- John Buccigross, SportsCenter anchor
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We are slightly past the midway point of the season, and just a season and a half removed from the end of hockey's total eclipse of the heart: the dark, season-long lockout.
Never before has the game and its fans been put through the wringer more than over the past 30 months, since the Tampa Bay Lightning won the Stanley Cup.
As the game still looks to move forward, as it still seems to be in a state of flux, maybe it's a good time to take inventory of what we have here. Maybe it's a good time to ask the questions that many ask of themselves and their investments, relationships, CD collections, jobs and futures.
What is right and what is wrong with the NHL?
I love these kinds of columns because of the e-mails I receive in return. I'll look at what's right and what's wrong, and I'm sure we'll have a good give-and-take next week.
What's good, yo?
1. The international aspect of the game has brought new ideas and cultures to the game.
2. The athletes' physicality has brought an agility that is mesmerizing. Scoring is a part of the equation, but there is sheer joy by just watching these players skate, stop, skate and power turn. If you go public skating every now and then, it will help you realize what is going on out there in the NHL.
3. The effort, night in and night out, is near maximum. The NHL plays 20 games too many, but the players do a pretty good job of giving a maximum effort each night.
4. Nearly every game is on television for those with the NHL Center Ice package. Canadian distribution and production is outstanding, never been better. TSN has really given the game a midweek jolt with its outstanding game coverage and studio work, and Hockey Night in Canada is my favorite block of television. NBC had a high-level broadcast last season and has added Brett Hull and more games this campaign.
5. The Internet is loaded with NHL video and information. You can watch Stan Jonathan fight in 1979 or watch just about every goal scored this season with the natural sound of announcers on NHL.com. Sports, like politics, will mostly always be local, but leaguewide information, past, present and future, has never been better. The Internet has truly made this the hockey fan's Golden Age.
1. Media distribution in the United States. The NFL is on three over-the-air stations and two cable networks. The NBA is on cable powerhouses TNT and ESPN and on over-the-air ABC. Baseball is on Fox and ESPN, and starting this season, TBS will air national games (not just the Braves). NASCAR has multiple carriers and a daily highlight show as well. With David Beckham's arrival and ESPN's involvement, MLS is something the NHL has to look at. The two leagues play in opposite seasons. And while the NHL is light years ahead of MLS in legitimacy, level of play and history, this is something to keep an eye on. Since the lockout, the NHL has lost its presence on television and radio and in newspapers and magazines. As a result, the health of hockey in the United States is not strong right now, making it difficult to cultivate new fans.
2. I think we need more goals. More slap shots, more home run goals. As longtime readers know, I am in favor of keeping the game very physical and making the nets a little bigger.
3. During game calls, I would like to hear the play-by-play broadcasters more and the analysts a little less. Can you imagine an analyst talking about something else when David Ortiz has just hit a long fly ball? Or when Peyton Manning has just thrown a long, dramatic pass? The play-by-play broadcaster can build the theater. There is not enough drama-building and too much jibber-jabber. Nowadays, we would have never received Dan Kelly's classic call of Bobby Orr's Stanley Cup-winning goal in 1970. An analyst would have been talking just before the puck went into the net.
4. Too many games. Hockey is an extremely taxing sport. It's a better product when players are rested and fresh. Season-ticket prices would be a little less, too. I think there are many upsides to fewer games.
5. Players are too good. Everybody is on everybody so quickly, there are times when there isn't enough effective passing or beautiful play. This is not always visually pleasing. There is plenty for me to love, but what about the new viewer? I don't mind if my favorite game isn't wildly popular. The Backstreet Boys were wildly popular. But I want the game to be vibrant, I want the game to be around 50 years from now.
I'm looking forward to what you think. Fire away!
I am a Devils fan and have watched 90 percent of the team's games since Martin Brodeur entered the league. Because his stats have always been stellar, numbers cannot tell how great a season he is having right now. However, I believe that he is thus far enjoying the best season of his career. In half a season, I feel that he has made more great saves and more important saves than in any full season of his career. What do you think his chances are of pulling out the MVP this year?
Thanks for your time,
Midland Park, N.J.
This user e-mail got me thinking. Who are the MVP candidates halfway through the season? Well, it's tight and it will probably be a race until the very end. So, in no particular order:
• Martin Brodeur: Yes, Marty is a candidate. He never really had to be a leader before. He played with so many Hall of Famers. Now, he needs to lead this team, to be the team's eyes and ears. After all, he has the best view. He has seen a lot.
• Roberto Luongo: He's not the Canucks' Most Valuable Player, he is their entire solar system.
• Nicklas Lidstrom: The Red Wings are always good because he is always good. Do you know how many times the Red Wings have missed the playoffs since his first season, in 1991-92? That would be, uh, zero.
• Scott Niedermayer: I still have a hard time finding a player who is more of a factor in all areas of the ice surface.
• Sidney Crosby: Truly one of a kind. He's physical like Peter Forsberg, but with a better release and nose for the net. He has the Gretzky vision, but plays a 200-foot game, where The Great One had more of a 150-foot game. Unlike Mario, he came into the NHL with five years of weight training. Mario played 915 games. Crosby will play that many before he is 30.
• Alexander Ovechkin: It is amazing that Crosby and Ovechkin are 1-2 in scoring, considering the teams they play on. I don't think either the Pens or Capitals will make the playoffs unless they make a trade. If they do, Ovechkin and Crosby have to get MVP consideration.
• Teemu Selanne: A Rocket Richard Trophy candidate. A locker room floral arrangement with his perpetual good mood. He's the heartbeat of the Ducks and plays with an underrated passion and edge.
• Marian Hossa: He plays such a good two-way game. If he keeps up his scoring, he will be a major MVP factor.
• Vincent Lecavalier: Vinny is quietly having his best season. He plays on a bad defensive team, so team success is questionable right now, but Vinny might win the scoring title.
Just read your column from last week and I couldn't agree more, but how about giving a shout out to all those stationed across the globe in the Peace Corps? The only solace about living in a hockey graveyard like Romania is that I am a Flyers fan. I don't think I need to expand on that thought.
Peace Corps Volunteer, Romania
I and Dave Schultz thank you, Tim!
The Eastern Michigan Hockey Association in Flint, Mich., is providing many kids with the opportunity to play hockey and encouraging them academically with an awards banquet for all players in the association who achieve a high standard of academic success, as well as offering several $1,000 scholarships per year to many young men and women in the association. They have teams in the association from the Mite to Junior levels, from house to travel. Some players who have gone through are Brian Rolston, Jim Slater, Ken Morrow and Shawn Cronin (all former and current NHLers). There are great things happening in the hockey community all over the country and I'm glad someone else is recognizing it.
As a longtime "Canuckleheads" fan, what do you believe they are missing to get over that proverbial hump, and become a true Cup contender? Roberto Luongo seems to be a great add, Markus Naslund, although slumping right now, has proven his weight in gold. I can't seem to put my finger on it. Defense? Scoring? Both?
Ann Arbor, Mich.
I had a dream last week, a vivid dream, that the Canucks acquired Simon Gagne from the Flyers. This is not an actual report, just a dream. That same night, I had another dream of a flamingo playing a banjo at a Barnes and Noble, while Kelly Monaco and I enjoyed an ice cream sundae at the local Dairy Queen. Keep that mind.
I wrote this on the Canucks before the season, a team I picked to finish seventh in the West:
"Getting Roberto Luongo and stuff for Todd Bertuzzi and stuff is one of the biggest steals in recent NHL trade history. The Canucks didn't have a cloud hanging over them with Bertuzzi in their organization, they had a low pressure system with flying darts from the sky. Luongo has a pretty solid defensive corps in front of him, so the Canucks should be a team that allows around 230 goals. If they can get that down to 215-200, they will make the playoffs. Can they score enough goals? That will be the challenge, but the focus here is defense."
Through 43 games, the Canucks are on pace to yield 211 goals. If they keep up that pace, they should make the playoffs. I would like to see another offensive player added to the lineup and Gagne would certainly be nice.
Went to the game last night [Jan. 7] as the Pens hosted the boys from Tampa Bay. Mark Recchi got his 1,300 point in a game-tying goal. I know you have talked about it a couple times already, but with two rings (Pens in '91, Carolina last year) and 1,300 points, the Wreckin' Ball deserves to be in the Hall of Fame when he decides to hang 'em up. Your take?
I have a huge amount of respect for Mark Recchi's game. He is a quick, relentless player who has played well for a long time. He's equally good on the power play and the penalty kill. He's an excellent passer. He's been very fortunate to play for excellent franchises like the Flyers, Canadiens, Penguins and last year's Hurricanes. He's also played with excellent power-play playmakers like Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Eric Lindros, Vincent Damphousse, and now Sidney Crosby. He's been very durable, which says a lot considering his size and how physical he plays. Seven All-Star appearances also says a lot.
He has very good playoff numbers (113 points in 135 games). He will score his 500th goal soon and already has 1,300 points (that's a big number). Recchi is only the 28th player to do that! When I look at Recchi, I think Houston Astros second basemen Craig Biggio. (Both seven-time All-Stars.)
Still, grandfathers won't put grandsons on their knees and tell stories of these players. They had some big seasons, but they were never elite players. That being said, there is a place in the Hall of Fame for durable, high-effort players who put up 3,000 hits or 500 goals, players who could play offense and defense. In the future, when there are no clear-cut, legendary choices like Jagr, Martin Brodeur or Nicklas Lidstrom, a player like Recchi should get in. You can go back and forth on him, but 500 goals and 1,300 points can't be ignored. I know some believe the Hall of Fame should only be for players like Brodeur, Jagr and Lidstrom, but I don't. I think there should be high standards for the Hall, but inductees should cover all kinds of players. And when a high-energy, durable, two-way player like Recchi can put up numbers like he has, one has to surmise that he is a Hockey Hall of Famer.
Here is the question and please answer it for me. Is Jeremy Roenick a lock for the Hall or what?
Like Recchi, Roenick is not a lock, but he certainly has a good résumé. He doesn't have as many goals or points as Recchi, he has a poor Olympic résumé and his playoff totals are nearly identical to Recchi. However, at Roenick's peak, he was one of the most exciting players in the NHL. When I used to interview high school players in the early part of my television career, most of them said they admired Cam Neely and Jeremy Roenick. Back then, that's how many kids wanted to play -- productive and tough. Roenick scored over 100 points for three straight seasons between 1991 and 1994. Since the lockout of 1994-95, Roenick went from an elite player to a very good one. He had 27 goals in his first 54 playoff games. That's massive. Roenick and Recchi are comparable players. Neither has any major NHL trophies. Roenick has an edge in All-Star Games (9-7). Stanley Cups don't matter because hockey is a team game. I would think, in the end, both Roenick and Recchi will end up in the Hall of Fame.
I've noticed how exciting 4-on-4 play has been recently in overtime. If the new NHL is to promote speed and skill instead of the old physical and clutch-and-grab style, why not possibly take playing 4-on-4 into consideration.
East Granby, Conn.
There are many benefits of what I like to call 5-on-5 (after all, there is a goalie out there). There was a time when the NHL was 7-on-7. One of the game's enemies is the collapse of defense in front of the goaltender. A 5-on-5 setup would certainly create more time and space to make beautiful plays and prevent the mass collapse of bodies and padding. There are questions. Could the pace be maintained? Would the game be as physical? Tradition should always be respected before tinkering with anything major in an institution. Going 4-on-4, er, 5-on-5, would be a drastic move. However, at times, the game looks so exhilarating in regular-season overtime, it probably merits further evaluation. One easy, less offensive way to see more 5-on-5 would be, as I've written here for years, to extend overtime to 10 minutes. It would result in fewer shootouts and give us an idea of how long teams could keep up that pace.
Reading your columns are like watching "Pulp Fiction" or "The Life Aquatic" for the first time. I can't wait to enjoy them over again.
Santa Clarita, Calif.
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What do you and Ken the Otter think of the NHL jersey redesign? Personally, I think it is the end of the NHL as we know it. Hopefully, the people will speak up and stop this before it's too late.
I've received tons of e-mails on the "If you destroy my sweater" thing. Much like the schedule, I don't think I care what the players wear. I have the right to change my mind, but if Alexander Ovechkin is streaking down the right wing wearing a bunny suit with a lobster bib and a top hat, I still will be impressed. Until I see these uniforms in action, I'll withhold opinion. I'm all for trying new things.
Since you wrote about fighting last week, and write about Derek Boogaard as a great fighter all the time, I hope you caught the first minute and a half of last night's Minnesota vs. Calgary game to see Eric Godard open up your boy's face. I have season tickets to the Islanders' AHL team in Bridgeport, Conn., and watched Godard play there for a few years. He is the best fighter I've ever seen (except maybe P.J. Stock) and since he beat who you call "the best" last night, can he get some love in the mailbag?
I and Chuck Norris send our very best to Eric Godard. We fully understand he drives a Zamboni covered in human skulls.
Last time I checked, fighting was not allowed by the NHL and Rule 47. The NHL rule book defines fighting in section 47.14, "A major penalty shall be imposed on any player or goalkeeper who fights." Just one sentence, but it is direct and to the point. Fighting is already not allowed by the NHL.
You know what I mean, Sparky. A five-minute major is 8 percent of an NHL game. A small, nearly negligible penalty for bare-knuckle fighting on ice. Carmelo Anthony of the Denver Nuggets threw a fade-away, traffic confrontation slap and got 15 games.
Great column on the code of fighting last week. I played Junior C, B, and a little A in Ontario, and the rules are in place in those leagues, too. Anyone who's against fighting in the NHL doesn't truly understand the game and the role of fighting. There's also one more point about fighting that people don't make often, and that is the jersey and equipment do restrict punches, a lot more than say a basketball jersey.
What? Did your editor come to you and say, "Gee, John, it's been a year since anyone flogged the 'should-there-be-fighting-in-hockey' story. It's your turn." Fighting has no place in hockey. It's crap. We don't need to analyze it or debate it. Period, end of sentence, new paragraph.
Luckily, my editor gives me complete freedom in the construction of my column. She does restrict my Kelly Monaco mentions to a maximum of three a column. That's two.
Just read your column on hockey fights. Because the NHL continues to tacitly condone fighting, I have decided to stop watching hockey (or at least the NHL version). I can't watch two "grown" men fight. This is violence and it is ugly. The NFL is just as hard-hitting as hockey, probably more so, but how does it police itself, by allowing 320-pound lineman to pulverize each other? Of course not, the policing of the game is done by both the officials and by the players, who understand that beating up on each other is not in their best interest.
The idea that the enforcers keep the opposition honest is mob-style thinking and just an excuse to allow the continued presence of testosterone-induced violence. You can't fight in the street. Even if both parties "assume the risk" and agree to the fight, the same rules should apply in the rink.
Let's face it, as long as the NHL is seen as a freak show, the great sport of hockey will continue its slide into near oblivion below the 49th parallel, and that is truly a shame.
Ross Bernstein's story about Bobby Hull and Dave Hanson was notable to me because I was in the stands in the Birmingham Civic Center during that fight. I remember thinking at the time that Hanson had suddenly made a small cat appear on the ice until we looked at Bobby's scalp. It was the funniest thing I have ever seen at a sporting event! Hull looked like he wanted to melt into the rink.
The 1978-79 Bulls had Hanson and Frank "The Beater" Beaton there to protect the Baby Bulls (Michel Goulet, Rick Vaive, Craig Hartsburg and a couple of others). They pounded anybody who chose to rough up the youngsters. Kenny Linseman was also a Baby Bull, but he did not need anyone to protect him.
As a Southerner born and raised, I learned my hockey in the WHA. I was just about guaranteed to see a fight at every game back then. I gained my love for the game back then and was overjoyed when the Predators came to town. I say fighting is part of the game and there would be anarchy on the ice without it.
It is great to hear that Keith Jones is donating the proceeds of "Jonesy" to Alex's Lemonade Stand. Louisville was indoctrinated to Alex's Lemonade Stand this past Derby with the horse "Afleet Alex." It is a great charity and hopefully a cure can be found sooner than later, so that another "Alex" doesn't have to suffer any more. Keep up the good work and I'll be on the lookout for "Jonesy."
Jonesy read his book this past week, the first book he's read since "The Best of Marmaduke" back in 1979. Jonesy liked it and that's the most important review I was looking for. I feel a little better. Even though all the words are his and it's written in the first person, it was still my job to give the book direction, make it flow, get him to open up as much as possible, and have him fill in the gaps wherever I needed it. It should be ready in a few weeks.
Dan Cloutier: Cut bait or fish?
Let's Go Kings!
Orange County, Calif.
I am shocked at the vitriolic e-mails I get from Kings fans concerning Dan Cloutier. I never viewed him as a lightning rod NHL player! First off, I've always been a fan of Cloutier. He played a good net for a good Canucks team. His numbers kept getting better before last season's injury. I understand this has been a lost season, but, at $3 million a season, I still think Cloutier has a chance to give the Kings some good games over the next two seasons. The Kings made a bet Cloutier would one day outperform his number, which is every team's goal. Kings fans, hear me now and consider next Thursday: YOU ARE GOING TO GET GOOD FAST.
I have waited to write you until I had something original to ask. Here goes. I will be playing in the Sharks Fantasy Camp Game on March 31. Among those scheduled to attend are Gary Suter, Todd Harvey, David Maley, Jamie Baker, and, of course, Darren Pang. I was hoping you could give me some insight on how to score on him. At 25, my life would be closer to being complete if I could just manage to score on the great Panger. Thanks for the insight.
Mark Bonin II
Panger? Stick side high. Or, if you're a lefty, take it to the backhand and slide it along the ice five-hole.
The attached photo captures me and my two hockey-playing sons, taken last Christmastime near Peekskill, N.Y. My sister-in-law has a small pond on her property, the perfect size for pond hockey. The ice had been soft and sloppy thanks to several days of warm weather, but on the night of Dec. 27, it rained early, then the temperatures dropped into the low 20s overnight. The next morning, the ice surface was as perfect as if a dozen Zambonis has worked it over for hours.
It was a particularly special treat for the three of us guys, since I was finishing up my recovery from a six-month tussle with cancer (I'm now 18 months into remission and still counting!). Also, my two boys had never skated on anything but artificial ice, and to see the pure joy on their faces at having a pond covered in perfect ice all to ourselves, well that's as good as it gets for a dad. In the photo, we are (from left to right): Greg (Dad), Hamish the Wonder Dog (and a terrible puck hog), Andy (13) and Alec (10).
Thanks for all you do for the game,
This is the first year without a backyard rink. Two Saturdays ago, it was 72 degrees here in Connecticut. I haven't even put in the liner, which is good for the budget, but bad for the hockey heart. This photo is a year old, but it's needed for us backyard rink owners.
John Buccigross' e-mail address -- for questions, comments or cross-checks -- is firstname.lastname@example.org.
With the All-Star break around the corner, John Buccigross gives his NHL pros and cons, and his favorites in the MVP race.