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Denis facing uphill climb to NHL

by Lindsay Kramer

Goaltender Marc Denis will begin the 2008-09 season with the Hamilton Bulldogs, but considers it a neccessary step to returning to the NHL again.
Always keep your eyes wide-open, the better to not get fooled.

It's rule No. 1 for any goalie, usually picked up at about the same time he or she figures out which end of the stick to hold and which end to put on the ice.

More than a decade into his pro career, Marc Denis is still reminding himself of it.

Somewhere far out onto the horizon, he sees a return to the NHL. Much closer to him, blocking out all but the most optimistic rays of hope, are two young stud goalies, Montreal's Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak. They are hard to miss, and Denis doesn't even try.

"I know what the situation is. I'm definitely not playing dumb," Denis said. "I don't think anybody is."

The key thing to remember here is that Denis, 30, is still playing, period. The footnote that he's doing it with Hamilton, and perhaps is back in the AHL full-time for the first time in a decade, doesn't flusters him.

Shut out by the NHL market, Denis recently agreed to a two-way deal with Montreal. He should be the clear No. 1 with the Bulldogs, and a reliable option if Price or Halak slumps or gets hurt. But his likely starting spot this year continues something of a humbling mini-slide that began with a 32-game demotion from Tampa Bay to Norfolk last season.

"I honestly thought I had a shot getting a spot back in the NHL. It became evident to me that I'd have to go back to the basics and sign a two-way deal," he said. "If my road back to the NHL means going through Hamilton, I'm ready to do that. Just because I've played 8½ years in the NHL doesn't mean I'm too good to go to the AHL. It is a step back, but it's a step back to go forward."

Denis' sunny-side up has the weight of history behind it. He has played in 348 NHL games, with Colorado, Columbus and Tampa Bay. The number that Montreal might find more valuable when it comes to Denis is 25, as in the slot in the first round where Colorado grabbed him in 1995.

It indicates that Denis once upon a time knew what it was like to face pressure as a young hotshot, much like Price and Halak will now.

"I've been a No. 1 draft pick and labeled the future of a franchise a couple times," he said, referring to Colorado and Columbus. "I understand that big brother figure role might be asked of me. I'm willing to do that as well, if that's what's asked of me."

Fresh start for Locke -- Having done pretty much everything worth doing in a Hamilton sweater, center Corey Locke gets to start from scratch again.

Locke, the franchise's all-time leader in goals (85), assists (144) and points (229), was dealt to the Minnesota organization in return for defenseman Shawn Belle earlier this month.
For someone so associated with one team, it was hardly a shock. Locke, 24, had played in just one career game with the Canadiens and knew he was well out of the organization's plans.

"We both knew it was time to move on. I'm obviously glad it's Minnesota. I can't wait to get a fresh start," Locke said. "If a team trades for you, you hope they are doing it for a reason. They are a team that wanted me. That's what you want to think."
Fitzpatrick leads Amerk rebirth --
In his spare time last season while playing for the Flyers and Phantoms, defenseman Rory Fitzpatrick used to troll the Internet for news about his hometown team, the Rochester Amerks.

Fitzpatrick, like most of the fans of the once-proud franchise, couldn't believe what he saw. The Amerks were the worst team in the AHL.

"It was kind of the talk around the NHL and AHL, how that relationship (between Buffalo and Rochester) had gone sour," Fitzpatrick said. "I couldn't believe that the team was doing how they were doing. I don't think they were given the team they needed to succeed. It's tough to watch from all angles."

Sometimes, the best solutions to new problems are old faces. That's the approach that Florida is taking.

The Panthers have taken over as the sole parent club of the Amerks. One of their first moves was bringing back Fitzpatrick, a Rochester native who played parts of three seasons with the Amerks.

Fitzpatrick, 33, certainly isn't a one-man solution to all the losing and empty seats. But he is most definitely one player who will take both very personally.

"Being from Rochester, and being an Amerks fan first, it was sad to see. I know people weren't happy," Fitzpatrick said. "Coming back here in a new organization and hoping to be part of that turnaround is exciting for me. Hopefully, (having him around) makes the connection easier with the fans. I'm sure some people will stand back and see how things turn out."

If reluctant fans are slow to return, Fitzpatrick said he's willing to meet them more than half way. The veteran of 287 NHL games has a two-year, two-way deal with the Panthers, and he's prepared to settle in as an ambassador of the new era.

"If I'm in the AHL all year, I'm ready to do that," Fitzpatrick said. "I'm familiar with a lot of people in Rochester. It's a lot easier to be involved in the community when it's your community. I hope to instill that (pride) in the players who are here. It's been a great organization for a long time."
Phantoms' swan song at Spectrum --
The Philadelphia Phantoms will celebrate their past this season while keeping a curious eye on where the future might take them.

The team's home, The Spectrum, will be torn down after the 2008-09 season. The Phantoms will commemorate the event with a special patch on their uniform and by celebrating memorable moments from the building's history.

Then what?

Comcast-Spectacor is in negotiations to relocate the team to another facility in time for the 2009-10 season. After a temporary layover for a few years -- Atlantic City, anyone? -- one strong possibility is the Lehigh Valley area in Pennsylvania.

According to The Morning Call (Pa.) newspaper, two developers have expressed interest in building an $80 million, 9,000-seat arena in that neck of the woods.

"The prospect of moving the Triple-A Philadelphia Flyers to Allentown gives this idea viability," State Rep. Jennifer Mann told the newspaper. "I think the prospect of the Philadelphia Phantoms looking for a new home certainly presents a great opportunity. There has been some conversation of an arena in Allentown, and that is something we should get excited about."

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