Again, hockey is a young player's game

First Period -- My Hockey Night

Friday was a good hockey day. It began with a telephone interview on an Arizona morning radio show (KDUS AM 1060). I speculated that I didn't think Brett Hull would last the season after seeing how fast the game has become.

After my appearance, I received a call from someone who heard my comments and confirmed that the Coyotes were talking to Hull about going out with grace, that the game was too fast and he was too slow to be effective.

The next day, Hull retired.

The NHL is once again a young man's game. It is speed and skating, and I wanted to see if for myself. So, I took Ween guitarist Mickey Melchiondo's invitation to sit with him during a Penguins-Flyers game, and his season tickets are five rows from the ice.

As a thank-you to Mickey, I contacted the Flyers' manager of game operations, Michael Wurman, and asked whether he would play the Ween song "It's Gonna Be a Long Night" at some point. Sure enough, during the first intermission, the song came on, and Mickey, as laid-back as he is, was visibly touched.

Observations from the game:

  • The game is fast. Up and down. At times, it almost looked like an All-Star Game, and that is not good. They need to find a way to keep the battle in the game without taking away the speed and stickhandling. Mickey was skeptical. He said he enjoyed the territorial game but didn't embrace the new flow.

  • Lyle Odelein had a sequence of multiple cross-checks to the back of Flyers players parked in front of the net. This will be a common sight come playoff time.

  • Mario Lemieux has beaten cancer, been ravaged by hip and back pain, and just turned 40. Yet, he looked younger than 25-year-old Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik. Mario must moisturize.

  • Sidney Crosby wears his helmet and visor high on his head and face. If I were Craig Patrick or someone in the Penguins' brass, I would suggest that Crosby pull it down. If he doesn't, he risks getting injured in and around the eyes. Mentally, Crosby was a step ahead of nearly every player on the ice. He sees things no one else sees. This is his greatest gift. Also, he is not afraid to go to the area where one needs to go to score. I don't understand why he doesn't play with Mario Lemieux on the power play. Crosby did make one mistake: He left Peter Forsberg alone behind the net, had to grab him to prevent a wraparound attempt and made the Penguins shorthanded in the overtime. Crosby is not horrible in his own end by any means. He's probably already better than Wayne Gretzky ever was, but he could be better.

  • John LeClair looked very good. He was definitely jacked to be back in Philly. He skated well and was a presence in front of the net. The Penguins need to go get a big, passing center who can set up behind the net, draw some traffic and find LeClair.

  • Defensemen can become invisible in the faster NHL. It's more of a forward's game again. It's not enough just to be a big defenseman anymore. You need to be able to retrieve the puck and make a good pass. Sergei Gonchar was invisible (a quick defenseman is a weapon, but he also has to be tough because forwards are flying toward the end boards). Dick Tarnstrom is a solid NHL player and was impressive. Forsberg might get 100 assists this season, and he will make Simon Gagne a very wealthy man or an ex-Flyer if the Flyers are too close to the cap.

  • Even though they've had a tough schedule in terms of opponents and road games, the Penguins can't even think about the playoffs until they get better in their own end. They'll get better, but, in the end, they are going to be battling for the eighth playoff spot. Patrick has to make the right trade to get a center and another quality defenseman.

  • I had no cup-holders in my seat. I was shocked -- $85 tickets and no cup-holders.

  • Mike Richards is very good. Smart and skilled. Jeff Carter looks lost. He could be a Philadelphia Phantom soon. Marc-Andre Fleury is far from an NHL starting goaltender, but he has the coolest pads in the NHL.

  • Lauren Hart sang the national anthem. I was watching her on the JumboTron like a beagle watching a human chew meat. Mesmerized and helpless.

  • When I went to work the next day, I received numerous e-mails from you asking me whether that was indeed me they saw on the Penguins-Flyers telecast. It was. And all I have to say about it is: Thank God I didn't wear my low-cut sequined dress I initially planned on wearing. Phew.

    Second Period -- OLN, Part II

    I thought I had lived a complete life. For about the past three years, I would have thought that if I were hit by an oil tanker while playing miniature golf tomorrow, my thoughts, while hurtling in the air toward the clown's mouth, would have been: "Ya know, this is OK. I was blessed with 80 years worth of joy, happiness and fulfillment. But I was really looking forward to that post-round Slurpee. Put me down for a 5, Jeff."

    But I was wrong.

    I had yet to experience a joy that, if not experienced, would have made my aerial death ride over Pirates Cove Miniature Golf Course a shallow heave.

    During last Monday night's Sabres-Penguins game on cable station OLN , I heard Mike Emrick read an OLN promo for Ted Nugent's meat-seeking reality hunting show. At one point, while reading the "Ted or Alive" promo, Emrick said, "And at some point, Uncle Teddy will bite the head off a wild boar while killing an elk with nothing but a fishing hook." Or something close to that. It was truly a seminal television moment.

    While Emrick read the promo, you could hear in his voice, "I can't believe I am actually reading a promo for a Ted Nugent animal shooting-spree television show." It was priceless.

    As far as the rest of OLN's night, it was much better than Week 1. As we've said all along, OLN has had little time to prepare for its nationally televised games. Some observations:

  • The Sidney Crosby coverage was outstanding. The intermission piece on Crosby and Gretzky was superb, talking about when Crosby was 14, Gretzky could see the teenager's greatness. Crosby also was miked for the game, and it was a revelation to hear him taking charge, actually instructing his teammates on how to better break out of their zone. It was more proof that this prodigy is a superior hockey being. His understanding of the game and his sheer knowledge of his space are heavenly.

  • OLN has to change its logo RIGHT NOW. It is the worst on television. Whenever I see it, I sprint to my local supermarket and start compulsively buying three months' worth of produce. When humans see red ovals, they instinctively want to buy squash. There have been hundreds of studies on this. If they don't want to overhaul the logo, some black borders should do the trick.

  • I was watching the Sabres and Penguins at ESPN, where we get the games right from the satellite, so the signal was great. I know in Week 1 the picture on my DirecTV was muddy. Also, unlike the first week, the OLN cameras were not zoomed in as much, and that made for a better watch. The pans from right to left were still a little herky-jerky, but it was an overall improvement.

  • Please: No sideline reporters. Hockey is too fast. There were four goals scored in regulation and twice sideline reporter Christine Simpson was talking. It's not her fault -- she's told when to talk. There are too few goals in hockey to ever miss the play-by-play announcer yell, Score! Sideline reporters are useless in most sports, and in hockey, they should only be used for intermission interviews. Also, no split screens with interviews. When will television networks, ESPN included, realize we want to watch the game? Miked players and coaches are 7,459 times better than any sideline interview or player/coach in-game sound bite. Unless that player is talking about his previous night out partying with Paris Hilton, the sound bite is an absolute waste of time.

    All in all, the OLN game was excellent. Good replays, good intermissions.
    For me, it was a good night of hockey watching. Apparently, it wasn't for others; I received this e-mail, and others like it, during the first period:

    Hey John,

    After waiting all week for Pens and Sabres on OLN, I tuned in to "The 25 Worst Outdoor Jobs" (sewage diver being No. 1, by the way). I thought the game was supposed to be nationally televised. Am I missing something? Thanks.

    Gray Keith
    Virginia Beach, Va.

    The following was posted on OLN's Web site: "OLN apologizes if you were unable to see the Pittsburgh vs. Buffalo game on OLN last night. There were technical issues in certain markets and OLN is working to resolve those issues as quickly as possible. If you'd like to inform OLN of a technical issue in your area, please call 203-406-2500. In addition, please note that certain satellite or cable television providers do not carry the NHL games on OLN."

    So that's where we stand. For those of us in NHL markets and/or who have the Center Ice package, there is enough variety to choose from. But remember, there are only 24 U.S. teams, and three of them are in the greater New York City area and two others are in Southern California. There are millions of fans in the U.S. who rely on the national-television package to watch NHL hockey. Life is not good for them right now, and there is a chance the NHL is losing its chance to bring back injured fans and cultivate new ones.

    There are millions of kids across the U.S. who might not see a hockey game on their TV for years. They will develop other interests and never give hockey a chance.

    Third Period -- Hmmm …

    Why in the world didn't the Columbus Blue Jackets play on Columbus Day last week?

    The Mailbag


    Why is it that whenever I see an American broadcast of a hockey game on TV, the picture quality is horrible? It is way too dark and it looks like they are playing the game with the lights half dimmed. ESPN's coverage was decent when they had hockey, but I think all the networks should look at Hockey Night in Canada on the CBC and see what a hockey game should look like. Bright colors, white ice and clear picture quality. Watching hockey on Fox Sports Net is so depressing. Thank god for NHL Center Ice where I can pick up the Canadian feeds.

    Geoff Bain

    The most important factors in how hockey games look on television are: (1) the lighting in the arena and (2) the camera angles. I am watching Edmonton and Calgary on CBC. The camera is outstanding, closer to the ice, and the game looks great. Clicking over to the Sharks and Blackhawks on FSN, the camera angle is not as good. Also, you can see shadows of the players as they make their way around the ice. It also is a little dark, as you mentioned. Now, I am watching a re-air of the Rangers-Thrashers game on Madison Square Garden Network. The camera angle is good, the ice is bright and the camera work is excellent. There is no question New Jersey Devils home games look the worst of any NHL team. The lighting in their arena is abysmal. I just looked down the standings and just about everyone else is OK. Anaheim and Nashville are also a little dark. As far as combined camera-sight line and good lighting, some of the arenas that stand out are: Islanders, Carolina, Atlanta, Detroit, Columbus, Minnesota, Vancouver, Edmonton, Dallas and Los Angeles.

    Mr. Buccigross,

    According to the data I was able to find, the NHL plus/minus mark for all 912 skaters from [the NHL's] last [season] was a minus 313. Now this made no sense, so I tried to figure out how that was possible. This is what I found out.

    Plus/minus considers it an EVEN situation when, at the end of the game, the goalie is pulled (since technically this is NOT a special teams situation). I was able to find 189 empty-net goals that were scored last year.

    Therefore, since it was technically a five-on-five situation, the regular plus/minus applies. But since the goalie was pulled, it would actually be a six-on-five situation, meaning that there would be an aggregate score of DEFENSE (minus-5) and OFFENSE (plus-6) for an overall total of plus-1. That means the 189 ENG would make the league's overall plus/minus a plus-189. However, if you simply add together the plus/minus numbers of all skaters from the 2003-04 season, their total for plus/minus is minus-313.

    What gives? Can you help to answer this mystery? Thanks for your time.

    Ray Flowers

    My head just exploded.

    Hi John,

    I, like most true hockey fans, truly missed the opening-week tradition of seeing how your hair and glasses did in the offseason, how bad Melrose's hair and tailoring is, and last but not least, I miss Chicken Parm. Let me say it again. I really miss Chicken Parm [Ray Ferraro].

    The big ugly elephant in the room is that the NHL has no REAL national TV deal. As a Dish Network customer in New Mexico, I would have to upgrade all the way to Dish 180 just to get a fishing channel? Uh, no.

    So here's the question, John: If a pro sports league has a season in the forest, without a REAL national TV deal that's available on all basic packages, was there really a season? The NHL should have PAID ESPN $20 million to broadcast the "we're sorry, fans!" season. They just don't get it. And that's why we're back to having only three major sports in America.

    Mark McKee
    Albuquerque, NM


    The OLN coverage is brutal. Can you and other insiders talk to them?
    They are zoomed in so close, you only see the player handling the puck, and they try to follow the puck with their cameras, which they can't do.

    If they pull back [and] show us the zone so we can see the play develop, [we can] follow the puck with our eyes. ... If losing hockey on ESPN wasn't bad enough for the NHL, this coverage will even turn fans away. Or maybe it's a conspiracy by the digital cable and dish companies to encourage more purchases of the Center Ice package.

    Steve Skalka
    Battle Creek, Mich.

    The majority of the e-mails I receive each week are on OLN and the national TV hockey coverage. First and foremost, this column is designed to be the voice of the fan; therefore, the e-mail bag is designed to reflect what is on your mind. The main camera IS zoomed in too far. I actually was a bit nauseated watching Opening Night because the camera was so close. It looked better in Week 2. We'll keep an eye on it.

    Another complaint is the giant Supermarket OLN logo in the bottom left of the screen, which at times blocks the view of the puck when it's in the lower left-hand corner. It was a gamble by Gary Bettman to take about $1 million to $2 million extra per team and go to a network not ready to produce such a popular and passionate live product. If the NHL stayed on ESPN, every game would have been in high definition and a lot more eyeballs would be watching the fast and improved product. But this was a long-term business decision by Bettman, and by this time next year, everything should look and sound better than it does now. The people in power, at both Comcast and the NHL, will make sure of it.

    I have been wondering why no one is talking about Thomas Vanek? I attended a preseason game in which he played and was amazed at his skill level. Vanek was unbelievable in scoring two goals and assisting in another. The other night, I watched the Sabers and Penguins on OLN and he outplayed your beloved Sidney Crosby by far. If it were not for a brilliant save by Fleury on a wrap-around chance in overtime, Vanek would have been the star of the game (Buffalo still won the game in OT). Vanek has speed, a scoring touch and is gritty and gets back to play D. Maybe Crosby has more upside and eventually will be the best player, but for right now, Thomas Vanek is the best rookie in the NHL.

    Steve Ladwig

    Crosby is the best rookie in the NHL by far. His IQ, hockey sense and awareness are off the charts compared with EVERY PLAYER IN THE LEAGUE, not just rookies. Crosby makes plays. Vanek is a great, young talent. Outstanding around the net. He has reach and hands, and has that highly coveted skill of taking the viewers' breath away. Those are my favorite players to watch. What will keep Vanek from putting up big rookie numbers is that he plays on a good team. That being said, I project Vanek to score 21 goals and have 38 assists.


    Why were the NHL and the NHLPA not working on a mandatory visor policy during the lockout? If they were so dedicated to making this game more enjoyable to the fans, then why do I have to watch a Leafs-Flyers game without Mats Sundin because of an eye injury that could have been less traumatic if he had worn a visor? This is ridiculous. The old myths about visors and the hindrances they produce are false now. Technology allows these players to see the ice without any obstruction due to scratches and humidity. Don't get me started about mouth guards either!

    Michael Horne

    I don't understand why the NHL would consult the players on the visor issue. The only way I wouldn't make visors mandatory is if the players forgo getting paid if they get hit in the eye area and miss time. If Sundin had been wearing a visor, he would be playing right now. Hockey is a rough game, and there always will be injuries, but the visor certainly would cut down on eye injuries. There is no reason not to grandfather the visor rule RIGHT NOW. Every player entering the NHL has played with full headgear his entire career. Fifty years from now, or sooner, every player will have full headgear. It hasn't affected the popularity of the NFL.

    Hey John,
    Hockey's back! How's Ken? So I was shocked when I got through your column on Oct. 9. Not one mention of the U2 show you went to on Oct. 3. What's up with that?

    The Boston U2 show Oct. 3 began with "City of Blinding Lights," "Beautiful Day" and "Vertigo." I could have gone home after those three songs and have been satisfied. That's how explosive and energetic that hat trick of songs was. Did that version of "Beautiful Day" have a hint of Nirvana in it, or was it just me? There was a time when I couldn't understand why people would go see an artist two, three times in a row when they come to their city. When you see a band like U2, you understand why people want to recapture the feeling they provide for more than one night.

    Hi John,

    Thanks for the nice piece you did on Sidney Crosby. I've no doubt that he's an immense talent and will go down in the books with Gretzky, Lemieux and Orr someday. But guess what? So will Alexander Ovechkin. And if Crosby wins Rookie of the Year over Ovechkin and puts up better stats, it will be because of Crosby's teammates and not innate talent. Ovechkin, unlike Crosby, has already shown the ability to take over a game. He won the game opening night and he won the game against the Rangers on Monday. In each case, he dominated as a penalty killer, as a forechecker, in drawing penalties and in converting chances. And he's doing all this on a team that is widely regarded as the worst in the NHL. So marvel at Crosby as we all should. But don't forget to marvel at Alex too.

    John Wertman

    Ovechkin is bigger and stronger than Sidney Crosby and always will be. He is an explosive goal scorer who is almost two years older than Crosby. I see Ovechkin scoring 41 goals, to lead all rookies, and getting about 40 assists. He will score more goals than Crosby, but he won't create more.

    Hey John,

    I think Patrice Bergeron will be an All-Star this year.

    Boston, Mass.

    There is no All-Star Game this year, but if there were, Bergeron would be there. He might be the best player on the Bruins right now. There is no better offensive player in terms of scoring goals and setting up teammates. By the way, in his first four games with the Bruins this season, Joe Thornton has four shots on goal.


    I'm really just asking out of my own curiosity. Do you really not have a favorite team or are you just saying that to maintain journalistic integrity? I find it hard to believe that someone with such a passion for the game would not have a favorite. Cheering for my Habs is the best part about being a hockey fan. There's no way I would enjoy the game as much as I do if I didn't care about the standings.

    You have favorite players. Surely you should be allowed to have a favorite team as well. Come on John, you can tell me.

    Andrew Sharpe

    I swear on my kid's head I no longer have a favorite team I heavily root for. I sometimes miss that, but I've become such a fan of the game and the players, I find joy in every game I watch, without the tension of being a fan. Plus, to write an internationally read hockey column, I need to be neutral so I can see the whole game. When one has a favorite team, one tends to focus on that team only and see things only from its perspective. That has its positives too. Fans know their players very well because all their concentration is on them. That's why I read every e-mail. To compare notes with what you see and I see.


    Being a hockey fan and also a Marine officer (who is heading to Iraq later this year with a reserve unit), I tend to find great enjoyment in anything that focuses on the values (not to seem "preachy") and traits displayed in a sport like hockey. You really hit the nail on the head with the word "sacrifice." And no, we don't hear it too much these days. I could go on and on, but you seemed to sum up the best parts of "sport" and specifically hockey and "why" we love it so much. You pretty much wrote the speech for the kid; I am sure he got an "A."


    Thanks for your sacrifice, Matt, and your bravery and courage and commitment and honor. I hope that next June there will be one NHL player on the Stanley Cup-winning team who sacrifices his day with the Cup and flies to Iraq to share it with all of the hockey-loving soldiers serving so selflessly over there. Thanks, Matt.

    John Buccigross' e-mail address -- for questions, comments or cross-checks -- is john.buccigross@espn.com.