3 is alive and well and has singlehandedly rejuvenated the career of Jaromir Jagr. Personally, I find 5-on-3s to be repulsive. It's hockey, the easy way out. I don't like them at all. And the biggest reason I despise 5-on-3s is hearing the home crowd's impatience at the process.

I was watching the Capitals and Maple Leafs on Nov. 8, and the Leafs had the two-man advantage. Now, one would think that Toronto of all places would understand the process. With 21st-century hockey equipment, players are well-protected; add to that their courage and the sagging triangle in a 5-on-3, plus the goalie, and that leaves virtually no net. It takes precise timing and patience to score on a 5-on-3.

Why are you booing? What do you want Jeff O'Neill to do? Bore a hole through the shin guards of Brian Sutherby until his legs catch on fire? ("It's just a flesh wound!") These guys know what they are doing! Please, sit back and relax during a 5-on-3. Your anxiety is only exasperating the process.

If I'm the Leafs' management, I would provide free chicken wings during all 5-on-3s. Bring ol' Wendell Clark and Borje Salming out in chef hats and have 'em pass out free grub. Then, as the Leafs are working the puck around, the fans will be too busy devouring steroid-injected chicken slabs, licking their fingers and drinking their Blue. And we can watch the 5-on-3 in peace.

Now, about those who boo when a pitcher throws over to first...

Third Period -- What's In a Name?

When I attended Heidelberg College in Tiffin, Ohio, my buddies and I would skip class, hang out in the cafeteria, drink 17 quarts of Squirt and sometimes play the following game:

Someone said a name, like Benjamin Orr, the late bass player of The Cars. The next person, within two seconds, had to either use the first name or the last name in a new name. He or she could say Benjamin Franklin or Bobby Orr. Then, it went to the next person and the next person and so on. If someone couldn't come up with a recognizable name (agreed upon by the group) in two seconds, or repeated a name, they were out.

Neva The Lunch Lady would stare at us and shake her head as students came in and gave her their cafeteria numbers. These were the kinds of things we came up with and did before cell phones and the Internet. (FYI: This game is even more entertaining after a six-pack of Milwaukee's Best and a block of cheese.)

I've always wanted to do this in this here space, so if you will indulge me, I'd like to get it out of my system. In honor of Cam Neely and his absolutely beautiful Hall of Fame induction speech, I will start and finish the game with No. 8, using primarily hockey players, musicians, any Buddy Ebsen character and possibly a Maxim model, if I am stumped. Here we go:

Cam Neely, Cam Stewart, Stewart Copeland, Paul Stewart, Paul Stanton, Paul Devorski, Greg Devorski, Greg Malone, Greg Sheppard, Ray Sheppard, Ray Ferraro, Peter Ferraro, Peter Puck, Peter Mahovlich, Frank Mahovlich, Frank Selke, Frank Calder, Kyle Calder, Kyle Wellwood, Bill Kyle, Bill Withers, Bill Flett, Bill Clement, Bill Wirtz, Bill Cook, Matt Cooke, Matthew Barnaby (acceptable), Barnaby Jones, Keith Jones, Keith Primeau, Wayne Primeau, Wayne Gretzky, Brent Gretzky, Brent Sutter, Brian Sutter, Brian Leetch, Stephen Leach, Reggie Leach, Reggie "I tell you one thing, I tell you that" Lemelin, Reggie Dunlop, Blake Dunlop, Rob Blake...

(Deep breath).

Toe Blake, Jason Blake, Jason Spezza, Jason Allison, Jamie Allison, Mike Allison, Mike Bossy, Mike Johnson, Jack Johnson, Bob Johnson, Bob Kelly, Kelly Monaco, Red Kelly, John Paul Kelly, John Lennon, John Chabot, John Bucyk, John Coltrane, John Cordic, Dan Cordic, Steely Dan, Dan Maloney, Dave Maloney, Don Maloney, Don Beaupre, Don Saleski, Don Lever, Don Edwards, Gary Edwards, Gary Unger, Felix Unger, Felix Potvin, Dennis Potvin, Dennis Savard, Marc Savard, Andre Savard, Andre the Giant, Andre Roy, Patrick Roy, Travis Roy, Travis Green, Ted Green, Rick Green, Rick Nash, Rick MacLeish, Rick Smith, The Smiths, Jason Smith, Steve Smith, Steve Shutt, Steve Rucchin, Steve Montador, Steve Perry, Corey Perry, Corey Hart, Gerry Hart, Gerry Cheevers, Gerry Meehan, Don Meehan, Don Luce...

(Face turning blue).

Don Henley, Don Granato, Cammi Granato, Tony Granato, Tony Twister, Tony Tanti, Tony Esposito, Phil Esposito, Phil Bourque, Ray Bourque, Ray Charles, Ray Emery, Rob Ray, Rob McClanahan, Rob Niedermayer, Scott Niedermayer, Scott Young, Warren Young, Wendell Young, Wendell Clark, Chris Clark, Chris Drury, Ted Drury, Ted Lindsay, Bill Lindsay, Billy Reay, Ray Whitney, Ray McKay, Randy McKay, Randy Burridge, Randy Murray, Bob Murray, Bob Neely, Cam Neely.

I'm out.

The Mother of All Mailbags

Dear John,

I was looking at the current scoring leaders in the NHL, and except for Simon Gagne, nine of the top 10 scorers played professional hockey somewhere in 2004-05. Most of the top 20 also played professionally in the offseason. Now, this may reflect the fact that a great many highly skilled NHLers found places to play in the offseason and thus represent a larger percentage of the league than players who did not play. However, some typically big scorers who have started slowly are Iginla, Sakic, Guerin and Lemieux (and others). Obviously, the time off rendered some players -- ahem -- unfit to play (Tkachuk) and prone to injury (groin especially), but it can't be a coincidence that guys like Staal and Spezza hit the ground running, while Sakic and Iginla have struggled (by their standards). Do you think we will see the water level?

Alexander H. Loyd
Boulder, Colo.

You make a great point, Alex, and there is likely some validity to your theory. Muscles are like fast cars; they are made to run. If we stop using our muscles, they will shrink and become less flexible and resilient. Jagr played last winter, as well. Daniel Alfredsson leads the league in scoring as I type this. He played 15 regular-season games and 14 playoff games in Sweden last winter and had 20 goals in the 26 games. But as we mentioned before, it is also a young man's game again because it is a fast game. On average, young people have higher testosterone levels and a greater lung capacity. After age 20, lung capacity decreases. On average, both men and women lose 20-25 milliliters of lung capacity for each year over age 20. Of course, there is a place for experience, especially come playoff time. However, if the game stays fast, the younger, talented players will be the best and most productive. This shouldn't be surprising. When Bobby Orr scored his famous leap through the air goal on May 10, 1970, Bono's 10th birthday, Orr was 22 years old. When Wayne Gretzky scored his 92nd goal of the 1981-82 season, he was 21 years old. That's why I believe if the current standard of allowing the puck carrier to not be hooked, pinned or held continues, Sidney Crosby will be the best player in the league in 12-24 months. Gordie Howe's two best seasons were his back-to-back years in the early '50s. In the 1951-52 season, Howe had 47 goals. The next season was his best with a career high 49 goals and 46 assists. In those two seasons, Howe was 24 and 25 years old.


In your last article you said, "No one loves golf more than me. The swing, the history, the game. I subscribe to five golf magazines." From this statement I would assume you are an avid golfer. I have a few questions. First, how often do you play, and what is your handicap? Secondly, what kind of clubs do you have, and what's in your bag? Finally, who is your favorite golfer, and why?

Spencer Wood
Laguna Niguel, Calif.

I don't belong to a country club, so I don't play a lot. I practice more now, play in about 10 charity events a summer, and play nine holes a lot with my two boys. The lowest my handicap has dropped is one. Right now, I am probably a five or six. My irons 4-PW are Mizuno MP 33, inch-and-a-half long and four degrees upright. My wedges are Cleveland Classic Gun Metals. One is 51 degree, and I bent my 56 degree to 58 and my 60 degree to 62. I carry a Callaway Steelhead 3 7 wood, a Taylor Made V-Steel 4-wood and a Titleist 983K Driver. My putter is a Ping Crazee and I use Titleist Pro-V1's. I also generally play only wearing a top hat, Mr. T medallion and black socks.


Is there any way to get CBC here in America? Week in and week out I hear how good CBC is from you and other sites and I feel like I'm being ripped off.

Santa Clara

The greatest benefit of the NHL Center Ice package is: 1) Seeing your favorite team play if you live in Idaho; 2) Hockey Night in Canada; 3) TSN's weekday coverage; and 4) Hearing Terry Crisp butcher clich├ęs a la Melrose. "You can lead a horse to water, but you can't teach him new tricks."


Just out of curiosity, how did you obtain an otter as a pet? Did you just walk into the pet store? I'm a little bit confused here.

Matt Savopolous

In September 2001, following the advice of the World Bank, the Bolivian government declared that all water was to become corporate property. When that happened, Ken became an unrestricted otter free agent. I signed him to a five-year deal that expires next September. Negotiations are under way for an extension.


Cats meow, dogs bark, but what about otters? Do they chirp, or are they into that whole Zen-silence thing? Help me out! Big ups to Ken!

Kevin Pollman

Otters hum.


Can I get your opinion on the Red Wings? I think they are the most overrated team in hockey right now. They are simply the beneficiaries of a lopsided, easy early schedule. You heard it here first. They will make the playoffs because they are in such a weak division, but they will likely be out in the first round. Ottawa is clearly the best team in the NHL right now.

Jeff Hall

I saw the Red Wings play in person in Columbus and I came away very impressed. They looked like the Minnesota Wild from the spring of 2003. Skating, surrounding the puck carrier and difficult to tell one line from the next. Also, their two best players, Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk, played hard every shift. This backbone of character will carry them a long way. I agree they are not as lethal as Ottawa, but they are in the ballpark. Ottawa is the best, but I still have goaltender concerns. The Senators may be so good that my girlfriend Kelly Monaco could play net, but is Hasek still Hasek come May? What if his groin explodes? Will Ray Emory play well in a Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals against Montreal?


My question regards the New Jersey Devils' decline. Have we seen the end of the Devils' Eastern Conference and league dominance? Is it time to rebuild? Are the Devils suited for the new NHL structure?

Jorge Briones
Jersey City, N.J.

I wrote this in early August about the Devils: "They are starting to resemble the Columbus Blue Jackets, except they have Martin Brodeur. Small up the middle and not a lot of goal-scoring punch on the wings. Losing Scott Niedermayer is devastating. He controlled games with his skating. After such an amazing run, the Devils have issues. Of course, they are in good hands. If I bought an NHL team tomorrow, Lou Lamoriello would be my GM -- hands-down. I bet right now he's thinking, 'Do I trade Marty and start over again?' And he's also thinking, 'I think if everything falls right, we can win the East.' But, the first thought will win out. Not that he will trade Brodeur, but he needs to think about trading him -- and John Madden and Brian Rafalski. At the first sign of a struggle this season, I would trade all three guys and start again. Get draft picks, get prospects, get younger, get Wade Redden, get Phil Kessel and get ready for the new arena. The salary cap requires one to think in such cold, unthinkable terms."

The Devils will probably never trade Brodeur. He is so popular and probably beats Scott Stevens by a hair as all-time Mr. Devil. But I would at least explore moving Madden and Rafalski. They are great complement players who make a lot of money a couple of seasons away from being in their mid-30s. They are exactly what the Penguins need. A gritty, experienced third-liner and a puck-moving, power-play defenseman. The Penguins have assets to trade the Devils. The Penguins need help and the Devils need youth and cap space. I picked the Devils to make the playoffs and still think they will sneak in, but their margin for error is small.

Hey John,

Is there a team that is more of a disappointment than the Thrashers this year? Do you think the Thrashers can turn it around this season, and if they don't, do you think GM Don Waddell is gone?

Dothan, Alabama

I wrote this before the season concerning Ottawa: "Dany Heatley could win the scoring title and could have huge numbers playing with the talent on this team, especially on the power play."

It was clear to me that Heatley was a much more dynamic player than Marian Hossa. Hossa is a star, Heatley is a superstar. So Heatley's trade request immediately weakened Atlanta. Still, Hossa is not the problem. I've said it before and I'll say it again: When your goalies are wearing unpainted, white goalie masks, run for the exits! This is like Oprah with no makeup. Injuries have ruined any chance for the Thrashers to get into their rhythm. They have time to get there, but they better get going.

Hey John,

If we were to freeze hockey time right now and look at his current stats and international accomplishments, would Pavel Bure make it into the Hockey Hall of Fame?

Adam King
Royal Oak, Mich.

I've been writing this column since the fall of 2001, and I've consistently stated that Pavel Bure was a special and exciting talent. An amazing 437 goals in 702 games. He was on a lot of bad teams, but he was an excellent playoff performer: 35 goals in 64 games.

Hey John:

Not that we were a ton of viewers, but down here in South America we have two ESPN channels, and obviously we don't have one single game of hockey to see this season. So you have to add South America to Australia and the South Pacific. I guess the problem is if you are south of Ecuador.

Sorry for my English,
Gustavo Meich
Buenos Aires, Argentina

P.S. At least in three weeks I get to see Pearl Jam live for the first time, since they're coming to the continent for the first time.


Even though it's very early in the new era of the NHL, what do you think the chances are that Winnipeg will once again have a team? The attendance in Minnesota is impressive since the Wild have been there (every game sold out) and I know Winnipeggers constantly make the trek down there to catch games.

Sean Mulvey,
Winnipeg, Manitoba

Why wouldn't nearly every U.S.-based team consider Canada? Hockey has never been more popular there. The television ratings are through the roof. The salary cap is here. Am I missing something here? Or is one team per five million people about right for Canada?


Two weeks ago, our son played a Pee Wee hockey game at Piney Orchard (training facility for the Washington Capitals) in Odenton, Md. Prior to departing for the game, we received an e-mail stating that the Caps would be practicing prior to the youth game. We loaded up, arriving in time to watch 45 minutes of heaven (as our son put it).

As practice was winding down and the players were gathering up pucks, our son began to prepare for his game. As he and his teammates were walking to the dressing room, a player was still on the ice and our son motioned for a puck. As the player attempted to "flip" the puck over the netting, he was being called off the ice. He abandoned the puck, and instead handed our son his stick prior to skating off. Our son's enthusiasm (as well as mine) was packed after he signed the stick. Thank you Alexander Ovechkin for your generosity, sportsmanship and stewardship.

John, hats off to the NHL, Washington Capitals and Alexander Ovechkin.

Northern Virginia

I can't imagine a more explosive NHL skater than Ovechkin. He is even a better skater than Ilya Kovalchuk. He doesn't have the same release as the King but is obviously the son of athletes in terms of genetics, training and upbringing. The Capitals rookie's mother won two Olympic gold medals as a member of the Soviet Union's basketball team. (That's why he wears No. 8. So did Mom.) And his father was an elite soccer player. Ovechkin is in wayyy better condition than Kovalchuk. Kovalchuk can get away with that now at a young age (22), but he could do special things if he became the best physical specimen he could be. I still think Kovalchuk will win the Maurice Richard Trophy this year and score about 70 goals. I really believe someone is going to have a six- or seven-goal game this season and Kovalchuk has the best shot. It's amazing how much these two Russian superstars are alike.


D---, dude! I sincerely didn't mean to put you out, but the songs you gave players last week were all Eastern Conference players. There's still another conference to go!

1. Jarome Iginla
2. Pavel Datsyuk
3. Steve Sullivan
4. Ed Jovanovski
5. Tomas Vokoun

It [stinks] with no NHL2night because I can't give you any more movie-quotes-for-goal-calls.


Jarome Iginla -- "Corduroy" by Pearl Jam
Pavel Datsyuk -- "Spider Fingers" by Bruce Hornsby
Steve Sullivan -- "It Can't Be Nashville Every Night" by The Tragically Hip
Ed Jovanovski -- "Down With The Sickness" by Disturbed
Tomas Vokoun -- "Save Me" by Remy Zero

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