Before the preview, a word about Uncle Kenny

Updated: September 29, 2006, 10:47 AM ET
By John Buccigross | Special to ESPN.com

You would have loved my Uncle Kenny.

He lived on the middle floor of a triple-decker home on 740 East Third St. in South Boston, Mass. He was a small, bald Irishman who drank Narragansett beer and smoked at least a pack of unfiltered Winston cigarettes every day I saw him. He was a roofer who had two sons, three daughters and a wife (my mom's sister) who worked at the big Sears building down the street from Fenway Park. Uncle Kenny was very union, very Catholic, very decent and very profane. Yes, he hit for the South Boston cycle.

I saw Uncle Kenny and his triple-decker for just two weeks every summer when my family would visit from Pennsylvania and later Ohio. My dad took his standard 18-day, jump-in-the-Buick vacation for six people late every summer. Some people go on vacation to the south of France, some go to Myrtle Beach and some go to South Beach. I went to South Boston. For two weeks every summer. For 20 consecutive years. And I'm better off for it. I was a sheltered suburban kid who craved the taste of the gritty city. I loved the concrete jungle because I could bounce a ball off EVERYTHING. My childhood memories aren't of Disneyland, but of Jungleland.

The triple-deckers strewn across South Boston are usually composed of three very small bedrooms, a kitchen, one bathroom and a living room or "parlor" as it was called. And, oh yes, paneling, paneling, paneling. When in doubt, the Irish paneled. Who bought all those station wagons with paneling back in the 1970s? The Irish did.

Uncle Kenny swore in nearly every sentence he spoke. That was jarring for most children in the mid-1970s to early '80s. Jarring because Uncle Kenny was HBO before there was mainstream HBO. You couldn't hear that kind of language on television yet. Back then, 48 people had cable TV. Plus, my dad didn't swear. At all. It's probably why I'm still intrigued by the linguistic contrast.

This was two weeks of vocabulary summer camp and I had a front row seat at the kitchen table. Uncle Kenny was the funniest man in the world because he used all of the George Carlin words except for the really bad ones. There was a sense of morality laced to his profanity.

Uncle Kenny was the quintessential casual sports fan. He was a worker who didn't have the time or energy for fantasy leagues or Moneyball math. He watched the games on his small black-and-white television in the kitchen after a long, hot day on a downtown Boston roof. The rabbit ears, like arms, were raised in a V. He could name very few players on the opposing teams expect for the most heinous villains. Celtics announcer Johnny Most became the most popular and recognizable name in Boston sports announcing history because he spoke to the "Good Will Hunting" working class. These folks had two hours to spend on the game and that was it. Keep it simple, make it fun, and root, root, root for the home team.

Bobby Orr
APBobby Orr was so tough, even his ashtray was beyond reproach.

Since Uncle Kenny's "house" was so small, there was stuff everywhere. It was like a year-round yard sale. With paneling. Trinkets sat on top of trinkets next to even more trinkets. It was eBay heaven. And I seem to recall there being more Boston Bruins trinkets than anything. There was a Bobby Orr poster in cousin Gerry's room, there was an ice skate with a Bruins logo that was a bottle opener on the wall, there was a miniature Stanley Cup that I wanted oh so badly to take home with me to Pennsylvania, and there was a set of 4-inch square Bruins plastic ashtrays featuring Dallas Smith, Eddie Westfall, Ted Green, Reg Leach, Wayne Cashman, Don Marcotte, Fred Stanfield and, yes, Robert Gordon Orr. I always thought it was such a strange combination of players for an ashtray set. Maybe Uncle Ken got a free ashtray after every fill-up at the Gulf station and missed the Phil Esposito, Ken Hodge, Pie McKenzie and Gerry Cheevers weeks. Or maybe my cousin Gerry's boyfriends stole them from her house. I don't know how No. 4 survived all those years. Maybe the Wayne Cashman ashtray was protecting him.

You see, in the 1970s there was no Red Sox nation. The Celtics were winning, but the NBA was maybe 25 years into its existence and the Celtics didn't have much of a passionate following because the fans couldn't see the toughness. The New England Patriots were Michael Bolton-irrelevant. The Bruins owned Boston.

Television production was improving and the big, bad Bruins were the most telegenic team in town. They were young, rough and raw. Most of the players looked like your neighbor, acted like your neighbor, drank like your neighbor and in a lot of cases made about the same amount of money as your neighbor. They had the star, they had the character actors and their games were well-produced on WSBK-TV 38. Yes, hockey is and always has been an excellent sport to watch on television. It was actually better in the 1970s because the camera angles and lighting were better because the sets were smaller. Hockey is the only sport that has gotten worse on television in the last 25 years.

Despite the inferior quality of hockey broadcasts now because of the bigger buildings and poor camera positioning, hockey is still a good television watch.

You can't see the puck? Can you see a baseball being hit? How often do you see the football on TV? Can you see when Tiger Woods hits the golf ball outside of the short game? If you are simply trying to follow the puck when you watch a hockey game, you're missing the game. Bruins fans in the 1970s knew how to watch -- and appreciate -- the game. That's why there were bottle openers, ashtrays and pennants inside Uncle Kenny's triple-decker.

Much is written about the popularity and market share of the NHL. I've written it here before and I'll write it here again: I don't care how popular the NHL is. I love hockey and you love it and that's enough for me. It's a beautiful, addictive game that is immune to extinction. It's a way of life in Canada and it's growing in the United States. It is the most intimate of games because it is the most emotional. The "smallness" of the game is its strength. The humility of most of the players, the bond that is found in every rink in North America and the sheer joy of skating on open, clean ice -- that's what makes hockey special.

The NFL is so big now, the actual game gets lost in the middle of all the accompanying hoopla. The NHL is the perfect size because the spotlight is on team cohesiveness, individual creativity and the passion of the fans.

One of my favorite moments in the movie "Good Will Hunting" is Will's rant in which he talks about eschewing a high-paid government job so he can continue his life in Southie with his working-class buddies:

"Why is it a cop-out? I don't see anything wrong with laying brick. That's somebody's home I'm building. Or fixing somebody's car. Somebody's going to get to work the next day because of me. There's honor in that."

I love Will's "honor" rant on many levels. It speaks to the honor of doing the difficult things. It confirms that the supposed little things matter. In fact, the little things are actually the big things. It speaks to the simple, small, repetitive actions that when added up, lead to success. It speaks to my profane Uncle Kenny and my well-spoken dad. My dad, like Will, the athletic math whiz, and my Uncle Ken, the roofer. Both from South Boston. And if you saw "Good Will Hunting," you know who stayed and you know who left. Will's rant speaks of grit, heart, courage, toughness, skill, creativity and love.

It speaks of hockey.

Game on.

And Now on to the Preview

If you are new to this column, the season always begins with the annual Bucci New Zoo NHL musical review. We preview both conferences, ranking the teams from No. 1 to 15, and applying an appropriate song lyric to each. Teams ranked first, second and third are the division winners since that's how it works come playoff time. This is the sixth edition of this column and the fifth one with music previews. For you new readers, I go 16-for-16 every season when it comes to picking the playoff teams. So, get the home equity loan, head to Vegas and place your bets. Since the Eastern Conference won the Stanley Cup last spring, we preview them first. Next week we will look at the Western Conference.

Thank God, hockey is back.

One new twist to this season's preview columns will be a player point projection. Last year I received a Nobel Prize for my Sidney Crosby preseason point projection.

My projection: 38-63-101

Actual total: 39-63-102

Therefore, as part of this season's preview I will offer one point projection for each team. With a 24 oz. green Monster energy drink in the jumbo Billabong XXL collector can, let's begin the nine-month odyssey to the raising of the Stanley Cup.

15. New York Islanders

Lay down a list of what is wrong
The things you've told him all along
And pray to God he hears you
And pray to God he hears you
--"How to Save a Life," by The Fray

Am I the only guy in the world who doesn't think the Rick DiPietro signing was outlandish? (Booming, Michael Clarke Duncan voice from above: "Yes, John, you are.") If DiPietro becomes a top-five goalie, it's a great deal for the Islanders. If he becomes a top-10 goalie, it's about right. Goalies can play for a long time. I think it's a worse deal for DiPietro. He could end up costing himself lots of money and he has potentially cost himself something much more in value: Freedom of movement. Charles Wang has already made his money. Meanwhile, the Islanders will have the same problems as last season -- lack of scoring and a dicey defense -- in front of their $67.5-million man. I love Long Island and the history of this team, but it is in transition and it's going to get worse before it gets better.

Point projection: Alexei Yashin, 25-37-62. All for $7.6 million.

14. Washington Capitals

I'm gonna make sure that I put this place on the map
If there's one promise I make, it's that
--"I Put the Metro in Metronome," by Cute Is What We Aim For

Alexander Ovechkin took the NHL by storm like few players have in league history. He was a YouTube legend with his combination of athleticism and fearlessness. I don't have a sense of fearlessness when it comes to Ovechkin suffering a serious injury at some point, however. Whether it's a knee or head injury, I think he is susceptible to a significant injury because of the way he plays. He is the closest thing to an X Games athlete in the NHL. Extremely entertaining for us, but eventually he will get hurt. It will be interesting to see how coaches, after analyzing a season of tape, plan on defending him. Little scoring depth and a thin blue line will translate into another lottery pick for the Capitals. In the long term, that is a good thing.

Point projection: Alexander Ovechkin, 58-58-116. He's like a stock car. It's all about avoiding a crash.

13. Pittsburgh Penguins

Maybe you're young without youth
Or maybe you're old without knowing anything true
I think you're young without youth
Then you contract the American dream, you never look up once
You've contracted American dreams, I require you to stop and look up
--"American English," by Idlewild

Evgeni Malkin's "Coming to America" script is the story of the offseason. He is an immense talent with size, grit and skill. He projects at least Mats Sundin-good. That's the low side. He enters into a perfect environment in Pittsburgh. He has a Russian mentor in Sergei Gonchar and a locker room of young players to help him be himself. The Penguins have better centers than the Maple Leafs and probably better goaltending. They don't have the defensemen or the wingers. The Penguins are going to be much better than last season. They will win more than 10 road games and my heart tells me they can make a major jump. Gonchar will be much improved this season. The Penguins' power play will be among the best in the league. I wish ESPN were in Pittsburgh because I would go to every Penguins home game this season.

Point projection: Evgeni Malkin, 31-40-71. Someday he'll make his linemates very rich.

12. Montreal Canadiens

No more "I love yous"
The language is leaving me
No more "I love yous"
The language is leaving me in silence
--"No More I Love Yous," by The Lover Speaks

In last season's Eastern Conference preview, I wrote that the Islanders just didn't interest me very much. I couldn't find anything to attach myself emotionally to the team. I kind of feel that way as I scan the Canadiens' roster. I love Michael Ryder's release. I love the passion of Saku Koivu. After that, I see too many players born in the mid-1970s. I don't see their PK being very good, their goaltending is a huge question mark and there just seems to be a lack of cohesiveness. I know a lot of GMs are looking at how Buffalo made it so far last season with their roster and are saying, "We can do that." But I don't see it here.

Point projection: Michael Ryder, 35-36-71. Release, rotation, splash.

11. Toronto Maple Leafs

Upwards to the vanguard
Where the pressure is too high
Under the microscope
Hope against hope
--"Race for the Prize (Sacrifice of the New Scientists)," by The Flaming Lips

This seems like an organization that is trying to do two things at once: Get younger and still appease the people who pay those ridiculous ticket prices in the lower bowl. The Leafs should have started a major stripping in the offseason and started signing and trading for as many players who played on Canada's junior teams as they could. There is the Maple Leafs' blueprint. It's right in front of their faces. Are you kidding with Nik Antropov? I mean, really. I know the maple leaf on Toronto's jersey isn't red, but the soul of the organization has the same roots. There is a reason the Oilers and Flames have outperformed the Leafs recently. They are cultivating talent from the best resource of young talent in the world -- Canada! This is a foreigner talking here, but it seems like taking your best natural resource, which has proved to be the richest in the world, and exporting it out of your province is both silly and a losing proposition.

Point projection: A big season for Mats Sundin -- 39-50-89 points.

10. Philadelphia Flyers

And if you hold on
And need me to stay
You get the hard thoughts
Oh, baby just the mistakes
Maybe we'll just
Shut up and play
--"Disenchanted (Shut Up And Play)," by My Chemical Romance

It's hunch time. Peter Forsberg's health is always an issue. The Flyers' blue line is hardly top shelf, and what to make of the goalies? I love watching Mike Richards and Jeff Carter, and if they establish themselves as big-time players, then everything will be fine. As some of you know, I'm writing a book with new Flyers television analyst Keith Jones that is almost done and will be out in February. For his sake, I hope he has a winning team to talk about. But, my gut tells me that after 11 straight playoff appearances, there might be a one-season hiatus in Philadelphia. I hope not, because for the overall health and buzz of the league, it's important to have franchises like the Flyers in the postseason.

Point projection: Jeff Carter, 36-31-67. Get this guy on the power play and let him go high glove.

9. Florida Panthers

Well, the future for me is already a thing of the past
You were my first love and you will be my last
--"Bye and Bye," by Bob Dylan

Roberto Luongo has taken his giant goalie pads and moved out of the country. He knows that the Southeast Division is full of some of the best young scorers in the game and anyone playing goal in this division better be ready. Ovechkin, Ilya Kovalchuk, Eric Staal and the Tampa Bay bunch will bring it every night. The Panthers do have an interesting mix of talent on this team and a playoff berth is not out of the question. However, the old-age factor and the situation in net lead me to believe they will finish out of the picture. Of course, they could also win the division.

Point projection: Todd Bertuzzi, 29-50-79. Entering this season, Bertuzzi has 42 goals in his last 151 games.

8. Boston Bruins

So this is the new year
And I have no resolutions
For self-assigned penance
For problems with easy solutions
--"The New Year," by Death Cab For Cutie

I have to admit I was talked into this by outside sources. There is a major depth issue here and still a bit of a question mark in net. But, let's talk about the positive. There will be casual Bruins fans who look at the real tall guy on the ice and say, "Boy, Hal Gill should have changed his number a long time ago. He's really gotten better." The taller guy is Zdeno Chara, who makes this team 10-15 points better. Brad Stuart is a very good defenseman who has a chance to be among the Eastern Conference elite. My concern for Bruins fans is, where are they going to find the 30 additional goals they are going to need to make the playoffs? They need 40 out of Patrice Bergeron for sure and 30-plus from Marco Sturm. I think Phil Kessel can be a force on the second line with Marc Savard. There is no doubt he has NHL speed and release. The Bruins also have an outstanding checking line. With the fresh start in the front office, I think the Bruins could be in for a good season. I'll call them a playoff team by a hair.

Point projection: Phil Kessel, 32-33-65. He's a classic winger and will be in the mix for the Calder Trophy. (Evgeni Malkin is not a lock as a result of his shoulder injury.)

7. Atlanta Thrashers

In the days of my youth, I was told what it means to be a man,
Now I've reached that age, I've tried to do all those things the best I can
No matter how I try, I find my way into the same old jam.
--"Good Times Bad Times," by Led Zeppelin

It's time for Good Times in Atlanta. This plan should have come together by now. Indifferent ownership has obviously caused a delay in the progress of what should be a playoff team. There are enough pieces in place for all of this to come together this season. The Thrashers can score enough and they should defend well enough to make the playoffs.

Point projection: Ilya Kovalchuk, 68-50-118. Monster season for The King.

6. New York Rangers

Hey where you from?
I'm from New York
I really like your style
Huh, what? You like the way I walk?
--"New York Girls," by Morningwood

The style of Henrik Lundqvist is the only reason I'm picking this team to make the playoffs. I don't know if Jaromir Jagr is going to have the energy and health to carry this team this season. I probably should have picked the Rangers to miss the playoffs, but I'll ride the momentum and the Swedish stone wall in net and say they sneak in after a deadline trade.

Point projection: Brendan Shanahan, 39-46-85. He should have huge PP numbers with Jagr.

5. Ottawa Senators

Sheets of empty canvas, untouched sheets of clay
Were laid spread out before me as her body once did
All five horizons revolved around her soul
As the earth to the sun
Now the air I tasted and breathed has taken a turn
--"Black," by Pearl Jam

When a team this good gets this close, but still falls short in the end, I blame management. The Big Z is in Boston now but the Sens are still a solid team. Martin Gerber played well enough last season in Carolina to give Ottawa the confidence it still has time to win in its window. That window is slowly closing, but there is time. The Senators are a team that needs to make a deadline deal too, but I don't trust this management team to do it.

Point projection: Dany Heatley, 55-55-110. Double double-nickel for Heater.

4. Carolina Hurricanes

Just last night I woke from some unconscionable dream
And had it nailed to my forehead again
--"Fighting in a Sack," by The Shins

The defending Stanley Cup champions. The season following the lockout was expected to be one giant mystery and it was capped off by the Stanley Cup being raised in North Carolina. The Hurricanes got career seasons and unexpected jolts in maturation with Eric Staal showing his world-class talent. They will be good again, but won't quite enjoy some of the career performances they got last season.

Point projection: Rod Brind'Amour, 23-38-61. Can we expect 19 power-play goals again?

3. New Jersey Devils

I don't wanna know it's over
So save your good-bye kiss
I don't wanna know it's over
'Cause ignorance is bliss
--"Bliss (I Don't Wanna Know)," by Hinder

The Devils are teetering on the precipice of a whole new era. Somehow, Lou Lamoriello is keeping this thing together. As the roster sits now, New Jersey is the most solid team in a division that lacks an elite team. No one really made a move. The Penguins are coming, but they are an owner away from really capitalizing on their rich resources and filling the gaps. The Devils remain the best all-around team and before they kiss their era goodbye and give way to the Penguins in years to come, they will win another division this season.

Point projection: Patrik Elias, 45-65-110. Isn't he due for a monster power-play season? He hasn't had one yet.

2. Buffalo Sabres

Martyrs don't do much for me
Though I enjoy them vicariously
After you
No, after me
No, I insist, please after me
--"Twist My Arm," by Tragically Hip

The Sabres should keep rolling this season with a young, fast team. Ryan Miller is the best goalie in the Northeast Division. Led by Miller, the Sabres have the team components to post a very good divisional record. Why they gave Tim Connolly a three-year contract and let Jay McKee go, I'll never know. But, this team is based on up-front speed and a really good goalie. The Sabres aren't as reliant on the big-time defenseman. I'm sure they saw the Hurricanes raising the Cup last June and said to themselves, "That could very well be us next June."

Point projection: Chris Drury, 35-41-76 It's a contract year for the Hockey God.

1. Tampa Bay Lightning

You took the word and made it heard
And eased the people's pain and for that
You were idolized, immortalized
And you were not the same after that
--"Not the Same," by Ben Folds

I'm going to jump back on this bandwagon for the 2006-07 season. His time in Columbus should only help goaltender Marc Denis. He will play with a very good team in front of him that should have received a dose of humility last season. There is no logical reason why Martin St. Louis went from 94 points to 61 in the "new" NHL. Or maybe he just regressed to his mean self. If this team is refocused and makes a good deadline deal for a free agent-to-be and/or a defenseman, the Lightning should rebound to and regain membership in the Eastern Conference elite.

Point projection: Vincent Lecavalier, 45-48-93. A career season if he would just go all-out 5-on-5.

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

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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.