- Damien Cox, NHL
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"We have only one person to blame, and that's each other." -- New York Rangers defenseman Barry Beck, once upon a time
The world of quotes. Yes, indeed, they do make the world go 'round, even the NHL, which isn't exactly the sassiest of pro sports leagues when it comes to lipping off. No Terrell Owens equivalent on skates, really, although Dallas Stars winger Sean Avery gives it a try.
What's refreshing about the NHL, however, is that when the words do start flying, they usually are born of passion and real anger, rather than careful sound-bite design. The patron saints of this kind of hockey-speak are NHL executives Brian Burke and Kevin Lowe, who waged a trash-talking session all last season because Lowe signed one of Burke's players as a free agent.
This season, they've stopped their long-distance sparring contest. And we've missed it. However, with the schedule already at about the quarter mark, there have been words spilled that are either inflammatory or strong indicators of the major issues making waves around the league.
Here's what's been said (so far):
"Tonight, it was idiotic and stupid. It was one of the most embarrassing things I've seen. If that's what we're going for, then they need to find me an office job. It was dumb penalties, dumb situations -- that's kind of been the trend all season. There's no mental toughness. We're allowing the refs to get involved in the game and spending more energy on them than the details of winning the game."
-- Dallas veteran Mike Modano after teammates Steve Ott and Avery, among others, ran amok in a game against the Boston Bruins
Amazing how often Avery's name comes up when somebody's mad, huh? For Modano to pop off like this certainly was newsworthy. The longtime Stars star usually speaks in measured tones, and it takes a fair bit to tick him off. Partly, it was the product of the agitating efforts of Ott and Avery -- surely the Stars could get by with just one, yes? -- and partly, it was almost certainly the result of a Dallas season gone bad. The Stars were close to making themselves the surprise of the playoffs this past spring, and goalie Marty Turco appeared to have shed his rep of not coming through in the big game. They added Avery and thought they'd be better. Well, not so much. Turco's numbers are awful, and this week, they brought in veteran blueliner Darryl Sydor to help settle things down.
"He's not competitive enough or fit enough to help us, so why put him back in? He's never been fit enough to help us. We signed him to be a top two line player, and that's kind of where it ended. The difference was, we thought the contract was a starting point, and he's viewed it as a finish line. It's been one thing after another. I can't watch it for -- certainly not another two and a half years."
-- Edmonton Oilers coach Craig MacTavish on making winger Dustin Penner a healthy scratch
Now, there are many reasons to treasure this one. It's nasty, it's pointed and it's of the no-holds-barred variety. Lovely. But it's even more meaningful given that it was Edmonton's signing of Penner in the summer of 2007 that got the Lowe-Burke lip-fest going. Penner was part of the Anaheim Ducks' 2006-07 championship season. After missing out on a similar attempt to sign Buffalo Sabres forward Thomas Vanek, the Oilers targeted Penner and got their man. Burke angrily denounced the move, and now it's the Oilers who are unhappy with Penner for being out of shape and unproductive. Perhaps a trade back to Orange County would smooth things over? What's that? Burke's not there anymore?
"My reaction is real simple; right now, we're horse----. But I'm not quitting on this group. This is a group that's averaged 103 points the last three years. And they've given our team a lot of good hockey. So, I'm not panicking. I believe in these guys, and I think we'll get this thing back on the rails."
-- Former Anaheim GM Burke before, ahem, becoming former Anaheim GM
OK, so maybe Penner would have to go to the Toronto Maple Leafs to make things even. No, that doesn't make sense. Guess the mighty Oil will have to figure that one out on their own. And Burke? Anybody watching knew he wasn't going to hang around the Ducks long after they refused to let him talk to Toronto this past summer when the Maple Leafs were looking for a full-time GM. It was just a matter of how long it would take CEO Michael Schulman (in charge until owner Henry Samueli gets his legal ducks in a row) to figure out that having a GM who definitely would be leaving in June running his team was a pointless exercise.
And guess what? The Ducks did get things "back on the rails." Even with the losses of Burke and defenseman Francois Beauchemin, they figure to be one of the best teams in the West this season. Still, the "I'm not quitting on this group" quote might stick to ol' Burkie for a while. That said, they're going to miss him in Anaheim, where there's no chance Bob Murray is going to keep them entertained the way Burke did.
"I feel all right. I'd rather not talk about it. It's becoming a bit of a distraction answering questions all the time. When we figure out what's going on, you guys will know."
-- New York Islanders goalie Rick DiPietro on his undisclosed knee injury after a game against the Carolina Hurricanes on Oct. 25
Or not. In fact, we still don't really know what's wrong with DiPietro, which means Islanders loyalists also don't know, which might make them wonder why they continue to support the team with the stinkiest building in hockey, a team that hasn't done much winning since approximately forever. This utter silliness about non-disclosure of injuries -- the upper-body injury is connected to the lower-body injury, get it? -- is making the entire league look amateurish, but that's the way it wants it. The NHL wants you to believe that a sport played at 150 miles an hour by athletes protected by enough equipment to choke an elephant still provides enough time for those players to target old injuries of their opponents. So, we can know everything and anything about Tony Romo's pinkie, but not about DiPietro's, um, lower body. It's going on everywhere with every team, turning every player into Sergeant (I Know Nothing!) Schultz.
"We have to take away the blow to the head. We have to do something about it. [Flyers GM Paul Holmgren] told me, 'You guys have to start talking about it. It's not going to come from the officials or the league. It has to come from the players."
-- Philadelphia Flyers forward Simon Gagne after complaining he was the victim of a head shot by Montreal Canadiens forward Alexei Kovalev
Gagne, who missed most of last season with concussion problems, certainly has a right to raise the issue, and it's the issue everybody's talking about but nobody's doing anything about. It could be, of course, that a sport that permits and in fact encourages two players to drop their gloves and punch each other repeatedly in the head is going to have a little difficulty fathoming a way to penalize those who hunt noggins in alternative ways. Various leagues -- the OHL, the NCAA -- have found ways to combat hits to the head, but the NHL wants you to believe it just can't find a way to deal aggressively with the issue. So Pat LaFontaine retires early, ditto for Keith Primeau, and Patrice Bergeron misses all last season, and Gagne, one of the game's best forwards, wonders on a nightly basis whether someone will make this game his last.
"What's so special about [Sidney Crosby]? I don't see anything special there. Yes, he does skate well, has a good head, good pass. But there's nothing else. I think that if you take any player, even if he is dead wood, and start promoting him, you'll get a star. Especially if he scores 100 points. No one is going to care about anyone else. No one is going to care whether he possesses great skill. Let's say you put someone in front of the net and let him deflect pucks in, and he scored 50 goals -- everyone will say, 'Wow!' and then hand him a $10 million per year contract. That's what they like here."
-- Washington Capitals forward Alexander Semin
On one hand, you've gotta love Semin. This probably wins the "best NHL quote before the Detroit Lions win a game" contest, but my goodness, you do have to wonder what in the world Semin was thinking when he let this one fly. Maybe he was just being honest, something he couldn't do if someone asked him about an injury. He can't possibly believe Crosby is some overhyped, no-talent dude, right?
The best part of these words from the very talented Caps forward, of course, is that they add fuel to the already significant fire between Washington and the Pittsburgh Penguins. Alex Ovechkin doesn't seem to like Evgeni Malkin, and Ovechkin and Crosby were barking at each other after a hotly contested game earlier this season.
"We've got another week until training camp starts, and we're not going to talk about this anymore. We need to focus on this team and this season. It doesn't matter to us when it gets done, and it's not going to bother us if it gets done later. I've always been optimistic. Now we're going to do what we do best, and that's play hockey."
-- Vancouver Canucks winger Daniel Sedin on his and his brother's contract talks with the team
OK, we're used to players talking about themselves in the third person, as though they were historians carefully monitoring their day-to-day wonderfulness. You know, "Joe Smith is going to play when Joe Smith can play, and when that happens, Joe Smith is going to play the way only Joe Smith can." Gotcha, Joe. Hockey-wise, the correct approach to all comments is to use "we" instead of "I" and "us" instead of "me, me, me."
In this case, however, Daniel Sedin was speaking on behalf of his identical twin brother, Henrik. But isn't it just a bit weird that any and all references to one Sedin are naturally aimed at both? These guys aren't just teammates and brothers, they're essentially joined at the elbow pad, drafted together, compadres on the same line, praised as one when the Canucks do well and criticized as one when things go poorly. Now, they also are heading down the same contractual path, as both are free agents at the end of the season. Well, what if the Canucks want one but not both? Wouldn't you want to see, say, Daniel, do a Kobe with Henrik as Shaq, saying he wants a chance to be "the man" on his own? In the slightly altered words of Rodney King, "Can't they just not get along?" C'mon. Don't tell me that wouldn't be a great sports story.
"I think the players didn't want to play for me. You don't have to be Kreskin to figure that out. I demand players play hard and play with passion and courage. If you don't do that, I let you know. I'm not a guy that sings 'Kumbaya' around the fire. I let you know if I'm not happy with you. Obviously, a lot of guys didn't like to be accountable with this team, and they went to Len [Barrie] and Oren [Koules] and said, 'Would you get rid of him?' I don't think there's any secret about that."
-- Barry Melrose on being fired by the Tampa Bay Lightning after 16 games
For those who don't know, The Amazing Kreskin was a Canadian mind-reader/David Copperfield type. You had to grow up in Medicine Hat to get it. Now, what we need to know about Melrose is whether he was in fact done in by his players, because the story from the team is somewhat different. They seem to say he didn't work hard enough and never taught the words to "Kumbaya" or any other campfire songs.
Look, with all due apologies to our former ESPN brother, this was never going to work, and it's probably best for all concerned that it was cut short nice and early before it went really bad. It's not Melrose's fault that, like Don Cherry, he turned out to be infinitely superior as a television analyst than as a coach, and both enjoyed significant successes behind the bench in their respective careers. Would you think it was a good idea if John Madden took over the Oakland Raiders again? Times change, and hockey changed a lot after Melrose left the Los Angeles Kings. The good news is the mullet lives on.
"I've never talked about money in my whole career, and I'm not going to start now. What I'll say, though, is that I don't equate money with respect. My intention is the same now as it's been all summer, and that's to play with the Rangers. When other teams have called my agent [Rick Curran], he's told them not to even make offers. And those are teams that are offering jobs, not tryouts."
-- Brendan Shanahan, before being told by the Rangers he was not in their plans for this season
Well, that courtship ended badly. Just like Mats Sundin never wanted to leave the Leafs, at least not involuntarily, Shanahan fell in love with the Big Apple and pretty much determined it was the only place he wanted to pursue NHL employment. But a funny thing happened. The Rangers saw Jaromir Jagr walk and didn't re-sign Shanahan, and suddenly, they seemed even better as a team. All those seasons of throwing enormous dollars at the biggest names -- maybe that wasn't the way to go after all! There were issues, like cap issues, but basically, the Rangers moved on before Shanahan was quite ready to. Now he's going to try it with somebody else, maybe the Flyers, and here's betting he's still got enough in the tank to help somebody.
"Everybody knows when he's on the ice what to expect. Hollweg has done it many times. He's a dirty player; he doesn't respect anybody. I don't know how he is off the ice, but on the ice, guys don't respect guys like that. You can play hard, but you don't have to hit a guy from behind."
-- Tampa Bay's Vincent Lecavalier on Toronto's Ryan Hollweg after Hollweg was suspended for hitting St. Louis Blues rookie defenseman Alex Pietrangelo from behind
You don't usually hear NHLers wade in on issues like this that don't involve their teams, which makes Lecavalier's words rather unique. He simply said what a whole lot of people around the league have been saying for a while, echoing Gagne's sentiments on head shots, but speaking on behalf of his entire fraternity. Gotta like that. And Avery's name didn't even come up in the conversation.
"Every single day, you ask the same questions. You know the amazing thing? You've never asked me once about what we're doing in practice. 'What was that drill?' No one's ever asked that. It's always, 'What's Jason Blake going to do tomorrow? Where's Brian Burke having dinner tonight?' You don't really talk about the actual X's and O's of the game. I find that kind of strange. So, then I wonder, maybe you don't ask those questions because maybe you don't understand."
-- Maple Leafs coach Ron Wilson sparring with the media
This, folks, was a marriage made in heaven or hell. Wilson, you see, is a smart fellow, an American with a little bit of Canadian mixed in, who went to Toronto primed to take on what some perceive to be the league's most voracious media. In reality, the Toronto media isn't nearly as nasty as it's made out to be, but what it lacks in bite, it makes up for with sheer volume. There are a lot of cameras and microphones and pens, and that's just for the morning skate. Wilson made it clear after signing a long-term deal that he wasn't going to play kissy-face with anyone, and after he ripped the "negative" Canadian media in the playoffs last season while coaching the San Jose Sharks, you can be sure there's a big explosion coming at some point.
"I didn't go to school. I dropped out at Grade 9. I didn't learn to play the piano. I didn't read 'Moby Dick.' I didn't read anything."
-- Dallas forward Avery on his life so far
You didn't think we would put together a "best of" and not include Avery, did you? Well, I didn't drop out of Grade 9, but I didn't learn to play the piano or read "Moby Dick," either. So maybe that means there's just a little Avery in all of us, just waiting to get out and wave a hockey stick in Martin Brodeur's face. Go ahead, let your inner Avery out. Your co-workers will hate you for it, but there might be a career at a fashion magazine in your future.
Damien Cox, a columnist for The Toronto Star, is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of "Brodeur: Beyond The Crease" and "'67: The Maple Leafs, Their Sensational Victory, and the End of an Empire."