Monday, August 15, 2005

 

BERGER FIX...Chat in Main Room At 4pm

BY HOWARD BERGER

The Fan-590 Radio, Toronto

Some early week thoughts on the world of hockey...

Welcome to the six-month anniversary of Gary Bettman officially terminating the 2004-05 NHL season. Out here in Los Angeles, there was yet another commentary on a radio station last week suggesting that Bettman step down as commissioner; the premise being that he did the game irreparable damage by formulating the owners’ lockout strategy, then shutting down business for good on Feb. 16th. It was hardly an original notion by the broadcaster, yet it seemed to again reflect a sentiment that the “new and improved” NHL should not be permitted to move forward with Bettman at the wheel… the equivalent, to many, of Scrooge throwing a Christmas party.

The fact there is anger and resentment towards Bettman for being the “face” of the lockout is inescapable. For hundreds of thousands, perhaps even millions of people, Bettman is the ultimate offender; the man who devised the grounds and motivation for the NHL to become the first professional sport to wipe out an entire season because of labor unrest. He is the person, in many eyes, solely responsible for the jobs and revenues that were lost in the periphery of the game… arena parking attendants, hot dog sellers, sports-bar owners. His collective relationship with the players – always considered to be tepid – is now in a deep, immeasurable freeze. How, then, is it viable for this contemptible human being to continue fronting hockey’s premier league?

Well, the answer probably lies somewhere in the absence of sentiment, if there is such a thing. While it’s true that Bettman may never be tied to an event like Valentine’s Day, he certainly has a slew of admirers among the people who matter most in his everyday life: the NHL owners. If Bettman persuaded financial big-wigs in Columbus, Nashville, Minnesota and elsewhere to join the league on the basis he’d deliver them a salary cap system – and that’s almost a certainty – he should not only be retained as commissioner, but given a sizable raise.

In following through with his pledge, Bettman managed to rid the owners of a person they universally despised – Players Association boss Bob Goodenow, whose negotiating tack failed miserably, and who wisely scrambled into a lifeboat before being tossed overboard. It was one of the understated triumphs of the lockout for Bettman, and it left the owners to deal in the future with Ted Saskin – also a considerable foe – but a man who they seem to have much greater respect and admiration for.

These are not normally the actions of a sports commissioner whose job is in jeopardy. That may be an unpopular assertion, but it’s a fact.

Now, there could be a flip side to the gamble Bettman knew he was taking six months ago. If the NHL’s return is met with scorn and indifference by a large segment of the American public – and if apathy spreads among the league’s vital sponsors – Bettman’s leadership will be open to wild second-guessing, and justifiably so. He and his hard-line advocates among the 30 owners will have some difficult explaining to do, and there is little chance the commissioner will emerge unscathed.

Only time will tell.

* * * * * * * *

While it seems nonsensical that the Tampa Bay Lightning allowed goalie Nikolai Khabibulin to defect as a free agent to Chicago, it doesn’t automatically indicate that the ‘04 Stanley Cup champions will not repeat. There are recent examples of championship teams losing a key element, only to continue their winning ways. In hockey, goalie Mike Vernon was principally responsible for the Detroit Red Wings ending their long Stanley Cup drought in the spring of 1997, yet his departure to San Jose did not prevent the Wings from repeating in ‘98 under Chris Osgood, or winning again in 2002 with Dominik Hasek. In baseball, the Boston Red Sox appear to be fairing quite nicely, at the moment, without one of their World Series aces, pitcher Pedro Martinez (now with the New York Mets). The BoSox have gotten stronger in the second half of the season and have forged a decent lead atop the American League East.

Fans of the Toronto Blue Jays will vividly remember the leadership role that Dave Winfield played in the long-awaited World Series triumph of 1992, and how ridiculous it seemed when management refused to meet Winfield’s contract demands for the following season. Big Dave moved on to Minnesota, the Jays hired free agent Paul Molitor, and rolled to a second championship in ’93.

With these examples in mind, hockey people should not underestimate veteran puck-stopper Sean Burke, who the Lightning chose to replace Khabibulin. While Burke has bounced around in recent years, he has the savvy, experience, goaltending technique and – most importantly – the temperament to immerse with a championship club. Look for him to do extremely well in Tampa.

* * * * * * * *

Based on the hundreds of e-mails I’ve received the past two weeks, fans of the Toronto Maple Leafs are in complete disagreement over how their team will fare this season. Those who parade up and down Yonge Steeet all night long after the team wins an opening-round playoff game aren’t difficult to convince. To them, the signing of Alexander Khavanov gives the Leafs the caliber of blue line the Montreal Canadiens had in the late-1970s.

To the less-delusional, the roster appears to have gaping holes, particularly on the wings. If Mats Sundin, Eric Lindros and Jason Allison escape the injury bug, the Leafs will have strength at centre equal to, or better than any team in the league. Problem is, Sundin, Lindros and Allison will have to hog the puck in order for the team to score. On the weekend, the Toronto Star compared the Leafs’ potential forward lines for the coming season to the units the club deployed when hockey was last played. It was frightful, to say the least.

The No. 1 troika had Sundin centering Jeff O’Neill and Darcy Tucker. No argument with the Big Swede, or a healthy O’Neill. But, Tucker has hardly ever been used as a front-line winger in the NHL, even though he was a prolific scorer in Junior for the great Kamloops teams that won the Memorial Cup in 1992, ’94 and ’95; Tucker compiling 379 points in 223 regular-season games. His grit, and willingness to compete against bigger players in the NHL has made him an effective performer in most situations, but Tucker has not scored at the pace required of a first-line winger on a contending team.

A healthy Lindros could easily centre any No. 2 unit in the NHL, but the Star projection had him flanked by Alexei Ponikarovsky and Tie Domi, who combined for 16 goals in 2003-04. That’s 12 less than Gary Roberts accounted for by himself, and three less than Owen Nolan. Ponikarovsky has shown brief flashes of scoring potential but has never been even remotely considered a second-line winger in the NHL. Nor has Domi, despite his 15-goal eruption in 2002-03.

The Star’s third unit had Allison playing between Chad Kilger and Nik Antropov. And poor Allison thought he was coming to Toronto to re-start his career. Kilger exploded for three goals in ’03-04 and was brought in at the trade deadline strictly for injury depth. Under no foreseeable circumstance did GM John Ferguson project him to play regularly among the top three forward lines. The Leafs have been waiting the better part of a decade now for Antropov to flourish. He looked like a keeper early in his career, but has lacked inspiration and tenacity since having both his knees operated on, and was a mediocre skater before the surgeries. He had 13 goals in 62 games two seasons ago.

The fourth-unit wingers – Clarke Wilm and Wade Belak – combined for one goal in 44 games. Matt Stajan should have a ball setting up those two.

As such, Ferguson – even with his limited cap space – is in no position to disregard any chance of upgrading his scoring potential on the wings. Veteran Steve Thomas may be 42 years old, but he’s kept himself in excellent condition and, if healthy, could probably still outscore any of Kilger, Wilm, Belak, Ponikarovsky, and perhaps Domi and Antropov as well. Thomas potted 10 goals in 44 games with Detroit in ’03-04. Domi, Kilger, Belak and Wilm combined for 11 with Toronto. “Stumpy” wants to finish his career in a Maple Leaf jersey and Ferguson should sign him. It was only two years ago that he played so effectively in Anaheim’s march to the Stanley Cup Final.

* * * * * * * *

And why is it that I continuously get angry e-mails from Maple Leaf fans swearing they never listen to a word I say on the radio, or read anything penned by bums like Steve Simmons or Damien Cox… yet they are somehow able to quote, verbatim, everything that’s being said or written? One fellow insisted that as soon as he sees Simmons’ name on a story, he skips to the following page. But, the next eight paragraphs of his e-mail were spent dissecting Steve’s latest column from top to bottom. When will these Leaf zealots admit that they are hopelessly addicted to every snippet of news, speculation or opinion about their team? Why else would they be browsing this web-page, or spending most of their waking hours commiserating with one another on the many Internet chat sites? It’s a phenomenon that may exist among fans of other professional sports teams, but not to any greater degree.



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