Wednesday, January 30, 2013

The Real Deal -- James Neal

By Larry Wigge

He stood there, head set on a swivel making sure he did not miss anything. He was at the All-Star Game in Montreal in late January of 2009.

James Neal was in the Western Conference locker room. Sort of. Actually, there were so many players on the visitors side that he didn't have a locker. Neal's position in the room was near a pole. He had a metal chair to sit on ... and his nameplate was written on paper and was fastened to pole.

Around him where Jarome Iginla, Ryan Getzlaf, Scott Niedermayer, Roberto Luongo, Shane Doan, Rick Nash, Patrick Marleau, Joe Thornton and Mike Modano, who was his teammate with the Dallas Stars.

It didn't matter Neal. He was a still a part of the All-Star Game festivities.

While he looked in awe, this Whitby, Ontario, native, had scored just 13 goals for the Stars in his rookie career. He was part of the YoungStars in the Montreal.

"I don't know what to say ... or who to say it too," said the 22-year-old Neal. "I'm just going to soak up all of the action."

That self-proclaimed confidence is why they call James Neal, "The Real Deal."

Playing with a power forward's girth at 6-2, 208-pounds, Neal has the skills to go along with it. Good shot. Nose for the net. He battles hard and competes at a high pace. He finishes around the net with his stick ... and his grit. All of the intangibles made him a second-round pick, 33rd overall, in the 2005 NHL Entry Draft.

Neal finished out his rookie season with Dallas with 24 goals. He had another 21 goals after 59 games, when got the news that he had been traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins by Dallas with defenseman Matt Niskanen in exchange of Alex Goliogoski.

"As a forward, we've really liked what we see in James," Penguins GM Ray Shero said at the time of the deal. "He's at the top of our list for any young power forward in the League."

But, Neal admits he probably tried to do too much when he first arrived in Pittsburgh. He finished with just one goal in 20 games for the Penguins.

"Any time you come to a new team you have high expectations for yourself," he said. "I just wanted to come in, show them what I could do. I had some good games ... had some bad games. It was up and down but at the end of the day. You do try too hard, try to do things that push you over the edge. It's like doing more when you should do less.

"You get a call at practice and your whole life is upside down in seconds. The next thing you know, you're on a plane and in a hotel room in a different city. You have to leave your team. You have to leave your friends."

Neal's first trade. It's something he'll never forget it. But ...

Never to look a gift horse in the mouth, James could think of how he might be on a line with Sidney Crosby or Evgeni Malkin.

Malkin, by the way, was the winner of the shooting accuracy contest at the 2009 All-Star Game. 

"When I'm playing with that confidence, playing with that attitude, you can visualize," Neal said. "When you get the puck, you know exactly where you want to put it. You do it before the game, too. I try to visualize all different kinds of shots, angles, you name it."

And they all go in? Don't they.

"That's the thing," he added with a grin. "And once I have that visualization when I'm on the ice, I just try to get the shot off quickly."

Playing with Malkin has been shall we say eye-opening for Neal.

"Playing with Geno ... has been amazing," said Neal. "He finds you anywhere. It's almost like he's got a vision ... making some great passes -- like he's got eyes in the back of his head."

That brings us to the present. Neal collected 40 goals on a wing with Malkin in the 2011-12 season, the first full season as linemates. This season, he's got four goals in five games.

Still, wiring those great passes by opposing goaltenders -- like the cross-ice pass to Neal, who one-timed a rocket past Craig Anderson's glove hand at 13:31 in the first period. Neal, Crosby and Malkin all beat Anderson in the shootout for a 2-1 Pittsburgh victory over Ottawa.

After the game, Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said Neal is always dangerous.

"James is dangerous from anywhere," Bylsma said. "That goal tonight, he gets a sliver of an opportunity to get that shot off. I think you could teach a lesson with getting open and releasing just from what we've seen this year from James.

"James scores goals. He's got a great shot. He's a faster skater. He's a hard skater to the net."

"His wrist shot is probably the most best in I've seen," said teammate Pascal Dupuis.

Said Neal, "I just try to bring a physical aspect, I think I can put the puck in the net and be good around the net -- and be physical and play hard every shift."

It won't be 40 goals gain for Neal this year, not with the 48-game compressed schedule. What would James consider such a step?

"To me, I feel like my next level is just a constant learning process of being with players like Sid and Geno," he said. "That helps, hopefully, not only to get to the next level faster but to want to be there. When you're around those guys every day, playing with them ... you enjoy it, you know?

"I want to elevate my game to that next level, try to be an elite player, be a top player on this team that has a lot of great players. I'm in a great spot. You learn to feed off guys in this dressing room -- it's fun to be a part of."

Neal's father, Peter, coached him for the major part of his minor hockey. Peter is a real estate agent. His mom, Debra, runs the house. James has three younger brothers (Michael, Peter, and Nicholas) and one younger sister (Rebecca). Michael, plays in the Dallas organization was drafted in the fifth round, 149th overall, in 2007.

"He put a puck through his garage door," said Peter, who laughed ... and then sort of shook his head at the constant repair of the garage.

Saying he got tired of fixing the whole garage, so, "I used to just fix the hole." 

Neal said he learned to be focused from his father. He learned to always be ready to play each shift whistle-to-whistle.

Obstacles? Most players have them. Neal said he was small.

"When I was younger, I was smaller and kind of developed the hands and tried to be a little more skilled, but once I started to grow and get bigger I kind of changed my game into a power forward," Neal said. 

He didn't have to worry about being too small for too long. At 16, Neal started working out during the summers with Gary Roberts and Adam Foote. 

"Growing up, it was all hockey," Neal recalled. "The fact I had an opportunity to train with guys like Gary Roberts and Adam Foote was as good as it gets. I started training with Roberts when I was 16 by going to his gym in Toronto -- and I got to know him very well.

"When I finished up in Toronto, I started training with Foote, who lived right around the corner from me in Whitby."

When you start to name how James Neal got the the NHL, it's easy to mention each step he took. 

What you really take from this is that James Neal is, "The Real Deal."

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Life is not Filled of What ifs for Markov

By Larry Wigge

There were about a million things running through Andrei Markov mind. And why wouldn't there be.

The what ifs of the 34-year-old defensemen from Voskresenk, Russia, likely are running rampant is his cranium, no doubt. If you were given the power to change one thing in your life with the snap of your fingers, what would it be?

Or, maybe Markov, who has spent all of his 12 seasons with the Montreal Canadiens, would rather look at it as been a life of, 'Oh wells' rather than a life of 'What ifs.'

This is not a story about life-cut-short-through-injuries. It is not like Gale Sayers, Darryl Stingley, Bill Walton, Bo Jackson, Sterling Sharpe, Mark Prior, Yao Ming or Grant Hill. It's a tear-jerking comeback story. One that reminds one of his unblinking blue-eyed veteran with the shaved head and determined jaw and the laser-like shot from  the blue line.

In his second game this season, Markov unleashed two of those rocket shots in Montreal's 4-1 victory over the Florida Panthers. Or two nights later, when he used his mobility to tap a rebound home on a power play in a 4-1 win over the Washington Capitals. All three of Markov's goals were on Montreal's once feared power play.

It brought back memories of third season -- a 13-goal effort. Maybe even 2007-08, when he poured in 16 goals. Or 2008-09 when he added another 12 goals.

Markov's two goals snapped a long drought for the oft-injured defenseman. His last goal came on November 10, 2010, against the Vancouver Canucks, but because of a serious knee injury since that time. Still, after waiting 26 months between goals, Markov got two in a span of 15:07.

"What do you mean finally?" he responded incredulously, when he was asked about ending his drought.

He's not as fast as he once was, but he's still a highly intelligent playmaker and defender who's able to snuff out opposing rushes before they materialize and put pucks on teammates sticks they never saw coming. A very skilled player who thinks the game so well.

"He was a real leader, a general on our defense," coach Michel Therrien said. "The way that he controlled the game, the way he was able to shut down big players on the other side, his attitude, the way he plays the game, he was a real leader out there."

He was limited to 45 games in 2009-10 and seven and 13 games the last two seasons. That's just 65 games over the last three seasons. No wonder the Habs are happy to have to back.

"Without him in your lineup, it's completely different back there," said captain Brian Gionta. "It just shows what we've been missing.

"He's a very special player."

Markov is now physically able to get to where his brain and instinct tell him to go.

"It's great to have him on my side finally, he commands the ice," said winger Colby Armstrong. "Play stands still when he controlling the ice. He freezes the whole game."

Life has been like a series of comebacks for Markov. The last three seasons have preparing to play at a top level -- only to be cut short.

When you get to be 30-something and up you learn to practice harder in the offseason. Get yourself into shape the whole offseason. For the past three years, Markov worked on additional treatment on the St. Henri studio doorstep of Scott Livingston, a certified athletic therapist and the Canadiens’ former strength and conditioning co-ordinator.

Livingston performed what he called the "back-end rehab program" for Markov. Included in that was a reconditioning and conditioning program and lung-torching cardio that included intense PowerWatts cycling sessions with a dynamic group of elite amateur and professional athletes, including skiers, hockey players and Olympic diver Alex Despatie.

"Basically," Markov said, "I found the right person who helped me a lot and put me back in shape."

Markov was wondering what if about then. 

"When I step on the ice, I don't try to think about any health problems. No way," Markov said. "For me, it's a hockey rule: 'If you step on the ice, you have to give 100 per cent every time, whether you're healthy or not.' "

A glass half filled theory -- with promise remaining of the light at the end of the tunnel -- rather than a what if.

Under the radar is the phrase most often used to describe Andrei Markov.

He's 6-foot, 207 pounds but plays like a small, but tough defenseman. He was a sixth-round pick, 162nd overall, in the 1998 NHL Entry Draft. Well down the list, but ... 

Montreal's power play has waned in recent years without the lethal shots, passes with eyes to get to Canadiens forward. Gone is Sheldon Souray, who once converted 26 man-advantage tallies in 2006-07, as well as Mark Streit, who also struck fear into opponents.

Markov's shot remain dangerous. Asked how small the net looks from the blue line, Andrei said, "Actually, it looks small."

If the Montreal Canadiens can keep Andrei Markov healthy prospects look good that the fearsome power play can make its mark.

For now, you can forget stories about Gale Sayers or Bill Walton or Bo Jackson or Mark Prior or Yao Ming.

Markov's story is no longer a what if tale.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

The NHL will never Forget Tomas Holmstrom

By Larry Wigge
Tomas Holmstrom came into the NHL a shy lad from Pitea, Sweden in 1996. Soon, he became a big and strong player in front of the net. Excuse me, he barged in front of the opposition's net.

Actually, the mild-mannered 6-foot, 200-pounder, was an under-the-radar pick -- ninth round, 257th pick in the 1994 NHL Entry Draft. But, years later, Holmstrom, the 14-year veteran became Detroit's crease-crashing, get-in-the-way-of-the-goaltender, butt-in-the-crease protagonist. He left the game an elite player -- who scored 243 goals and 287 assists in 1,026 game. Most important, he won four Stanley Cup titles.

"The interesting thing, for me, with Homer is -- not a very good skater but was the quickest guy from the net front to the corner, back to the net front, that I've ever coached," Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock said. "Competed to get to his spot, was a great, great, great teammate, great man. Very, very ultra-competitive. All the best players are ultra-competitive."

I remember a pre-playoff interview with Homer prior to the Wings' last Stanley Cup in 2008 against the Pittsburgh Penguins, a series won won by Detroit in six games.

I asked how long do you think it will take for you to become Public Enemy No. 1 in Pittsburgh?

A big smile crossed the face of the scraggly-looking bearded Red Wings' winger before Game 1 of what figures to be a hotly-contest series.

"I can't give you a timetable, but ..."

Holmstrom paused, then said, "It doesn't take long for me to get under the other team's skin. I don't know why. I'm a pretty nice guy."

Another big smile.

Let the record show that three times in the first 20 minutes of Game 1 of the Final Series against Pittsburgh, the 35-year-old Pitea, Sweden, native, got the attention of the Penguins. Six minutes, 30 seconds into the game, he provided a good screen in front of the net on a scoring chance by Pavel Datsyuk that quickly prompted some pushing and shoving after the play. Three minutes later, he was in another shoving match in front of Penguins goaltender Marc-Andre Fleury with defenseman Brooks Orpik. Then it was Holmstrom's stick on Fleury's pads that caused a disallowed goal by Nicklas Lidstrom at 15:20. And finally, a high-sticking penalty by Hall Gill on Holmstrom that gave the Red Wings a power play with just one minute left in the first period.

Leave it to this prickly-looking power forward to be right in the middle of the action all the time. He made an impact early in the game with his around-the-crease activity and then recorded a nifty, quick-passing assist to set up Henrik Zetterberg to finish off the scoring in a 4-0 victory over Pittsburgh.

And, hey, don't forget about the goal by Lidstrom that didn't count. That had an impact on the game.

When asked about his many duels with Holmstrom in the NHL and in International competition, Penguins defenseman Sergei Gonchar, whose job is to be on the ice with fellow defender Brooks Orpik against Pavel Datsyuk, Zetterberg and Holmstrom most of the time, simply said of Homer, "Enemy? I'd say the other 29 teams in the league learn to hate playing against him pretty quickly, wouldn't you?"

"I thought our guys in front did a good job on him. He didn't bother me too much," Fleury explained, before adding, "but I'm sure I'll be seeing more of him as this series goes on."

In other words, Homer hit a homer in Game 1. He's got the opposing goalie thinking about him already.

When Holmstrom puts on his equipment and gets ready to play, it looks more like the ritual of a gladiator from years of yore or like an X-Games player. Everything is very carefully put on in order.

The hockey pants have been reinforced in the back from the seat on up and include about eight inches of padding for more protection. There's also protection in the back of the shin pads -- made of strong plastics or Kevlar. He wears extra padding almost everywhere, behind his knees and over his calves and ankles.

The extra equipment become covers for the many welts Holmstrom would have suffered -- his red badge of courage so to speak.

"I think it's a compliment to Homer," Lidstrom said. "He's so good at going to the net that I think (the referees) look at him more closely now. But that's not going to stop him from doing his job."

Whether Tomas was playing for the Red Wings or the Swedish Olympic Team, he has gone from what some refer to as "Demolition Man" or a target for abuse or distraction in front of the opponent's net to an X-factor to his team's success.

The way Holmstrom plays may be considered X-rated by most of the teams he faces, but he's come a long way from being simply a distraction or a space eater in front of the net. He has a definite impact role in today's NHL.

"If I had to do it over again, I'd be more like Pav or Hank," he said with a devilish smile. "You know: speed, skills ... and a $5- or $6 million contract like they have. Yeah. That would be good, right?"

The happy-go-lucky Swede grew up skating when he was about 3.

"My dad built a hockey rink for us across the street," Holmstrom said. 

I asked him about obstacles he faced to get to this level and ...

"It was always the same thing," he said, an afterthought in the draft. "The scouts always said I couldn't skate well enough."

When asked how that could happen when his dad, Henrik, who knows something about ice since he works for the Pitea Sports Arena. He laughed and said, "That's amazing, isn't it?"

But that's the story on this "Demolition Man," this pain in the butt to play against.

Holmstrom reacts with a somebody's-got-to-do-it approach, while calling it a skill ... which it has become for Tomas.

"The most difficult part is to make a good screen," he added. "It's really important to be in sync with your point man -- and fortunately I've been playing so long with Nick Lidstrom, I pretty much know what is going to happen ahead of time."

And don't think for a moment that Tomas Holmstrom isn't better at his trade than he was a few years ago, when defensemen could hook and hold crease-crashers.

"Before I'd have fight through three crosschecks before I could get to the net," he said. "Now, it's totally different. I'm not going to say it's easy, but it's different."

Yes, it's very different.

I remember standing next to future Hall of Fame goaltender Patrick Roy, who was then playing for the Colorado Avalache, near the bench area after a Red Wings practice early in the 2001-02 season and listening to Roy speak apathetically -- and yet admiringly -- about Holmstrom.

He was reacting to a routine that on for 15 minutes after practice. Holmstrom would stand in from of his goaltender and tip shots, deflect them -- clearly putting a screen on the netminder.

"Look at him," Roy said, trying to deflect shots from Chris Chelios for nearly 15 minutes. "He could be satisfied with being a pain in the *@% the rest of career. But he's trying to do more ... and I'll bet he succeeds, too."

Tomas Holmstrom you'll be missed. 

Monday, January 21, 2013

Tarasenko Learning the NHL Ways Fast

By Larry Wigge

Ken Hitchcock wasn't a part of the Blues organization on the night of June 26, 2010, when St. Louis made a bold move and traded up in the first round to get Russian right wing Vladimir Tarasenko.

But the veteran coach and reigning NHL Coach of the Year is no fool. He could see the handwriting on the wall that the young phenom from Yaroslavl was something special.

And something that GM Doug Armstrong did was a clue to him that this 21-year-old prospect wasn't like any other.

"The thing that is impressive to me is that when Army wanted to meet him he took a 12-hour train ride this spring to try and sign him," said Hitchcock of Armstrong's trek to Russia in June to get Tarasenko signed.

You don't get a potential 30- or 40-goal scorer -- another Brett Hull or Sergei Federov and Alex Ovechkin. 

But Tarasenko wowed the Blues fans with a pair of goals in a 6-0 victory over the rival Detroit Red Wings. He gave St. Louis the lead on a perfect lead pass from Ian Cole, beating a defender and going in alone on goalie Jimmy Howard and roofing a shot at the six-minute mark of the first period. Another highlight-reel goal came just 29 seconds into the second period, when he converted a Kevin Shattenkirk pass and worked his way around another Detroit defender and broke in free on Howard -- going from his backhand to his forehand and lifting the puck into the net.

Two goals on two shots. What an NHL debut.

"It was like dreaming," Tarasenko said, speaking without an interpreter.

The sellout crowd that gave Tarasenko a thunderous welcome during pre-game introductions and the went bonkers when he scored ... and scored again.

"It was exciting," the 5-11, 202-pounder from Russia said. "I was a little nervous before the game. But now I'm happy to be here ... and I want to do well."

Tarasenko made it three goals in four periods, when the Blues played in Nashville in their second game -- a 4-3 victory two nights later. He beat the Predators goaltender tough Pekka Rinne on a pretty 35-foot screened drive. Vladdie added a couple of assists on a power-play goal by McDonald later in the first period and helped the team tie the contest 3-3 with a setup for an Alex Pietrangelo late in the third period.

Hitchcock has seen his share of can't-miss prospects -- he had Russian winger Nikolai Zherdev in Columbus -- who couldn't, or wouldn't, do what it takes consistently to make a go in the big leagues ... and he fizzled out. So, he could pick out a phony.

The St. Louis coach started by planning for Tarasenko to play on a line with veterans Alex Steen and Andy McDonald. He wanted Tarasenko to player with skill. And the intelligence of the two veterans could easily matriculate the youngster into the NHL.

"They skated three times together before the lockout when Tarasenko came over," said Hitch. "They were trying to work out things with Vladdie. They worked hard on those things before he went back to the KHL (Kontinental Hockey League) to play during the lockout." 

That wasn't the only thing that Hitchcock did. Not by a long shot. Not a veteran like Hitch, who was convinced this kid could make it.

Forget the stats that included 18 goals and 20 assists in just 39 games for Sibir Novoibirsk and another five goals and four assists in 15 games while playing for SKA St. Petersburg in the KHL last season. Hitchcock watched tapes of Tarasenko in the KHL playing on a line with Ilya Kovalchuk and Viktor Tikhonov during the early days of the lockout -- trying to get a better idea of what kind of player the Blues were about to inherit.

"I had a guy who e-mailed a package of his Vladdie shifts in each game the next day," he said. "I'd get up in the morning -- about 8 o'clock -- and watch 25 games of his shifts."  

With breakfast or not, it was like Tarasenko time for Hitchcock. Hitchcock, by the way, has got a GUY everywhere that counts.
"What I saw was a guy who has patience, when most kids his age are nervous," observed Hitch. "He always gets through to get his shot through."

But Hitch also reminded to caution about Tarasenko's emergence in the NHL. Russians have a language problem and living in North America isn't so easy for everyone. Banking. Eating. Getting around. Not to mention getting used to the smaller ice surfaces in the NHL and the NHL style of play.

Said Hitchcock, "He's going to have a big adjustment here -- the adjustment is looking looking to make an east-west play ... and it aint there on most nights."

On the power play, he plays much like Andy McDonald, says Hitchcock. He's not going to be able to rely on his talents all the time.

But that's what they call breaking into the NHL.

"This is a kid that really want to learn to be an effective player," said Hitchcock. "He's a really good kid who is sincere about wanting to learn -- and he's humble about his talent.

"He does all the things that you love in a player from a sincerity standpoint."

Tarasenko was NHL Central Scouting's top-rated Russian skater in its preliminary rankings for the 2010 Entry Draft. The Blues had Vlad rated fifth or sixth on their draft board. But he was behind Jaden Schwartz, whom St. Louis took with their 14th pick overall. With the Russian still available, Armstrong was urged by the Blues scouts to pursue acquiring another first-round pick. They talked to the Ottawa Senators, who decided to trade the 16th pick to the Blues for defenseman David Rundblad -- a player St. Louis took in the first round of the 2009 draft.

Jaro Kekalainen, the outgoing director of scouting, wanted to leave a big imprint on the 2010 draft for the Blues. If this season's first two games is any indication, the Blues may have two can't-miss kids in Schwartz and Tarasenko.

"If his name was Walt Smith, he would have been long gone before 16," said Kekalainen on draft day. "If he wasn't Russian, we wouldn't have had any chance to get him at 16. We would have never seen him there. We were aware of him and we accepted the risk."

Walt Smith? Well, you get the idea that many Russians opt to stay in their native country and play professional hockey for the KHL league. Some never see the light of the NHL. Thus the risk.

"Once we got Schwartz, our scouts urged me to make an attempt to get another first-round pick," said Armstrong. "I hadn't seen him play before, but I went ahead a made the trade with Ottawa.

"When we interviewed him at the draft we could not be happier. His personality was much like T.J. Oshie. Always smiling. He tried to engage us ... without an interpreter ... and told his dream and desire is to get to the NHL and be an NHL player." 

But Armstrong was singing a different song after he saw Tarasenko in person for the first time, playing for the Russia World Juniors. He was the captain of the gold medal-winning junior team play at Buffalo on year later.

"Oh yeah," continued Armstrong. "He pulled me out of my seat at the World Juniors. When they won the gold medal, he was phenomenal. I said to myself, 'Let's get him signed and get him over here as soon as possible.' "

Tarasenko was just competing a two-year contract in the KHL, so Armstrong had to wait.

Vladimir Tarasenko is clearly a finisher. Despite the language barrier, he has tremendous hockey instincts. He is especially effective around the net. Great skill and even better vision on the ice. He is a strong skater, extremely mobile. He is not only a sniper, but also a good passer and playmaker. 

His favorite player growing up?

Tarasenko answered that quickly, saying that his father Andrei was his favorite player.

Well ... wait a minute. When the interview seemed to be surprised at the answer.

"I know," he said. "I'm supposed to say Sergei Fedorov or Pavel Datsyuk. But, to me, my father was just as good. If you're looking for another answer, I like the Russian Five of the Detroit Red Wings. They were my favorites -- outside of my dad."

Andrei Tarasenko, was a right wing for 21 seasons in Russia. He led the Russian Hockey League in scoring with 60 points in 46 games in 1996-97, and represented Russia at the 1994 Olympics in Lillehammer, Norway, scoring 2 goals in eight games. His father was a bit smaller at 5-10, 178 pounds.

"I learned quite a lot from my father," Tarasenko said, knowing all of his father's stats, but he doesn't compare himself to his dad -- yet.

But he is getting closer. 

"My father played at a time when hockey had a different style," said Tarasenko. "Large ice surface. Different game."

Life in the NHL is a whole different level. Travel. New cities. Getting settled in St. Louis. To most of the Blues ... to a man everyone will help him along.

With his skill ... why not.

"He's the complete package," said teammate T.J. Oshie. "You see him in practice and you see how badly a guy wants to score goals. The way he moves without the puck, the way he hounds the puck. He wants to put the puck in the back of the net every shift. He wants to score, you can tell."

Chris Stewart said, "You look at Tarasenko and he did some special things. You can tell he's going to be a special player in this league for a long time."

That, my friends, is the legend of Vladimir Tarasenko ... the early days.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Shortened Schedule Makes for Great Games

By Larry Wigge

All these years later, I can remember it was a damp, dark morning at the rink. But tons of hockey things were happening around me in a blink of an eye. 

It was January 20, 1995.

The morning at Madison Square Garden skate, I was reporting for The Sporting News on the New York Rangers Stanley Cup-winning ceremony. What made this interesting is because it was late, due to lockout that was to cut short the season to 48-games.

With every season, we look upon the 82-game schedule as a marathon. But this time, the season would be much different. It would be like a sprint.

Coaches would have to do their homework.

*They would have to check on each player to see what kind of shape they were in (for reference: players didn't go play in Europe as so many of them them recently did. That was not available to them.)

*Their timing was also a question mark. Most teams stayed together at home.

*Injuries from last season and during the lockout were also a question.

I was shagging quotes. I had just finished doing an interview with Colin Campbell, the new Rangers coach.

I'll never forget Campbell blurting out, "How do you follow a guy (Mike Keenan) who won led the Rangers to the Stanley Cup for the first time since 1940?"

Keenan, of course, left New York to take a job in St. Louis.

In the visiting locker room, Dominik Hasek wasn't feeling in top shape -- one of the many difficulties of the long layoff. So, Buffalo Sabres coach John Muckler was going to start newcomer and former Edmonton Oilers great Grant Fuhr.

The place was abuzz all night with the Stanley Cup banner being raised to the roof.

Amidst all the pomp and circumstance -- Mark Messier, Brian Leetch, Mike Richter, Kevin Lowe, Adam Graves, et al, the Sabres edged the Rangers 2-1 that night.

Still, I'll never forget Campbell's honest assessment blurting out: How does a team win the Stanley Cup?


Fast forward to this season. Another work stoppage. Another late-January start.

And it all comes back to coaching ...

In 1994-95, Jacques Lemaire led the New Jersey Devils to the Stanley Cup over Scotty Bowman and the Detroit Red Wings.

Look back at the dozen or so Cup titles Lemaire and Bowman had won in Montreal.

It just so happens that Darryl Sutter, the coach of the 2012 Stanley Cup champion Los Angeles Kings, is the only active from the 1994-95 lockout season.

In '94-95, Sutter was in charge of the Chicago Blackhawks, who lost to the Red Wings in the conference finals. On the other side, the Eastern Conference was won by the Devils who beat out the Philadelphia Flyers, coach by Terry Murray.


Only a handful of players are still around from those -94-95 rosters -- Teemu Selanne, Martin Brodeur, Sergei Gonchar, Jaromir Jagr, Jamie Langenbrunner, Ray Whitney, and Alex Kovalev. 

You can bet their coaches are picking their brains on what they might expect.

But it all comes back to coach's.

"Everybody's talking about the importance of a good start, but the one thing that I take out of the 48-game schedule that year was how you needed lots of players. I bet if you look back at Chicago that year we probably used 16 or 17 forwards," recalled Sutter. "We're all going to come up with ideas. But you really don't have time to work on a lot of things.

"We're lucky we have our team returning (other than injured center Anze Kopitar, who will miss about the first few weeks)."


"Excitingly bizarre," St. Louis Blues' coach Ken Hitchcock. "No lead will be safe. You'll be playing almost every second night, just like the playoffs."

Hitchcock, replaced Davis Payne as coach of the Blues and went on to become the NHL Coach the Year. He was not part of the last lockout. But you can be sure he contacted all sorts of coaches -- like Bob Gainey, the G.M. of the Dallas Stars, and Gregg Popovich, head coach of the San Antonio Spurs of the NBA, who played 66 games in less than five months.

"Don't expect chemistry to be the same," Hitchcock warned. "The players won't be in same mental place they were. Don't expect a guy to give you 20 minutes of ice a night because he can't."

"It is going to be an emotional roller coaster," Hitchcock said, remembering the 1994-95 games from his home in Kalamazoo, where he coached the IHL's Wings. "I watched it in 94-95 and one week, it looked like this team was never going to lose and then next week, it looked like they could never win. I think the team that can keep it grounded, keep the train on the tracks is going to do well here because it is a huge challenge. You're going to have games that just can't get shut down. 

"The toughest thing to learn is checking. That's the hardest thing to teach players to do, to get out of summer hockey mode, get out of playing on-the-move mode and get into what you need to do to win in the NHL. That's a hard focus. It takes a long time to get there, and you're asking players to get there in seven days. You're going to have games where you gotta lead and it's going to evaporate quickly and you're going to have to gain it back. You're going to have games that are really emotional wins or losses. You're going to have to get grounded the next day. I think the teams that are going to be successful are the ones that can get their feet on the ground the next morning and get back to work."

Many of those teachings Hitchcock has gone through with the Blues who finished second in the Western Conference with a 49-22-11 record.

But, put it this way, Hitchcock (won a Stanley Cup title with Dallas in 1999), isn't the only Cup ring in this year's coaching ranks..

Philadelphia's Peter Laviolette (won it with Carlina in 2006), Toronto's Randy Carlyle (won it with Anaheim's in 2007), Detroit's Mike Babcock (2008), Pittsburgh's Dan Bylsma (2009), Chicago's Joel Quenneville (2010), Boston's Claude Julien (2011) and Sutter (2012), also are joined Calgary's coach Bob Hartley (won with Colorado in 2001).

In essence says Hitchcock: "This is the playoff hockey before the playoff hockey."