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Northwest: Wild staff earns assist following fire

by Roger Phillips

"It's crazy they got all this stuff here in time. It's unbelievable. Our trainers are amazing." -- Nick Schultz on the Wild's equipment staff

The No. 1 Star in the NHL this week probably should be the equipment crew for the Minnesota Wild.

A truck fire last Friday destroyed much of the team's equipment during a road trip to Ottawa. All but nine players' gear was roasted to a crisp. Yet the team was outfitted and ready to play by the following morning.

The equipment crew deserves the credit. Equipment manager Tony DaCosta and other team staff sorted through the smoldering remains to determine what was salvageable. Assistant equipment manager Brent Proulx flew back to the Twin Cities, arriving early Saturday morning, to restock the team's supplies.

Proulx, fellow assistant equipment manager Matt Benz and strength and conditioning coach Chris Pietrzak-Wegner lugged a bunch of equipment -- including medical supplies and sticks -- to the Minneapolis airport. The charter flight left at 5:30 a.m., and by 9 a.m., Proulx was back in Ottawa.

According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, when players arrived at Scotiabank Place for the morning skate Saturday, it was almost as if the fire had never happened. The players' equipment was all set up as if there had never been a fire.

"It's crazy they got all this stuff here in time. It's unbelievable," Nick Schultz told the newspaper. "Our trainers are amazing."

The Star Tribune had some other colorful anecdotes about the episode:

* Schultz lost the shoulder pads he'd used since junior, and went to an Ottawa sporting goods store to buy new skates for the game against the Senators.

* Shane Hnidy had two pairs of skates in the van that caught fire. The left skate from each pair was ruined.

* James Sheppard lost everything but his contact lenses and mouthpiece.

Unfortunately for the Wild, the equipment staff's heroic efforts went unrewarded. The Wild lost to the Senators by a 4-1 margin.

Getting late early --
First-year Oilers coach Pat Quinn is taking the long view when considering the task he has before him.

Yes, it's only been a few years since the Oilers surprised the NHL by making it all the way to the Stanley Cup Final before losing to the Carolina Hurricanes. But aside from that, Quinn points out, the past 20 years haven't been especially good to Edmonton hockey fans.

Wayne Gretzky was traded in 1988. The Oilers last won a Stanley Cup in 1990. Other than that, and the recent trip to the Final, the Oilers have struggled for a long time.

This season, they're struggling again, beset by injuries and an early season flu epidemic that swept through the dressing room. Even a recent five-game road winning streak hasn't been enough to lift the Oilers from their doldrums.

Monday night, they were routed by the Blues, 7-2, in Edmonton. The loss dropped the Oilers to the bottom of the Western Conference standings.

"Our challenge here is trying to become a better team," Quinn told the Edmonton Sun. "It's not just the last thee years, this organization since 1990 has missed the playoffs half the time. So there's a lot of looking at what needs to be done here, and who are the people that are going to get the job done.

"We're still trying to learn how to be a team. Our system of play has been identified for a long time, what we want, but we're not getting it lots of times.

The question is why is that? Is it skill? Is it the mental part? Can we not figure this thing out?"

Injuries and illnesses haven't helped. Fernando Pisani is sidelined indefinitely as he battles ulcerative colitis and Mike Comrie is suffering from mononucleosis.

"We're sitting here in 15th place and it's not a happy place," Quinn told the Sun. "Nor should it be a happy place."

Holiday on ice -- Being a hockey player, Avalanche center Matt Hendricks spends a lot of time on the ice. That won't change even when the NHL shuts down for two weeks during the Winter Olympics in February.

Hendricks, a Minnesota native, plans to spend the break ice fishing on a frozen lake in Mille Lacs, Minn.

"Some walleye, maybe some crappie, some perch," Hendricks told the Denver Post. "Ice fishing is the best. It's relaxing, plus it gets your adrenaline going."

Hendricks had a thrill Monday when he scored a shorthanded goal in his home state as the Avalanche defeated the Wild at the Xcel Energy Center for the first time in five meetings this season.

It's been a long road to the NHL for Hendricks, who debuted last season, appearing in four games for the Avalanche. Hendricks starred at St. Cloud State from 2000-2004, then spent the next five seasons in the minor leagues, mainly the American Hockey League. Hendricks was a fifth-round draft choice by the Predators in 2000.

Back in his college days, he told the Denver Post, Hendricks and his friends would spend time at a small popup ice house, fishing and doing homework. During the Olympic break, Hendricks and his family are planning to rent a bigger house on the lake, one with more amenities than he enjoyed in his college days.

"Looking forward to it," Hendricks told the Post. "I'm sure we'll get some hockey games going out there too, somewhere. Growing up, I had a pretty big group of friends, and that's pretty much all we did in the winter was play hockey on frozen ponds and lakes. There's some great memories there."

Mystery achievement -- Canucks defenseman Shane O'Brien has had an up-and-down season. Earlier in the year he was scratched eight times for poor play, and he's always been known for spending too much time in the penalty box.

But lately, he's been doing things differently. O'Brien scored his first regular-season goal in 165 games last Sunday in a loss to St. Louis, and he hasn't taken a minor penalty in 11 consecutive games. So what gives? It seems to be as big a mystery to the 26-year-old O'Brien as anyone.

"To be honest, I don't really know what I'm doing differently," O'Brien told the Vancouver Province. "I'm trying to play physical within the rules and I'm (11) in a row without a (minor) penalty — that's definitely a career high for me. It's knowing where my stick is and doing it under control. Last year, there were times when my stick was flaring and my hands were up."

"For a couple of weeks now, Shane is playing the best hockey since he's been here, both offensively and defensively."
-- Canucks coach coach Alain Vigneault on defenseman Shane O'Brien

One thing that seems to be clear, according to the Province, is that O'Brien has endeared himself to coach Alain Vigneault by being in better shape than in previous years.

"For a couple of weeks now, Shane is playing the best hockey since he's been here, both offensively and defensively," Vigneault told the Province. "He's making good outlet plays from our end and finding ways to have good gaps."

Eternal Flames --
Like every team in the league, the Flames have been playing a condensed schedule because of the NHL's upcoming Olympic break.

But last week was the exception. The Flames had Sunday, Monday and Tuesday off following a loss Saturday to Nashville. And following Wednesday's game against the Blues, the Flames were off again until Sunday because of the Christmas holiday.

The Flames may have had a bit of a break early this week, but they weren't exactly resting. The Flames wrapped up their Monday practice skating the length of the ice, the width of this ice, then dropping to do pushups, sit-ups and squats.

"A little bit old school," center Olli Jokinen told the Calgary Sun. "I guess (coach Brent Sutter) wanted to make sure everybody did some off-ice workout stuff, too."

Before this recent stretch, the Flames hadn't gone three days without a game since the beginning of November. Sutter is hoping the break will allow his team to refocus and regain the competitive edge it had when it won five of its last six games in November.

"Things have gotten away from our game the last couple of weeks, and we haven't had a chance with practice time to work on them," Sutter told the Sun. "We have to get ourselves back to being what we are about as a team. ... It's working on details. Outsiders who don't play the game or don't play at a high level, it may not seem important, but it's about playing the game the right way. The details are a very important part of that.

"Take care of that, and the end result will take care of itself. We've gotten away from that, at times, the last couple of weeks and it's hurt our game."
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