It's the most wonderful time of the year

Updated: March 7, 2006, 11:22 AM ET
By John Buccigross | Special to ESPN.com

First Period -- And we'll all float on, all right!

The American Revolution was unraveling in December 1776. Victory appeared to be as fleeting as a Darius Kasparaitis power play goal. (None in six years. There have now been two Olympics since D.K.'s last PPG.)

In 1776, throngs of Americans were signing paperwork proclaiming allegiance to the king when Admiral Lord Richard Howe offered pardons. The confidence of the Chris Chelios-aged George Washington was somewhere between that of Robert Esche's and Michel Terrien's.

The crisis in Colonial America was swelling and in dire need of a major anti-inflammatory, the kind Martin Brodeur takes for his aching knees. In the middle of this pain, came the homonym Paine. (NHL homonyms? Staal. He hasn't. Cole. He's hard to play against too. Weight. The Hurricanes didn't. Weight, I mean, wait. Now we know the Hurricanes' secret. Homonyms! Stillman. He rarely is. Stop!)

SHOT OF THE WEEK
The drill: We present an NHL photo, I provide a caption. Then you weigh in with your suggestions, which we present the following week. Here's a new photo, so e-mail me your suggestions (include your name and hometown and state) for inclusion next week.

Midshift, Todd Bertuzzi is traded to the Rangers for Al Montoya.

Thomas Paine wrote the following in December 1776, as the young Americans and their revolution were about to go the way of the Kansas City Scouts:

"These are the times that try men's souls." (See Penguins.) … "Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered." (Neither are the, gulp, Rangers!) … "The harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph." (See Stanley Cup.) … "What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly." (See backyard ice.) … "Heaven knows how to set a proper price upon its goods." (See Joe Thornton.)

What does all of this mean? It is March, the most glorious month on the hockey calendar. Every thought turns to hockey in March. I can't read a book, watch a movie or read a magazine and not see hockey within the message.

Perhaps it is an American hockey mind-set. Because of the Olympics, I imagine February was Europe's ideal hockey month. International competitions get their hearts racing. Canada's hockey month? Just about all 12. However, I get the sense that the holiday season with the World Junior Championship is fast becoming a rite of passage for Canadians, a special time of year. Family, the warmth of the rink from nature's freezer and the glow of Christmas. Pure hockey with no lockouts, no contracts, no soft Europeans and no arrogant Americans on their rosters to illicit spurious cheers. NHL, minor and junior hockey all in a Coheed and Cambria concert.

For me, the beauty of hockey in America is all the forms it takes and how it all intersects in March.

This month could not have begun any better for me: Wednesday night, March 1, with Orion's belt safely overhead, I was on the backyard rink playing shinny with my two boys in the calm, Connecticut dark. A rare March treat for a Connecticut backyard rink owner, treasured this winter after three months of a backyard swimming pool. It's going to be a very good hockey month for many reasons:

Down the stretch they come. Twenty games to go, and every game matters. The intensity is up a gear. Players sweat more, bleed more and care more. If the officiating standard remains the same, the added intensity will make for the best hockey of the year. While watching more Carolina Hurricanes games of late, two things jump out. (1) They are already in playoff mode. They are fast, but they are usually the most intense and energetic team on the ice. (2) They use the long pass as well as any team in the league, and they have since game No. 1. Erik Cole was the fulcrum for much of how they played, so they will dearly miss him, his energy and his goals.

The NHL trade deadline. It's Thursday. Visions of players changing sweaters provide delicious speculation. Roberto Luongo an Av? A Red Wing? A King? Olli Jokinen a Devil? Or a Ranger? Or a Senator? Trade deadline week is like a current of electricity to a dead car battery. It's perfectly placed in early March. I don't think the average hockey fan knows how good of a player Jokinen is. If your team gets him, you should be very excited.

Olli Jokinen could be with another team by this time next week.

The NCAA Frozen Four. Postseason tournaments are underway and Selection Sunday is less than three weeks away. It all culminates with the Frozen Four, this year in Milwaukee. (Next five sites: 2007, St. Louis; 2008, Denver; 2009, Washington, D.C.; 2010, Ford Field, Detroit; 2010, St. Paul, Minn.) There is no better hockey day in the U.S. than semifinal Thursday at the Frozen Four. Two hockey games, four bands and loads of happy people. This year it is April 6. Wisconsin is my pick to win it all.

State tournaments. From mites to squirts to peewees to bantams to midgets to high school and prep schools, boys and girls from around the U.S. will drive with queasy stomachs on highways, byways and back roads to games. The anticipation is too great for the stomach to hold. Boys and girls will enjoy that time-honored tradition of getting out of school early to play tournament hockey.

That's where I am going after I finish this, to pick up 6-year-old Jackson from Wapping Elementary school here in South Windsor, Conn. You'd like Jack. He's the kind of kid who wakes up in the morning with smiling blue eyes, and he continues smiling until his bocce-ball-sized head hits the pillow at 9 p.m. He is witty, funny, silly, smart, knows what number Joe Sakic is and what team Mike Modano plays on. He sings along to the Ben Folds Five and They Might Be Giants CDs. He's a great companion, the kind of person who doesn't sap energy, but is rather an alternative energy source.

Jack is a first-year mite, a young 6 year old playing with mostly 7- and 8-year-olds. At every practice, he skates every drill all-out. His effort is not born from intensity or even competitiveness. It's from joy. He's a joyful kid who plays hockey joyfully. Think Alexander Ovechkin, although much smaller and without the Russian accent. The foundation of nearly every success is a hard worker who loves the hard work.

Despite all of the love and effort, Jackson had played the first 34 games of his young hockey career without a goal. Tyranny, hell and goals are not easily conquered. Hockey is hard. That is its great lesson, and its great gift. Yes, waiting for something to happen, the struggle, the sacrifice, the doubt, is a gift. Jack wasn't tormented by not scoring. His joy for the game, for skating, stick handling, trumps everything. But it was on his mind. He knew. He sees the game. He notices the game of life and hockey. He gets it. The waiting is the hardest part.

As mite hockey practice began last fall, I told Jack that Cammi Granato was cut from Team USA. Jack has spent some time with Cammi and the two share a bond that sometimes happens inexplicably, despite having little time together. When it was time for choosing uniform numbers, Jackson Buccigross chose Cammi's No. 21.

As the unsure, skinny 6-year-old made his way around the rinks of Connecticut in October, November, December, January and then February, that first goal, with the little blue puck, never came. Yes, hockey is hard.

For 6-year-olds, it can be overwhelming. Never forget that when you watch your kids. Hockey is a hard, demanding game.

Which takes us to Feb. 21, the first week of the Olympics. Jack had seen a lot of Cammi on NBC's coverage of the women's Olympic hockey the previous few days. When Cammi would appear, Jack would occasionally say, "That coach was dumb for not having Cammi on the team." Yeah, Jack, I know. So, on Feb. 21, No. 21 packed the hockey bag he insists on carrying himself, the small caddy carrying Al Czervik's gigantic golf bag in "Caddyshack," and headed to West Springfield, Mass. The rink? Olympia Ice Skating Arena.

The opponent was Holy Name, a team that the South Windsor mites had lost to 2-0 three days earlier. It was also school vacation week and three of our forwards -- an entire line -- were away. We were down to two lines. Jack would see lots of ice time.

As if someone had flipped a switch, Jackson was a different player that day, flying all over the ice. He was even skating around, attempting to do multiple crossovers, just like he's seen the great skater, Jack Skille of Wisconsin, do on television Friday nights. One Jack noticing another.

It didn't take long. Following a turnover at the blue line, Jackson rushed toward the net on a mini-breakaway, and with his all-wood TPS stick, fired a wrist shot in the far corner to make it 1-0.

After almost five months of weekend games, Jackson had scored his first career travel goal in the 35th game of his rookie season. As he sprinted to the bench to receive the high fives from his teammates and dad, his skates didn't touch the ice. He floated. Blue eyes as big as red face off dots. He did it. This little 42-pound perpetual Christmas present had found the back of the net with the little blue puck. Why did it take so long?

Heaven knows how to set a proper price upon its goods. What we obtain too cheap, we esteem too lightly.

As it was a blessing for Ray Bourque to win his first Stanley Cup in his last NHL game, and a blessing for Mike Eruzione to win gold in his last hockey game, it was a blessing Jackson waited almost five months to feel the exhilaration of scoring his first goal. He had chosen uniform No. 21 to cheer up an Olympic gold medal winner embarrassed by grumpy old men. And five months later, his first career goal came on the 21st of the Olympic month in a rink called Olympia? Against a team called Holy Name? God only knows.

Yes, this great game has so many values we can choose to use in our everyday lives. Heart, courage, mental toughness and artistic expression are four. And the greatest virtue of all will be evident in rinks all over North America this month. When it is all said and done, success -- whether it's revolution, your first goal, a state championship, NCAA Championship or Stanley Cup -- requires patience and an understanding of what it takes. And what it takes is why hockey is the greatest teaching game of all. Always remember in times of battle:

Nothing comes cheap.

Second Period -- Forever Man

Author Malcolm Gladwell wrote the following in an e-mail exchange with ESPN.com's Bill Simmons:

"I was watching golf, before Christmas, and the announcer said of Phil Mickelson that the tournament was the first time he'd picked up a golf club in five weeks. Assuming that's true, isn't that profoundly weird? How can you be one of the top two or three golfers of your generation and go five weeks without doing the thing you love? Did Mickelson also not have sex with his wife for five weeks? Did he give up chocolate for five weeks? Is this some weird golfer's version of Lent that I'm unaware of? They say that Wayne Gretzky, as a 2-year-old, would cry when the Saturday night hockey game on TV was over, because it seemed to him at that age unbearably sad that something he loved so much had to come to end, and I've always thought that was the simplest explanation for why Gretzky was Gretzky. And surely it's the explanation as well for why Mickelson will never be Tiger Woods."

That has always seemed so obvious to me.

Those who work hard, and love to work hard are the legends. Larry Bird, Tiger Woods, Gretzky, Ted Williams, et al. All were in love with the process.

You Can Quote Me
"This game is gay now. You can't even do anything anymore. They changed the game to favor the superstars. They changed the game to favor the superstars. You can't do anything anymore to get some respect out there."

-- Flyers winger Donald Brashear on the state of the NHL

Specifically, the Gretzky portion of Gladwell's message is what rekindled my memory. From ages 6 to 11, my dad would take me to a couple of NHL games a year. I loved it all. I would buy a Goal magazine and take a big deep sniff. I loved the smell. I can recall two general emotions that held me hostage. First, whenever the opposing team would get the puck across the blue line and into my team's zone, nervousness would overtake me. Until my team got the puck out of the zone, I was a nervous wreck. Secondly, as soon as the 10-minute mark of the second period passed, the halfway point of an NHL that had no overtime, much less shootouts, I began to slowly get depressed. The game was halfway over.

I rooted for 100 whistles the rest of the way.

I wanted the game to last forever.

Third Period -- Life of Podes

Another installment in the wild and crazy hockey life of Shjon Podein.

Shjon tells ESPN.com he is retiring from professional hockey after playing this year in Japan. It's been a good run.

Here is a classic story from a previous Life of Podes, perhaps my favorite of them all:

"So, I'm in my rookie year in Edmonton and it's my birthday. We had just come home from one of our infamous 15- to 20-day road trips and my family is there to celebrate. So, the family and I go out to have dinner and drinks. We're just relaxing when one of my brothers gives me a 4-foot high inflatable Tyrannosaurus rex for a birthday present. My other brother gives me a sombrero.

"We get back to the hotel and get Mom back in her room. As we're leaving Mom's room, my brothers jump me and rip my suit off in the hotel hallway, leaving me with just my boxers, a sombrero and my 4-foot high inflatable Tyrannosaurus rex.

"So I'm wandering the hallways of the hotel trying to find my room. We'd been on the road for 15 to 20 days, it's late, and I can't remember my room number. I stick my room key in a number of doors, hoping to find the right one. All of a sudden, I look up and there is one of Canada's finest security guards.

"I go, 'Hey, what's going on!'

"The security guard says, 'We've had a complaint that some guy is walking down the hall in his boxers, wearing a sombrero, with a bottle of Bud in one hand and an inflatable dinosaur in the other, making too much noise.'

"I looked at him and said, 'You've got the wrong guy, brutha.'"

The Mother of All Mailbags

One additional positive aspect of a city having a professional sports team that probably hasn't been addressed is the philanthropic nature of many professional athletes. Pittsburgh is no exception, with Mario Lemieux leading the way. The Mario Lemieux Foundation has raised more than $10 million for both cancer and neonatal research initiatives, built or is building 12 children's playrooms in western Pennsylvania hospitals, and recently presented a $2 million gift to The Children's Home of Pittsburgh to begin ground breaking on a new Lemieux Family Center, as part of the Children's Home that houses premature or high-risk infants and their families, until they are ready to be sent home.

Currently, The Mario Lemieux Foundation is running an online auction titled "Bid for 66" at www.mariolemieux.org until March 15. The auction features game-used items from Sidney Crosby and many other Penguins, a Ben Roethlisberger autographed Harley-Davidson helmet, a Mike Eruzione autographed 1980 Team USA jersey, and of course, all the Mario Lemieux autographed items you would expect.

Please consider mentioning the auction in your weekly Q&A column on ESPN.com, to not only increase exposure for this auction, but also to increase awareness for the many good deeds and projects that professional athletes undertake.

Sincerely,
Tom Grealish
President, Mario Lemieux Foundation


Bucci,

Little do most people know that if the Pens were to leave town, it'd be the first time in over 100 years that Pittsburgh was without pro hockey. Pittsburgh was one of the first cities in North America to lure amateur Canadian players for what was a standard $30 a week stipend and a local job in the early 1900s. The attraction was the artificial ice at the 5,000-seat Duquesne Gardens, which was the pioneer for building the indoor ice rink at the turn of the century, boasting the best indoor sheet of ice in North America. It'll be a sad day for all of hockey if the Penguins leave town.

So, I'm asking all fans to support hockey by supporting the Penguins.

Here's a great article on Pittsburgh's rich hockey history.

Thanks,
Alan Waldron
Pittsburgh


John,

After finally getting to see Evgeni Malkin play for Russia in the Olympics, there's no doubt in my mind that he's next year's real deal. How do other first-year players fall in line when it comes to NHL hopes? Players such as Jack Johnson, Erik Johnson and Bobby Ryan? Is Ryan the next great power forward?

Thanks,
James
Aberdeen, N.J.

If Evgeni Malkin can resolve his Russian hockey contract and play in the NHL next season for the Penguins, he would have a 90 percent certainty of winning Rookie of the Year. He has size, skill and nastiness. I think he is a lot like Mats Sundin. He is a man. Projecting first-year players is very difficult. But now that the league requires more speed and reaction time, younger players are better equipped to do well right away. Just look at this year. You could make a sane argument that Henrik Lundqvist is the Vezina winner; that Alexander Ovechkin, the A-Train, is second only to Jaromir Jagr for MVP and close enough to still win it with a blistering finish and a Jagr injury or drop-off; that Dion Phaneuf could win the Norris Trophy next season in just his second year. Yes, it's a game of speed and reaction time, and that makes it a young man's game. Jack Johnson should be able to step in and play pretty well. He has personality, pretty good size and skill. He is very young, having just turned 19. He should resist temptation and play another year at Michigan and enter the league in 2007, when he would turn 21 during the regular season. Erik Johnson (no relation) will likely be a top three draft pick in this June's NHL draft. He looked good at the World Juniors -- 6-foot-4, 220 as a teenager, he has size, skill and grit. He could be the first pick of the draft, depending on who is selecting. The Penguins need to begin to build a team in front of Marc-Andre Fleury, and Erik Johnson is a good place to start. Bobby Ryan was not impressive at the World Juniors, looking slow and uninterested; however, bigger players can give off that vibe. But, he is only 18, turning 19 on St. Patrick's Day. His skating and grit are question marks. I don't like that combination and still think Anaheim should have selected Jack Johnson No. 2 overall last June.


Bucci,

What are your thoughts on the Bruins' goaltending situation? It does not appear that Andrew Raycroft is on the block, so who goes when Hannu Toivonen returns? Tim Thomas certainly has stepped up for Boston when they needed it most, and Toivonen was very impressive before the injury. What do you see the Bruins doing with this situation?

Thanks,
Bob Johnson
Land O Lakes, Fla.

The only way the Bruins will make the playoffs is if Andrew Raycroft plays 18 of the last 21 games and plays well. Tim Thomas' technique will catch up with him in the NHL. The players will figure him out and burn him with their skill. Goals don't come easy for the Bruins and unless they get great goaltending, they will continue to tread water and finish about where they are now in the standings.


John,

With Dominik Hasek seemingly out for an extended period of time, it appears the front-runner for the Vezina Trophy would have to be Henrik Lundqvist. If Lundqvist does win the Vezina, or more specifically if he garners your vote for the Vezina, would you still vote for the highest scoring of Ovechkin and Crosby for the Calder?

Dominick Senese
Middletown, N.J.

As I've said here before, I believe that Phaneuf, Lundqvist, Crosby, Ovechkin and Marek Svatos should all be invited to Toronto for the awards ceremony. It would be a celebration of the international flavor the league contains and would also be a celebration of how the new rules enabled the most talented players to shine. As with the other candidates, bring them all on stage on small platforms and announce the winners that way.

If Hasek plays only a handful of games, he is out of the Vezina discussion. My top five right now: (1) Henrik Lundqvist, (2) Tomas Vokoun, (3) Miikka Kiprusoff, (4) Martin Brodeur, (5) Roberto Luongo. Why Luongo? He has made almost 1,000 more saves than Manny Legace. 1,000! That man, on a good team, is frightening. Ken Dryden, thank your lucky stars there wasn't a Florida Panthers team in 1971 for you to have to play on.


Dear Bucci,

Hey, is it just me or does Dion "Obliterate Anything That Moves" Phaneuf look like a younger Rob "Watch the Booty" Blake? They both crush people and score with those cannons of theirs. Also, how do you think the West vs. East is shaping up? Who's got the bigger contenders for the Cup?

Mike (Avs fan stuck in Ohio)

In the end, Phaneuf will have a better career than Blake, and Blake has had a very good one with his '97-'98 Norris Trophy and 2001 Stanley Cup. But, Phaneuf is a better talent and seems to have a bigger hockey fire in his belly. Also, I don't see a big East-West advantage like the AFC has in the NFL and the American League has in baseball. The NBA and NHL seem pretty even to me.


Hi John,

The men's Olympic ice hockey tournament was outstanding -- high skill level, great goals, great goaltending, shocking results, seven teams with a genuine chance of winning it -- it had the lot. I appreciate that players got injured during the tournament and this will hurt their NHL teams in the run-up to the playoffs, but bear in mind that there will be other NHL players who gained valuable recovery time from the Olympic break. And let's be honest, this is hockey and there's a chance you'll get injured every time you take the ice.

Say the NHL [players] hadn't taken part in Torino -- who's to say Hasek wouldn't have picked up an injury in his next NHL game anyway? Above all, the tournament boosted my interest in the sport -- I'll be watching the next red-eye game on British TV as a result of it, and I know I won't be the only one. (I'm a Wings fan, but I won't miss a televised Capitals game -- Ovechkin blows my mind.) The Olympics have undoubtedly generated new fans of the sport, at home and abroad. The NHL is a great product but, as you regularly point out in your column, doesn't seem to be marketed terribly well. The Olympics can only have helped in this regard.

Anyway, rant over. Are you an Elliott Smith fan? I've never seen you mention him in your column but you seem to like some similar artists. If you haven't discovered him yet, you need to get hold of his album "Either/Or," or maybe "From A Basement On The Hill." Hell, they're all outstanding.

Best wishes,
David Halliwell
Bury St Edmunds, U.K.

The international argument is a good one when endorsing NHL players' participation in the Olympics. However, it is a North American sport and I question the impact it has on international audiences. Every four years is not a big deal, no, and my inclination is that if the NHL players want to participate, then I would weigh that heavily in my decision. But, to make it work, I would shorten the season by 10 percent, which is something I think should be done anyway. But then the players would have to take a 10 percent pay cut every year. Would they do that for less travel and less wear and tear?

And yes, I have all of Elliott Smith's CDs.


John,

In countries like Sweden and Russia, the best athletes grow up playing hockey. This may also be true in Canada as well, but outside of Massachusetts, Minnesota and maybe Michigan, the best athletes in the United States grow up playing basketball, baseball, soccer and football, not hockey. Thus, when a country is putting its best athletes up against another country that's playing with the best athletes who happened to choose hockey over another sport, it's much easier to understand why a team of 25 Finns or 25 Slovaks appears to be more skilled than the 25 Americans. Chances are, it's probably true.

Mike Ivcic
Yardley, Penn.

That's a great point, Mike. But I still think the Olympics are about the bigger rink and understanding its dimensions instinctively and home ice advantage. I will bet my "Good Will Hunting" soundtrack that the U.S. or Canada will win gold in 2010, and it will probably be Canada. They will have home ice advantage, and the more emotional a game is, the bigger the advantage. That's why Game 7s are usually won by home teams. They are essentially emotional gold medal games.


John,

Is it me, or does it seem that every American TV station (especially ESPN) is going out of its way to ignore the NHL? This is, of course, except when something is "newsworthy." I know that whoever made the decision there to discontinue the NHL coverage will regret it. Similar to the way NASCAR has taken off since ESPN opted out. Your thoughts?

John Proulx
Vale, N.C.

Last month, 37 million people watched Jimmie Johnson win the Daytona 500. Game 7 between the Flames and Lightning two years ago was watched by 4.5 million people in the U.S. That's why ESPN is back in the NASCAR game and why the coverage is so extensive. I wish there was more coverage of the NHL on "SportsCenter" and in America's newspapers. ESPN should definitely have a half-hour hockey highlight show because of its lack of coverage of the NHL on "SportsCenter." Hopefully, the NHL will return to ESPN in two years and part of the arrangement will be an NHL highlight show.


John,

I think you may be wrong about the Rangers being the weakest Original Six team in terms of aura, legends and whatnot. Chicago could also give the Rangers and Leafs a run for most pathetic of the Original Six.

Matthew Barlow

Original Six ratings: (1) Montreal, (2) Toronto, (3) Detroit, (4) Boston, (5) Chicago, (6) New York. This sounds like a future column that will require much research and thought. Take this as a tease and look for a full synopsis soon.


John,

What is your take on Esa Tikkanen getting into the HOF? After all, he has five Stanley Cups and playoff numbers that are superior to his regular season numbers.

How about Dale Hunter? Great captain, heart and soul of the Caps, decent numbers, massive amounts of PIMs, and at the time, an astonishing long suspension.

Also, I assume you agree with me that Adam Oates is a lock for the HOF. He was truly an amazing player.

SD
Balad, Iraq

1. Three 30-goal seasons on the greatest offensive team ever won't get Tikkanen into the Hall of Fame.

2. I don't see where Dale Hunter's massive amount of PIMs is a positive. I see it as shorthanding his team about 1,000 times. Zero 30-goal seasons. Zero 60-assist seasons. Didn't play on any great teams, but didn't quite have the Hall of Fame game to help them get close to greatness.

3. Adam Oates had four 100-point seasons; seven times he had at least 60 assists. People forget about his 1992-93 season with the Bruins: 45 goals, 97 assists, 142 points! (Mario won the scoring title playing in 60 games that year. Sick.) And Cam Neely only played 13 games that year, so Oates was feeding Dmitri Kvartalnov and Grigori Panteleev and led the league in assists! Oates played with Brett Hull for just three seasons. Hull's goal totals those three years? 72-86-70. Hull never hit even 60 goals before Oates came to St. Louis or after he left. Oates never played on any great teams either, but he made other players around him much better and he averaged better than a point a game in 1,337 NHL games and almost a point a game in 163 playoff games. An excellent face off man, he once won a game for the Bruins scoring a goal off the draw. Smart. And he had all of that production despite being a small, slight man.

Adam Oates was creative, productive and classy on the ice. That's who we should teach our kids to be like.

John Buccigross' e-mail address -- for questions, comments or cross-checks -- is john.buccigross@espn.com.

John Buccigross | email

SportsCenter anchor
John Buccigross joined ESPN as an anchor in October 1996. He currently can be seen as an anchor on "SportsCenter." Buccigross frequently contributes to ESPN.com during the season.

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