From Tocchet to turkeys talking, 2006 had it all
Charles Dickens might well have been a hockey fan, given his keen observations on the passage of time, what with his shrewd "best of times, worst of times" riff. He might well have been talking about the NHL and the calendar year 2006. And so, given that Dickens is long dead, herein we humbly offer our top 15 "best of times, worst of times, most puzzling of times" moments from the hockey world in 2006.
The Rick Tocchet Betting Scandal
Yeah, that was a swift kick in the you-know-what for the NHL, which was riding high on its post-lockout renaissance until New Jersey authorities unveiled Operation Slapshot (someone stayed up late thinking up that title). Phoenix Coyotes assistant coach Rick Tocchet was charged with money laundering and promoting gambling and conspiracy and was linked via law enforcement leaks to organized crime figures in Philadelphia. Among the many bettors from whom police allege Tocchet took action was the wife of Phoenix head coach Wayne Gretzky, Janet Jones Gretzky, who allegedly put down $500,000 in a brief period leading up to last year's Super Bowl. Has anyone noticed that Tocchet hasn't yet appeared before a grand jury as the case closes in on its one-year anniversary? Two things will be made clear in the coming months. Either prosecutors have gotten a whole bunch of nada on Tocchet, in which case they're planning an exit strategy that won't cost too many of them their jobs, or they've got the goods and are being especially cautious, in which case Tocchet is looking at jail time. The good news for hockey? No suggestion from anyone connected to this case that anyone placed bets on NHL games.
Olympic Meltdown Part I
In general, the Olympics were a disaster for the NHL. The IOC and IIHF wouldn't alter the schedule once they learned the NHL was going to take part, and that left many players playing eight games in 10 or 11 days. The pace was grueling and led directly or indirectly to injuries to key players Dominik Hasek, Jaromir Jagr and Sami Salo, among others. Those injuries had a direct impact on the NHL's playoff run and almost guaranteed the NHL won't be doing the Olympic thing after Vancouver in 2010. On the ice, the competition was keen, as it always is at these events, although the Swedes' admission that they would be happy to lose to Slovakia to ensure a quarterfinal matchup against the surprising Swiss -- which is exactly what transpired -- did take a bit of the shine off the Swedes' well-earned gold medal win over the plucky Finns.
Olympic Meltdown Part II
Canada's much-anticipated defense of its Salt Lake City gold turned sour in a hurry as the star-studded favorites couldn't have deposited a puck in the ocean, let alone in an opposing goal. Showing a puzzling lack of leadership, Joe Thornton, Dany Heatley, Jarome Iginla et al. could not produce goals in the clutch, and Canada went home after a quarterfinal loss to Russia. The collapse left executive director Wayne Gretzky open to criticism after he left emerging stars Eric Staal, Sidney Crosby and Jason Spezza off the Canadian roster. As for the U.S., a poorly assembled squad that ignored many emerging young players also bowed out in the quarterfinals and finished the tournament with just one win. The absence of both Canada and the U.S. in the medal games resulted in a sharp decline in interest in spite of top-notch play by the remaining countries.
Jumbo Joe Goes West
With the Bruins in disarray (how many times has that phrase been written in the past decade?), soon-to-be-ex-GM Mike O'Connell dealt captain Joe Thornton to San Jose for Marco Sturm, Brad Stuart and Wayne Primeau. Thornton would go on to win the scoring championship and edge Jaromir Jagr for the Hart Trophy as MVP. It would take the Bruins until late in 2006 to start seeing that perhaps the deal wasn't the stinker many Boston fans believed. And wouldn't a Sharks-Bruins Stanley Cup finals matchup be full of delicious ironies?
The seeds of implosion for one of the NHL's most successful franchises were sown last spring when the speedy Buffalo Sabres twice routed the Philadelphia Flyers in a six-game opening-round playoff victory. But no one could have predicted the rapid fall from grace the Flyers experienced early in the current campaign. With the season less than a month old, owner Ed Snider fired coach Ken Hitchcock and GM Bob Clarke resigned, although he later reappeared on the Philly masthead as a senior vice president. (No truth to the rumor Clarke merely fell asleep at his desk and woke up with a new title on his office door.) New coach John Stevens and GM Paul Holmgren have a mountain of work ahead of them as the Flyers closed out 2006 as the worst team in the NHL by a large margin, in spite of the presence (sometimes) of Peter Forsberg, Joni Pitkanen, Mike Richards and Jeff Carter.
Pittsburgh, Kansas City, Houston, Waterloo & Your Guess Is As Good As the NHL's
After years of posturing and threatening and cajoling, the Pittsburgh Penguins' future in Pennsylvania remains as murky as ever. With the failure of casino company Isle of Capri, which had promised to build a new arena for new owners, to obtain a slots license for the city, local officials are going to have to come up with a pretty sweet deal for whoever takes over the team -- or the Penguins will be gone at the end of the year.
Crosby, Ovechkin -- To the Moon, Alice
If the future of the game is in the hands of Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin, then the future should be bright indeed. After becoming the youngest player to record 100 points (he finished with 102) in his rookie season, Crosby has taken his game to a new level and began 2007 as the NHL's leading point getter. Meanwhile, defending rookie of the year Ovechkin leads the NHL in goals and both have their teams in an unexpected hunt for a playoff berth. In the bigger picture, both seem to embrace their roles as the face of the new NHL.
Carolina on My Mind
The Hurricanes emerged from the lockout with modest expectations but soon set the NHL on its collective ear with a potent, lightning-fast attack and terrific goaltending from Martin Gerber and rookie Cam Ward. Led by inextinguishable Rod Brind'Amour, who emerged from retired captain Ron Francis' shadow, the Hurricanes followed up a stellar regular season with exciting playoff wins over Montreal, New Jersey and Buffalo before edging Edmonton in a compelling seven-game finale. Best moments? The pregame tailgating festivals in sun-drenched Raleigh and the full-throated rendition of "O Canada" produced by the Carolina fans.
City of Champions -- Almost
The Edmonton Oilers struggled all season to qualify for the playoffs, then became the first-ever eighth seed to knock off a top seed as they dismantled the Presidents' Trophy winners from Detroit in six games. They then erased a 2-0 series deficit against San Jose before dispatching Anaheim in five games to become Western Conference champs. They came within an eyelash of winning it all, but even a loss in the finals did not diminish the Oilers' magical spring. Throughout the NHL, they became a rallying cry that anything is possible -- as long as you get to the playoffs. Best moment? Listening to Edmonton anthem singer Paul Lorieau simply hold his microphone aloft for the Rexall Place faithful to close out "O Canada" late in the playoff run.
Chris Pronger Has Left the Building -- and the City -- and the Country
Moments after the Oilers' loss in the Cup finals, all-world defenseman Chris Pronger stunned fans and management by announcing that, for a host of unspoken reasons but most having to do with his unhappy family, he would be asking for a trade. GM Kevin Lowe acquiesced and sent Pronger and his suddenly happier family to Anaheim for sniper-in-waiting Joffrey Lupul, Ladislav Smid and a couple of draft picks. Pronger is turning in a Norris and Hart trophy-worthy season, and the Ducks are the best team in the NHL by any measure. The Oilers once again look to be a last-minute playoff team, which, oddly enough, could set up a Ducks-Oilers first-round matchup. How delicious would that be?
The NHL's views on the schedule are like the weather -- wait 10 minutes and they'll change. Maybe playing eight games against division rivals is too much, but why there is a g-force panic to change the system in the middle of a three-year cycle is beyond us. All this bleating about not seeing Sidney Crosby in the west is nonsensical. Think a midwinter, midweek date with the Penguins is going to bring Nashville fans out of the woodwork more than seeing Detroit four times a year? Not a chance. And let us not forget you can't just play Pittsburgh and Washington but you have to take the Panthers or the Islanders, too. The whole issue is a colossal waste of energy. Wait until the end of next season, then have the competition committee make a recommendation. Simple.
Steve Moore, the former Colorado Avalanche forward brutally attacked late in the 2003-04 season by then Vancouver star Todd Bertuzzi, filed a civil suit against Bertuzzi and others, setting up the possibility of an ugly court battle in which the NHL's "code" would be laid bare. Commissioner Gary Bettman, hoping to put the ugly spectacle behind the league -- not to mention save the NHL from potential (further) embarrassment -- interceded and, late in 2006, was meeting with representatives from both parties in the hopes of finding a resolution. In the end, Moore's appetite for vengeance (or is that justice?) will say much about how this sad story plays out.
Bertuzzi? Tall Guy? Scowls a Lot?
The biggest trade of the offseason saw the Vancouver Canucks deal Todd Bertuzzi, defenseman Bryan Allen and netminder Alex Auld to the Florida Panthers for Roberto Luongo and prospect Lukas Krajicek. Although Bertuzzi recorded seven points in his first seven games as a Panther, a bad back has made him mostly irrelevant and invisible in South Florida. As for Luongo, he has been mostly terrific as the Canucks have shaken off a slow start to jump to the Northwest Division lead heading into the new year.
The Islanders Circus Never Leaves Town
The New York Islanders, always high on the "What the heck?" charts, made news during the Stanley Cup finals by hiring former New York Rangers GM Neil Smith and blackballed former coach of the year Ted Nolan to guide the Isles. That lasted for about an hour before owner Charles Wang got the shakes when Smith started making hockey decisions on his own. Smith was dispatched, and backup netminder Garth Snow was promoted to GM. Then, while heads had barely stopped shaking in wonder over that move, the Isles locked netminder Rick DiPietro in to a mind-numbing 15-year deal. The wonder of all this? The Isles remain very much in the playoff hunt as 2006 comes to an end and could be the Cinderella team in the East.
No. 19 Sails Into the Hockeytown Sunset
One of the finest players of his generation, Steve Yzerman decided he'd had enough and announced before the start of the season that he was done. A date with the Hall of Fame awaits, but more interesting will be Yzerman's future in the game. After taking a post in the Red Wings' front office, Yzerman has been at the board of governors' meetings in Florida, then off to the World Junior Championship in Sweden. He's a dedicated student of the game, so we imagine Yzerman's impact is not yet over.
Scott Burnside is the NHL writer for ESPN.com.
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