Ladies and gentlemen, start your violins.
I'm sitting in my kitchen. An airplane roars in the sky high above my roof. And I'm not on it.
The Stanley Cup finals are under way. In the old days, the days when ESPN televised professional hockey, part of my job was to attend the final series. (My bosses won't let me say "Stanley Cup final" even though it is, in fact, a final. They want me to say "finals" even though there is only one … final. So, excuse my way of getting around it. But I won't say Stanley Cup finals. It makes me feel, dirty. Carry on.)
From 2001-04, I attended every Stanley Cup series. Looking back, I can't believe I attended only four. Looking back, it feels like 20. Maybe because of the non-stop fun and adventures I had along the way.
It was what I thought my job would be when I used to turn the sound down on the TV and do my own broadcast of the Pittsburgh Penguins and St. Louis Blues games back in 1978, when I used to dream of my dream job. Dreaming of going to games in person, interviewing these players I watched on TV, feeling the excitement of the arena, and sometimes being part of history. To think, stupid me interviewed Maurice Richard back in 1999, is overwhelming. My job is now stale without these experiences. An anchorman without the Channel 4 News Team and without San Diahhhhgo.
(Barry Melrose and Steve Levy get to continue their streak of going to see the Stanley Cup raised in the air "like you just don't care." Meanwhile, I'll be in the SportsCenter studio, throwing it live to Dwyane Wade or Barbaro at the podium. "Barbaro, why the long face?")
Covering the Stanley Cup winner was the perfect way annually to end the calendar year of this column, which is, by far, the most satisfying part of my job as a Disney cast member. My dot.com fiscal year began with the lyrical Conference previews in late September and ended with the Cup in the air. So, for therapy, I'm going to look back at my personal frozen four.
I'll take some excerpts at Stanley Cup observations as they appeared at the time and then look back at what they mean now. At first, I was going to rank them, but realized that would be silly. They were all golden moments. So, here they are.
2001 -- New Jersey vs. Colorado
Then: I didn't have a hockey column in June 2001. This drivel faucet didn't start pouring until the following fall. What I remember from the series? Mostly, the final game, Ray Bourque raising his first Cup in his final game. Shjon Podein showing up at the Avs' victory party, held at a great restaurant called The Chop House, in full uniform. Meeting Chris Drury in the bathroom. (I can't make that last sentence any less uncomfortable sounding. People go to the bathroom. Restaurants have bathrooms. No big deal. Let's move on.)
But what I remember most is posing for a picture of me holding the Cup with former Masters champion Craig Stadler; I've got one end, he's got the other. I don't know who took the picture, but I've been hoping it would somehow show up in the mail. It's where hockey, golf and beer come together as one. The picture is out there somewhere. I need it now more than ever.
2002 -- Detroit vs. Carolina
For new readers of this column, I drove to this series. I hopped in my car and drove to Detroit. And then to Carolina. And then back to Detroit. And then back home to Connecticut. For awhile, what I took from this series was saving ESPN thousands in airline tickets and not getting reimbursed for mileage. But I got over it. Driving on the roads of this great country, on roads new and familiar, brings me great joy. This is also the White Stripes series. I played their CD, "White Blood Cells," more than any other in my 45 hours of driving. When I hear songs from that CD, I think Arturs Irbe, Bret Hedican, Jeff O'Neill, Scotty Bowman, Darren McCarty and Dearborn, Mich.
Then: Even when you think you are far away from hockey, you are reminded of the passion of the game's great fans. Driving along I-90 in the middle of New York, I spotted a New York license plate that read "BRODEUR." At first, I actually thought, "Hey, its Marty Brodeur!" Three seconds later, after pressing the accelerator to the floor mat, I realized two things: 1) Martin Brodeur probably doesn't live in New York; and 2) He probably doesn't drive a Chevy Corsica. Driving toward Detroit, I knew I had reached Ohio, not from the "Welcome" sign, but from two billboards. One read "FIREWORKS NEXT EXIT," and the other "BEEF JERKY OUTLET EXIT 220."
There isn't a louder rink in the NHL than the Hurricanes' barn. This is a college town and these fans are conditioned to cheer like teenagers. Too many venues in professional sports have been overrun with corporate suits that rattle their jewelry after goals and sit on their hands for the rest of the game.
Now: The road trip is still a treasure. Driving and listening to music is the one thing that is all upside. And so is watching Steve Yzerman's eyes in person. Leading that team of Hall of Famers, not with words, but with his eyes. Edmonton doesn't have players with Yzerman talent, but they have a group with Yzerman eyes. That always makes a team dangerous.
2003 -- Anaheim vs. New Jersey
This was God's way of telling me, "You are not driving this year." For those of you who don't believe in God, you might replace the word God with James Gandolfini and re-read that first sentence. This was the frequent-flyer-mile series. And the series I met Mike Myers.
Then: As we were introduced, I leaned in and said, "Every time I talk to my 3-year-old son Jackson on the phone, the first thing he says is 'SHHMOKE AND A PANCAKE?' He has 'Goldmember' memorized." Myers replied sheepishly: "I'm sorry."
I asked him to sign the back of my press credential and he incredulously replied: "Really?!" I answered: "Cha!" He signed: "You Rock, Mike Myers."
If there is a work stoppage it will be both sides' fault. There needs to be a partnership that doesn't currently exist. It should be simple to split the revenues and lower the ticket prices. But, the players don't trust the owners and the owners are sick of losing money because of the implausibly high salary structure that they created (Yes, this is all we talked about). ... Scott Niedermayer, world class. When I lay in bed thinking about the Stanley Cup final, it all comes back to watching No. 27 skate. He was Conn Smythe material. He's easily the most underappreciated defenseman in the game. He was at a Paul Coffey level.
Now: Meeting Mike Myers, talking with Devils fans in the upper deck, waiting for Paul Kariya to exhale -- good. Seeing Meg Ryan's distorted plastic-surgery effected face up close -- sad.
2004 -- Calgary vs. Tampa Bay
The non-direct flights series. And the series Shjon Podein painted himself from head to toe. Twice.
Then: Podes has good friends on both Calgary and Tampa Bay, so he decided to pay tribute in true Podes style. Before leaving Minnesota to head to Calgary for Game 3, he painted his entire body red, put "Yelle 11" on his back and sported a red Jofa hockey helmet sans the padding. And made it through airport security. Let me clarify that: He spray-painted his entire body.
Podes couldn't find body paint so he risked poisoning himself for the good of the team by emptying four cans of Krylon on his skin. Well, Podes needed a place to stay for the night and I said, "Stay with me." So, Podes comes back to the room and collapses from his long day in my bed. The only bed in the room. Now what? Well, the beds are Montana wide. You could comfortably fit Ken Hitchcock, Barry Melrose and Mark Hunter in there without incident. So, I tuck myself in on the other side and call it a night. You could have laid four Stanley Cups between us. Really! Anyway, Podes left at 6 a.m. to catch a flight. I woke up around 8. As I pulled the curtains and let in the day's light, it looked like a homicide had occurred in my bed. Podes left a body outline of red paint on the sheets. I was sure the Calgary police would have me arrested and questioned by noon. I waited until the maid service arrived to explain the giant red blotch on the sheets, and I remained a free man.
The 2004 Stanley Cup finals always will be about St. Louis and Iginla. They are old-school athletes, playing with enthusiasm and fire on the ice, and class and care off it. They are good people. The kind of people we would like to have as friends. I was in the locker room with two other reporters, the benefit of working for a network rights holder. The next time the Stanley Cup is awarded, NBC will be the U.S. network airing the celebration, so this might have been the last time I'll ever be in that position. The room was empty. Then, in walks Lightning captain Dave Andreychuk. He places the Stanley Cup in the middle of the locker room, then leaves. Maybe he had to pee or something. So the Cup is just sitting there in the middle of the room. No one else was there. Just the Cup. It was a very surreal moment. The Cup runneth over in an emptyeth roometh.
Now: Podes also painted himself blue when he came to Tampa Bay. Feeling the heat on my face from that big Flame Calgary sends into the air inside their rink. And this other sentence that I wrote back in 2004:
"This would be my exclamation point to another year covering hockey for ESPN and ESPN.com. It is an experience and an honor I never take for granted and still approach with enthusiasm equal to what I had as a kid when I listened to hockey games on the radio with my dad and when I bought my first Mylec street hockey goalie stick in 1975.
I never did take it granted.
"And that's why the memories are so vivid and vast. And what makes it so hard to be home and not at the Stanley Cup championship round. (Cue the Enya music) Not to be able live and share all the wild and crazy Stanley Cup stories with you. (I'll tell the really good ones over a beer some day) Not to hang around Ray Ferraro for two weeks who has become one of my best and closest friends. But, perhaps it was meant to be. All four years were fast, intense, wild and crazy times."
And in the final analysis, a great lesson was learned: When you find yourself sleeping with a spray painted man, perhaps it's time to move on.
The Mother of All Mailbags
As he often is, Don Cherry was right. Months ago, he predicted the new delay of game penalty for shooting the puck into the stands would come into play in a crucial situation, and it did against Buffalo. The Sabres played too well to have their season end that way and it is no way to decide a Game 7. The league did a good job as a whole in adjusting the rules to open up the game, but this rule is unnecessary and counterproductive. The suits should listen to Grapes and end the travesty.
I disagree. The rule is designed to keep NHL referees from being figure skating judges and trying to gauge intent. Also, the glass is very high. Any hockey player from Squirts to Brian Campbell can keep the puck from going over the glass. Sweep it along the boards, wrist it mid-board, or more importantly in terms of the rule's intent, take the puck up the middle. Make a nice individual move or a sweet pass. The rule makes the game harder and the game should be hard. The rule is simple and I think the NHL should keep it.
I am a 20-year-old Lance Corporal in the Marine Reserves and I have been a devout Islander fan for the entire Reign of Error. Now that Milbury is finally on the way out after a decade of disastrous trades that crippled the once proud Islanders, who do you think is the best man for the GM chair to bring balance to the force and restore peace throughout the galaxy? Also, since the Isles let go of a now extremely successful Peter Laviolette, is a Pat Quinn appearance in N.Y. possible? And, which players can the Islanders bring in, bring up and ship out to make the team better?
Freedom on the Island
Pat Quinn has taken the Flyers, Canucks, and almost the Maple Leafs, to the finals. He has a presence and a respect that probably instantly would make the Islanders better in the short term. Peter Laviolette is in a perfect situation. His contract with Carolina expires June 30. The Islanders and Bruins could offer him a dual role as coach with a front-office title, which would likely get his salary up to the 1.5 million area. If he has genuine interest from other teams, it will cost Carolina five years at $1-1.5 million a year. I wouldn't take any job with the Islanders unless there is written language that stipulates Mike Milbury has no say in hockey matters unless asked.
I must have sent 10-plus e-mails now to you and never once have you responded.
I wrote that identical sentence in an e-mail to Shakira last week. I know how you feel, Ethan.
You said: "The season prior, he had one power-play goal. One! In the same number of games (78). For some reason, Brind'Amour stopped shooting when he first became a Hurricane."
Paul Maurice rarely played Rod Brind'Amour on the power-play units. When he did, I don't remember Rod out there doing anything but sitting in front of the net looking for a deflection. I always appreciated his defensive skills, but never knew he could score.
We all loved Maurice as a person, but Brind'Amour's resurgence this year is the most damning indictment of Maurice's coaching abilities of any metric you would use. I hope he learned a lot from his year off and his stint with the Marlies for the Leafs' sake. (Not that it hurt my feelings that they missed the playoffs.)
Look, I'm all about clogging the shooting lanes, but the Oilers are just making this ridiculous. Wasn't that Ryan Smyth I saw making a snow angel to cover a puck in front of Roli one night last week during the Ducks series? That should be a delay of game. If shot blocking becomes that important to winning and keeps trending upwards, don't you think it will become the new neutral-zone trap, so to speak?
The evolution of hockey equipment has greatly enhanced defensive-minded hockey. Goaltenders no longer have anything to fear and blocking shots is safer with the improved body armor on the players. If there continues to be an issue with a lack of shots on goal and/or lack of entertaining and quality shots on goal, the NHL will have to begin to look closely at how this can be averted in the future. It might be 20 years from now, but the game is only going to get more clogged by all the high level, fast athletes entering the league. Bigger nets? 4 on 4? The game is going to get more defensive next year, I predict. There is nothing wrong with that on the surface. Defense can be an entertaining skill, but there has to be a balance and the players have to be having fun.
With the Blues having three draft choices in the first round, do you think we can be a playoff team again next year or are we a few years away? Who do you think we will draft with the first pick? Around here, I've heard Eric Staal's little brother or a big defenseman, I forget his name though. I'm a former player myself and won two national championships with the Junior Blues. Just wish the NHL Blues could win like us.
Pete Wildhaber, No. 4
Once John Davidson is likely named President of the Blues following the completion of the Stanley Cup finals, I believe he will be allowed to add payroll and make the Blues competitive and give fans a reason to buy season tickets beyond Reinhard Divis. I also believe they will draft Jordan Staal, a big centerman with big game and a cool name. Also, when you have a Staal on your team, it increases the chances of getting another one. Eric will be unrestricted in a few years. Maybe he'll want to play with one of his brothers. Jamie Langenbrunner and Pavel Kubina might be a couple of good signs, to start, for the Blues.
I'll ask the question that all of us Atlanta hockey fans are dying to have answered. With Brad Richards signing a big contract, will the Thrashers be able to pay Marc Savard enough to keep him in Atlanta? If not, what can the Thrashers do to replace him as it does not seem as if they have any quality centers in their system?
Marc Savard is the best center available in free agency. He turns 29 in July and is coming off a 97-point season. He will get big offers. Five years, $25-30 million. I think they can keep him at that figure if Atlanta's owners allow the Thrashers to get close to the cap and they can move some salary. But, buyer beware. Savard has had ONE high-level year. He's never played in an NHL playoff game. If you play on a line and/or a power play with Ilya Kovalchuk, you will have good numbers. Savard is a very good player at a good age to make an aggressive offer, but this past season may have been a career year.
I miss NHL 2Night and am hoping it comes back for next season. The Sharks have a young corps of defensemen that is led by Scott Hannan. Do you think the Sharks should go after a big-name defenseman like Zdeno Chara or Wade Redden?
GM Doug Wilson knew he needed a little blue-line help last offseason. Then, when he had to deal Brad Stuart to get Joe Thornton, he knew he had a hole back there. Chara would be a colossal signing for the Sharks. I see Chara getting similar five-year offers from multiple teams. It will come down to where he wants to play, who are the teammates, coaches, and perhaps, the GM. I think Ottawa will re-sign Wade Redden unless his heart is set on playing elsewhere. The Sens and John Muckler will sign the Canadian, first and foremost. Jay McKee would be a good sign for San Jose. Will Rob Blake want to return to California? If I'm the Sharks, I target Ed Jovanovski.
Do you think hiring Gretzky for five more years is a good move by Phoenix?
Of course, but I wouldn't read much into the five-year deal. That is for ticket sales. Get people committed to suites and club seats. Wayne will take it year to year, I am sure.
Martin St. Louis to Anaheim for Jiggy, to be announced after the Cup. Any thoughts?
Makes sense. Tampa Bay needs a goalie and a little salary relief. St. Louis signed a six-year deal at about $32 million last summer. So, has five years left. He would be a good guy to stick in amongst Anaheim's "Bigs." Jean-Sebastien Giguere is in the last year of his deal, so it allows Anaheim to get something and Tampa Bay to have salary flexibility. St. Louis turns 31 later this month, so he should have decent value the next three years. The last two years, he will likely be overpaid. Anaheim, or any team in a St. Louis deal, may look for some help paying that salary, like a million or two a year. But Anaheim has some cap room and a young team that won't require large salaries for years. And despite his size, St. Louis is a playoff beast -- 39 NHL playoff games. 20 goals and 20 assists. If I am Anaheim, I make that deal.
Do you think Sergei Fedorov has a shot at the Hall of Fame?
I think he is in.
I hope you are well. Question for the mailbag: Has there ever been analysis on the correlation between the conference champions' captain and his reaction during the trophy ceremony and his team's success in the Stanley Cup?
(i.e. If the captain ignores the conference trophy per superstition, is he more or less likely to win the Cup than one who touches it or picks it up?)
If memory serves me right, when the Red Wings won the Western Conference in 2002, Steve Yzerman carried the Campbell trophy off the ice in his arms. Didn't he? I remember thinking (unless this was a post-NyQuil-chugging-induced dream), "How cool is that?" The move obviously should have quelled any jinx. I would think it would be cool for the captain to take a lap around the ice if it's won on home ice. Just the captain. A simple lap.
I have typed three e-mails to you and you have yet to post me in your mailbag. Please for the love of God put me in there.
So my question to is: Can you please type up a list of free agents (restricted and unrestricted) so I can see which players would fit with the Avs? And finally, what do the Avs need to do to become contenders in the Western Conference?
P.S.: I think the Avs should trade Hejduk, a second- and a third-round pick to Pittsburgh for the second overall pick and Ric Jackman.
Milan Hejduk, a second and a third won't get the second overall pick. The Penguins are keeping that and will likely draft Erik Johnson. The Avs need to get younger, upgrade their defense (especially if Rob Blake leaves) and their overall skating. Ed Jovanovski would be a target. Patrik Elias would be a great sign to put with Hejduk for some Czech Republic magic. Of course, Elias makes every team better. He is a no-brainer sign. But overall, things may have to get worse for the Avs before they get better. They might be caught in the middle. I think Pierre Lacroix knew when to get out. He might have forecasted some troubled times ahead and got out. Free agents this summer include: Sakic, Shanahan, Arnott, Samsonov, Kubina, Langenbrunner, McKee, Sykora, Sillinger, Lidstrom, Redden, Chara, Blake, Roloson, Gerber, and Carney. (Small hands. Smells like cabbage!)
John Buccigross' e-mail address -- for questions, comments or cross-checks -- is email@example.com.