Commentary

Final shifts for '09, a boy's childhood

Updated: January 5, 2010, 3:40 PM ET
By John Buccigross | ESPN.com

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John BuccigrossSparky ... at the Grand Canyon.

This is Jack, 9 years old and looking out over the Grand Canyon on a picture-perfect Arizona day in late April.

Jack owns Alex Ovechkin and Evgeni Malkin T-shirts just like the Sidney Crosby one he is wearing in the picture; they are the three most compelling players in the NHL today and were the first-, second- and third-leading goal scorers, respectively, this past season.

Jack also has a Brian Gionta shirt because he saw a New Jersey Devils game at the new rink last year, a Brendan Shanahan Red Wings shirt handed down from his older brother and T-shirts of other teams such as the Flyers, Islanders, Blue Jackets (I think) and maybe a Bruins one that still fits. Jack isn't emotionally attached to one NHL team, partly because his dad isn't, partly because he doesn't live in an NHL market and probably because of video games.

Jack roots for players, excitement and whichever team is winning. He feeds the horses on the bandwagon well. If Jack ever decides to invest in a favorite team, it will be his choice. We probably should all let our children pick their own sports teams, religions and which family members they wish to hang out with or avoid because they smell like beef and cheese.

Now, Jack's dad demands that the family packs lightly for vacations, and Jack was given a limit of one hockey T-shirt for a five-day trip to the Southwest on Southwest Airlines. He must have known something was in the rarefied Arizona air when he chose this T-shirt. (Or maybe it is because he wants to copy Crosby and use his birthday for his uniform number next squirt season.) Crosby's birthday is Aug. 7, 8/7, and thus he wears No. 87. Jack's birthday is the other way around -- July 8, 7/8, and thus wants to wear No. 78 in the winter. At least a No. 78 would make the spindly 58-pounder appear a tad bigger out there on the open ice. That this little sparky is a little more than a year away from getting run over by a 145-pound Skittles-eating peewee candyvore makes me shiver. (For the uninformed, checking becomes legal at age 11.)

This sublime snapshot is also a searing, symbolic photo for a father who is going through his final shifts with his youngest, alas, "final" child. It is late in the third period of my Stanley Cup fatherhood finals. The wonders of childhood are obliviously fading fast for me and Jack. One is always a father, but I imagine it is never the same when there is no one running to the opened door when you come home after work.

Yes, the cruelties of adolescence are looming for Jack. The future is unknowingly mysterious, intimidating and scary. His body language in this picture seems to suggest he is subconsciously aware that the future is about to bring change. Middle school, sitting in the front seat of the car and the Skittles-eating machine's sugar rage are all impending evolutions of which he is somewhat aware. Perhaps he can see the writing on the cavernous, colorful walls.

Parenting gets less intimate and more sprawling as a child grows older. Time and space engulf little boys and girls, and the importance of Dad dwindles. This is one of life's subtle tragedies, especially in the case of fathers and sons who do everything together, who are pals. I don't hang around grown-ups when I'm not working. I hang around Jack. So, time goes on, the ice gets chippy and there is no Zamboni. There is no turning back. Four-year-old Jack is gone; 5-year-old Jack is gone; 6-year-old Jack is gone, and 9-year-old Jack has only weeks left before he is gone forever. The days vaporize, and all that is left are photos, trophies, used toys and small, faded T-shirts that tell a thousand stories.

Now, Jack is not there yet. He is only, for now, at the precipice of his great leap forward. He has not yet been jilted by a girl or jilted by what he assumed was the inevitability of his NHL career playing on a line with Ovechkin and Crosby at the 2022 All-Star Game in Hamilton, Ontario, after NHL commissioner Jim Balsillie made good on his promise to the fine people of Hamilton.

Jack still rehearses and mimes his future NHL experience on the kitchen floor with his taped Steve Yzerman mini-stick, whispering the play-by-play and choreographing his severely injured and deformed McFarlane action figures of various sizes to his liking on the family-room floor. It is always a physical game. (His Evgeni Nabokov McFarlane has no arms, and his Joe Thornton inexplicably has no head.)

Jack still asks Dad to play catch, shoot pucks and, yes, cuddle. When he is dropped off for a game, he still leans over and gives Dad a kiss. But not for long.

Time erodes the thickest rock, so a cotton T-shirt and flesh and bones have no shot against such a monstrous and demeaning opponent. All we can do is try to live with heart, courage, mental toughness and artistic expression, the four values that make up a hockey champion and make a life worthy and interesting:

[+] EnlargeSidney Crosby and Henrik Zetteberg
Luc Leclerc/US PresswireThe on-ice battle between Sidney Crosby and Henrik Zetterberg was one of the many dramatic subplots of this year's finals.

1. Heart
Hockey is a blood sport, and the heart is the essential blood organ. A life can only be a life with something to be enthusiastic about.

2. Courage
This is the value that is needed to turn heart into a commodity. Everyone who loves skating has heart, but everyone who skates isn't a hockey player. Courage carries the heart and the dreams around the rink.

3. Mental toughness
Every stride, every shift, every day has purpose. Hockey is not meaningless, for it is life, and every bit of life should be purposeful. A life is only a life if you have the mental toughness to make every breath purposeful.

4. Artistic expression
To be a great artist, you must be a great thinker. You must expand the mind and train it to see things, to understand how things work, to think life. Thinking life is observational learning, experimentation and recall -- watching how things work, trying new things and applying them into action. Thinking the game. We can't all be great, but we all can be dependable. We can think the game. Learn the flow, sense the opportunities and learn when to strike. A life is only a life if you serve others by thinking the game.

When I began writing this blogumn in 2001, Jack was 2 and Crosby was 14. And they were worlds apart. But although a father and son are inevitably dragged apart by biology, cheerleaders and the boy's declaration of independence, time also has a funny way of slowly bringing things, worlds, together.

Jack is a big dreamer. He does not lack confidence. When Jack turns 22, Crosby will be just 34 (and I'll be 8 times 7, or 7 times 8). Obviously, Jack and Sid will be playing in the NHL at the same time. Quite possibly, they will be teammates. Thus, plausibly, they will be linemates. Simple. When you're 9.

I guess, then, in our dreams, in our childhoods, the canyons of doubt and uncertainty are not so grand after all. If we just think like the 9-year-old boy once in a while, we could realize a lot of things are still truly possible, if we just imagine it, picture it and go for it. Age, young or old, shouldn't matter. If we see things like this every day for all our days, we, too, in some indirect and wonderfully strange way, may end up eating Skittles from the Stanley Cup with someone we love. I'll be eating mine with Jack.

Have a safe and fun summer.

The Mother of All Mailbags

Mr. Buccigross,

Rock bands are clearly running out of options for names. Maybe that's why they're turning to numbers: Blink-182, Sum 41, Maroon 5. If I had to come up with a name for a young band and mix in a number, I'd go with Game 7.

The name evokes ideas of absolutely maximum effort, a backs-to-the-wall approach, commitment verging on desperation, one shot at glory -- all of which are notions intrinsic to memorable games and gigs. And how's this for a new musical genre: Sudden Death Metal. Sounds like an OT winner, ringing off the post.

Richard Gizbert
London

"The greater difficulty, the more glory in surmounting it. Skillful pilots gain their reputation from storms and tempests." -- Epicurus


Bucci,

You've stated several times that the Kings have the cap space to make some moves this summer. I would love to see Marian Hossa or Dany Heatley in a Kings uniform next year. What do you think?

Tom
Los Angeles

Heatley or Hossa would make a lot of sense for the Kings, although getting a rock in net remains the Kings' biggest concern. Solving that with an overpriced free-agent goalie is less than ideal, as it affects budgeting for overall team depth.

The lower you can keep your goalie's salary-cap number, the more you can do up front. The Blackhawks' goalies had a combined cap number of $12.1 million this past season. The Red Wings paid their tandem $2.1 million, and if Chris Osgood is the starter next season, Detroit will be at that number again.

[+] EnlargeMarian Hossa
Jason Bridge/US PresswireMarian Hossa has no goals and three assists over seven games in the Cup finals.

The Blackhawks will have a better cap number next season, as Nikolai Khabibulin, an unrestricted free agent, probably will come off the books; but if it's Cristobal Huet and a backup, Chicago will still have about $6.6 million dedicated to goaltending.

Heatley will turn 29 during the 2009-10 season; Hossa will turn 31. Heatley has five more years at a $7.5 million cap number. His contract with Ottawa was front-loaded, so the team that acquires him will owe $35 million for five years, $7 million a year, but the cap number still will be $7.5 million. If the Kings actually had a choice between the two, Hossa would make more sense to me.

Hossa is probably in line for a five-year deal, and I can't see how he could get a $7.5 million cap number with a falling salary cap and his postseason performance. You don't have to trade for him. Hossa and Heatley are so comparable in terms of age and estimated production that you can use what you would trade to get Heatley and get something else you need, such as a goalie.

Now, the advantage of trading for Heatley before free agency and the draft is that there is no guarantee a team would get Hossa or any free agent your team hasn't had a secret conversation with. Who knows what that guy is thinking? As I wrote here last spring, I thought Hossa should have signed with Pittsburgh last summer for five or six years because it would have given him an excellent chance to win a Stanley Cup. He probably also would have reached 500 career goals by playing with Crosby and Malkin and punched his ticket to the Hockey Hall of Fame.

Now, when it's all said and done, Hossa will make plenty of money the rest of his career and still have a good chance to make the Hall if he picks the right team and thinks more about the players around him instead of taking the highest offer. Staying in Detroit would be a smart move in that regard, but he would have to take a pretty good discount. Plus, does Detroit want to give Hossa one of those eight- or 10-year deals with front-loaded money and a lower cap number after what it saw in the finals? Or should the Wings look to Jay Bouwmeester and offer him one of those 15-year deals that would take him to age 40?

You could give the defenseman $7 million a year for 10 years and $1.5 a year for five years; $77.5 million for 15 years, and that's a cap number of $5.1 million. A huge risk over the long term, but for aggressive teams like the Red Wings or Flyers, it's something they might consider. I understand the reservations some might have with Bouwmeester, but I believe that he is set to take it to another level.

Nicklas Lidstrom will turn 40 in April, and Brian Rafalski will turn 36 in the fall. Most of the key forwards on the Red Wings are at or approaching 30. As I have been writing here for years, hockey is a young man's game, and once an NHL player hits 30, he is not the same player. Players in this era are in great shape, but the miles from the intense hockey they have played, plus the fact that they start playing at a younger age, take their toll. Younger people have more energy, stamina and healing powers.

[+] EnlargeDany Heatley
Andre Ringuette/NHLI/Getty ImagesSens forward Dany Heatley has reportedly asked for a trade out of Ottawa.

Maurice Richard was 23 when he scored 59 goals in 50 games during the 1944-45 season. Bobby Orr was 22 when he scored 120 points and flew through the air to win his first Stanley Cup in 1970. Wayne Gretzky was 21 when he went 92-120-212 in the 1981-82 campaign. When the Islanders began their run of four straight Cups in the early 1980s, Bryan Trottier was 23, Mike Bossy was 23, Clark Gillies was 25 and Denis Potvin was 26.

The Islanders' run ended as that core approached 30, and they were beaten by the Oilers in 1984. Gretzky was 23, Paul Coffey was 22, Jari Kurri was 23, Mark Messier was 23, Glenn Anderson was 23 and Kevin Lowe was 24. Then came the Penguins in the early 1990s. Mario Lemieux was 25, Mark Recchi was 22, Jaromir Jagr was 18, Kevin Stevens was 25 and Larry Murphy and Coffey were still younger than 30. Who were the Rangers' top five playoff scorers in 1994? Brian Leetch (25 years old), Messier (33), Alexei Kovalev (20), Sergei Zubov (23) and Adam Graves (25). You will find instances where older teams win. The 2006 Hurricanes were an older team, although their leading scorer was Eric Staal (21), and the Conn Smythe winner was Cam Ward (21).

So, as the Red Wings look at Hossa, they have to contemplate whether they want to give another of their long-term, cap-friendly contracts to another player older than 30.

The Kings, on the other hand, have enough young players, so adding a 30-ish player probably would be a good investment. The Western Conference is very competitive, and a couple of teams, such as Anaheim and Chicago, are set up for long-term success if they make the correct contract decisions.

The Kings probably need to add an impact forward to keep pace with not only those teams but also other clubs who are set up for possible good runs in the next five years, such as Columbus and St. Louis. Either Hossa or Heatley would be a huge addition for the Kings. But if the price for Heatley is too steep or Hossa signs elsewhere, there are other options, such as Marian Gaborik or Martin Havlat.

The answer to Tom's e-mail was more than 1,000 words long. That is definitely a Bucci e-mail bag record and longer than most garden-variety hockey columns. This space clearly gives you, the reader, excellent value for the price. Oh, yeah, this is free.


Bucci,

I am surprised that you did not cover Malkin avoiding suspension in the last mailbag. I believe if it was anyone other than Malkin or Crosby (or if a Red Wing attacked either of them), a suspension would have been issued. As the rules are written, I believe he should have been suspended. He attacked Zetterberg, also a star, for a reason, not in the passion of the game.

Bryan McClain
Lewis Center, Ohio

Once Scott Walker punched Aaron Ward in the grill and wasn't suspended, an NHL player would have had to grab a chain saw from a trainer and cut off an opponent's limb to get suspended. Even if Walker hadn't punched Ward, I don't think Malkin's pillow fight with Zetterberg was suspension-worthy.


Bucci,

I have to ask, who is to blame for Game 4 going up against Game 1 of the NBA Finals? And since once isn't enough, the NHL will take off Sunday and Monday and wait to play Game 6 on Tuesday up against the NBA again. Which do you think the casual sports fan is going to choose, Game 1 of the NBA Finals with Kobe and Superman or Game 4 of the Stanley Cup finals? The NHL needs to avoid having that choice.

Dan
Stratford, Conn.

I love when the NHL goes head-to-head with the NBA. I don't think there is a better opportunity to show which is the better game and which is the better TV show. The contrast is striking to me, and this is coming from someone who played basketball through high school and was recruited a little to play small-college basketball.


JB,

I had a weird dream last night. I was in a college class you were auditing, and the professor asked me what my favorite art form was. I said the first thing that popped into my mind -- an Al MacInnis slap shot.

I immediately looked over at you and you gave me a knowing nod of approval. That's all I have.

Mason
Wakefield, Mass.

Dream on.

"One who gains strength by overcoming obstacles possesses the only strength which can overcome adversity." -- Albert Schweitzer


John,

I ran across some Hakan Loob news while browsing through the IIHF Web site. Håkan Loob has taken a leave of absence from his position as the CEO of Färjestad "to investigate future opportunities for the Swedish league." Also, in the same article, I found out a scoring title is named after him:

Last season, there were nine Norwegians and five Danes in the 12-team Swedish Elitserien. Per-Åge Skrøder became the first Norwegian to win the league's scoring title -- as well as the Håkan Loob Trophy as the league's leading goal scorer -- collecting 30 + 29 = 59 points in 55 games for Modo in Örnsköldsvik.

Matt
Eden Prairie, Minn.

God bless you, Matt.


Bucci,

I'm a lifelong Pens fan, and my buddy is a lifelong Wings fan. Wednesday morning, we decided to go to Game 7. Unfortunately, we live in Del Rio, Texas. But 1,600 miles and a lot of credit-card debt later, we arrived at The Joe for what will forever be the greatest hockey experience of our lives. But before that, we made a bet. Neither of us has a jersey/sweater of our team, so we figured the loser has to buy the winner the jersey of his choice. So my question for you is, who do I go with? I was thinking Malkin or Jordan Staal before the game, but now I'm thinking Maxime Talbot for his Game 7 performance. What do you think?

Sloan

Talbot would be a great choice because you would then have a story behind the sweater. Then, someday, after wearing the sweater at many occasions for a couple of years, you can get Talbot to autograph the jersey. Have someone take a picture of Talbot autographing it with you looking on. Then, have the sweater, the picture of you and Talbot and your Game 7 ticket stub professionally framed. It will be pricey, but worth it, especially when you hang it on the wall just inside your front door. Also, Talbot wears No. 25 (2 + 5 = 7).


Hey Bucci,

Just wanted to share my 5-month-old son's love and devotion for the game and for the Pens. Can you see his playoff beard coming through? :)

Cory and Hayden Hamilton
The second- and third-biggest Pens fans in Utah

Flashing the baby blues.



John Buccigross' e-mail address -- for questions, comments or crosschecks -- 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.