Monday, August 08, 2005

 

A Berger Fix

BY HOWARD BERGER

The Fan-590 Radio, Toronto



Some early week thoughts on the hockey world, past and present…

*Many hockey observers are asking themselves why Wayne Gretzky needs the aggravation of coaching one of the NHL’s middle-of-the-pack teams – albeit a club that he has equity in. The answer is probably two-fold: Gretzky enjoys remaining in the limelight, and why wouldn’t he? Has any athlete, beyond Muhammad Ali and Michael Jordan, been lauded and revered as much as No. 99? Most of us can only dream of what it’s like to inspire the type of reaction Gretzky receives every time he steps into an NHL arena. His accomplishments as a player transcend hockey, and sport in general. He is simply one of the most recognized people in the world, and that is clearly something he relishes.

As well, his team, the Phoenix Coyotes, probably requires as much of an emotional boost as any franchise coming out of the lost NHL season. Phoenix is one of the markets expected to struggle for re-acceptance, and is looking to fill a giant new arena in the suburb of Glendale. Gretzky’s presence behind the bench adds a large measure of credibility before the first puck is dropped. This is clearly a business decision for The Great One, as much as anything else.

It’s also crystal clear that Gretzky could have faded from the spotlight and ridden the coat-tails of his brilliant playing career for the rest of his life. Under those conditions, his reputation as one of the greatest achievers in sports history would have remained fool-proof. But, Gretzky chose not to go that route. He wanted and needed the challenge of staying in the game at a different level, regardless of the risk. His first reward was a Gold Medal as head of Team Canada at the 2002 Winter Olympics in Salt Lake City – Canada’s first Olympic hockey title in 50 years. He followed that up by piecing together the Canadian team that won the World Cup of Hockey tournament last September.

Gretzky chose to forgo the guidance of Team Canada at the recent World Hockey Championships in Austria and – coincidentally or not – Canada lost the Gold Medal match to the Czech Republic.

Coaching a middling pack of NHLers is clearly more fraught with peril and risk than is putting together a team of your country’s best players for a two-week tournament. But, who among us is willing to bet that Gretzky will fail at this endeavor? Imagine what his players must be thinking right now, realizing they will skate through the coming season for the most regal name in hockey history. Veteran Mike Johnson, a forward I got to know when he began his career in Toronto eight years ago, could hardly contain his enthusiasm when we spoke recently about the possibility of his playing for Gretzky.

No. 99 has earned respect, and he commands respect. That alone should compensate for whatever he lacks in practical coaching experience.

*Speaking of hockey’s all-time great players, I’ve been re-reading an autobiography that Bernie Parent wrote back in 1975, after his brilliant goaltending led the Philadelphia Flyers to back-to-back Stanley Cup titles. How’s this for accurate foreshadowing? In the book, Parent recounts conversations he had with Jim Cooper, the man who owned the Philadelphia Blazers of the World Hockey Association, for whom Parent tended goal in 1972-73. Parent remembered a talk they had on a fishing trip prior to the season…

COOPER STARTED TALKING ABOUT THIS INNOVATION HE HAD FOR WHA GAMES. USUALLY, COOPER AND I GOT ALONG GREAT, BUT THIS TIME, THE MORE HE TALKED, THE MADDER I GOT. AS I WAS SIPPING A BEER, COOPER SAID:

“I THINK WE SHOULD HAVE SUDDEN-DEATH OVERTIME IN THE GAMES. FIVE MINUTES OF SUDDEN DEATH AND THEN, IF THE GAME IS STILL TIED, WE’LL HAVE A SHOOTOUT. YOU KNOW, LIKE PENALTY SHOTS. FIRST A PLAYER FROM ONE TEAM SHOOTS AT THE GOALIE, THEN THE OTHER TEAM GETS A CHANCE.”

AS COOPER AND I TALKED, I REALLY GOT TICKED OFF. I COULD JUST SEE IT: PLAY SIXTY MINUTES OF HARD HOCKEY, THEN AN OVERTIME, THEN A SHOOTOUT! THE MAN HAD TO BE GOOFY.

Goofy, but awfully clairvoyant, Bernie. Thirty-three years later, Cooper’s idea has been adopted to a ‘T’ by the NHL.

*The bitter, though often amusing competition between Canada’s leading all-sports TV networks was never more evident than during the past weekend. In breaking the news of free agency signings last week, Rogers Sportsnet enjoyed a sizable advantage over TSN, for whatever it’s worth. And to the overwhelming majority of hockey fans, it isn’t worth much. It is strictly a measure of status and respect among those in the media business, as is the competition for stories among newspapers and sports-radio stations.

But, it’s a battle that the people involved take very seriously. On Sunday, TSN was first to post on its website the pending announcement of Gretzky coaching in Phoenix, though the network clearly cited the Arizona Republic newspaper for its information. It was accurately reported that the Coyotes would make the official announcement during a Monday news conference. Within seconds, Sportsnet responded with a bulletin claiming that its sources could find absolutely no evidence that the Gretzky announcement was imminent. Oops!

The tug-of-war between the networks, however, is a bonanza for those who closely follow the NHL, and is played out by several of the most respected and/or entertaining people in the business, including Bob McKenzie, Pierre Maguire, Glenn Healy, Bill Watters, Gord Stellick and Nick Kypreos. Their nightly presence on the tube made the interminable NHL work stoppage almost bearable.

*What gives with Eric Lindros? Big No. 88 made it abundantly clear several years ago, after his falling out with Bob Clarke in Philadelphia, that when the Flyers traded him, he wanted to play in only one city: Toronto. Unfortunately for Eric, the Maple Leafs weren’t quite as enthusiastic, and GM Pat Quinn refused to trade defenseman Tomas Kaberle in a package for Lindros, who later joined the New York Rangers. Here we are, in the summer of 2005, and Eric is free to sign with any team he chooses. The Leafs have obvious interest (they NEED PLAYERS!!!), but have clearly shown that they are not prepared, at this juncture, to offer long-term contracts – one of the reasons why they were left in the dust during last week’s free agent frenzy.

Perhaps Lindros can attain the contract term he is seeking elsewhere, and maybe for more money. But, Toronto still offers Eric one of the most genuine challenges to get his career back on track. Despite his injury travails, Lindros would be a big hockey name playing in a big hockey market, and I firmly believe that if he and the Leafs do not come to an agreement, Eric will spend the rest of his life wondering if he could have cut it in his home town. This is almost certainly his last chance to find out.



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