Saturday, December 29, 2007

Avalanche lose captain Joe Sakic for up to 3 months

No player has been the face of the Colorado Avalanche during the 12 years the franchise has been in Denver more than their captain Joe Sakic.

As the key member of their two Stanley Cup championships in 1996 and 2001, the 38-year-old Sakic has always been known to be the opposite of injury prone and would have to be seriously hurt to miss a game. However, according to Rocky Mountain News writer Aaron J. Lopez, Sakic had injured his right groin during Colorado's 4-2 victory over Edmonton on November 28th and has not played since he was in the lineup for his team's 5-2 win in Los Angeles on December 1st.

Some players may be able to play through the pain, but the injury was serious enough for Sakic that he was placed on injured reserve two days later. He had played in 232 straight games dating back to January 6, 2004 before he was sidelined. While the Avalanche have been a playoff contending team this season and especially strong on home ice where they were 15-3 entering today's game against the Kings, hockey observers will see how Sakic's teammates will respond knowing he's out for a significant period of time. The last time he missed a chunk of any season due to injury was during the 2002-2003 campaign when he sat out 24 games due foot and ankle ailments.

In a team press release from Thursday, the Avalanche announced that Sakic will be out of the lineup for the next 8 to 12 weeks and had undergone hernia surgery. The coaching and medical staffs hoped that this wouldn't have resorted to Sakic missing more than the 13 games lost since he last played, but team physician Andy Parker said the captain was not responding well to treatment.

"Joe's rehabilitation has not progressed as anticipated and upon further evaluation the decision has been made to perform surgery in order for him to fully recover," Parker said.

So when will Sakic return? It is most likely not until March as Lopez had given a broad timeframe of either early in the month if the captain's rehabilitation goes well or if it takes the full 12 weeks, the end of that month. Either way, that's a good portion of the second half of this season.

This brings me back to what I had stated a few moments ago. How well will Colorado play in his absence for the next three months? They were 8-5 since Sakic was put on the shelf. One positive about what faces the Avalanche is the presence of another leader in the locker room in former Oilers captain Ryan Smyth. His free agent signing over the summer looks even more significant now than it did when he arrived in Denver. But Smyth knows that regardless, making up for what Sakic continues to bring to the team will be a very difficult task.

"It's a huge loss. He's an inspiration, on and off the ice," Smyth told Denver Post Avalanche beat writer Adrian Dater after Thursday's 4-2 loss to Detroit at the Pepsi Center. "We're just going to have to do the best we can without him, but you don't replace a Joe Sakic."

Dater also mentioned yesterday in his article an interesting scenario that faces the Avalanche from a personnel standpoint. However he was told by Colorado general manager Francois Giguere that he won't be quick to make any knee-jerk trades now that Sakic's out.

"This could give us a chance to some of our younger players to make an impact," Giguere said. "(About a trade), I'll say what I always say: We're always trying to make our team better, in any way."

In other words, Giguere will just see how the team fares as they enter the second half of the season and if there is a situation that presents itself where a trade makes sense, he'll look into making a deal with the right trading partner.

Dater has brought up a very important point on what lies ahead where he says that Sakic is only under contract for this season for $6.75 million. Since the captain is expected to miss more than 10 straight games or 24 straight days, under the new collective bargaining agreement, teams can apply for salary cap relief. Any of the 30 National Hockey League teams are allowed to exceed the cap by up to the amount of the injured player's salary with as many replacement players as it wants. Will Giguere take advantage of that opportunity remains to be seen, but if the Avalanche aren't in a position in the Western Conference standings he feels comfortable with at the time the team qualifies for the extended salary cap room, speculation of any moves will surface.

MSG settles sexual harassment lawsuit with ex-Rangers City Skater

Madison Square Garden management had to pay a price for losing a high profile sexual harassment court case to former New York Knicks executive Anucha Browne Sanders on October 2nd. Not only was the company ordered to pay $11.6 million in damages, but those named in Sanders' lawsuit would hang their heads in shame. They include MSG chairman James Dolan and Knicks President of Basketball Operations Isiah Thomas, a man who had made Sanders' working environment disgracefully an uncomfortable one. Once Dolan fired Sanders in January 2006 after she took her complaints to the team owner about Thomas' treatment of her that began as far back in time as three years earlier, she filed the lawsuit.

While Dolan had to settle with Sanders, Thomas somehow escaped from financial penalty as he still remains employed by Madison Square Garden. That includes head coaching duties for the Knicks. With that arena tenant having its worst season since the early 1980s, fans recently gathered at the 7th Avenue entrance complete with picket-size signs to demand that Thomas be fired. To this day, Dolan has spared Thomas the pink slip.

While this case had moved into the shadow of the Thomas sexual harassment lawsuit, Dolan likely decided now to settle with another woman that was also treated poorly by company employees. Interesting enough this came just 16 days after doing so with Sanders. Likely in order to avoid another embarassing trial to further damage the Madison Square Garden company reputation, Dolan settled on Wednesday with former Rangers City Skaters cheerleader captain Courtney Prince, a woman that filed her own lawsuit against the company in October 2004. New York Times sports writer Richard Sandomir reported in his article on Thursday that Prince claimed that New York Rangers Vice President of Sports Team Operations Jason Vogel made unwelcomed sexual advances toward Prince at a nearby bar after a Rangers game in December 2003 and tried to pressure her into having three-way sex with him and a former New York Times reporter.

After taking her complaints to company management that they dismissed, Prince was subject to retaliatory sexual harassment. New York Post writer Kati Cornell reported on Thursday that Prince also accused MSG employees of quizzing her of the sex lives of her fellow Rangers City Skaters and ordering her to arrange off-hours meetings with them at local bars. They also demanded her to tell the other cheerleaders to pad their bras, take diet pills and enhance their physical appearance to put it mildly make themselves look sultry. But once Prince warned the other cheerleaders to stay away from certain employees to avoid being sexually harassed, she was then fired.

The lawsuit made the front pages of the tabloids when this scandal became public, but the recent better on-ice performances of the Rangers may have lessened the focus of the Prince case in comparison to what the Knicks faced. New York Daily News writer Tracy Connor reported on Thursday that MSG had rejected an initial $800,000 settlement offer from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission at the time Prince's lawsuit was originally filed and their lawyers attempted to vehemently slander Prince. This included gathering statements from ten of her former fellow cheerleaders in claiming she was a nymphomaniac and used graphic sexual language in their conversations.

However, Sandomir reported that Prince's court documents revealed that she showed no unusual psychological symptoms of questionable behavior while two of the Rangers City Skaters were coerced into signing unsworn affidavits.

Settling now obviously avoids significantly more embarassing testimony against the company. Even more damaging for Madison Square Garden would've been the possibility of revealing details of a notebook kept by Rangers executives about what kind of sexual positions they want try with members of the Rangers City Skaters. Sanders was actually aware of this notebook, which its existence helped in their cases against their former employer.

"We resolved this matter with no admission of wrongdoing on any part," Prince's lawyer Kathleen Peratis said after the undisclosed settlement was reached.

The Rangers City Skaters are no longer a part of the game events during Rangers home games at Madison Square Garden.

Even though the two parties came to a confidential settlement, the court of public opinion likely has convicted those that run Madison Square Garden of what Ms. Connor described in her article. That would be that with not one but two sexual harassment cases levied against them, an undetermined number of male executives had treated female employees like sex objects, the kind of reputation that will need to be cleaned up in the coming weeks, months and years ahead.

Friday, December 28, 2007

Red Wings get Nicklas Lidstrom locked up through 2010

The Detroit Red Wings delivered a belated Christmas gift to five-time Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom on Wednesday. It was only one day after the actual holiday, but I doubt he minded.

Prior to the Red Wings' road game in St. Louis, the team announced they signed Lidstrom to a two-year contract extension through the 2009-2010 season. According to yesterday's edition of The Detroit News, the deal is worth $14.9 million. The 37-year-old Swede has spent his entire National Hockey League career with the Original Six team and was a key member of the Red Wings' three most recent Stanley Cup championship teams in 1997, 1998 and 2002. Lidstrom has shown no signs of slowing down and has been quite productive for Detroit as he leads the NHL in assists (30) and points (34) by a defenseman in 37 games this season. He is second in the league in the plus/minus statistic (+23).

Seriously, you're not convinced? Well, if you are among the ridiculously few on the planet that aren't, you might want to check out an excellent overview of Lidstrom's place in Red Wings history put together by The Detroit News staff prior to the start of this season.

Lidstrom took over the captaincy following the July 3, 2006 retirement of another lifetime Red Wing in future Hall of Famer Steve Yzerman, who was then named the team's Vice President. His career resume goes beyond his impressive tenure in the Motor City as he played for the Swedish national team in the 1991 Canada Cup, the 1996 and 2004 World Cup of Hockey tournaments and was a part of the 2006 Gold Medal-winning Olympic team. He even holds the distinction by being one of only three Swedish-born players to amass 600 assists in his career. That is certainly an achievement no one can fail to take notice as one of the game's most valuable defenseman in the NHL and one of the most durable, too. Entering Wednesday's 5-0 victory over the Blues, he had reached the 900-point plateau while missing just 22 games in his entire career. Truly remarkable, especially for a defenseman. Then again, we could always ask his teammate Chris Chelios about that, who will turn 46 years old on January 25th.

"Nick has been the best defenseman in the world for several years," Red Wings general manager Ken Holland said in the team press release. "He's a great captain and role model who does everything right both on and off the ice. We're proud to have him continue as a Red Wing for another two years."

Without any shred of doubt, this man has earned it. What probably made Lidstrom's decision to play another two more seasons beyond this one a bit easier is how the 2007-2008 campaign has fared. That we as hockey fans know has been an outstanding one in the first three months. Detroit has been the clear cut best team in the entire league to date as they've been red hot especially in December with 11 wins. They have won 13 of their last 15 games overall. Following their 4-2 road victory over the Colorado Avalanche just hours ago, the Red Wings improved to 28-10 on the season with 59 points, easily the most in the NHL. Only the East-leading Ottawa Senators (54) have at least 50 entering the final week of the 2007 calendar year. Lidstrom is primed to make his ninth All-Star Game appearance next month in Atlanta.

But what also led to his decision to prolong his potentially Hall of Fame career is his desire to lead the Red Wings to another Stanley Cup title and with them among the elite teams in the NHL right now, who wouldn't want to play on?

"I take a lot of pride in being captain of one of the Original Six teams," Lidstrom told David Goricki and Ted Kulfan of The Detroit News earlier this month. "There's so much tradition here."

Lidstrom's teammates undoubtedly are thrilled their captain will be staying in Detroit for the rest of this decade, especially Kris Draper.

"It's a great move by the organization, not to even let this go any further," Draper said to Detroit Free Press sports writer George Sipple on Wednesday. "To be able to get a guy like Nick Lidstrom sealed up for two more years, it basically puts him in a situation to retire a Red Wing. I think that's great."

As many journalists would do immediate after the team they covered wins a championship and asks if they can repeat, Sipple slipped the "inquiring minds want to know" question to Lidstrom. That would be will he play beyond 2010?

"I don't know," Lidstrom explained. "All I know is I gotta play for another couple years and that's my focus right now. I'll reassess everything when a two-year deal is up. We'll see. But I'm very happy and pleased with the two-year deal that I got."

Either way, in taking a page out of Stevie Wonder's songbook, the Red Wings have him signed, sealed and delivered. And he's theirs. What question remains between now and when he retires is whether or not he'll be raising the Stanley Cup over his head again. This season he has a good chance of all goes well from here on in.

Friday, December 21, 2007

Marian Gaborik's 5-goal night highlights season's first 3 months

Add December 20, 2007 to the list of memorable games in Minnesota Wild history.

Among those memories in the State of Hockey since the team's inception into the National Hockey League, here are those I can easily identify:

1. October 6, 2000 - first game in Wild history

2. October 11, 2000 - first regular season home game at Xcel Energy Center

3. October 18, 2000 - first win in Wild history (6-5 over Tampa Bay Lightning)

4. December 17, 2000 - first home game vs. Dallas Stars (6-0 win over Minnesota's original NHL team)

5. March 23, 2003 - Wild clinch first playoff berth in team history (4-0 win over Detroit Red Wings)

6. April 21, 2003 - Richard Park scores game-winning overtime goal in Game 6 to send 2003 Western Conference Quarterfinals against Colorado Avalanche to deciding Game 7

7. April 22, 2003 - Andrew Brunette scores series-winning overtime goal to defeat the Colorado Avalanche in Game 7 of 2003 Western Conference Quarterfinals

8. May 8, 2003 - ousted Vancouver Canucks from playoffs with Game 7 victory in 2003 Western Conference Semifinals

9. February 7, 2004 - hosted the 2004 NHL All-Star Game

and now can I add this to this list (not necessarily the only ones that are memorable)...

10. December 20, 2007 - Marian Gaborik scored career-high and club record 5 goals in 6-3 victory over New York Rangers

Did you see that? Let me run that by you again. Minnesota Wild forward Marian Gaborik lit up the New York Rangers for five goals (yes, that's five!) on Thursday night in a 6-3 win. It was the most goals by any one player in a single game during the 7-year history of the franchise. When the night was over, the hockey world was buzzing.

Already known as one of the great young stars of the National Hockey League, Gaborik may have elevated his stardom to a new level with his record-setting performance. When Gaborik was selected third overall in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft, many scouts believed he would be special. Despite various injuries that have slowed Gaborik down, he still managed to scored at least 30 goals in five of his first six seasons. The Wild have made it to the playoffs twice in their history and Gaborik has been a major part of the team's success as the only remaining original player.

However, he had never had that memorable performance that got the whole hockey world talking. You know, where fellow fans would be asking you at the water cooler the next morning after it happened. That was until now.

The New York Rangers made their first visit to Minnesota since October 10, 2003 and maybe they oughta think twice about coming back again anytime soon. Okay, maybe there is no need to go that far with that. Either way, it is always extra special anytime your hometown team visits the State of Hockey and plays the Wild at the Xcel Energy Center on a given night in the 82-game schedule. Since the two teams are in opposite conferences, this matchup might not happen again in St. Paul for another two years regardless of the schedule format change. The Rangers were coming off a 4-0 shutout win over the Pittsburgh Penguins, so they had hoped to build on any momentum from that game. But, it didn't work out that way.

It looked good early for the Broadway Blueshirts as they took a 1-0 lead 10:51 into the game on a power play goal from defenseman Michal Rozsival. New York seemed to be in control in which they outshot Minnesota 10-2 in the first period. But it took just a single cough-up of the puck along the sideboards by Jaromir Jagr to lead to a scoring chance in Henrik Lundqvist's direction. Pavol Demitra made a beautiful cross slot feed to Gaborik heading to the right doorstep to bury the one-timer and tie the game at 1-1 through 20 minutes.

Gaborik would then take over early in the second period with a pair of power play goals and boy did his exceptional eye-hand coordination really show on these two plays, too. Demitra would set up Gaborik again, but this time from behind the Rangers net for a perfect centering feed. After Lundqvist stopped him on the initial point blank shot, Gaborik would bat the rebound in midair into the net for the 2-1 Minnesota lead. It was a highlight that ESPN's Barry Melrose would focus on in his analysis of Gaborik's performance. Truly a beauty to watch.

Brent Burns stirred things up in the Wild's favor when he nailed Rangers forward Petr Prucha along the sideboards of the Rangers zone. It got the crowd roaring the instant it happened as emotions rose on the ice. No sooner after Burns had elbowed Prucha in the head during that hard body check, he sent Fedor Tyutin flying backwards as well before a brief scrum ensued. Without a proper penalty called against Burns for his elbowing of Prucha, the Rangers ended up shorthanded as Nigel Dawes was assessed a two-minute unsportsmanlike conduct penalty for his verbal abuse of the on-ice officials for the lack of calls stemming from that incident involving Burns.

On the ensuing power play, Burns would be out there on the ice and set up Gaborik cutting toward the left inside hash marks. After he closed in on Lundqvist, Gaborik lifted a beautiful backhander into the net to complete the hat trick to put the Wild up 3-1 5:38 into the second period. He was pumped up and so were the passionate fans at Xcel Energy Center as they tossed hats onto the ice to serenade Gaborik.

Only 41 seconds after the Rangers cut Minnesota's lead to 4-3, Demitra circled behind the Rangers net to send a long pass out to the point for Nick Schultz for a wide open shot. The puck would hit Aaron Voros atop the crease as he battled with Tyutin for position. With the puck again in midair, Gaborik positioned below the left inside hash marks would bat it into the open left side of the net behind Lundqvist for his fourth goal of the night. That would mark a new single-game high for Gaborik and make it a 5-3 hockey game as the Wild's two-goal lead was restored.

And what better way to mark this historic evening than to see Gaborik score goal #5 on what many think is the most exciting way to score in hockey. Off a Rangers turnover inside the Minnesota blueline, Gaborik stole the puck from Chris Drury and away he went all alone on a breakaway with no one with a chance to catch him with his amazing speed. In Pavel Bure-like fashion, he completed the highlight reel play by burying a wrister past Lundqvist to make it 6-3 Minnesota and lights out. Game, set and match.

Speaking of Bure (who had played for the Rangers before retiring a few years ago), Gaborik made a remarkably coincidential admission. On the same morning of this performance, he actually had for a few minutes sat down to watch some YouTube video clips of Bure's five-goal game for Russia during their 1998 Winter Olympics semifinal game against Finland. One player that played with Bure as a member of the Florida Panthers and is now Gaborik's teammate in Minnesota certainly thought of the comparison.

"Shades of Pavel Bure," Wild forward Mark Parrish told Michael Russo of the Star Tribune. "It was just like watching Bure in the day. I mean, Gabby was banking them in out of the air, scoring on breakaways, skating through everybody, making highlight-film goals. My God, he was doing it every which way tonight."

Fans were even hoping Gaborik would get to score a sixth goal. That's asking a lot, don't you think? Not according to Wild head coach Jacques Lemaire. who two nights earlier coached his 1,000th NHL game.

"It was one of those nights," Lemaire said to KARE-TV reporter Jana Shortal after the game. "He could've gotten two more easily."

Well, when the night is as special as it was for a regular season game, you can only root a player on to equal, set or extend a new record. Here, he was trying to become the first player since Darryl Sittler scored six goals for the Toronto Maple Leafs in that memorable NHL-record 10-point game against the Boston Bruins on February 7, 1976. The 294th consecutive sellout crowd with 18,568 fans on hand at Xcel Energy Center at times chanted "Gabby! Gabby! Gabby!" as you'll hear in this YouTube video clip. Gaborik came close a couple of times. The biggest chance came while parked at the bottom of the right faceoff circle, Lundqvist's replacement Steve Valiquette made a tremendous left pad save to rob Gaborik of that elusive sixth goal. You can tell while watching on television, his teammates were deliberately trying to feed him the puck. Either way, it was quite exciting to watch live in your living room, at a local bar or if you happen to be one of the lucky ones actually in St. Paul to see it in person, that considering they've sold out every home game in the team's existence.

"Every time Gabby touched the puck, it was just electric," Burns told Russo in his postgame interview.

When it was all over, Gaborik was carried off the ice by teammates Sean Hill and Keith Carney and when he was easily named the game's #1 star, he applauded the crowd as they cheered.

"It was a great experience. This kind of game was special," Gaborik told Wild play-by-play announcer Dan Terhaar and color analyst Mike Greenlay after the game. "The most important thing is that we got two points. Five goals? It's unbelievable."

The feat was no easy task. Only 55 times in NHL history five goals were scored by a player in one game and it was nearly 11 years to the day since the last time it was done. Gaborik became the 43rd player to accomplish the feat with the last being Sergei Fedorov's 5th goal lifting the Detroit Red Wings to a 5-4 overtime win over the Washington Capitals on December 26, 1996. What I found interesting is that ESPN put up a graphic page showing how rare scoring five goals in a hockey game is compared to how many quarterbacks throw 450 passing yards (44), how many times a Major League Baseball player hit two home runs in the same inning (52) or how many times an NBA player scored at least 60 points in a game (59).

So in other words, Gaborik was in elite company when comes to such statistical single game feats. Oh, and did I mention that he assisted on Pierre-Marc Bouchard's power play goal, the only one Gaborik didn't score? That means he ended up with six points on the night. According to Minnesota Wild official web site content manager Glen Andresen, Gaborik has recorded 9 of the 13 hat tricks in team history. So far, we know as hockey fans that this probably isn't likely to be the last, especially for this 25-year-old Slovakian phenom.

"It's an honor to be in that kind of company," Gaborik said to St. Paul Pioneer Press writer Bruce Brothers.

Between the pipes for Minnesota, Josh Harding also turned in a solid performance by making 32 saves for his fourth straight win. Even though Lundqvist who has garnered much of the hockey world's attention with his outstanding first two-plus months of the season for the Rangers, he cannot be blamed for the outcome despite allowing all six Minnesota goals on just 18 shots he faced. It may have been only Bouchard's goal that should've been stopped, but Lundqvist really didn't stand much of any chance on all five goals Gaborik put past him. Ironically on this night, the Rangers had allowed the fewest goals in the NHL entering this night, yet for the second time this season allowed six in a game.

"I didn't face that many shots and somehow it didn't matter what I did," Lundqvist told Long Island Newsday Rangers beat writer Steve Zipay. "I'm disappointed in myself for not playing better. It's tough. You make a couple saves and he's there again to score another goal."

Rangers forward Brendan Shanahan believed his team played well enough to have a chance to win the game, but the Wild made the most of their opportunities.

"I don't think the score reflects how we played the game," Shanahan told reporters after the game, including MSG Network's John Giannone. "There were some breakdowns, obviously. We took some penalties in the second period. But for the most part, we said after the game that we really don't think that reflects how we played that game."

Shanahan added, "We thought we came out strong. We as a matter of fact I think stuck with our gameplan throughout and 5-on-5 for the most part I thought we really outplayed this team. Just one of those weird nights where the chances they got were really good. We ran into a world-class hockey player who was having the game of his life."

Sure, the Rangers outshot the Wild 35-22 and won 32 of 52 faceoffs, but what good is that when the opposition doubles your team's goal total on the scoreboard? It's almost a reminder of the Dallas game on November 25th where the Rangers outshot and outplayed the Stars, only that final score was just by a single goal instead of three in this one.

New York Daily News Rangers beat writer John Dellapina felt the Rangers left Gaborik open in front of Lundqvist far too often to get the number of scoring chances he did. No doubt he was right and the Minnesota's leading goal scorer made the Rangers pay and paid dearly.

Gaborik became the third opposing player to score five goals in a game against the Rangers, the last being Pittsburgh Penguins owner and Hockey Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux on April 9, 1993. For the Rangers, they hope the next guy doesn't come along anytime soon to duplicate it.

Thursday, December 20, 2007

Chris Simon suspended 30 games

Chris Simon has yet to learn his lesson from his baseball swing stick incident on New York Rangers forward Ryan Hollweg last season. Now he'll pay another price for his actions.

The New York Islanders forward eclipsed his own NHL-record for the longest suspension handed out by the league as he will miss 30 games without pay for Saturday's incident at the Nassau Coliseum. With an exposed skate blade, Simon deliberately kicked Pittsburgh Penguins forward Jarko Ruutu in the foot while already down on the ice during a scrum near the Islanders bench. Many hockey observers believe this goes beyond an act of thuggery, regardless of the player it was inflicted against is known as an agitator.

Simon finished up the previous record 25-game suspension in the first few weeks of this season after he clocked Hollweg in retaliation for a hard check along the boards back on March 8th. When this new suspension is completed on February 21, 2008, he will have amassed 65 games from suspensions in his career. This one alone will cost him nearly $293,000 in salary.

"Several factors were considered in imposing the longest suspension in NHL history for an on-ice incident," NHL Senior Executive Vice President of Hockey Operations Colin Campbell stated in a league press release yesterday. "While it was fortunate there was no serious injury to Mr. Ruutu as a result of Simon's action, the deliberate act of kicking an opponent with an exposed skate blade, especially where the opponent is in a vulnerable position, is and always has been a repugnant and totally unacceptable act in the game of hockey."

The bottom line to all this is that Simon needs to be off the ice for a considerable period of time to get away from the game and if he needs professional help to get his emotions under control, then this is the best time he can rehabilitate his NHL career and his self-image.

Sunday, December 16, 2007

Wayne Gretzky's Phoenix Coyotes arrive in New York City to face Rangers

This is a game I've personally been looking forward to all season. Unfortunately due to a bad cold I've been battling for at least five days now, I've had to cancel plans to see in person the Phoenix Coyotes here in the metropolitan area for the first time in five years.

That's how long it has been since the Desert Dogs have been in town. With the current unbalanced game schedule format that will end at the conclusion of this season, fans will see this exciting and young hockey team more often in the years to come.

The Coyotes arrived on the East Coast on Wednesday to continue their six-game road trip and have taken two of the first three so far. In their tour through the metropolitan area, they lost 3-2 on Long Island as Bill Guerin scored twice for the New York Islanders. Simply not a pretty game for Phoenix.

Yesterday afternoon was a great 4-1 bounce back victory in New Jersey as the scoring line of Fredrik Sjostrom, Martin Hanzal and Radim Vrbata have really been clicking of late. Hanzal had big day with 1 goal and 3 assists to his credit. Hanzal put the game out of reach with a sweet breakaway shorthanded goal past future Hall of Famer Martin Brodeur. Vrbata had 1 goal and 2 assists while Sjostrom scored the other two Phoenix goals. The Coyotes simply took advantage of the Devils poor discipline as they were called for 10 penalties (one being a fighting major), but were only able to capitalize once on nine power plays. Mikael Tellqvist got a rare start in net and stopped 30 of 31 shots for the win.

Now the Phoenix Coyotes head to Madison Square Garden to face the New York Rangers in another afternoon contest, their first visit since October 28, 2002. To me, that's far too long! Plenty has been written by the hockey media in both New York City and Phoenix, primarily because Wayne Gretzky will be making his first appearance at the "World's Most Famous Arena" as an NHL coach and since he retired as a player on April 18, 1999. Phoenix Coyotes official web site writer Heath Price-Khan put together a nice feature story three days ago called "My First Game at MSG" to provide a nice perspective of Gretzky's anticipated return to a place where he spent his final three seasons in a Rangers uniform. Even more good coverage was posted at the team web site with a Coyotes TV feature called "Coyotes visit the Garden", where Gretzky was interviewed and more importantly many of the Coyotes players who will be playing at the Garden for the very first time. And yes, they're very excited, too.

Making me chuckle a bit is what Gretzky said to New York Daily News Rangers beat writer John Dellapina yesterday. It is in reference to how current Rangers captain Jaromir Jagr spoiled his final game by scoring the game-winning overtime goal for a 2-1 Pittsburgh Penguins victory that day.

"Maybe it was fitting that the best young player in the game scored the goal in overtime," Gretzky said of Jagr. "Everyone always talks about passing torches and all that stuff. He caught it. That's what I told him after the game. I said, 'You caught it.' I'm happy for Jaromir."

Okay, maybe that wasn't the part that made me laugh. It was when Gretzky said with a big grin, "Yeah, Jagr's still there" in his off-ice press conference at the Nassau Coliseum on Thursday as noted in Steve Zipay's article in Long Island Newsday. You have to see the video clip for that (it's about halfway through it).

To my pleasant surprise, there were additional articles among the local newspapers in the New York City metropolitan area that not only talked about Gretzky, but acknowledged the ray of hope for the Phoenix Coyotes as a franchise. This would be where their future finally appears bright with some hungry and talented young players they want to build around captain Shane Doan. Sam Weinman of The Journal News (located in White Plains, New York) wrote yesterday that Gretzky is trying to find a winning forumla as the Coyotes head coach. Weinman even put a nice angle on his story about whether #99 ever thought he'd be an NHL coach after he retired as a player.

"I could guarantee you I'd have laughed at you," Gretzky told Weinman in an interview. "But you know what? You never know in life. I love the game, and the next best thing to playing is coaching, and I've got a good young group of players here so it's been a lot of fun."

New York Times writer Lew Serviss even made a trip out to Phoenix earlier in the week before the Coyotes traveled here and put together his own feature story on Gretzky's plans to make his team a high competitive one in the years to come. Gretzky's passion and determination to get through this tough period in the Coyotes franchise by taking his lumps now and seeing things through will pay off.

"Hey listen, when I started, I told my players the very first day three years ago, I don’t know any other way," Gretzky said to Serviss. "To be successful in anything you do, you got to have passion and you got to have emotion. And, yes, when I was a player I was an emotional player, and now as a coach I'm an emotional coach. But through the two years plus that I’ve coached now, I've changed in a lot of ways, and one of those is that my emotions are more in check in a sense that I got a young team now."

In addition to Gretzky, other current members of the Coyotes organization with Rangers connections that will be at the game include general manager Don Maloney (former Rangers assistant GM), associate coach Ulf Samuelsson (former Rangers defenseman) and forward Mike York who began his career with the Rangers. I expect Gretzky to get a standing ovation in the event he is introduced to the Madison Square Garden crowd later today. Maloney offered his thoughts to Arizona Republic writer Jim Gintonio on today's game.

"The Garden is unique. They show up if you're winning or losing. I always thought Ranger fans enjoyed booing as much as cheering, but the fans have been great to that team since the lockout. They're knowledgeable; they know if you're giving an effort and when you're not."

With the opening faceoff approaching, Rangers head coach Tom Renney has had three days off to prepare for the Coyotes, who are 9-8 on the road this season. Coming off a bitter 5-4 overtime loss in Washington on Wednesday night, he talked about what he accomplished with his team while Phoenix played against the other two metropolitan area teams.

"We've worked on some important concepts, and we've worked hard, there's no doubt about that," Renney told Jim Cerny of "We've done a couple real important things on ice that I think will help us moving forward."

At the same time, Rangers starting goaltender Henrik Lundqvist and forward Marcel Hossa have been suffering from the flu the past few days while Jagr has nursing a bad back. While Jagr is expected to play, Hossa and Lundqvist will be reevaluated before the start of the game to determine if they'll play. It is possible that Steve Valiquette may start if Lundqvist is unable to go. There is no word on whether or not the Rangers will call up goaltender Al Montoya from the Hartford Wolf Pack of the American Hockey League to back up Valiquette should that scenario unfold. But Renney stated it is likely Lundqvist will still dress even if he doesn't play.

Over the course of this week, I realized that hockey fans in Phoenix will not able to see today's game locally as the Coyotes won't be televising it. They didn't yesterday either with Phoenix's win against the Devils. I find all this outrageous to say the least. One would think that instead of showing daytime infomercials, FSN Arizona would have put at the very least the Rangers game on their television schedule. While it is too late for fans to lobby the team or the networks in Phoenix to put the game on local television, hopefully that will change next season when intriguing matchups such as today's matchup don't get overlooked. For fans here in the New York City metropolitan area, they will get to watch the game on WWOR-TV. It is the second of two Rangers games to appear on the local broadcast station, the first time this is happening since 1989. The good news is if the blackout restrictions are lifted in Phoenix, those with NHL Center Ice subscriptions can access the Rangers TV feed at their local bar, their friend's house or maybe where another member of their family lives. Just say, "hey, it's the Christmas season!" and perhaps they'll have a heart to let you watch.

Thursday, November 8, 2007

Brian Leetch and Cammi Granato among 2007 Lester Patrick Trophy recipients

Even though the birthplace of ice hockey was in Kingston, Ontario, Canada in 1886, the growth of the sport in the United States has been made over the course of the 20th and now 21st centuries. As one of the Original Six teams in the National Hockey League, a man that played a major role in establishing the New York Rangers as one of the most prominent franchises in professional hockey was Lester Patrick.

For those of you who aren't familar with the legacy of Lester Patrick, I'd catch up up to speed before I get to this year's award recipients.

Just two years after the Rangers' inception into the NHL, Patrick suited up six years removed from his retirement as a professional hockey player and played as the team's goaltender during the 1928 Stanley Cup Finals due to an eye injury suffered by starting goalie Lorne Chabot. At the time this took place, there were no backup goaltenders dressed to play. He was the Rangers' coach and general manager at the time and his heroics at age 44 helped defeat the Montreal Maroons for the first of their four championships in franchise history.

Even though Patrick's playing career was in the Pacific Coast Hockey Association (PCHA), he would end up in New York to begin running the Rangers in their inaugural NHL season in 1926. Before he did, he and his brother Frank had founded the PCHA in 1911 to rival the NHL and other major hockey leagues. As their coach, Patrick led the Rangers to their second title in 1933 and as just their general manager in 1940. He left the organization in 1946 to run the Victoria Cougars of the PCHA before retiring in 1954 and died on June 1, 1960 at the age of 76.

Because of his contributions to the game of ice hockey in western Canada as well as his accomplishments with the New York Rangers, Patrick was elected to the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1947. The National Hockey League then established the Lester Patrick Trophy in 1966 to honor individuals for their outstanding contributions to hockey in the United States.

On to the 2007 award recipients now...

All four to receive the Lester Patrick Trophy this year should be familar to NHL fans, especially to those in the Big Apple. Mike "Doc" Emrick as the event emcee at the Sheraton New York presented the award to:

*former New York Rangers and United States men's Olympic team defenseman Brian Leetch

*hockey journalist, author and broadcaster Stan Fischler

*former New York Rangers publicist and historian John Halligan

*former United States women's Olympic team captain Cammi Granato

While I was not even born yet when Halligan had become a part of the Rangers organization, he helped bring them back into the forefront of many hockey fans' and the media's attention with his roles in business management and communications. Halligan became known as the man who was with former Rangers president and Hall of Famer William M. Jennings at a New York City restaurant when the idea of establishing the Lester Patrick Award was hatched. The bottom line here is that Halligan was a major contributor to the cementing the New York Rangers as a very high-profile franchise in the NHL and in professional sports. This is despite their lack of Stanley Cup championships for over a half century.

I admit I knew about Cammi Granato only after I began watching her older brother play in the NHL. Tony Granato entered the league as a rookie in 1989 with the Rangers to when he overcame a career-threatening brain injury in 1995 and returned to score 25 goals as an All-Star in the 1996-1997 season for the San Jose Sharks. As for Cammi, I must admit I didn't know much about her until she was mentioned during Rangers broadcasts when Tony was with the team and interviewed. Then I later was able to see her in a few international games on television and of course the major Olympic tournaments. What really won me over was her amazing leadership and determination to led the United States women's national team to the 1998 Gold Medal with their victory over Canada in Nagano, Japan. It was the inaugural women's hockey tournament in Olympic competition and to this very day, I have a VHS copy of the CBS broadcast. By the time Cammi had played in the 1992 Gold Medal Game in which the Canadian women got revenge, I had already bought an authentic Team USA jersey from that year with her name, number and captain C on it. Of course I'd later see her doing rinkside reporting of NHL games on NBC following the lockout. This is before she retired as a player and broadcaster to concentrate on her married life to former Ranger and current Rogers Sportsnet color analyst Ray Ferraro and raising their 10-month-old son Riley.

I have seen and learned so many things about Stan Fischler and how much he is so widely respected in hockey, it really is impressive. I actually met the man when I worked at SportsChannel before it became FSN New York and had to learn to understand his sense of humor. Today I still get to get to enjoy watching "The Hockey Maven" on local broadcasts for all three metropolitan area teams in the Rangers, Islanders and Devils. While I haven't read his books to date, I know he has written one on the history of NHL hockey in the largest market in North America, another on the New York City subway system and others about the NHL. His analysis of the local teams on a regular basis is as entertaining as the games themselves sometimes, especially when he debates with the studio hosts such as Al Trautwig or Matt Loughlin.

And last but not least, Brian Leetch. He has had the biggest impression on me of them all. Given I've closely followed the Rangers for a long time, I cannot forget when he first burst onto the international stage when he played for the 1988 United States men's Olympic team along side another Rangers great in goaltender Mike Richter. Even though the team finished 7th in the tournament in Calgary, this was just the beginning to what is expected to be a Hall of Fame career. I recall watching Leetch grow from a rookie into an NHL star very quickly and possessed the skills so few defensemen in hockey history had. He was so skilled with the puck, had the ability to score at any time (seriously, always a scoring threat) and be a quarterback on the power play. After he refined all those skills, he became a complete player and helped the Rangers end their 54-year Stanley Cup drought with a Conn Smythe Trophy playoff campaign. Even though he hardly saw much playoff time after that, Leetch was still a champion to many adoring New York fans. Everyone in the Big Apple will get to salute him very soon as a matter of fact when his #2 will be raised to the rafters on January 24th when the Atlanta Thrashers are in town. Besides his playing the high majority of his NHL career in New York City, I along with many others will also remember his role on the United States' 1996 World Cup of Hockey championship team and the 1992 Silver Medal Olympic team.

All four of these individuals have made a outstanding contributions to hockey in this country in some capacity that his completely worthy and deserving of this honor. No doubt about it, they will never be forgotten for all of their accomplishments.

Senators rewrite history book with 13-1 start

The Ottawa Senators have certainly proven their 2007 Stanley Cup Finals appearance was no fluke. Remember when seemed Toronto would always get in their way from going deep into the postseason?

They may have fallen three wins short of their first championship in modern franchise history, the Senators seem to be quite motivated to get another shot. Not only have they defied naysayers, they've caught the attention of the hockey world with an amazing start to the 2007-2008 season.

Until they can do it in the playoffs against Toronto, the consolation prize in any success Ottawa can have in this Battle of Ontario rivalry is dominating during the regular season (15-4 in their last 19 post-lockout meetings). That trend remained the same on Tuesday night with a 5-1 pasting of the Maple Leafs at Scotiabank Place to improve to a league-best 13-1 on the season. Ottawa also set a new club record by extending their winning streak to eight games.

The Senators' 14-game start set a new NHL record for most wins and points in that span, eclipsing a 12-2 mark held by the 2005-2006 Detroit Red Wings and the 2006-2007 Buffalo Sabres. Both of those teams earned 25 points as each had one non-regulation loss.

Originally signed last year to be their starting goalie and lost the job to Ray Emery, it appears that Martin Gerber has earned it back for now. With Emery sidelined by injury, Gerber is poised to take full advantage of his second chance. He made 30 saves on the night with only Nikolai Antropov scoring against him in the second period. The Senators setting a new league record would not be overshadowed by Mark Bell making his Toronto debut after completing a 15-game suspension.

Will this 13-1 start mean another trip back to the Stanley Cup Finals? That remains to be seen, but the two teams that shared the old record had mixed playoff results. The Red Wings were knocked out by the Edmonton Oilers in the opening round two seasons ago and the Sabres lost to these very Senators in the 2007 Eastern Conference Finals. Sometimes, it gets tougher to maintain this high level of success over a marathon 82-game schedule without running into any obstacle along the way. But I can truly say that barring an injury to a key player, the deterioration of a sound system implemented by head coach John Paddock or a dropoff in Gerber's or Emery's play, the Senators should be in the mix all season to come out of the East next spring.

Five goaltenders record shutout wins on November 5th

While I'm not 100% sure if it is an NHL record, but this comes as a surprise in today's NHL were new rules were implemented after the lockout to inject more scoring around the league.

Five goaltenders recorded shutout wins on November 5th. You'd swear this was the pre-lockout NHL, right? Not exactly. But either way, given that not just one or two goalies kept their opponents completely off the scoreboard, but five did, it was worth a mention.

First, we start with New York Rangers netminder Henrik Lundqvist. Having been a Vezina Trophy finalist in each of his first two NHL seasons, he hasn't disappointed so far in the 2007-2008 season despite the team's slow start. In playing in all 14 games the Rangers played up to that point, he was still exceptionally sharp with 30 saves in a low-scoring 2-0 home win over the Philadelphia Flyers. It was already his 4th shutout of the season. What made this win more of a feat is that the Rangers had scored only 25 goals, an NHL-low. But in order to turn their season around, they completed season-longest six-game homestand where they went 5-1. In other words, Lundqvist has had next to no room for error in getting important wins for the Rangers. He was the primary reason they won besides a sound defensive gameplan against the Flyers.

About 10 miles to the southwest of Madison Square Garden, Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins made their debut at Prudential Center a very successful one. Backup goaltender Dany Sabourin made 20 saves and Crosby scored twice in a 5-0 rout of the New Jersey Devils. Even ex-Devil Petr Sykora scored a goal against his one-time team. He was a part of the Devils' 1995 and 2000 Stanley Cup championship teams. Why do I also mention Sykora? The Penguins had blown two-goal leads in each of their previous two games and lost. His goal put Pittsburgh up 3-0 with 14:12 in the second period and the Devils barely challenged the rest of the game.

Remember who was the 2006 Conn Smythe Trophy award winner? Cam Ward played the kind of game reminiscent of the Carolina Hurricanes' successful Stanley Cup playoff run where he was sound between the pipes and made the big save at the best possible time. On this night, Ward stopped all 35 shots he faced in a 5-0 win over the Washington Capitals at RBC Center. It would be the third shutout of his young career. Ward should treat Cory Stillman to dinner. Why? Stillman recorded a natural hat trick in the opening 11:28 of the game to give Carolina a big boost and send them on their way to victory.

Next, we turn our attention to goaltender who resurrected his career with a tremendous second half to last season despite falling just short of a playoff berth on the final day. Cristobal Huet had surplanted Jose Theodore as the regular starting goalie and enabled the Montréal Canadiens to trade Theodore to the Colorado Avalanche for David Aebischer. On this night, Huet stopped 29 shots (16 in the first period) to help the Canadiens to a 2-0 win over the Buffalo Sabres. It was his 14th NHL shutout and the first since November 28, 2006. Montréal needed his heroics because they were outshot 9-2 in the third period and hardly tested Ryan Miller on the other end of the ice.

After losing their previous three games on home ice, Marty Turco played like he has on a number of occasions in the past to get the Dallas Stars back in the win column. Turco made 19 saves to record his 31st NHL shutout in a 5-0 blowout road win over the Anaheim Ducks. Jere Lehtinen and Mike Ribeiro both gave Turco the cushion he needed as each had a goal and two assists. The Stars have won both meetings with the defending Stanley Cup champions and this one was decided by their special teams performance with two power play goals and killing off all four Anaheim power plays.

Outside of Lundqvist, the other four goalies on this night recorded their first shutouts of the season. Is this a sign of things to come? I wouldn't count on five goalies getting shutout wins on the same day anytime soon, but it only reemphasizes the importance of skill and patience on the part of the opposition to score a goal against the best goalies the NHL has to offer.

Al Arbour wins in "one night only" return for 1500th game

For suffering New York Islanders fans who want to fondly reflect back to their team's glory years, one way that is done is remembering legendary head coach Al Arbour. A man that had a huge role in the franchise winning four straight Stanley Cup titles from 1980 to 1983 returned to the bench on November 3rd to mark his 1,500th game as the Islanders head coach.

Although not all in succession, Arbour spent 19 seasons at the helm from 1973 to 1986 and then from 1988 to 1994. He amassed 739 wins during his two tours of duty, an NHL record for a coach with the same team.

Back in July, current head coach Ted Nolan approached general manager Garth Snow and team owner Charles Wang about the idea of having Arbour coach one game this season to round out his all-time games coached to exactly 1,500 games. They gladly approved and Arbour happily agreed to the one-game contract to run the bench with Nolan. Arbour said at a press conference prior to the milestone game that he did realize it would be #1500.

"I never kept track of the number of games I've coached," Arbour said. "I didn't have any idea until they had told me about it. It will be a special night for the alumni, the organization and everyone involved. I'd like to thank Ted, Garth and the owner for making this possible for me. It's a great thrill for my family and me to be back in our hometown of Long Island."

Inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame on November 25, 1996, Arbour has plenty of peers who have a high respect and appreciation for the legendary coach. One of them happens to be another held in such a regard, that being Scotty Bowman.

"As a coach, of course, Al Arbour put his stamp on the NHL forever. What he'll probably always be remembered for is how he molded a true TEAM. He had some brilliant players that had Hall of Fame careers like Denis Potvin, Billy Smith, Trottier, Bossy, Gillies," Bowman said a few days prior to the game. "But it was Al who got them to be part of the team fabric. If the all-stars do not buy in to Al's concept, the Islanders do not become a dynasty."

The Islanders were able to get Arbour his 740th victory in that 1,500th game with a 3-2 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins as Miroslav Satan scored twice in the third period to have a say in the outcome. The only blemish on the night was goaltender Rick DiPietro leaving the game in the second period after getting actually hit in the face on an accidental high stick from Sidney Crosby. DiPietro's backup Wade Dubielewicz finished the game and earned the victory. Trent Hunter also scored for the Islanders, who at the time improved their season record to 7-4.

After the game, the team had a wonderful ceremony to honor Arbour. His "739" banner inside the Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum was replaced by a new "1500" banner. All the current players and a number of alumni took part in the postgame event.

"I'm very touched with everything," said Arbour after the night was complete. "I was very surprised at the end when they raised the new banner. All of the fans staying until the very, very end, that really touched me quite a bit. I'd like to thank the organization for asking me to do this, and especially the players that worked so hard. Ted Nolan did a great job with the team, as well as general manager Garth Snow and owner Charles Wang. This is really my second home."

The script couldn't have been written any better for Arbour on this night. One thing is for sure, regardless of what the Islanders do in the years to come, he will always have a very important place in the history of the franchise.

Senators sign Jason Spezza to new 7-year contract

Nearly a month after taking care of Dany Heatley with a six-year, $45 million contract extension, the Ottawa Senators locked up another of their top superstar forwards in getting Jason Spezza signed to a seven-year, $49 million contract extension on November 2nd.

It was quite important for the Senators to get both Heatley and Spezza under long-term deals in order to build the team around them and captain Daniel Alfredsson. Mission accomplished.

"Jason Spezza is a great example of what the future holds for the Ottawa Senators and our fans," Senators owner Eugene Melnyk told the media. "Without question, Jason belongs here in Ottawa and he continues to be an integral part of our organization's long-term plans. Over time, we have built an impressive level of on-ice talent, and Bryan Murray and our entire management team have clearly continued that effort with today's re-signing."

There is no doubt that the 24-year-old Spezza should be paid what he's been worth. As a integral part of Ottawa's recent success, the 2001 second overall draft pick has put up impressive numbers so far in his career. It may not be earth-shattering, but 90 points during the 2005-2006 season is not too shabby, I must say. I still remember like it was yesterday that Spezza kept going back and forth between Ottawa and their primary minor league affiliate in the Binghamton Senators before finally settling into the NHL for good.

With Spezza, Heatley and Alfredsson on the Ottawa roster for the considerable future, they will be a force to be reckoned with. Will highly productive players such as these three help get the Senators back to the Stanley Cup Finals next spring? Only time will tell, but opponents will really have their hands full trying to stop them.

Rick Tocchet to be reinstated on February 7th

For anyone that followed last year's media coverage of a sports gambling ring that rocked the hockey world, closure was one step closer to becoming reality when NHL commissioner Gary Bettman announced on November 1st that Phoenix Coyotes associate coach Rick Tocchet would be reinstated on February 7, 2008.

Tocchet plead guilty earlier this year to third degree charges of his role in "Operation Slapshot", an illegal gambling ring in southern New Jersey where he conspired and promoted betting on sports events. New Jersey Attorney General Robert J. Cleary completed a 21-month investigation that found former state trooper James Harney guilty of running the operation while Tocchet helped friends (including current and former NHL players) place bets. One of the concerned parties that were questioned was Wayne Gretzky's wife Janet and later to be found not involved.

Fortunately for Tocchet, he was spared prison time for not having any of these activities involve bets on NHL games. Had he done so, it could very well have ended any association with the league with perhaps a Pete Rose ban and face a five-year jail sentence. After the investigation probe went public, Tocchet was granted a leave of absence by the Coyotes while all legal matters are settled.

"There is no evidence that anyone, including Mr. Tocchet, did anything that in any way or at any time compromised the integrity of NHL hockey or any NHL hockey game," Bettman said in a league press release.

So instead of jail time, Tocchet was given two years probation and has been allowed to serve it in Arizona, where he maintains his primary residence. Under the reinstatement agreement, Bettman gave a stern warning to Tocchet that he cannot gamble in any way, engage in any conduct that threatens the integrity of the NHL or any of its teams and enter the NHL's Substance Abuse and Behavioral Health Program to see if Tocchet has a gambling addiction.

In a nutshell, Tocchet did engage in illegal activity under New Jersey state law, but didn't bet on NHL games while employed by one of the 30 teams and will be given a second chance with reinstatement to return to his coaching post in Phoenix IF he keeps his nose clean. How will this effect the Coyotes when he does come back? No one knows, but for the team's sake, they cannot afford to let this become a distraction again as it did during the 2005-2006 season.

NHLPA ratifies new constitution

After taking a major public relations hit during the 2004 lockout that saw the eventual ouster of former Executive Director Bob Goodenow and the naming of Paul Kelly as the eventual replacement instead of Ted Saskin, members of the National Hockey League Players' Association ratified a new constitution on October 30th.

Over the summer, Executive Board meetings took place before Kelly was appointed to be the new man to be in charge of the NHLPA. Craig Adams, Eric Lindros, Andrew Peters and Matt Stajan were given the responsibility to be a key part of the constitution review process.

The new constitution was approved by secret ballot, so don't expect any recognizable names to be on public record as to how specific players voted on it. Given the disaster of the lockout which ultimately the 2004-2005 season was wiped out, the NHLPA needed some rebuilding of not just their image, but in getting their house back in order. Among the significant changes, they include:

* no more Executive Committee where there was a President and Vice President position... now club player representatives from each of the 30 NHL teams will have equal voting power on the Executive Board while the Executive Director and General Counsel will now be two separate non-voting positions instead of being held by the same person

*the Executive Board can appoint an "Ombudsman" where his role would be to recommend union members that can serve as a Divisional Player Representative, primarily six former players to be liaisons for current players in each of the six NHL divisions

* the introduction of an Advisory Board where NHLPA members with expertise in law, corporate affairs, finance, marketing, labor relations and player representation can be utilized in various matters that affect the players union

"The players have put together an exceptional constitution with the process that brought about the changes being just as significant as what their efforts produced," Kelly stated in the NHLPA's press release. "From the very beginning of the review, players consulted with each other, conducted surveys and group discussion, and then affirmed the new constitution by secret ballot. It's highly appropriate that the players’ constitution was constructed by the players themselves."

One way or the other, the players need to be united again and in a way that will benefit not just the NHLPA, but the league as well. When it comes to important business meetings between the two sides on any hockey matters that effect everyone, there is a pressing need to be sure all the players are on the same page. What really was disturbing during the lockout were revolts and defections from union management by the players when the lockout had its hardest grip.

With a new Executive Director in place with Paul Kelly at the helm and now a new constitution, it can only be a good sign that the NHLPA is on its way back to being a healthy players union.

Peter Bondra retires after 16-year NHL career

One of the most potent scoring forwards in the modern era retired as an NHL player on October 29th after a 16-year career.

Peter Bondra played 13+ seasons for the Washington Capitals before they sent him to the Ottawa Senators on February 18, 2004 where he was given a better chance to win a Stanley Cup championship. It would not happen as the archrival Toronto Maple Leafs eliminated the Senators in a hard-fought seven-game Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series. It would end up as just a pit stop for him in the twilight of his career.

He would never get another sniff at the playoffs again as he finished up with the Atlanta Thrashers and Chicago Blackhawks following the lockout. Bondra scored 533 goals (30 were in the playoffs) in 1,161 games (includes 80 in the postseason) of his career. Just 26 of all his goals were not in a Washington uniform. He did go scoreless in seven 2004 playoff games for Ottawa.

Many hockey fans will picture Bondra as a member of the Capitals before any of the other three teams he played for. Why? That is where most of his memories lie. For example...

* He made five All-Star appearances (1993, 1996-1999).

* His career-best six-point night came against the New York Islanders on February 3, 1996 where he scored four goals in a 6-5 overtime win.

* His stellar was during the 1997-1998 season where he and Teemu Selanne each scored an NHL-leading 52 goals.

* Despite the series loss, Bondra scored the game-winning overtime goal in Game 3 of the 1998 Eastern Conference Finals against the Buffalo Sabres.

* He broke Mike Gartner's Capitals record for most hat tricks with his 14th on October 12, 1999.

* His fifth 4-goal game in the NHL took place in a 5-1 win at Ottawa on December 27, 2000.

* After signing a contract extension with Washington, he recorded his 16th NHL hat trick on February 1, 2001 against Toronto.

* He became the Capitals' all-time leading goal scorer on November 30, 2001 during a 6-2 rout of the Carolina Hurricanes. That was followed up with his next goal was being #400 on December 4, 2001 against the New York Rangers.

* He became the Capitals' all-time leading points scorer in his 907th NHL game by recording point #790 on April 5, 2004 against the Pittsburgh Penguins (broke Gartner's club record).

That's not even mentioning his 1998 Stanley Cup Finals appearance where the Capitals got swept in four straight games to the Detroit Red Wings. Despite that, that is a lot of milestone moments. However, his 1000th NHL game was played in an Atlanta Thrashers uniform on November 11, 2005 and his 500th NHL goal wound up taking place 50 games later during his final season while with the Chicago Blackhawks.

When the 39-year-old Bondra announced his retirement as a player, he said was not leaving the game entirely. In fact, he decided to take over running Slovakia's national team as their new general manager. Will he eventually return to the NHL in some capacity such as a coach or in hockey operations? Who knows, but one thing I'll remember while he wore that Capitals uniform was he burned the New York Rangers time and time again. It didn't matter if it was John Vanbiesbrouck, Mike Richter, Bob Froese or Guy Hebert between the pipes. Bondra tormented the Rangers year after year. Three of his 19 career hat tricks were against New York.

Flames sign Miikka Kiprusoff to 6-year contract extension

Since I had concentrated on writing the Prudential Center story and had some other personal matters to take care of, now I have to play catch up on some hockey stories from the last two weeks. So bear with me if I'm a little behind in the timing of this one and a few more here.

Remember when Miikka Kiprusoff was a backup goaltender in San Jose earlier in his career and most hockey observers didn't know much about him? Who knows how he would've fared and how the team's fortunes would've gone had he remained a Shark, but his status around the National Hockey League took off when he arrived in Calgary on November 16, 2003. At the time, he was only worth a 2005 second round draft pick in return. Go figure.

As the Sharks' 116th overall draft pick in 1995, Kiprusoff was 15-22-3 in his NHL career prior to the trade (including a 1-1 postseason record). That changed in a big way after he became the Flames' full-time starter and posted 126-73-4 record (including 20-19 in the playoffs). He helped get Calgary all the way to the 2004 Stanley Cup Finals and was one win away from a championship. Kiprusoff captured the 2006 Vezina Trophy as the NHL's best goaltender, too.

Even though the Flames haven't gotten another chance yet to win the Stanley Cup title, the team decided to make sure he didn't make it to free agency next summer. The 31-year-old Kiprusoff signed a six-year, $35 million contract extension on October 29th to remain with the organization through the 2013-2014 season.

Calgary's priorities is to get their core players locked up and provide a sign the team is committed to winning. Kiprusoff, Jarome Iginla and Robyn Regehr are those the Flames took care of to ensure that. Kiprusoff has definitely earned his raise, but will have to work his magic between the pipes again this season if Calgary wants to go deep into the postseason again. His role could shape the Western Conference standings this season. The kind of job security he was just given is a strong indicator of the Flames' commitment he's the impact player they cannot afford to lose.

Future hope for Devils and Newark pinned on Prudential Center's success

There were eight attempts before this one to build a sports and entertainment venue in New Jersey's largest city spanning the last 80 years. One even had it where it would look like a replica of the original Madison Square Garden. They all failed to materialize.

The ninth life of this dream outlasted its predecessors when a deal between Newark officials and the New Jersey Devils was signed on the dotted line on February 2, 2005. The team made its commitment to vacate the Meadowlands Sports Complex for downtown Newark.

Original plans during this decade had the New Jersey Nets seeking the move to Newark when YankeeNets operated that franchise, but roadblocks in ultimately sealing any agreement to build a new arena there killed it. After squabbling among the YankeeNets ownership group investors led to the eventual sale of the Nets in August 2004, new owner Bruce Ratner announced his intentions to relocate that team to the New York City borough of Brooklyn. So far, an arena project has been put together. It has been endorsed by state and city officials as well as the Metropolitan Transportation Authority to built it in Brooklyn's Prospect Heights section of the city. Plus, the arena naming rights has already been sold. However, despite all of that, it is not completely 100% certain that the New Jersey Nets will ultimately end up moving there. There are still a few obstacles remaining such as court hearings on eminent domain issues concerning the surrounding areas of the Atlantic Yards, a mixed-use commercial and residential development area where the arena would be built. All of these obstacles have to be cleared before an official groundbreaking can take place and seal the Nets' future.

The Nets have targeted the start of the 2009-2010 season to be playing at a new arena in Brooklyn as what has been named the Barclays Center. With not every I dotted or T crossed in their relocation plans, the team signed a lease extension at the Meadowlands through 2013 in the event there are further delays in the Brooklyn arena project or that it is cancelled. The Devils extended an invitation to the Nets to join them in Newark, but that has been politely declined at least for now until their Brooklyn option is ultimately decided and after weighing their remaining options.

As an NHL franchise, the Devils were born as the Kansas City Scouts in 1974. Two years later, it then operated as the Colorado Rockies (not to be confused with the present-day Major League Baseball team) for the next six seasons at the now-demolished McNichols Sports Arena in Denver. It wouldn't be until the late Dr. John McMullen announced on May 27, 1982 he bought the team and relocated it to northern New Jersey to where the Devils reside today.

For the next 25 years, the Devils and Nets would play in under the same roof which was originally Brendan Byrne Arena, named after the one-time New Jersey governor. I even remember seeing the signage being his name. It had been the most recently-built major league sports and entertainment venue in the entire New York City metropolitan area since it opened on July 2, 1981. But since the stadium-building boom began in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the Devils' former home in the Garden State became outdated and antiquated where it lacked much of the modern amenities of the newer arenas around North America. Therefore, the Devils also sought to have a new arena built. For the time being, to bring in additional revenue to the New Jersey Sports and Exhibition Authority (NJSEA) that operated the arena at the Meadowlands Sports Complex, a naming rights deal was completed on January 4, 1996 for a name change to the Continental Airlines Arena. I was most familiar with that arena name during most of my visits to East Rutherford, New Jersey. Four days after the Devils played their first game in Newark, their old home was re-named again, this time as the Izod Center.

After the Nets were sold to Ratner, a high profile real estate developer, the Devils were basically on their own to fulfill their quest to build a new arena in Newark and in order to ultimately stay in the state of New Jersey. Right around the very time that the team won their first of three Stanley Cup championships, rumors ran rampant that the franchise would relocate for the third time in possibly going to Nashville. This was before the National Hockey League later awarded the Tennessee capital an expansion team in the Nashville Predators. Before the Devils eventually focused on Newark as their destination of choice, Dr. McMullen's idea to build the new arena in Hoboken was shot down as it never went farther than design concepts and placement.

Plans for the Newark arena languished for almost a decade as negotiations between city and state officials, the sports teams (basically the Nets and Devils) and their investors. After the YankeeNets plans died, it appeared Newark's dream for a major league venue vanished. Long-time Devils season ticker holder, Wall Street executive and one-time minority owner of Puck Holdings (the hockey arm of the now-defunct YankeeNets) Jeff Vanderbeek bought the franchise in March 2004 and had an instrumental role in not only resurrecting hope, but ultimately getting the arena built in Newark.

It took much patience following the failure of securing naming rights revenue from the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey with Newark Liberty International Airport to help fund the arena when YankeeNets tried to finalize an agreement. Vanderbeek ended up being the one to seal the deal as former Newark mayor Sharpe James signed it and even wore a Devils jersey at the 2005 news conference to make the announcement. The agreement included an arena occupation lease of 30 years. In October 2006, the team met a deadline to commit at least $100 million to the project.

In the months that followed, the Devils unveiled the arena design on April 7, 2005 complete with a three-dimensional model where you can see the interior and exterior of the building would look like. Morris Adjmi along with one of the world's most reputable stadium architects in HOK Sport were responsible for the final design. One element that sticks out immediately by first glance are the atriums that look like glass-wrapped cylinders attached to the building. They appear reminiscent of the MTS Centre in Winnipeg. Vanderbeek ended up touring the newest venues in the United States and Canada and making an unorthodox checklist of what he did not want in his arena. But one feature that stood out in my mind that he did include was a practice facility attached to it. The Columbus Blue Jackets were the first to do this when Nationwide Arena was built and Vanderbeek wanted to make their training sessions and game night work all centralized in the same location. After the groundbreaking ceremony took place on October 3, 2005, the Devils owner dedicated an incredible amount of his time to build a world-class venue.

While the Devils were playing their final season at the Meadowlands, the naming of the new arena in Newark was revealed. Vanderbeek announced on January 8, 2007 that his team's new home would be called Prudential Center. Not to be confused with a commercial complex by the same name in downtown Boston, Prudential Financial, Inc. purchased the naming rights to the arena for $105.3 million for the next 20 years. The arena immediately was coined a nickname. That would be "The Rock", much in reference to Prudential's company logo that bears the Rock of Gibraltar.

Another great feature to the building are two club lounges, one being the Belvedere Fire Lounge which uses a fire theme to resemble Satan's home (okay not quite, just for the idea that the interior is decorated and luminated in red) while the Bud Light Ice Lounge features an ice-covered bar where fans can get their beer set on top of it to keep it cold. The big advantage of what these two lounges have compared to the Devils' former home and other very recently-built arenas is that they overlook a great view of the ice surface below so fans don't miss the action. The Goal Bar at Suite Level 1 also provides club seat and season ticket holders a terrace-style restaurant with views of the ice surface as well. Prudential Center has a seating capacity for 17,625 fans at Devils games and there are 76 luxury suites, the most of any North American major league arena. Want to use one? It could cost you as much as $285,000 to rent one for a season, so either you better be a rich man or have plenty of business friends to split up the cost. With the Seton Hall Pirates joining the Devils as one of the teams that will play on a regular basis at the arena, about 18,500 college basketball fans can watch the action. Prudential Center will also be home to a brand-new soccer team, the New Jersey Ironmen of the Major Indoor Soccer League (MISL) and any concert events held there will each provide 17,500 seats.

What will wow Devils fans at Prudential Center for every game will be a beautiful most-updated state-of-the-art eight-sided scoreboard hung over center ice with high-definition video screens. There are also as four LED ribbon boards encompassing the arena interior, all which squash what either of the other two metropolitan area venues in Madison Square Garden or Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum provide. Vanderbeek even made sure there were plenty of flat-screen HDTVs (about 750 in all) around the arena so that in case you weren't at your seat, you still won't miss the action. But what stands apart from any arena around the United States and Canada, there is a 4,800 square foot LED screen attached to the east side of Prudential Center that can be seen as far away as the New Jersey Turnpike.

Despite all the bells and whistles that the first new sports arena or stadium in the New York City metropolitan area in 26 years provides, there has always been skepticism that the Prudential Center would be a worthwhile and successful venture. Even current Newark mayor Cory Booker was. After a meeting with Vanderbeek during the early stages of the project, Booker was sold and jumped on board with a vision that the new arena will help revitalize Newark. The city has been for far too long labeled as one of the most crime-ridden urban areas in the country, this despite nearby New York City having its crime dramatically decline in recent years under Rudolph Giuliani's and Michael Bloomberg's mayoral administration. Booker and Newark city officials pin their hopes that the presence of Prudential Center, the New Jersey Performing Arts Center and Riverfront Stadium (home of the Newark Bears minor league baseball team) to eventually create an entertainment district in the downtown area. About $2 billion has been invested to help make Newark a safer and more viable option for New Jerseyans to spend their money and in turn help the local economy.

Vanderbeek has made a commitment to help draw those fans from suburban areas of New Jersey that feel apprehensive in venturing into downtown Newark by encouraging them to take mass transit to and from Newark Penn Station situated just two blocks away from the arena. Even though the arena is now open, ongoing construction projects will continue to make it even easier to attend any event at Prudential Center. This includes Triangle Park that will greet fans as they arrive from the train to the arena after crossing a pedestrian bridge over McCarter Highway (Route 21). And if you still insist on driving, you can park in one of over 4,000 parking spaces in lots adjacent to or near the arena. Similar to how some Rangers fans get to see their team at Madison Square Garden by taking a train into New York City's Pennsylvania Station, Devils management wants to see fans attending their games be able to have that same convenient option.

The build up to the big grand opening made it especially exciting for Newark residents, New Jerseyans and of course, Devils fans. Just two days before the first Devils home game, state and city dignitaries as well as Devils officials held a ribbon-cutting ceremony on October 25, 2007 inside the Mulberry Street atrium. Among the speakers were Vanderbeek, Booker and New Jersey governor Jon Corzine to help usher in what they hope is a new era for Newark and also for the Devils. What major event marked the occasion, you ask? The first of ten shows by none other than one of the most popular rock bands of the last 25 years in Bon Jovi. The one quote captured and shown on local television stations will be remember for a long time. New Jersey native Jon Bon Jovi greeted the concertgoers by saying "I'm the Jersey Devil and welcome to my new house."

Only fitting, right? The most recent Bon Jovi concert I attended was in 2003 when he performed at the Meadowlands. Still very memorable.

Then it was the night that all Devils fans were waiting for. It was October 27, 2007. Many likely set their VCRs or DVRs to FSN New York to tape the special one-hour edition of the Devils pregame show that featured an overview of The Rock. With a capacity crowd of 17,625 on hand, Vanderbeek, Booker and Devils greats Scott Stevens and Ken Daneyko gathered at center ice for the ceremonial faceoff to mark a moment some may never expected to happen. A new arena for the three-time Stanley Cup champions in a centralized area of the state, not in the middle of a marshland not as easily accessible without being tangled in traffic on congested northern New Jersey highways.

Even though the New Jersey Devils lost their inaugural game at Prudential Center by a score of 4-1 to the Ottawa Senators, Vanderbeek's vision to see a successful NHL franchise play in one of the best new arenas in the country in a revitalized Newark is now not just a dream, but very truly can become an actual reality. Jeff Vanderbeek can be seen as one of those owners that not only cares about the team he owns, but the community as well. When you walk inside Prudential Center, look at the large mural inside the main concourse featuring key figures in New Jersey sports history such as Martin Brodeur, a future Hall of Fame goaltender. See the smaller mural showing the most notable players and coaches in Devils history. See the high school hockey jerseys hanging inside the main lobby of the arena. Vanderbeek wants to give fans a sense of New Jersey pride when you walk through its doors. Mission accomplished. Now it is only a matter of whether his team delivers another Stanley Cup title to make his dream complete.

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Mario Lemieux finally gets paid $21 million settlement

For a man that saved NHL hockey in Pittsburgh not once, but twice from bankruptcy... actually, you can make that three times if you count his role in the franchise getting a new arena deal done earlier this year, Mario Lemieux will finally get paid what has been owed to him from his playing contract.

The Pittsburgh Penguins have been taking care of a periodic refinancing of their debt as a result of emerging out of bankruptcy for the second time in the 40-year history of the franchise in 1999. The team announced this week that Lemieux will receive the majority of the $32 million owed to him after his first retirement two years earlier. Before Lemieux accepted a $20 million stake in ownership of the Penguins in a deal to keep them in operation, he forgave $7 million during the bankruptcy proceedings. After the team got out of danger from ceasing operations and began to financially get back afloat, Lemieux was awarded $5 million in which he invested right back into the team's future as a majority co-owner with California billionaire Ron Burkle.

As one of the most celebrated sports figures in Pittsburgh sports history, Lemieux will personally receive a $21 million return on his $25 million ownership investment. This settlement effectively ends this long 10-year process of Lemieux being the final creditor getting paid.

Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Penguins beat writer Dave Molinari reported yesterday that Lemieux won't receive the $7 million he gave up from his player contract despite returning to the ice for the 2000-2001 season and playing until he retired for good in 2005. However, it won't matter too much for #66 as he can see the value of the franchise rising steadily under his and Burkle's watch. The Penguins could be worth over $200 million now and it helps to have a rising superstar in Sidney Crosby to help lead them into the future and a new multipurpose arena scheduled to open in time for the 2010-2011 season to boost revenue.

Bob Rossi of the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review states that all other investors have been paid back for their investments in the Penguins to get the team out of bankruptcy. Even more good news comes out of this refinancing process where the ownership structure won't change and Rossi reports that Lemieux would stand to profit if the team is ever sold down the road. The Penguins were taken off the market after the arena deal was reached with the city of Pittsburgh, Allegheny County officials and Pennsylvania governor Ed Rendell back in March.

Lemieux originally pinned his hopes to get the arena funding from Isle of Capri should they have been awarded a gaming slots license. Isle of Capri would've put up $290 million in order to get the arena built as part of a revitalization plan complete with a casino in the city. But they lost in their bid and it came down to Plan B. He threatened to back out as owner and put the Penguins back up for sale as he grew frustrated with ongoing negotiations with government officials. But it ended up working out and ultimately the Penguins are staying put.

Now Lemieux is reaping the benefits for remaining patient and seeing things through. Getting paid the $21 million is certainly well-deserved for all he has done to save the franchise from existence and in this year's instance, leaving Pittsburgh.

Can the Thrashers recover from their very poor start?

While many traditional hockey observers wonder if NHL hockey could work in Atlanta with a second opportunity, the first six years seemed to put that into question. The struggles of an expansion team to shed that label, become competitive and be in the National Hockey League's second season warranted it.

The city of Atlanta was awarded their second franchise in NHL history as the Thrashers joined the NHL in 1999 and had a brand-new arena to play in. We know what happened the first time, just eight years in the Peach State and the Flames were off to Calgary in 1980. But this time, Atlanta proclaimed this is a different era. While that may be true, Kansas City is hoping for that same opportunity after the Scouts flopped in the mid-1970s.

The Thrashers began to put the pieces together just as the lockout forced a league-wide shutdown for a year with their superstar swap with the Ottawa Senators in which Atlanta sent Dany Heatley north on August 23, 2005 and received Marian Hossa in return. Before that trade, they drafted rising star forward Ilya Kovalchuk in 2001 and then promising goaltender Kari Lehtonen in 2002. Even though Kovalchuk and Heatley flourished with Curt Fraser behind the bench as the franchise's original head coach, the team struggled. Heatley needed a change of scenery after he had a difficult time dealing with the loss of his friend and teammate Dan Snyder in a 2003 fatal car accident in the Atlanta area.

Fraser was later fired during the 2002-2003 season and then the Thrashers hired a new head coach that many deemed with his winning resume would finally turn their fortunes around. Bob Hartley won a Stanley Cup championship in Colorado during the 2000-2001 season and had the reputation as a no nonsense coach. Atlanta finally became a playoff contender under Hartley's watch where they just missed the postseason in the 2005-2006 campaign and then finally made it last season by finishing 43-39 and clinched their first Southeast Division title. With Scott Mellanby as their captain and trade deadline acquistions that included Keith Tkachuk, they appeared primed for a long postseason run. Fans really got behind the team with frequent capacity crowds in Philips Arena during the regular season and the joint was pretty loud during their first round playoff series. It appeared Thrashers hockey in Atlanta finally gained genuine momentum.

But then came Atlanta's worst nightmare during their Eastern Conference Quarterfinal series against the New York Rangers. A freak carom off the sideboard plexiglass in Game 2 enabled Rangers forward Sean Avery's clearout to skip into the Thrashers net past Johan Hedberg to score the first goal of that game. It would ultimately give New York momentum they needed. Hartley had switched goaltenders following Game 1 with Lehtonen between the pipes. It would happen again in Games 3 and 4 at Madison Square Garden as the Rangers ended up sweeping the Thrashers out of the playoffs. Hartley came under fire for his handling of his two goaltenders in that series. None of Atlanta's top guns stepped up to the table in the four games as Kovalchuk, Hossa, Tkachuk and others were no-shows offensively.

Two key members of the team left over the summer as Mellanby ended up retiring and Tkachuk returned to St. Louis as a free agent. While turnover can sometimes be used as an excuse, but it is difficult to use that claim when you were a playoff team the season before. Atlanta lost all of their first six games to open the 2007-2008 season and on Wednesday, Hartley was fired. Executive Vice President and General Manager Don Waddell took over for Hartley on an interim basis until he hires a successor.

With an 0-6 record heading into Thursday's game against the Rangers, the first meeting between teams since their playoff series this past spring, all eyes were on Waddell and his group of players. The size of the crowd at Philips Arena seemed to resemble yesteryears where there were numerous empty seats and among those at the game were signs that pointed the blame on the Thrashers' poor start on Waddell instead of Hartley. Even Atlanta Journal-Constitution hockey writer Jeff Schultz wondered the same thing. Same with the newspaper's fellow columnist Carroll Rogers in not blaming Hartley. Some observers may believe that the players eventually tuned out Hartley. When that happens and the head coach has his voice fall on deaf ears, it's only a matter of time he'll be dismissed.

Despite Lehtonen leaving during the first period by aggravating a nagging groin problem, the Thrashers finally got some revenge against New York with a 5-3 victory, their first of the season overall. Will it mark the start of a turnaround? Lord knows what to expect, but a setback in Atlanta's ongoing project to turn this team into a perrenial winner will need to be overcome. With Bobby Holik as the new captain this season, he will need to be a factor in moving forward. As the overused cliché would say, one game at a time.

Thursday, October 18, 2007

NHL Store now open... will it thrive?

When I heard about the possibility and then the truth of an official National Hockey League store opening in New York City, I was thrilled. I had always seen how other professional sports league had done it or was also in the planning stages, so I had wondered what the hell the NHL was waiting for. Nine years ago, the National Basketball Association had opened their NBA Store just six blocks to the north of where the NHL has theirs and it has been a successful venture so far.

The NHL Powered by Reebok Store had its grand opening last Friday and it did not go without some kind of fanfare. It had to be. With ideas and any plans that hopefully the NHL can deliver to help expand its brand across the United States and around the world, having a centralized place where fans can buy official gear is a start. Not everyone has the opportunity to buy such merchandise at from their computer, so opening this store in what some may consider as the fashion and shopping capital of the world, it had to be done. It is a no-brainer.

In a partnership with Reebok, the NHL outfitted all 30 of its teams with the new RBK Edge uniforms and now has this joint venture. But it has to be more than just a store. At least when I go there, I want to be wowed, something that screams hockey and screams the NHL. It has to have me want to come back again and again. From merchandise to interactive events and things to do while within its confines, it must achieve that.

"The NHL Powered by Reebok store will serve as a year-round showcase for the sport of hockey and will bring the game to life through a multi-sensory experience," NHL Executive Vice President of Marketing Brian Jennings told writer Evan Grossman prior to the grand opening. "We are excited to partner with Reebok because of their immense retail experience. Together, we have produced a store that will undoubtedly become a must-see destination for hockey fans worldwide."

We hockey fans can only hope so, especially the diehards.

Given there isn't enough airtime on local radio stations to cover the NHL as it should (you won't have that problem in Toronto though), at least fans can tune in during the season to NHL Live weekday afternoons from 12:00 PM to 2:00 PM on XM Radio channel 204 or listen via The league built a studio at the store site, so patrons certainly can enjoy seeing show hosts Don LaGreca and E.J. Hradek overlook the store floor.

With the National Hockey League offices located in New York City, this was a logical choice to have the NHL Powered by Reebok Store located in the very same building as well (now called under the umbrella the NHL's "world headquarters") . This is not just a shopping and entertainment mecca, the largest metropolis in the United States sees more than its fair share of tourists from across the globe. I understand that this sport and league thrives exceptionally well north of the border in Canada, but in order to grow the game and make the 2005 lockout worth it, not only does the game itself, promotions and marketing the league have to be great, so does a destination where fans can enjoy an memorable experience and then go home happy.

"We all know New York City is great for hockey," NHL commissioner Gary Bettman told the crowd gathered outside the store located at the corner of 6th Avenue and 47th Street during the grand opening festivities. "This is a destination for all visitors to New York, not just hockey fans."

In addition to a recap of an historic October 12th for the league,'s Evan Grossman did a nice job in capturing some of the festivities on video. Among the events to celebrate the grand opening was the appearance of the Stanley Cup (now how could it not be there?), NHL greats in Glenn Anderson, Rick Middleton, Butch Goring and Ken Daneyko as well as Bruce Driver and Eric Cairns signing autographs for fans. Recently retired referee Paul Stewart was also on hand to greet patrons. But what I think was nice touch (but to others may think it was corny, who knows) was the arrival of a custom-painted Zamboni travelling down 6th Avenue to make its way to the store front. The NHL even had conducted an "Unlock your NHL Dreams" sweepstakes where the grand prize was a trip to the upcoming 2008 NHL All-Star Game in Atlanta.

Overall, this is hopefully a start of good things to come for the National Hockey League. We saw the new add some nice features to their official web site, the addition of NHL Center Ice Online where you can watch multiple games at once from anywhere with your online subscription, plus the arrival of NHL Network on televisions across the United States (it is about time!). As far as the network goes, hopefully it'll evolve into something more than just a feed of its programming from Canada. The NHL Powered by Reebok Store should give us all a great new option to fulfill our hockey fix.