Musings During The Dog Days
by Scott Burnside
February 2, 2004
ATLANTA -- These are the dog days of the NHL schedule.
Playoffs still a mirage in the distance, the snow is piling up outside your door, and everywhere you look signs of the apocalypse or at the very least the very unpleasant in the world of hockey.
But as more than one wise coach has pointed out, it's never really as bad as people think nor as good as you want it to be.
To whit, three reasons to pull the covers over your head until April and four more to suggest that the first playoff upset isn't really that far away.
What I Really Meant Was I Really Hope We Don't End Up Having To Watch Too Much 'Days Of Our Lives'.
Leafs defenseman Bryan McCabe, further alienating an already battered National Hockey League fan base, suggests that players will sit out "for the rest of our lives" if owners insist on a hard cap. That's a long time.
After realizing he had touched a raw nerve (something about hundreds of angry e-mails and a sign in Atlanta suggesting it would be hard to find a job shoveling snow that pays the equivalent of McCabe's US$3.85 million), McCabe tries to back-peddle but the damage is done.
As one GM noted, it won't be hard for owners to win the important public relations battle with guys like that on the other side.
Somewhere there is common ground between owners and players but it'll be hard to find when its buried under rhetoric like this. And for a young player who seemed to have accomplished so much this season, more proof that you can't take the boy out of the boy.
Sorry, It Was All-You Can Eat Grits Night At Denny's
Dany Heatley's return to the Atlanta Thrashers ranks as one of the most important stories of the NHL season (see below) yet with more than 32 hours notice that Heatley was going to make his return at home versus the St. Louis Blues (the news broke midmorning the day before the Thrashers' Jan. 28 game) Atlanta fans still couldn't muster enough enthusiasm to sell out Philips Arena, falling about 2,200 short.
Even Heatley's reception, while enthusiastic, was somewhat underwhelming.
After seeing an Air Canada Centre crowd give Wendel Clark a standing ovation for hitting the goal post in the playoffs a couple of years ago, Heatley's stirring return seemed to warrant something more.
If these kinds of events, moments out of the ordinary, are barometers for success in new hockey centres like Atlanta, this was a resounding disappointment.
Dumb And Dumberer
What's more difficult to comprehend, that a slew of players can suffer serious eye injuries from high sticks without penalties being called by either of the two referees whose job it is to monitor such behaviour?
Or that those players whose careers came within an eyelash of being ended or altered forever, will return without embracing a visor? Owners have millions of dollars invested in players, their most important asset, while players have millions of dollars at stake in protecting their health and thereby prolonging their careers, and yet the two sides have never managed to be able to legislate eye protection into a CBA.
Do you do your seat belt up every time you get in the car because you know going headfirst through the windshield is going to hurt? Did you quit smoking because you read somewhere that cancer is bad?
For a group of players that are collectively as bright and pleasant as any in sport, every time a player is hunched over covering his bloody face after a high stick or deflected shot, it seems to reduce the collective IQ of the sport.
Of course, it's not all that bad is it? Of course not. Read on.
Welcome Back Dany
If the Atlanta crowd was disappointing, Heatley's reception from his colleagues upon his return from a Sept. 29 car crash that took the life of teammate and friend Dan Snyder, was inspiring.
At the opening faceoff Blues rugged winger, Keith Tkachuk, not known for being particularly warm and fuzzy, leaned in and welcomed Heatley back.
"I just wanted to give him support," Tkachuk said. "I told him he's a tremendous person and don't forget that. I wanted to wish him all the best."
Earlier Doug Weight was asked if he thought players would taunt Heatley about the accident in the hopes of getting the talented winger off his game. Weight was unequivocal.
"I would like to think that throughout his entire career he would never hear a thing from another player," Weight said.
"As a league I think we've united to stand behind Dany and this team," he said. "I'm very proud to be a part of this league."
The annual all-star game is an easy target for a host of reasons (how about Bryan McCabe stays home while Filip Kuba gets to play. And what about guys named Peter Forsberg and Milan Hejduk? Enough said.)
But the game is crucial to the league on a number of fronts, not the least of which is attracting sponsors and for a few hours anyway, a national audience.
We even love the YoungStars game that allows fans a chance to familiarize themselves with young talents like Trent Hunter and Michael Ryder (thankfully the vague contractual stipulations regulating who can take part have been put aside this year).
It's not perfect and the all-star game itself bears little resemblance to real hockey but who cares? It's still miles ahead of the world's most pointless all-star event, the NBA's slam dunk contest.
Beware The Bolts
Like many sunbelt teams the Tampa Bay Lightning continue to lose money even as they've made themselves into a contender.
Yet the team has not only shaken off some mid-season doldrums (and the annual hissy fit between Vincent Lecavalier and coach John Tortorella) to run away with the Southeast Division lead and close the gap on the rest of the Eastern Conference powers.
More importantly, ownership has given Jay Feaster the go-ahead to get better as they acquired defenseman Darryl Sydor from Columbus.
Sydor is expensive (he earns US$3.5 million this year and US$3.2 million next year) but he adds an important spark to the Tampa blue line plus he owns something called a Stanley Cup ring from his days in Dallas.
Feaster has likewise insisted (as he has since training camp) that netminder Nikolai Khabibulin will remain with the team even though he could become an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.
A team that rewards its fans by getting better. Gee, what a concept.
Stars, We Don't Need No Stinking Stars
Okay, hands up everyone that wrote off the San Jose Sharks 10 games into the season?
Everyone but Alyn McCauley's family in Brockville? We thought as much.
After winning just once in their first 10 games, the Sharks appeared poised to follow up last year's disappointing performance that saw them jettison stars Owen Nolan, Bryan Marchment and Teemu Selanne, with yet another. Yet coach Ron Wilson has slowly convinced this dynamic young squad they are better than almost everyone gave them credit for being.
The void left by the aforementioned top-line players has been filled by Patrick Marleau and Marco Sturm and former Leaf everyman McCauley that Wilson calls his most dependable player.
The Dallas Stars are hard on their heels but the Sharks may yet win the Pacific Division and with Evgeni Nabokov having a Vezina Trophy type year the Sharks may finally fulfill their destiny as playoff dark horse.