Young man's game never grows old

I haven't been this excited since the seminal moment of my youth -- Gabe Kaplan's upset 220-yard dash-off win over Robert Conrad on "The Battle of the Network Stars" following a dispute in the relay race. I was an ABC kid all the way and I never thought the buxom Kaplan could take the testosterone-bursting Conrad. I can still see Kaplan in his untucked blue golf shirt gritting his teeth while ABC cameras showed Farrah Fawcett jumping up and down. Before HBO, young American males had Farrah Fawcett jumping up and down.

It is Saturday afternoon, and I am preparing for perhaps the greatest day in the history of the NHL's regular season. The outdoor game. You can put all the fancy titles you want on it, but it is simply the outdoor game. The NHL's first foray into outdoor, regular-season hockey. What took so long? The game was born under the sun, and it finally returned. For anyone who has a backyard rink, neighborhood pond, town bog, lake or canal, the feeling of why this game is so special is felt right in the heart. Moments frozen in time.

My preparation begins by watching Game 7 of the Campbell Conference final on ESPN Classic. The Great One and The Mullet breaking Toronto hearts and preventing an all-Canada final between the Habs and Leafs. Gretzky's game was forged on backyard ice. His father, Walter, wanting to watch from the warmth of his kitchen, built the rink and it is there No. 99 learned lesson No. 1: Go where the puck is going to be, not where it is. Kent Manderville's mullet is mesmerizing and the Kings win again.

Game on. The MegaStars game has begun. Ken Linseman looks like Elvis Costello is using a stick from the early '80s. It still works. He scores the first goal of the game. I talked with Ray Ferraro earlier in the day and he said there was more buildup for the alumni game than the Oilers-Canadiens "two-point game." He said it's like the Super Bowl. The pace to the alumni game is good. You can tell both sides want to win. If this keeps up, there will be a puck in the face soon. Someone just lost their tuque. How did that happen?! Glen Sather just traded Mark Messier for Steve Penney. He must really be concerned about Mike Dunham's injury. Boy is Glenn Anderson flying! He's skating like he's running from the police or something. Grant Fuhr just made a vintage glove save. The first half is over and it's still 1-0. Between halves they cleaned the ice like I do on the backyard rink. All the players grabbed a shovel.

The second "half" is under way. Russ Courtnall just delivered the first body check of his life. Gretzky is still pointless and is currently holding a news conference telling the media that the trap is ruining old-timer games. There's 11 minutes left and the tension is palpable. Championship pride is everywhere. Marty McSorley makes it 2-0 on a feed from Linseman. He dedicates the goal by hitting Chris Nilan over the head with his stick. Linesman is thinking MVP and the free case of Labatt Blue. Bill Ranford just made the kind of save that makes Bruins fans cringe. In the cold, Andy Van Hellemond looks like Dennis Hopper. The Oilers of the '80s and '90s have beaten the Canadiens of the '70s, '80s and '90s 2-0. Like any backyard rink, the ice gets chippy quickly, but the spirit of the game burst through my 9-inch TV screen in the ESPN newsroom.

It's 7:05 p.m. and there is a 15-minute delay. The NHL ice guru Dan Craig wants more time to get the ice ready and to repair two panes of glass that were broken in the warm-up. It's below zero. With the extreme cold, will broken glass be an issue? You could hear it in Saku Koivu's voice that the players are concerned about the ice. I get the sense there won't be a lot of hitting in this game and that the players will start by being careful. Wayne Gretzky's daughter Paulina is singing/lip syncing Sara MacLachlan's "I will remember you." She can't keep her hand from shaking. From her look and sound, she may end up with more records than Dad.

Time for the Canadian national anthem. The PA just told everyone to take their hats off. Some did, but the singer Paul Lorieau, did not. He sang the ol' English/French combo version. My second all time favorite English/French combo song is Billy Joel's "C'Etait Toi" (You were the one).

The game begins. Sheldon Souray looks like he is about to rob a 7-Eleven. He has the full-facial tuque going. The first whistle sounds and there is no doubt the players are not hitting. Jose Theodore is wearing a tuque over his mask. The intensity is picking up. The players are getting comfortable, and the hitting is picking up. It looks less like an old-timers game and more like an NHL game. However, no one scores a goal in the first period.

The second period begins and the game is really on. Montreal realized they are in last place in the division and out of the top eight in the East. Edmonton realizes with a win they can, for the time being, have the third-most points in the West. No glass is broken, no injuries incurred, nobody's lips stuck to the ice and it's 2-1 Montreal after 40 minutes.

The third period is awesome. The players are putting it all on the line, once again showing why NHL players are the best. You can't compare a sub-zero football game and a sub-zero hockey game. This is a cardiovascular sport where the lungs burn and the hands and feet need to feel to perform. Four goals in all are scored in the third period and the Canadiens get MegaStar game revenge by winning 4-3.

The verdict? An overwhelming success. A shining example why NHL players and NHL fans are the most passionate and most dedicated in sport. In a gate-driven sport, a crowd of 57,167 is four NHL home games rolled into one. More important, it exposes more people to the game while not offending the hard-core fan. You can be sure if there is an NHL season next year, there will be an outdoor game in the United States, probably in Michigan between the Red Wings and Blackhawks or Red Wings and Maple Leafs.

Imagine this scenario in January of 2005: America's most popular team, the Red Wings, against Canada's most popular team, the Maple Leafs, in Ann Arbor or Lansing in front of at least 70,000 fans. The Ice Bowl. A live nationally televised game on ESPN, music acts between periods, fireworks and Barry Melrose in a tuque.

Outdoor ice with no ceiling, under a sea of stars. A young man's game that never grows old. Bring on the backyard rink.

The quote by Sir Thomas Beecham, "The function of music is to release us from the tyranny of conscious thought," is my all-time favorite. Music means many things to many people. To Jamie Allison of the Nashville Predators, it is largely about family. As country music lover, there isn't a better fit for him than playing in Nashville. This season every game for Jamie Allison is a honky-tonk hockey game.

No. 1. What attracted you to Nashville?
Nashville lost a lot of experience on the blue line, so I thought it would be a good chance for me to get into the lineup and not sit in the stands.

Jamie was born May 13, 1975, in Lindsay, Ontario. He's 6-foot-1, 203 pounds.

No. 2: How was music a part of your life growing up?
It's been a part of my life since I was a kid. We used to get together, the whole family, and play together. My uncle was a truck driver and he played guitar and we used to sit around and jam with the family. I was like 10 years old when I started. My brother taught himself guitar, and he taught me. We started our own band with my sister.

Jamie was a second-round pick of the Calgary Flames in the 1993 draft.

No. 3: How did your love of music develop as you got older?
I went into the Canadian Open country singing contest and won that. One of the first prizes was a recording deal with Larry Murphy of the Murphy brothers. So, we recorded a song when I was 15. At the time, I was asked if I wanted to pursue singing as a career, but my whole life was hockey so I continued with that. That's about as far as the music career went.

Jamie played three seasons for the Detroit Jr. Red Wings in the Ontario Hockey League.

No. 4: How has Nashville rekindled your music career?
It's definitely gotten me interested in doing some things again, so I'm looking into cutting a demo and sending that around and seeing how it does.

The No. 1 country song in the U.S. right now is Toby Keith's "I Love This Bar."

No. 5: What about any live performing around Nashville?
I met the owner of Tootsie's Orchid Lounge six years ago. Brian Sutter was my coach in Calgary and he organized a team meeting at the bar, and I ended up getting up and singing in front of the team. From that point on, I became friends with the owner. He wants me to come in and do a few sets while I'm in Nashville this year.

Jason is a big fan of Alan Jackson and George Strait and would like to sing a duet with Faith Hill.

No. 6: Are there fewer country music fans among NHL players these days?
I broke into the NHL in Calgary, which is a good place to be a country music fan, but as time has gone by there seems to be fewer country music guys. I don't think the Europeans have ever heard of Rascal Flatts. It's a tough sell. Me and Barry Melrose. And Clark Wilm.

No. 7: Why do most hard-core music fans still not accept country music?
People stereotype it as depressing music. My car broke down, my dog died and my wife left me. I've always thought that other music talks about the same things, it's just a little louder. I think it tells a great story.

Nashville fans have begun throwing catfish on the ice after goals. Catfish: VERY country fish.

No. 8: Your fight with Darren McCarty might have been the fight of the year. Old school, feed 'em and eat 'em fight. What do you remember about that fight?
That my face really hurt afterwards.

There's a country song: "My face hurts like hell." There's your first single!!!

Allison: Good idea! Maybe you should write it.

I'm working on it now.

The NHL has become a chess game, and the most important parts on the board are the pieces that protect the King (the net) and the Queen (the goalie). Recent Stanley Cup champions have at least two high-end defensemen. The Devils with Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer, the Red Wings with Chris Chelios and Nicklas Lidstrom, the Stars with Derian Hatcher and Sergei Zubov and the Avalanche with Ray Bourque and Rob Blake. It is no wonder that since the Rangers won the Cup in 1994 (with Brian Leetch and Zubov), only the Avs, Wings, Stars and Devils have won it. They have the pieces on the board to win the chess game. So far, here's my take on the top five Norris Trophy candidates:

1. Ed Jovanovski, Vancouver Canucks: Last Thursday night against Montreal, Jovanovski had the kind of game few defensemen in the league have experienced. He had a bone-crushing hit on Richard Zednik at center ice, a beauty give-and-go tip-in goal off a rush, and a sinister slap shot past Jose Theodore. If he can consistently bring that effort five more months, the Norris Trophy could be his.

2. Chris Pronger, St. Louis Blues: He is back to his hack-and-whack nasty self. He's also popped in two power-play goals from the point. The Blues have had to deal with the absence of Al MacInnis, because of an eye injury, and others because of suspensions. Pronger's presence has been enormous; he is their most important player.

3. Adrian Aucoin, New York Islanders: He plays virtually half of every game, and as I typed this sentence he had a plus-13 rating (the next best Islander is plus-7. We'll soon have a list of the top 10 unheralded players on NHL 2Night; Aucoin will likely be No. 1.

4. Rob Blake, Colorado Avalanche: He's a minus-1 as I type this, but this will creep into the plus side now that the Avs have realized they can't play all-out offensive. He is playing very hard and very physical, handing out his world-class butt checks.

5. Scott Stevens, New Jersey Devils: Playing over 23 minutes a game and he turns 40 in April. He has never been a minus in his career and is a career +395 as I write this. He's never won a Norris Trophy.

Tim Kerr has a Hall of Fame argument. But when you have kids to chase around, there isn't any time for such a crusade. Kerr scored 370 goals in just 655 games, 363 of them with the Philadelphia Flyers. That's more than a goal every other game. In the mid '80s, he had four straight 50-goal seasons and in 81 career playoff games netted 40 goals. His last season in the NHL was a goal-less 22-game stint with the Hartford Whalers. At age 33, he was no longer an NHL player. Life over? Not quite.

What's up these days? "Quite a bunch of different things. I've been in the developmental side of a lot of speculation stuff in the resort town I live in New Jersey. I've been involved in restaurants, gas stations and real estate. After I retired I went to school and got my securities license, insurance license and real estate license, and just recently purchased the Pensacola Ice Pilots of the ECHL."

Why buy an ECHL team? "I've been looking at different teams the last couple of years. I've always had an interest in buying a team and was looking for the right situation. The team became available in Pensacola, and the challenge is there to bring back an organization that did well at first but has dropped off recently. The ECHL is a step below the AHL. It's an avenue for kids not signed or drafted to keep their NHL dream alive. Well over 200 graduates of the ECHL have played NHL hockey."

Tim Kerr is a pilot: "I took a golf trip to North Carolina after I retired, and it took forever to get there. On the way home, I realized it was time to get a pilot's license. It was something I had thought about and the golf trip sealed it. Now with the team in Florida, living in New Jersey and having five kids (ages 13, 12, 10, 9, 7) it really comes in handy."

Satisfied with your NHL career? "Absolutely satisfied. I played with a lot of great players and got as much out of it as I could. I've never been one to look back."

Dear John:
According to my friend Rob from Taunton, Mass. (pronounced Rawb from Tawt'n), Sunday Morning Save Percentage is calculated buy how many times you can sneak out of a strange girl's apartment without waking her up divided by the number of Irish Car Bombs needed to pick her up on Saturday night.
Dan Harnett

How's it going, eh?
Just wondering what the chances are of Cujo ending up in Vancouver?
Happy Thanksgiving,
The Middle Tennessee Canuck

No chance. I'd take Dan Cloutier right now over Cujo. Cloutier keeps getting better. Cujo makes a million a month and teams would owe him $8 million next season if there is a season. The Wings will likely have to eat half of next year's salary to move him, unless Glen Sather has another "moment."

Do you really have a pet otter? The furry kind?

The guys on the show "Queer Eye for the Straight Otter" got a hold of Ken and gave him a full body wax. There's nothing quite like a shorn otter; I suggest you try it.

Hi again, John!
Here's this week's stats news on Podes. Since your last column, he has had a bit of a slump with only two goals in six games, bringing his total to nine points (4-5-9) in 11 games. He has also increased his penalty minute total to 32 after getting a game misconduct, most likely for expressing "opinions" to the referee.
Daniel Elmå
Umeå, Sweden

Mr. Buccigross,
Is there anything better than Ben Harper and Eddie Vedder on stage together entertaining fans?

Tony Wroblewski

1. When Todd Bertuzzi stickhandles the puck into his skates, kicks it back to his tape, holds off the defender with one arm and makes a one-handed pass to a pinching Mattias Ohlund.

2. When Pavel Datsyuk makes 47 moves in a three-foot area, and then makes one more to cause the goaltender to internally combust.

3. A real good piece of chicken parm.

Do you think Datsyuk has the skills to eventually give the
Wings what they're missing without Fedorov?
Josh Dwyer
St. Peter, Minn.

He sees the ice, passes and stickhandles as well as and maybe better than Fedorov. Both are great backhand passers. Fedorov is probably a better overall skater, but Datsyuk's skating is fine. Fedorov has a world-class shot, better than Datsyuk. Fedorov is stronger on his skates and better one-on-one down low. Datsyuk needs that swagger and confidence to become a big-game player. Make the pass at the right time, but use his good shot to score big goals. He's 25 years old. He should be a 30-goal scorer. Datsyuk had four game-winning goals in his first 154 NHL games. Fedorov had 11 last year.

Hi John,
Today my girlfriend and I got two little kittens that were born on our anniversary. I didn't want to press the names Shanny and Stevie Y on them, and so we called them Stan and Ollie instead. What would
have been your choices?
Hamburg, Germany

Teppo and Earl.

Morning John,
I have recently had the pleasure of finding out that my wife and I will be parents sometime after Game 7 of this year's Stanley Cup final. With that said, it's baby name time, particularly "hockey" baby names. I'm trying to convince my wife that "Cam" is the way to go, boy or girl.
Please advise.

Michael J. Neri Jr.

Cameron Neri is a cool name for a boy or girl. Let's go Cameron Adam Neri for a boy. Cool name and it gives props to Adam Oates. For a girl, let's go Cameron Marie Neri.

Hey Bucci,
How do you think the Flyers are looking right now? Also, Weezer has entered the studio with Rick Rubin to begin recording their fifth album. Hopefully it will be completed by February and in stores Spring 2004.
Joe Rubens
Orange County, Calif.

Well-coached, good special teams, Stanley Cup-less veterans, improving youngsters. The Flyers have the perfect Stanley Cup mix. The consistency of New Jersey and Nikolai Khabibulin, and the explosiveness of the Senators will likely be their biggest concern come spring. I still think "Surf Wax America" is Weezer's best song.

I am a college soccer player/student on Long Island, originally from Sweden, and I used to play hockey back home. I just want to show my appreciation for NHL 2Night, it really is the best show on TV, and I am not kidding here. I have even taught a Brazilian and a French roommate hockey and they, too, watch you guys and they love the show.
Long Island

A Swede, a Brazilian and a Frenchman learning grammar from Barry Melrose. Holy Shnikey.

John Buccigross is the host of NHL 2Night, which airs on ESPN2. His e-mail address -- for questions, comments or cross-checks -- is john.buccigross@espn.com.