Presents leave a lasting impression

Every Christmas Eve, as kids, we were allowed to open ONE present under the Christmas tree. These were gifts from Grandma, Nana, Uncle Ken and other assorted friends and relatives. However, for me, in the early-to-late '70s, time and time again my No. 1 overall Christmas Eve draft pick present I chose to open was from Uncle Jim.

Uncle Jim was and is big. He hit big home runs when he was the New England college player of the year at Boston College, drove a big station wagon with wood paneling on the side, and always gave BIG Christmas presents.

Nothing pains a child more than staring at unopened gifts, especially enormous ones from Uncle Jim. When boys grow older, that pain occurs when watching women in beer commercials, which last only 30 seconds. Staring at Christmas gifts goes on for days and days and days. What could be in that giant rectangular box? The agony. The pain.

Then the day arrives. Come nightfall, the family would gather around the tree and take turns opening the one gift they chose to open. I'd go get my dad a beer, pull off the top (they tore off then) and take my traditional sip.

I was still trying to get over my Christmas Eve gaffe of 1974 when I chose to open Aunt Dot's gift. That gift turned out to be Texas Rangers pajamas. Yes, someone had the idea to manufacture pajamas of a team coming off a 105-loss season (57-105) and sell them in Massachusetts. That idea turned into a Christmas Eve nightmare and a long winter's nap.

I learned my lesson, and the following year I went with Uncle Jim's gift, always a dependable option. But this year it was no contest. This thing was as big as a Miata. It must have taken three roles of wrapping paper to cover it. What could it be? A new Texas Instruments calculator? A Lew Alcindor Lite-Brite? Speed Racer's Mach Five ... with Chim Chim?

The time came. It was my turn. Slowly, I unwrapped. Whether it's a pack of hockey cards or a ginormous Christmas gift, I am a deliberate homey. Soon, it became obvious what the mighty rectangle was -- and it was good. A giant, regulation size ... HOCKEY NET!! For a kid in a cinder block house in small-town Pennsylvania, this was as good as it got. Perhaps, only rivaled by that Mylec Street hockey goalie stick in '74. Nothing was cooler than a goalie stick ... until the net. Inside, outside, living room, driveway. Its American steel foundation has stood the test of time, withstanding thousands and thousands of goals, games and garages. And still it sits in my garage, almost 30 years later. American made.

There is no doubt the electronic age has dulled children's enthusiasm for the simple things, like nets and goalie sticks. You got to get them younger before all that stuff. Keep the TV off as much as possible, and let the imagination fly. My second son, Jack, is 4. He plays with one-legged hockey figures like it's Game 7 of the Stanley Cup final. He is at the age where cool hockey things will make his year. He is a human Christmas tree, lit from head to toe.

In my closet is a Todd McFarlane Patrick Roy in a Montreal Canadiens sweater. I'm going to give him that to open on Christmas Eve.

It is not difficult to understand why Los Angeles Kings forward Sean Avery is so willing to talk and why he says some of the things he does. Avery used to be Brett Hull's roommate. He learned from the King of Smack. For a journalist who deals with the phony sound bites of coaches and athletes for a living, Avery is a small glimpse inside the REAL WORLD of professional sports. Honest, open, and in your face. He talks like he plays.

No. 1: What do you want for Christmas?
Scarlett Johansson.

Scarlett Johansson is a 19-year-old actress who was most recently in the motion picture "Lost in Translation," which was written and directed by Francis Ford Coppola's daughter, Sofia. Johansson also appeared in 1998's "The Horse Whisperer" and 1997's "Home Alone 3."

No. 2: What's the craziest thing you've ever done?
Move in with Brett Hull. Let's just say it was psychedelic experience. He complained about everybody on the Wings.

The definition of psychedelic: A mental state characterized by intense and distorted perceptions and hallucinations and feelings of euphoria or sometimes despair; " a psychedelic experience."

No. 3: If you could have one free punch at any NHL player, who would it be?
Matt Cooke

No. 4: I hear the Canucks are a bit weary of cleaning up his messes when he runs around hitting people. When did you realize you had to fight once in a while?
I think that anyone that plays this style of game realizes at some point you HAVE TO FIGHT, whether you win the fight or get your lunch fed to you. It's about a respect thing with your teammates. Guys have been saying that forever about Matt Cooke. I'm not sure if he's ever fought in the NHL. It's not whether you win or lose the fight, it's just that you show up. I remember in Detroit, I told my teammates at one point to not help me in a scrum; I'll be OK. Go get a drink.

Sean was born April 10, 1980, in Pickering, Ontario. He's 5-foot-10, 195 pounds. Six inches taller than Scarlett Johansson.

No. 5: Do you spend your per diem money on the road on food or other things?
Not food, usually CDs.

NHL players get $85 a day in meal money when on the road. Sean said he currently has The Mars Volta in his CD player.

No 6: What if an NHL player pulled out a cell phone after a goal? What would happen?
: He'd be dead on the ice. And if you saw that guy at a charity golf event in the summer I don't think you'd sit and have a beer with him. You're at the highest level; you need to respect the game more than that.

Sean told me his over/under for Jason Allison returning to the Kings lineup is Jan. 1, 2004.

No. 7: What kind of smack talk goes on in the NHL?
It depends on who you are playing. For me it always seems to be Vancouver. Markus Naslund and Todd Bertuzzi are pretty good players, but they also have a pretty big chip on their shoulders. Naslund surprisingly talks a lot. His was a reference to money, saying how much he makes. It was like we were back in junior talking how big our signing bonus is. Bertuzzi has a short fuse and it's easy to get him off his game. The smallest thing will set him off.

Sean uses Bauer 8000 skates, and Louisville sticks and gloves.

No. 8: Tell me something that you've never told anybody else in your life.
My biggest fear is probably that someday not being able to play in the NHL again. It's always been a fear since the first time I was called up and sent back down again. It was a traumatic experience. If I'm a little lazy coming to the rink, I just think of that.

If a skater can't win the Vezina, should a goalie be able to win MVP? Tough call. Until there is a rule otherwise, and since goalies have won MVP's before, we'll include them here in our Top five MVP candidates.

1. Markus Naslund, LW, Vancouver Canucks: He finished last season with 104 points and was a plus-6. Through 33 games this season he was a plus-22. Last year he had 24 even-strength goals. Through 33 games this season he had 16. Translation? He's a better even-strength player this year. Naslund, Todd Bertuzzi and the Canucks have yet to hit a real groove this year. Watch them take off in the second half and compete for the President's Trophy.

2. Martin Brodeur, G, New Jersey Devils: I'd love to see him play goal for the Atlanta Thrashers for a year. It would be fun to see his impact. He is on pace for around 20 shutouts this year. That home-and-home with Philadelphia must be in the Flyers' heads. And the rest of the Eastern Conference as well. What Eastern Conference goalie can beat Brodeur and the Devils in a best-of-seven playoff series?

3. Pavel Datsyuk, C, Detroit Red Wings: His elevated play has given the entire team a jolt of championship confidence. He's not a great defensive player, but his creativity and ability to win big faceoffs makes him the Wings' most important player. The big question around "P-Datty" is whether or not he will be strong enough defensively in the playoffs. That's where they will miss Sergei Fedorov the most.

4. Keith Tkachuk, LW, St. Louis Blues: He's having a GREAT year. He is a threat every time he crosses the blue line. The Blues won 20 of their first 30 games and Tkachuk had the game winner in five of them. He's been awesome on the power play with nine goals and he's only been suspended once. I hate how he unzips his hockey pants though. With that big butt he looks like a two mud flaps on a tractor trailer.

5. Mats Sundin, C, Toronto Maple Leafs: What a story the Leafs have been. Sundin has shown what a great captain by keeping the team together amidst the Pat Quinn firing talk. Very likable and even tempered off the ice and plays with a nasty edge on it. Sundin scored five of the Leafs 19 game winners. He needs to produce in the playoffs. Mats has just three goals in his last 15 playoff games.

If the San Jose Sharks are still in contention come February or March, do you think they will improve their roster come playoff time?
San Jose, Calif.

They certainly could use a scoring winger and a veteran defenseman. Recent history says they will stay with the young guys and keep giving them big-game experience. This is a very young team. Next week will be Part I of my "New Year's Resolutions/If I were GM" column.

Steve Sullivan scored a breakaway goal yesterday that reminded me shootouts stink. It was such a beautiful hockey moment: speed, intelligence, surprise, skill, timing ? it had it all. No other sport can match that kind of moment. If Sullivan scores a similar goal on a shootout, it would be so lame by comparison. The shootout is nothing but empty calories.
Ken Taylor
Kichener, Ontario

But, Ken, so many games NEVER have a moment like that. They are devoid of freedom of movement and the demonstration of unique NHL skill. And in the end, regular season games are a show. The season is LONNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNNG, and the NHL should do what they can to bring exciting moments to its ticket-paying fan. During shootouts, I see fans on their feet and hear loud roars. That's why we go to games. To stand, yell, get nervous, exalt and complain. To live!!! How is any of this bad? And the good teams will make the playoffs under any format.

I can't believe that there is someone else in the world whose favorite Billy Joel song is "Summer, Highland Falls".
Sean McCauley
Mahwah, N.J.

When and why did one of the best songwriters of the last 30 years suddenly become uncool and irrelevant? "She's Right on Time" is another underappreciated Billy classic.

Just thought I'd let you know that my fantasy hockey team "Hakan and the Loobs" is currently sitting in first place. Must be the name.
Miami University
Oxford, Ohio

Senor Buccigross,
I after reading your piece on the 2019 NHL season I started to give this actual thought: Who will land the first pick in the 2004 draft and get Alexander Ovechkin? What's more, is there any possibility that that very same team could land Sidney Crosby in the following draft to make a Heatly/Kovalchuk-type duo except better?
Alejandro Hernandez
Fairfield, Conn.

I would say the winner of the 2004 draft lottery will either be Pittsburgh or Chicago. If the Penguins land Ovechkin and have a hard time getting him to the U.S. from Russia, they could finish last again and have a chance at Sidney Crosby the following draft.

I go to Boston College, so I get to see high-level college hockey just about every week from Fall to Spring. With no red line, the game is much more open, the long passes are really exciting. And although our rink is NHL dimensions, I also prefer the 200x100 rink we play on at our away games against UNH. Those games are much more exciting with more room for great moves. I think it would greatly improve the game if at least one of these (but better both) were made for the NHL.
Andrew Dix
Boston College

Hey Bucci!
I've heard that the players are considering striking before the playoffs, so as to really stick it to the owners and make them lose money. Is this possible and do you see it happening?
Juli Jakel
East Lansing, Mich.

There is language in the current CBA that prevents players from striking and owners from locking players out before it expires.

I'm a bit confused about all the fuss about making the game more exciting. Every time I watch the Kings (or any hockey game for that matter), whether it's in October or April, I'm near heart-attack levels of excitement. I think people want instant results and I think that's a shame. Go Kings!
Laurent Weber
Los Angeles

If a team were to get Dean Sylvester, Eric Staal and Shane Doan on a line forming the Sylvester StaalDoan Line (Stallone ... get it? ... not funny) would they automatically become tougher and also be able to blow up Russian helicopters with exploding arrows or would they just coach Swedish girls soccer?
David Lauber
Auburn Hills, Mich.

Line 2? Frank Kaberle (moved from defense), Eric Staal and Shane Doan. The Frank StaalDoan Line.

In your "Santa's E-mail Bag" column, C.J. Fraguadas from Portland, Ore., referred to Wayne Gretzky's comments on Rome is Burning about how changing the size of the nets is not an option. C.J.'s concern seemed to be that the potential goal-scoring increase would make any scoring records invalid, but what about other changes over the years? Curved stick blades, allowing goaltenders to drop to the ice to stop shots, and an increase in the number of games per season all contributed to the inflation of the number of goals scored. A record is a record, and as you pointed out, something needs to be done to increase the scoring in the game. The players and the fans will get used to the changes just as they have nearly a century.
Nathan Tebbe
University of Missouri

I agree, as many e-mailers have written, that flow is the most important natural resource. However, the explosion of passion that only a beautiful goal can bring, especially a hard slap shot from a skating winger, needs to happen more. It's like Christmas.

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.