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Pacific: Burke plays waiting game

by Doug Ward /

Now that he has achieved his goal, Anaheim GM Brian Burke must decide what players he will depend on for the Ducks to defend their title.
Imagine you just bought an NHL team and your sole ambition was to bring the Stanley Cup to California for the first time.

OK, maybe you wanted to make a boatload of money on the deal, too, but as long as you were in the hockey business, you wanted to win. And suppose the hockey gods granted you the ability to bring in the person of your choice to assure your dream came to fruition. Who would you choose?

Wayne Gretzky? Joe Thornton?

The correct answer, as we now know, is Brian Burke.

Just two years after Anaheim owners Henry and Susan Samueli came up with the right answer and rescued Burke from television analyst purgatory, the Stanley Cup was posing for photo ops from Newport Beach to Burbank.

Now that Burke has assured the Ducks’ place in history, new questions are being asked in Anaheim, such as this one: Who do you need on your roster in order to keep the Cup in California? No one knows for sure, but the answer to the latest question might be Scott Niedermayer and/or Teemu Selanne.


The follow-up question asks how far you go to accommodate the pair in order to make sure they’re around when Cup defense begins in earnest come April?

Burke is the only person that can answer that one, and he seems willing to bend plenty in order to keep one, and maybe both, of the two stars who are currently flirting with retirement around for another kick at the can.

“Both players,” Burke said, “deserve and are entitled to some patience on our part.”

A year ago, the Ducks were the meanest Stanley Cup champs since the ’70s heyday of the Broad Street Bullies, leading the League in both penalty minutes and fights. Toughness is a trait that seems to be a direct reflection of their no-nonsense GM But is Burke going soft? Even the dog whisperer knows the pack leader needs to establish boundaries and provide discipline. Niedermayer and Selanne are both absent from the club’s training camp, and neither player will accompany the Ducks when they cross the other pond to open their season against the Kings in London.

They both remain noncommittal about their future plans, and with every passing day, it’s becoming more apparent that the two AWOL Ducks are examining the merits of signing up for the Roger Clemens Plan.

The Yankees’ legend has more-or-less had the freedom to come and go as he sees fit in recent years, so long as he shows up when its his turn to pitch, continues to be a marquee presence, and wins the occasional game.

Presumably, Niedermayer and Selanne would have to be around more than every fifth day, but even if they don’t, there’s not too much doubt that their teammates would welcome them back. If someone showed up at your job tomorrow, did all the heavy lifting, made you look good, and virtually guaranteed that your Christmas bonus would be fatter, would you have a problem with it?

Neither will the other players in the Ducks’ dressing room.

Nor will Burke, who has not gone soft at all. The latitude he has granted Niedermayer and Selanne is really just another example of the undying loyalty he has always extended his players. This is the guy that brought Todd Bertuzzi to Anaheim. He’s hoping his two stars find loyalty to be a two-way street. In addition to being loyal, Burke is also very smart. Sure, he’s as tough as his team, but he also knows there are times when ruling with an iron fist is not in your best interest. This would be one of those times.

And it’s not like Niedermayer is milking this. He seems genuinely torn. “It’s sort of unfortunate this decision has taken this long for me to make,” he said as the Ducks prepared for camp.

If Niedermayer is struggling with the notion that he might be altering his identity, who can blame him? He’s always been the consummate leader and the idea of being known as someone who comes and goes as his schedule permits, as if he were Deion Sanders, can’t be appealing to him. Of course, it probably beats training camp and a long flight to the U.K.

Either way, you get the sense Selanne, a free agent, is the tail and Niedermayer, who has two years and $13.5 million remaining on his deal, is the dog in this one, and that the Ducks will probably get both players back to defend the Cup or neither.

Will Anaheim all-stars Scott Niedermayer and Teemu Selanne return this season?
Maybe the decision has already been made.

If both wayward Ducks do return to the fold, a lot of people win, namely Burke, the Ducks, and hockey fans in Orange County. The burning question, however, is whether Niedermayer thinks he’d be a winner, too. Can the introspective Niedermayer live with himself if he becomes a part-timer? This is a guy that has rewritten hockey history, becoming the only player to win the Stanley Cup, an Olympic gold medal, the Memorial Cup, the World Junior Hockey Championship, the World Championship, and the World Cup of Hockey.

This time, however, he wouldn’t be re-writing history so much as editing it, changing the hockey season from War and Peace to a set of Cliff Notes. But whatever he decides, he’s got the boss’s backing.

“If he wants to come back, that’s great news,” Burke said when the Ducks opened training camp, essentially leaving the Honda Center doors wide open.

If Niedermayer is struggling with the notion of coming off as some kind of prima donna, he can take solace in the fact that some of the all-tine greats have opted out of part of the season without damaging their image.

Michael Jordan rejoined the Bulls in March of 1995, just in time to regain his form for the playoffs. And the Chargers’ LaDainian Tomlinson doesn’t even suit up for pre-season games, opting instead to save himself for the regular season, and nobody has a problem with it.

Who could possibly turn down the kind of arrangement that Clemens, Jordan, and, to a lesser degree, Tomlinson have had? That’s the one remaining question for the Ducks to ponder, and this time, they hope the answer isn’t Niedermayer.

Around the Pacific

Los Angeles -- Kings GM Dean Lombardi told Helene Elliott of the Los Angeles Times that he is, “amazed this franchise hasn’t developed its own goalie in over 40 years.” Lombardi and the Kings hope 19-year-old Jonathan Bernier becomes the first. In the meantime, the Kings’ goaltending job is there for the taking, with Dan Cloutier battling Jason LaBarbera and Jean-Sebastien Aubin. Bernier is a long shot to make the team this year.

San Jose -- The Sharks have invited defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh, a star in the early days of the franchise, to training camp for a tryout. The 35-year-old Latvian has battled substance abuse problems, but believes he is ready to make the most of the chance. “I’m really grateful for this opportunity,” Ozolinsh told the San Jose Mercury News. “I’ll make the most of it.”

Dallas -- The Stars have eliminated most of the green in their color scheme and reverted back to an almost entirely black-and-white look in their new RBK Edge uniform. The dark jerseys, with the word “Dallas” in arched, block letters over the player’s number, have a decidedly collegiate feel, evoking the University of Denver’s look, in particular.

Phoenix -- When Wayne Gretzky arrived in Los Angeles in August of 1988, it was front-page news everywhere. Earlier this week, news of “The Great One’s” departure from Southern California was relegated to a brief note in the real estate section of the Los Angeles Times.

According to the Times, Gretzky has sold his Lake Sherwood estate, located north of Los Angeles in Thousand Oaks, for $18.5 million. Former New York Met and Philadelphia Phillie Lenny Dykstra is the buyer.

Last year, Gretzky lived in the Valley of the Sun with one of his sons while his wife and other four kids remained in Thousand Oaks. The entire Gretzky family will now call Phoenix home.

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