NHL NOTES: This season at the rink was a season on the brink
As the NHL regular season wraps up, the league doesn’t need to look far for highlights.
Pavel Bure’s goal-scoring. The St. Louis Blues’ remarkable season. A shiny new ice palace in Atlanta. The exciting finishes created by 4-on-4 overtime. The extremely competitive Western Conference playoffs soon to begin.
The trouble is, the highlights were overwhelmed by the low lights – the players who marred the season with their sticks and stubbornness, their refusal to play for vast sums of money or to use their blades as anything other than weapons.
For the NHL, a potentially shining season at the rink turned more and more each week into a season on the brink.
Alexei Yashin, last year’s MVP runner-up, flushed $3 million by refusing to play out his contract. Eric Lindros absorbed another concussion and ripped his own team’s medical staff. Roger Neilson, one of the sport’s true good guys, got cancer. Kevin Stevens and Ed Belfour were arrested. Geoff Courtnall retired because of post-concussion syndrome. And, in a preview of the season to come, Capitals GM George McPhee punched Blackhawks coach Lorne Molleken in the nose … during a preseason game, no less.
There were far more maulings on the ice than miracles on the ice, and those can be hard to sell at the box office. By season’s end, a poll by the Canadian network CTV revealed 71 of all Canadians felt their most-loved sport has become too violent and another 71 percent believe new rules are needed to curb the violence.
All in all, it was another missed opportunity for the NHL, especially with the NBA stagnating with lower TV ratings and empty seats in the post-Michael Jordan era.
What troubles many in the game: Instead of selling its stars, the NHL often turns its back as players with limited talent clutch and grab and mug, dragging down the quality of play and injuring the very stars the league should be showcasing.
Jaromir Jagr, for example, was easily the leading vote-getter for the All-Star game and was on a remarkable early scoring pace. But he wound up missing a quarter of the season after absorbing, separately, a well-placed knee to the thigh, a slam into the glass, a slash to the hand and a blow to the back of his neck.
”When I saw (commissioner) Gary Bettman, I asked him, ‘What would you do to Michael Jordan in this league?”’ Pittsburgh Penguins coach Herb Brooks said.
The most ardent hockey fans in the world agree with Brooks; 75 percent of Canadians polled by CTV say there is more unnecessary violence in the game than ever before, even if Bettman dissents.
”We believe that, on balance, this has been an excellent season,” Bettman said. ”There have been incidents we would rather not have had, but those incidents do not define the playoffs or the game.”
However, ask the casual hockey fan if Bure or Chris Pronger defined this season – or if Marty McSorley or Scott Niedermayer did.
And, if the CTV poll is accurate, fans apparently have had enough of rink violence in a year when Bryan Berard may have lost his eye, and his career; Trent McCleary nearly died on the ice of a severe throat injury; McSorley took a stick to Donald Brashear’s head and now must stand judgment in a court; and Niedermayer used the top of Peter Worrell’s head to sharpen his stick.
WHOSE GAME IS THIS?: ”Body slam your opponent to the ice, feed him a fistful of leather, or drop him with a wicked clothesline tackle. Best of all, none of these moves will land you in the penalty box.
”Hockey with no rules slowing you down or limiting your fights. Pair up goon against goon or have the big guy lay a piledriver, straight-arm or clothesline on a finesse player for a quick and painful annihilation of the opponent.”
Sounds like the NHL season, huh?
Actually, it’s a pitch for the ”NHL Rock the Rink” video game by EA that features the logos of the NHL and the NHL Players Association. That means the league and its players signed off on the video game.
And the NHL wonders why it has an image problem …
THE ENVELOPES, PLEASE …: The NHL’s annual awards won’t be presented until the Stanley Cup playoffs are over – in other words, for months. But here’s a preview of what those envelopes might reveal in June:
Hart Trophy (MVP): For months, it seemed Jagr was a lock, until he got hurt – and hurt and hurt. Bure, enjoying the best goal-scoring season by any player since Mario Lemieux retired, should get a lot of votes. But many consider the best day-to-day player in the game to be Pronger, the St. Louis defenseman who never takes a night or a shift off and whose plus-minus rating has been close to a plus-50.
Norris Trophy (best defenseman): Pronger would seem a lock, but, if voters decide to spread out the awards, Nicklas Lidstrom of Detroit could finally win after being the runner-up for two years.
Vezina Trophy (best goaltender): Patrick Roy of Colorado was on a pace to set the career record for victories, and Olaf Kolzig of Washington and Roman Turek of St. Louis have played in most of their teams’ victories. The winner is … Kolzig, for rallying the Capitals in the second half.
Calder Trophy (rookie): Scott Gomez of New Jersey will win easily, even though defenseman Brad Stuart of San Jose has been excellent. Not only has Gomez opened up New Jersey’s offense, he has helped open up the sport to the Hispanic community, which previously was nearly oblivious to hockey.
Jack Adams Award (coach): Every year, Scotty Bowman of Detroit continues to outdo himself, but Joel Quenneville will win for leading the St. Louis Blues to their first regular-season title.
BRUINS FOR BOURQUE: The Boston Bruins will sit out the playoffs, so that means there suddenly are a lot of Colorado fans in the Boston area.
”We’re all happy for Ray and we’re all excited for Ray,” Bruins coach Pat Burns said. ”I think Ray has got an opportunity at least (to win the Stanley Cup). We’ve all become Avalanche fans since the trade. Once the season ends, I think you’ll see a lot of guys pulling for them.”