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Around The NHL In 2003

by Staff Writer / Toronto Maple Leafs

Heading into his third season as a contributor for Leafs TV, Scott Burnside gives you some of the best NHL and Maple Leafs insight. You can watch Scott on the Hockey Buzz on Leafs TV and read him in the Hockey News.

by Scott Burnside
December 22, 2003

(ATLANTA) -- The passing of one year into the next is the perfect time to give pause and reflect on the good and the bad in the hockey universe.

In the case of the National Hockey League, such passing is more akin to a kidney stone than honest to goodness reflection, but we digress. Herein, end of year musings and ponderings and the odd New Year's resolution thrown in for good measure (and to pump up the word count).

In a season marked more often than not by pad press and negative criticism of the game, it's nice to see the game finally get some good ink. To whit, the Battle of the Hockey Gladiators. The brawlfest scheduled for next Labour Day is just what the NHL needs, a feel-good story that takes fans backs to the roots of the game.

(Uhm, don't you mean the Heritage Classic? the Battle of the Hockey Gladiators, a made-for-idiots 'reality' show pitting hockey tough guys against each other on an icy stage, makes a grotesque mockery of the game and illustrates why, for many American fans, it will always be seen as first cousin to 'professional wrestling'.)

Right. The Heritage Classic.

The outdoor masterpiece may well have been the most important regular season game in NHL history, certainly in recent history. A shame only a handful of transplanted Canadians living south of the border with an enhanced digital cable package managed to see the game live in the United States.But again we digress.

The game avoided being a gimmick and let the players, the fans and the game itself enjoy the spotlight on what would be the grandest stage ever created for a regular season game. More will follow, as they should, but it will be impossible to recreate the magic of that frosty night in November.

As for grotesque mockeries, we bring you the World Hockey Association Part Deux. Might as well save billboard space and market it with the aforementioned Battle of the Hockey Numbskulls.

With all due respect to Bobby Hull, credibility isn't the strong suit of this disorganized pack of opportunists. A recent press gathering provided only a vague suggestion of where the teams will play, who will play, how many will be on the ice and how many pucks they'll employ. When Hull suggests the new WHA will prompt fans to buy a case of beer and a bottle of rye just like the good old days, we suspect that's because the brand of hockey will warrant distilling.

Save your money and buy a ticket or two to your local junior hockey game.

On the list of things to be thankful for this holiday season, we give you the Calgary Flames. Disorganized, dull and virtually disenfranchised lo these past seven seasons (the length of their playoff famine), the Flames may still be a tad on the dull side (they managed to score five times against the Bruins shortly before Christmas and were told to take the rest of the month off), but Darryl Sutter who wears the dual toques of general manager and coach, has turned the Flames into the New Jersey Devils West. They may not make Calgary fans forget about Lanny McDonald and Joel Otto but they're loving it. Here's hoping they don't hit the 'fold' button before April.

On the things to be thankful for this holiday season, redux, we give you the New York Rangers. Once again dragging around the NHL's longest payroll, the Rangers continue to prove to one and all money doesn't buy you heart, chemistry or a playoff berth. Glen Sather (another member of the tiny coach/GM club) has it all on the line this season. His reputation, already tattered and bruised, will be all but erased if he can't coax his many personalities into the playoffs.

If Sather is the resolution type, we hope he resolves to go with the squad he's assembled. No more dragging in another sour, overpaid, malingering star to appease the media critics (Jaromir Jagr, are you in the house?). No, Sather's hope is in proving to Eric Lindros et al, that Sather's a coach and they're a team and that's how it's going to be. (For you betting types, we take no responsibility for life savings squandered wagering this will indeed happen).

Speaking of resolutions, if we're Wayne Gretzky, we resolve to quickly name Pat Quinn head coach of the Canadian entry in the World Cup of Hockey. There are those who suggest the staff should change to allow others like Andy Murray or Bob Hartley to take a turn at the helm of the national hockey ship, perhaps recycle Marc Crawford. Uh, why?

The progression theory works well at the junior level and Murray and others will have plenty of opportunity at events like the World Championships. But the World Cup of Hockey, like the Olympics, should be about selecting the staff that will have the best chance of winning. No disrespect to Murray and/or Crawford who rank as two of the finest coaches in the NHL, but why tinker with success?

Quinn, buried by the Toronto media in November and before that in Salt Lake City in the midst of the gold medal run, has led the Leafs to the top of the NHL pack this season and has proven he can quickly assimilate a talented, veteran squad. If, as some insiders suggest, Gretzky was less enamoured with Ken Hitchcock, then by all means add Murray to the staff that should also include Jacques Martin. But Quinn should be your guy.

Across the NHL there are a host of players resolving to start earning their keep, Miroslav Satan in Buffalo, Marian Gaborik in Minnesota and J.S. Giguere in Anaheim and Marty Turco in Dallas. (Excuse me, but didn't all of these guys get a great big, fat early Santa Claus contract before the start of the season?) Yes, they did but we're sure it's a coincidence.

Continuing with the resolution theme, in general, wouldn't it be nice if we resolved to stop bashing the game at every turn. Does it need to be fixed? Absolutely. Widen the blue lines, move the nets back, keep players in the box until penalties are fully served, go to a shootout to end regulation ties. Whatever it takes, try it. But on any given night there is far better hockey played than columnists and critics suggest. The negative press permeates fans' psyches.

If exorbitant ticket prices don't keep them away, their local columnists might.

Finally, for those members of the hockey family taken too soon - Roger Neilson, Herb Brooks, Dan Snyder, Keith Magnuson - we resolve not to forget what you brought to the game, how the game was richer for you presence. The best way to do just that is to make sure there is a game to be played. Here's hoping that, too, is resolved long before next September.
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