From Kane's candidacy to Avery's stupidity, it was a very busy year
Updated: January 4, 2009, 5:34 PM ETBy Terry Frei | Special to ESPN.com
"Should auld acquaintance be forgot "In the NHL's 2008 calendar year: A young, American-born, Chicago-based upstart campaigned from sea to shining sea, and beyond, and won the election. Of course, I'm talking about Patrick Kane and the Calder Memorial Trophy, and now he hopes to visit Barack Obama in the White House at least once in the next four years to be feted for a Stanley Cup win. The Penguins' 2-1 shootout victory over the Sabres at Ralph Wilson Stadium truly was a Classic. Marian Hossa decided that if you can't beat 'em, join 'em. Twice. Amazingly, 18 coaches managed to retain their jobs from the beginning of the year to the end. Brian Burke stepped down as general manager of the Ducks and announced he wanted to be working again by Thanksgiving. He missed his deadline, but the Burke family still had leftovers and was eating turkey sandwiches when, as expected, he became Ron Wilson's boss with the Maple Leafs two days after the holiday. The Red Wings didn't need or ask for a federal bailout. Also, by Jan. 2, when they beat Dallas 4-2 at Joe Louis Arena, they had won more games than the Lions would win all year.
While earning the Hart Memorial Trophy, Alex Ovechkin showed an NHL player can have fun (and sometimes require mustard) without being a jerk about it. After all, it's not as if celebrating a goal is like what we see roughly eight times every quarter in the NFL -- a cornerback or linebacker jumping up, thumping his own chest and celebrating a hard hit that limited a receiver or running back to a 21-yard gain. The Senators were 25-9-4 when the year started and then won four of their first five in 2008. After that well, they disappeared. And they still are nowhere to be found. It became even more fashionable to lock up young stars with contract extensions before they could become restricted free agents. The Penguins did it with Evgeni Malkin, the Kings with Anze Kopitar and the Avalanche with Paul Stastny, among many examples. That seems wise now, but it makes you wonder whether, in a few years, there will be complaints about "dead" money parazlyzing teams -- not necessarily about those players, but perhaps about others locked up with long-term deals. Of course, if things don't work out, it figures to be another general manager's problem by then. The Canadiens marked a centennial that evoked echoes of Maurice "The Rocket" Richard and so many others, finally and officially buried the hatchet with a former goaltender, and continued winning with a combination of rejuvenated veterans and bright prospects. The Blackhawks brought the NHL back to Chicago. Or maybe that should be: Rocky Wirtz brought Chicago back to the NHL. The Ducks fell back to earth, so much so that the highlight of the year was checking-line winger Travis Moen's guest appearance on the great CTV sitcom "Corner Gas," in the "Bed and Brake Fast" episode that aired April 14. He almost forgot the Stanley Cup in The Ruby, but he remembered his other cup, as the snot-nosed kid found out. Rumor was that Patrick Roy stuck a needle into the biceps of a voodoo doll wearing a No. 30 Devils sweater. Regardless, Roy's career wins record might be safe until next season. It began to seem that, despite a young, improving and promising product on the ice and a Great One standing behind the bench, the Phoenix Coyotes' Jobing.com Arena might go down in NHL history as a successor to the Cleveland Barons' Richfield Coliseum -- nice place, too far out, too hard to get to and too many empty seats.
Mitchell Layton/NHLI/Getty Images"A little mustard on that hot dog, sir?" Hey, the NHL can use the excitement created by Alex Ovechkin's goal celebrations.
When Sidney Crosby suffered a high ankle sprain, coach Michel Therrien's wince was even more pronounced than Crosby's. But Therrien learned the meaning of the phrase "silver lining." In Crosby's absence, a challenged Malkin became a superstar, too. At least until the finals. Barry Melrose went from ESPN to Tampa Bay and -- as quick as lightning -- right back again. And those of us who thought the new Tampa Bay ownership of Oren Koules and Len Barrie, plus executive Brian Lawton, had done a remarkable reconstruction job in the offseason are finding the Kool-Aid has a bitter aftertaste. And speaking of getting it wrong: In the third and fourth seasons of the salary-cap system, those of us who expected teams to have found ways to beat or at least circumvent it by now were off target. We give the league heck for a lot of things, but this seems to be something the NHL has pulled off. If there had to be a cap, at least it's one that is relatively straightforward and puts the NBA's loophole- and exception-filled system to shame. A U.S. team's broadcaster was allowed to sharply criticize his "own" team. Once. But many U.S. fans continued to believe they were getting objective, straight and uncensored views from "their" broadcasters. Apparently, no kids knocked on Joe Sakic's door and asked, "Hey, mister, want your driveway and sidewalk shoveled? Just 20 bucks!" Mats Sundin vetoed a trade from Toronto that would have given him a chance to win and enabled the Maple Leafs to get something for him, then walked away, took the sort of leisurely sabbatical a tenured college professor envies and signed with the Canucks. And the Leafs were left with nothing but memories. When the Winter Classic matchup was announced for Wrigley Field, a ghostly voice was heard exclaiming, "Holy Cow!" Nicklas Lidstrom won the Norris trophy for the sixth time in seven seasons and was the first European captain to hoist the Stanley Cup. Everyone from Borje Salming, King Carl XVI Gustav, Bjorn Borg and Ingemar Johansson to Benny Andersson and Bjorn Ulvaeus -- all were proud. Sean Avery was suspended. The major shock was that the Stars didn't appeal for a longer suspension. Relatively overlooked amid the furor were several salient facts: (A) Avery shouldn't have been suspended at all, because penalizing him for something he said sets up the league to be accused of selective sensitivity every time a player says something stupid and isn't suspended; (B) Avery's original remarks about the league's need to push superstars such as Jarome Iginla into the spotlight not only weren't out of line, but were right; (C) the guy doesn't need anger-management training -- he needs anti-stupidity training. San Jose landed Red Wings assistant Todd McLellan, and the Sharks' quick start raised the question of why nobody had jumped on a young and up-and-coming coach with such a broad-based resume sooner, instead of indulging in typical recycling. Jim Balsillie continued to type quickly on his BlackBerry and chase an NHL franchise. The way things were going at the end of the year, it seemed likely that one day soon, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman would send him a text message asking, "r u still ntrsted?" Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. He is the author of the just-released "'77" and "Third Down and a War to Go."
Bruce Bennett/Getty ImagesWhile Sidney Crosby recovered from injury, Evgeni Malkin, above, became a star in his own right.
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