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Monday, March 4
Updated: March 6, 5:49 PM ET
 
Hockey cards and the decline of Western civilization

By John Buccigross
Special to ESPN.com

For me, Western civilization is broken down into two distinctive eras: Pre-Pong and Post-Pong.

In 1975 Atari cut a deal with Sears to sell their home video game system. Christmas 1975 will forever be known as "The Pong Christmas." Shoppers waited outside of Sears stores for hours to get one. It became Sears' biggest-selling item and spawned an era of electronics that, when coupled with cable television and organized sports, changed the way a lot of kids lived the best years of their lives.

Before Pong, North American kids put baseball cards in the spokes of their bicycles, played wiffle ball every day and hide-and-seek every night, had the smell of swingset hands, caught fireflies and put them in jars, played stickball and street hockey in city school yards and primarily used their own brain power to supply themselves with entertainment.

Remember SUPER STICK? The Super Jock Hockey Player? I would set that SUPER STICK up in the hallway of our little house in Indiana, Pa., and conduct an entire playoff series. The goalie had the lateral movement of Norm Maracle after a quart of clam chowder and a row of fudge stripes, so the scores often resembled All-Star games. Kids and adults don't have to burn much mental wood these days to entertain themselves.

A lot of North American kids also collected trading cards before Pong. I started in 1974 and within a year I was collecting backwards as well as buying packs at Hills Department Store and Rite Aid. I was buying old cards off friends, or, more importantly, off older brothers of friends, who had cards from the 60s. Don't forget it was the YEAR OF PONG. People needed cash. Pong was like heroin and I was the pusher. Although I wasn't selling. I was buying. So they could sell. To buy their PONG.

Streams of neighborhood kids with signs around their necks, "WILL SELL BOBBY ORR ROOKIE FOR PONG." I had them right where I wanted them. My card collection exploded in the 70s. With Dad providing capital from his $25,000 a year job as SEARS STORE MANAGER, which meant I GOT MY PONG FOR FREE ANYWAY, I was able to buy hordes of $5 shoeboxes filled with cards, mostly baseball, like Tom Seaver's 1967 Topps rookie card. I could sell that Seaver card today and buy a High Definition TV, "Swingers" on DVD, Jimmy Eat World's "Bleed American" CD, and a canister of Pringles with the proceeds. But, I'll never sell.

When kids started shoving cards in plastic and spoke ONLY of their value starting in the early 80s, my interest waned. As an 8-year-old, these rectangular pieces of cardboard brought me an entertainment value a video game never could. They still do today -- and for additional reasons. Looking at some of them today is HYSTERICAL! Here are five beauties from my inaugural year as a hockey card collector -- 1974.

The Lemieux time forgot. "RICHIE. THE HAIR, BRO. WHAT'S UP?" Imagine looking in the mirror with hair like this and saying in that Tom Hanks-Jon Lovitz Saturday Night Live skit voice; "Oh, yeah! I am gonna SCORE! The women will be all over this...Look at that...not even eye contact."

If Emo Phillips had played hockey starring Guy Lapointe.

For my money, there is not a better looking card in all of card collecting than Tony Esposito in his red Hawks sweater. The uniform, his mask, his form, and the glove on the right hand is one of the most indelible images of my youth. Pure art.

"Stan, my name is Dick and I've been assigned to take your hockey card photo this year. I'm a little busy putting up some paneling in the kitchen and I can't make it to the rink. Would you mind getting suited up and driving out to Winnetka so I can snap off a couple of rolls? YOU WILL??! GREAT! See you in a bit. Be careful of the floor. It's a slippery sucker!"

Yep, this is J.D. The lost Village People person. And you wonder why goal scoring is down? Look at the size of J.D.'s glove. You couldn't fit a bottle of Labatt Blue in there. Today's goalie gloves can house a whole six pack AND Darren Pang. J.D. was a big man, too - 6-foot-3, 210 pounds. I'm all for a goalie being safe, but to compensate for the SIGNIFICANT increase in goalie equipment size, shouldn't the NHL think about a little increase in the size of the net? Six inches higher and six inches wider might do the trick.

On November 20, John MacLean was resigned to the fact that his NHL career might be over after 1174 games and 410 goals. (Raymond Bourque retired with 410 goals) It was his 37th birthday, and instead of scoring goals for one of the 30 NHL teams, he was on his way to Outback Steakhouse with me. John was at ESPN to be a guest analyst on NHL 2Night. Since he is now a Jersey guy, via Oshawa, Ontario, I popped in the grand slam of Springsteen songs: Thunder Road, Badlands, River, and Jungleland. We listened to The Boss, ate our beef, and returned to the studio to prepare for the night's show.

HIT THE ICE by Michael Fischer
TOONS ON ICE Hockey (www.toonsonice.com)
In hanging out with John that night -- and during a couple of other visits he made to the NHL 2Night set -- it was obvious that he yearned to get back on NHL ice. He was still skating with former Devil Bruce Driver at Driver's rink in New Jersey. He just didn't feel it was time to move on yet. (Quick Bruce Driver note -- I also hoped he would have worn No. 8 during his career. Then the back of his uniform would have read Driver 8 -- one of REM's staple songs. I would have given seven quarts of blood for that sweater.)

The calendar turned to 2002 and MacLean was still a man without a sweater. It seemed hopeless. But, after a quick "tryout" with the American Hockey League's Utah Grizzlies (5 games, one assist, minus-3) MacLean was signed for the rest of the season by the Dallas Stars. The team he played 28 games for last season.

No. 1: Had you given up hope? Did you think that no one was going to sign you?
MacLean:
It was just before the Olympic break and I told my agent, let's give it one more try. I could get ready during the Olympic break and be ready to go if someone wanted me. Dallas said if that was the case, I could play for the Utah Grizzlies and "we'll take a look at you. If you feel good and we think you look good we'll bring you up."

No. 2: Who scouted you?
MacLean:
Bob Gainey and Doug Armstrong came and saw me play. They just wanted to see me skate and my positioning. They liked what they saw and said, hopefully, I could help them in the stretch run.

No. 3: Will you retire after this season or will you attempt to continue next season?
MacLean:
I don't know. I just felt like after last year and seeing some of the guys still playing, I thought I could still play. I thought I played pretty well in the playoffs last year. I just felt I could add something. I might not feel that way after this season, but I will deal with that at the end of the year.

I was talking to John on his cell phone in Vancouver. He went out that night and scored two goals against the Canucks. He added another one last Saturday against Patrick Roy. I now have to call him every morning and sing "Thunder Road" as a wakeup call.

No. 4: Why did you have such a desire to continue playing?
MacLean:
It's not a money issue. I want to make sure it is out of my system. I didn't have it out of my system. There was always something holding me back from saying "this is it." I was lucky that we had the two week Olympic break. That was probably the difference.

No. 5: All along did you feel Dallas was the one place you had a chance to play?
MacLean:
I was hoping it would be Dallas. It's just a good situation for me. I was hoping it would be them or someone else. I was looking for a good fit and I already knew this was it. But, it could have been somewhere else.

No. 6: How do they plan to use you?
MacLean:
Very similar to last year. I'll play with Kirk Muller like I did last year. Kill some penalties. Play late in the period and late in the game. I'm more defensive minded now.

John had three straight 40 goal seasons for New Jersey (1988-91). He was a member of the 1994-95 Devils that swept the Red Wings in the finals.

No. 7: A lot has changed in Dallas since you were last there at the end of last season. What is the biggest difference that you've seen?
MacLean:
I think they had a hard time finding their identity after all the changes. This team was always built on defense and team work. With the changes, they didn't have the night-in, night-out consistency, and that's what they are looking to get back here. There are a lot of great players here. A high talent level. If everyone gets together, we have a shot.

No. 8: How much will you miss doing NHL 2Night? Is that the heartbreaking part of this story?
MacLean:
It is. But, I wasn't getting called back for that either!!!

Click.

We are entering the segment of the NHL season where goaltending is everything. Late game saves will become the most important facet of every playoff contending team. The Vezina Trophy, of course, is a regular-season trophy. Good numbers up to this point are vital. However, the most important part for contending teams is having a goalie they are confident going to war with. These goalies provide numbers and confidence for their teams. There are three or four goalies who are primed to crack this list with strong finishes like Martin Brodeur, Byron Dafoe, Patrick Lalime and Sean Burke. For now, however, these are the highest five.

Patrick Roy
Roy
1. Patrick Roy, Colorado Avalanche: He's having the best year of his career. He has a chance to finish the season with a GAA of under 2.00 for the first time in his career. He will likely go into the playoffs healthy, confident and fresh. That is a championship combination. He hasn't won a Vezina since 1992. He will win his fourth this summer.

2. Dominik Hasek, Detroit Red Wings: He has won six of the last eight Vezinas. This will be the first season in Hasek's career that he will win 40 games. And for the first time in his goaltending prime, he will enter a postseason without the mental and physical wear and tear accumulated from a regular season (He STARTED 72 games for Buffalo in 1997-98). This has been a low-energy output regular season for Hasek. Never has he been this prepared to win a Stanley Cup.

3. Jose Theodore, Montreal Canadiens: A rising star. He seems to have the talent and bravado to lead a good team to a Stanley Cup RIGHT NOW. He has a lot of Roy in him that way. He's 25, and was a second-round pick in 1994. If Montreal makes the playoffs it's all because of him.

4. Nikolai Khabibulin, Tampa Bay Lightning: The poor guy must be mentally wiped out -- the way I feel after 18 seconds of any Gloria Estefan song. Remember he played two games in two years before this season. He's had to be the Bolts' best player just about every night for his team to get a point. His team just doesn't score. He's like a pitcher in baseball who begins the 7th inning up 1-0 or down 1-0 EVERY START. That starts to wear on you.

5. Evgeni Nabokov, San Jose Sharks: Turn your head and Nabokov. Times are changing. The third European goalie on this list. The Sharks are close to a Stanley Cup team now that they are scoring goals. Their power play is still not first class and in low scoring playoff games, power-play goals are vital. Also, can Nabokov be consistent for two straight months in the playoffs? He has appeared in five playoff games, Roy in 219. Patrick did win a Cup in his first postseason, but there is only one Roy. We will find out in six weeks.


Olympic hockey rates
OLYMPIC HOCKEY RATINGS
  Gold All
Market Rt/Sh Rt/Sh
Atlanta 9.7/19 5.3/11
Boston 19.1/37 8.1/19
Buffalo 15.6/30 6.9/15
Chicago 15.1/31 7.6/16
Columbus 16.0/27 8.6/18
Dallas 14.4/28 7.3/15
Denver 23.8/46 10.8/23
Detroit 23.5/39 10.5/21
Los Angeles 9.9/25 5.8/15
Miami 7.6/16 3.7/8
Minneapolis 19.2/39 8.1/21
Nashville 10.5/18 6.6/13
New York 14.4/29 6.9/14
Philadelphia 18.5/31 7.8/16
Phoenix 17.7/36 8.4/18
Pittsburgh 17.5/33 7.9/17
Raleigh 5.8/10 3.6/8
San Francisco 10.6/32 6.1/18
St. Louis 13.8/29 8.8/20
Tampa 12.2/24 8.0/17
Washington 12.8/27 7.1/17
As you probably know, Olympic Hockey garnered excellent television ratings. Here are the ratings each U.S. NHL market earned and under that, non U.S. NHL market ratings. I thought you might be interested in them. Adam Acone, the NHL's vice president of broadcasting and programming emailed them to me. The NHL markets table tells us what we already knew. The strongest U.S. NHL markets are Denver, Detroit, Minnesota, Boston, and Philadelphia. Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky's appearance likely spiked the Phoenix and Pittsburgh numbers, although Pittsburgh IS an excellent sports town. So is Columbus. Ohio St. will be a college hockey powerhouse in the coming years as more young kids grow up playing hockey in that family loving sports region. Columbus and its suburbs is a mini Canada. The Blue Jackets were the worst team at the Olympic break, yet look how strong the numbers were. The NHL and ownership of Atlanta and Carolina can't like their numbers. Atlanta will be fine because of its two young stars, but any slip in Carolina's play in future years could mean even more of a financial nightmare, since they are already losing money. Hartford, where the Canes moved from, almost tripled Raleigh's television rating.

This is an interesting table. I live in a Hartford suburb; so I know first hand how much of a hockey hotbed it is. Plenty of strong youth programs that will continue to produce lifetime, knowledgeable hockey fans. Those are the cities the NHL should have teams!! Hartford's gold medal rating was higher than 11 NHL markets.

Non-NHL Markets
                   Gold        Total 
Market         Rating/Share Rating/Share 
Hartford         14.6/29      6.8/16 
Houston           8.9/18      5.2/11 
Portland         15.9/37      8.1/23 
Seattle          14.4/34      7.5/20 

The other three cities on this list are cities that often come up as possible future NHL cities. If the Penguins don't get a new arena, if the smaller Canadian markets can't continue to exist, and if any of the other U.S. markets falter, Houston, Portland and, to a lesser degree, Seattle have all shown interest in the past. The Houston number is exactly why I don't think the NHL should go there. I imagine the NHL would argue that with deep pockets and smart people running the team, Houston could be as strong an NHL market as Dallas.

One of the more influential and landmark changes in how fans watch and interpret the various playing fields of athletics was the explosion of fantasy leagues in the 1990s. There were smaller-scale fantasy leagues before Pearl Jam, but as a result of the Internet revolution, fantasy leagues went mainstream and the sports fan became almost exclusively numbers orientated.

Al Coates
Al Coates was GM of the Flames from Nov. 1995 to April 2000.
Why are fantasy leagues so popular? Let's face it, once the teenage dream of becoming a professional athlete is squashed like that bulging zit on our 18-year-old backs, the next best most titillating job in sports is general manager. I spent much of my high school class time in Biology writing out line combinations for our weekend street hockey league. I got a "D" in Biology my sophomore year, but putting Will Jenkins on a line with Mike Welday turned into a Steubenville Hockey League Championship.

Al Coates was once an NHL GM and he wants to be one again. He felt he was putting the pieces into place in Calgary as the Flames GM, when he and head coach Brian Sutter were fired in the summer of 2000. He was the one who traded for Jarome Iginla, who now leads the NHL in scoring. Will he get another chance to make similar trades? He is currently working for the New York Rangers American Hockey League affiliate, the Hartford Wolf Pack.

What is Al Coates doing now?: "I'm vice president and general manager of Hartford Sports. I'm responsible for the Hartford Wolf Pack, some pro scouting, and working a little with Glen Sather. In a nutshell, I take it as a challenge to make the organization better, the Rangers better and help develop people here. I take my role very seriously, but I think I can and will get back into the NHL."

How he tries to make the Rangers better: "We've been able to bring in some people outside the organization like Rico Fata. I would have really been disappointed if we didn't take Rico Fata off waivers."

Fata began the week with 25 goals in 46 games and led the Wolf Pack with a plus-19.

How often he talks to Glen Sather: "About once a week. When I watch the Rangers I have a GM hat on and a picture of the Rangers organization in my mind. So, when I go to games in Boston or the New York area I might be looking at players who don't fit on other teams that might be a fit for us. And if I see that I call him and let him know."

The beginning: "I was the typical Canadian kid who grew up in a rural Ontario village near Listowel. I started playing hockey at the age of four or five and ended up playing Junior B hockey, played at RPI, and then played over in Europe. I loved the game and the industry. I started with the Red Wings as the head trainer with the Red Wings minor-league team in Virginia in 1972."

23 years later as Calgary Flames GM: "I had a business plan and a hockey business plan right from the outset and I knew that we had to stick to the plan. There was definitely going to be some tough times. We had to do it the old fashioned way. My goalie of the future for the franchise was going to be J.S. Giguere, who I traded to get. (Giguere is currently sixth in the NHL in GAA and ninth in save percentage on a bad Mighty Ducks team.) Then I wanted to get four strong defensemen, six top forwards and, along with Brian Sutter coaching it, me and my staff were in good shape with long-term parts, but we ran out of time with ownership."

A going away present for Calgary...Jarome Iginla: "Well, Joe Nieuwendyk was under contract to play and there was a contract dispute and he wasn't in our lineup and I was of the opinion that we needed to do something to help our team now. I don't agree with letting players sit out a long time provided you can make the right deal. We had 14 different offers that were reduced to three. We wanted something that could help us now and the future. St. Louis, the Rangers, and the Stars were the finalists. It was almost midnight at the trade deadline freeze prior to Christmas and I had the NHL on one line, the Rangers on another line and Dallas on another line and went ahead with the Dallas trade of Nieuwendyk for Corey Millen and Jarome Iginla."

(Mark Messier was badgering Rangers GM Neil Smith to trade Ray Ferraro after Smith had signed Chicken Parm just five months earlier. Coates wanted Ferraro, Mattias Norstrom and Dan Cloutier for Nieuwendyk, but the Rangers didn't want to part with Norstrom at the time. They would three months later when Norstrom, Parm -- who was on his way to a 30-goal season with the Rangers -- Ian Laperriere, Nathan Lafayette and a fourth-round pick went to L.A. for Jari Kurri, Marty McSorely and Shane Churla. Kurri would go on to score 19 goals in his next 166 NHL games (1 in 14 Ranger games), Churla had one point, an assist, in 55 games as a Ranger, and McSorely had no goals in his nine-game Ranger career.)

John,
Why do you say "Paul Kariya, Cha-Cha-Cah" on NHL 2Night? Please help.
Sherry Masengarb

Remember when you were a kid and you would chant: "Diarrhea! Cha-Cha-Cha!" Sadly for No. 9, Kariya rhymes with diarrhea. When one lacks intellect, these are the things one relies on.

John,
Looking at the Blues' current lineup, do you thing they will go after Brian Boucher and Tony Amonte? I just don't believe they can make the Stanley Cp finals without a better goalie.
Adam Roman
Hendersonville, Tenn.

Blues GM Larry Pleau recently said he won't add payroll and won't trade for a goalie. If that is true, he would have to trade salary for salary, I don't see Amonte going to the Blues. Will the Blues trade for a goalie? I think they will.

John,
My roommates and I often debate as to who had the best wrist shot in the NHL. I say Petr Nedved, one says Joe Sakic, the other says Alexei Kovalev. Can you solve this dilemma?
Dan Keane
State College, Pa.

There are tons of good wrist shots in the NHL. The players are strong and the technology of the sticks is outstanding. Jaromir Jagr has won the last four scoring titles and I can't recall seeing him shoot a true slap shot. Kovalev brings his way back in his skating stance and just flings it. A thing of beauty. But for velocity, quickness of release and placement, I've seen none better than Sakic and Ilya Kovalchuk.

John,
I couldn't agree more with your comment: "I don't want to hate Paul Kariya." I bleed black and gold. I live and die by the Penguins. Do you have any idea how heart-breakingly painful it was to root against Mario Lemieux?
Matt Lynch

As I've mentioned before, heart-breakingly painful is trying to get through an Enrique Inglesias video. Have you seen the latest one with Anna Kournikova? It's the first time I've ever had no physical reaction looking at her. Why? 1) She's the worst actress of all time, relieving Madonna of the title; 2) SHE'S IN AN ENRIQUE INGLESIAS VIDEO!

John,
Who do you think will represent the Eastern Conference in the Stanley Cup finals this year?
Lance
Buffalo

If I were to rank the Easter Conference teams in Stanley Cup final likelihood, I would put the Flyers a good distance before everyone else. The Bruins need Kyle McLaren back and a smart, puck0-moving defenseman. The Maple Leafs need Cujo and Alexander Mogilny healthy. Don't count out the Devils or Senators. I only see those four as possible finalists. But don't forget, the NHL playoffs are the best in all of sports because they are the most difficult. Anything can happen.

John,
For a team that's overrated and disjointed, they sure as hell kicked some American butt this afternoon! It's a shame there are jerks like you in a country as great as the USA who must speak out from sheer jealousy in the way that you have. I know most Americans are good people, not donkeys like you.
Dan Brabbins
Canada

1) Canada played better than the USA in the gold-medal game; 2) The USA had no legs left after their game with Russia; 3) There is no argument that can be made against reseeding. It renders the early games almost meaningless; 4) Don't forget Canada had players like Steve Yzerman, who are American citizens. So I guess some of the guys kicked their own butts; 5) The USA has nothing to be jealous about. Since 1960, the USA has won two gold medals to Canada's one; 6) My grandmother was born in Newfoundland; 7) I put ketchup on my steak and I'm not ashamed of it; 8) My highest score in bowling is 220; 9) Barry Melrose is in Slap Shot II. Coming to video soon.

John,
I loved your article about NHL players in the Olympics. You seemed ot give words to everything I felt. I also wanted to comment on Wayne Gretzky acting like a 5-year-old child. You wondered if some fans will always have a negative vibe towards him as a result of these games? I certainly will!
Katy
Avs fan in Denver

Just to clarify, I don't have any negative vibes toward Wayne or any Canadian, sans Melrose.

Last week, Martin Lapointe told us in The Great Eight that he liked the movie "Life is a House." I wrote that I was surprised by that because it looked ridiculous in the previews. I asked for your reviews. Here are two:

John,
You were wondering about this movie. I usually like all movies, but this one was horrible.
Drew Broadfoot
Chicago

John,
I thought it was great. It's not ridiculous at all. I related to it being that a kid in his room blasting Rage Against the Machine while my dad yelled at me and wanted me to "open this damn lock!" I think it was worth the theater trip, but a rental is a sure thing.
Omeed Badri

I will rent "Life as a House" this week and give you my review next week.

John,
HeadPANGers Ball on MTV.
Mac Daley

More Pangers: From Eric Clapton's great CD, "Behind the Sun": PANGled in Love . . . PANGled up in blue . . . PANGora . . . PANGor, Maine . . . West PANGk . . . Lemon merPANG pie . . . hanky PANGky . . . PANGxiety attack . . . African country of PANGola . . . Beyond PANGoon . . . PANGnail . . . k.d. PANG . . . Steak lovers like Black PANGus . . . PANGing by a thread . . . tropical fruit: PANGoes . . . Shooting down the walls of heartache, PANG, PANG . . . PANG gliding.

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








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