First Period -- It's Good to be the Wings
For me, life is about adventure and charity. Live life, and do as many things that your time and money will allow. Help out friends, family and strangers with your hands, affection and money.
This past weekend, I ventured out to the great Midwest for some adventure. I had never been to a Notre Dame football game, and wanted to soak in that rich piece of real estate. I actually was at Notre Dame before. In 1982, I attended Digger Phelps' basketball camp. Digger would show up late in the day after 36 holes, cut in line at the cafeteria and say "Good job, Sparky! Keep it up, and that check better not bounce!"
This time around, it was football with a hockey connection, of course. Dave Poulin did some TV work at ESPN for one of our NCAA selection shows, and we hit it off. So does everyone else who meets Poulin. He exudes energy, passion, competence and fun. Poulin retired as Notre Dame hockey coach, but remains in South Bend as a fund raiser for Notre Dame athletics.
The former Flyers captain sold me his Notre Dame season tickets at triple the face value and was able to get me and four high school buddies on the field for some pregame activities. For me, Goody, Pizz and Pete, standing on those sidelines lived up to the hype. Pizz asked one of the Irish coaches if he could throw a pass to Pete. In true Midwest hospitality, the coach said yes and Pizz hit Pete in the end zone.
Later, we were 5 feet from the flagpole as the American flag was raised, and along with the crowd, we sang the national anthem. As Dave led us to our seats, we brushed shoulders with the son of Knute Rockne. Chills.
The second half of my weekend adventure was taking in a Columbus Blue Jackets game. I attended high school and college in Ohio, so I go back to Columbus once a year to go to a Blue Jackets game with my boys.
The biggest thing I came away with from the Wings-Blue Jackets game was how impressive the Red Wings looked. You can put the Wings back among the Western Conference elite. In fact, from what I've seen and considering their experience, I put the Wings as the favorite in the West.
Mike Babcock has really tightened this team defensively. Sprinkle in creators up front and the beautiful-to-watch Nicklas Lidstrom and Mathieu Schneider on the back end, and the Wings are flying. They will probably deal for another defenseman, but overall, I think the Wings could get to the Stanley Cup with Manny Legace or whoever else in net.
Second Period -- Ohio Powerless
The victim of the Wings in Ohio was, of course, the Blue Jackets.
The Jackets went the veteran free-agent route in different stages, and yet haven't established any kind of core. Certainly, the injuries to Gilbert Brule and Rick Nash have taken away nearly all of their offensive zeal.
From what I've seen, Nikolai Zherdev will never be a franchise player, but merely a component on a very good team. He did a lot of floating and did not show the hair on fire, Metallica energy that Nash provides nearly every shift. Even when Nash returns, the Blue Jackets will still have huge holes at center and defense.
The arena wasn't rocking. The Blue Jackets played a passionless game with no hitting. Jody Shelley tried to get something going with his play, but even that could not get the Jackets' crowd going. Maybe Nash can light a gigantic Olentangy bonfire to inspire teammates beyond their talents, and maybe when all the injured players return, CBJ will provide entertainment, post-Buckeye football season. But it looks to be a lost season in Columbus this year, with another trip to the draft lottery.
Third Period -- La, La, La, La, La, La, LaFontaine
The Sabres will officially retire Pat LaFontaine's No. 16 in March. Danny Gare will have his number retired next month.
The other Sabres to have their numbers raised to the rafters: Gilbert Perreault's 11 in 1990; those of his French Connection linemates, Richard Martin (7) and Rene Robert (14) in 1995; and Tim Horton's No. 2 in 1996.
I've often written in this space about LaFontaine's talents, on and off the ice. Check out my archives for my past experiences with LaFontaine. No. 16 is planning to raise money for his Companions in Courage Foundation at the Florida Ironman Triathlon in November. So what better time to talk to the greatest American-born hockey player the NHL has seen?
Question from Bucci: What is an average day in the life of Pat LaFontaine?
LaFontaine answer: On a "typical" day, I'll get up at about 6 a.m. and check out the news and weather. I wake up my two daughters [Sara and Brianna] and make sure that they get out to the school bus on time. A little while later, I wake my son [Daniel] and we'll have some breakfast together. Then, it's 20 minutes throwing a ball to our dog Samantha, and I'll run Daniel down to school. When I get home, I'll either swim for 1.5 miles in Long Island Sound or ride my bike and run for a couple hours. When I get home, I'll hop online and check on the latest activities of the Companions in Courage Foundation. I'll return some e-mails and phone calls and schedule any meetings with hospitals or corporate partners.
Sara plays volleyball at her school and Brianna [an eighth grader] swims on the high school team. Daniel plays hockey [pee wee] for a travel team based on Long Island, so I'm usually running him off to practice or a game.
Now that it's starting to cool down in the Northeast, Tuesday nights will be reserved for the Huntington Low Tides on my backyard rink. The Tides are a bunch of friends who have picked up the game late in life. We skate from December through the middle of March and take on local teams, Denis Leary's Roxbury Rippers and some teams from Microsoft. With the NHL lockout last year, we were joined by guys like Rick DiPietro, Adrian Aucoin, Steve Webb and, oh yeah, some guy named Buccigross.
At night, Daniel and I settle in with the NHL Center Ice package and catch games from all over North America. Now that the NHL is exciting again, we absolutely love it. We're just a couple of regular guys loving a sport that is great again.
Q: Why did you wear No. 16?
A: When I was back home in Michigan, from squirts through midgets, I always wore No. 7. My idols growing up were Guy Lafleur and Gilbert Perreault. When I had the chance to play Junior in Verdun, Quebec, there was a guy named Benoit Lafleur wearing No. 7. There was no way that I was going to mess with a guy named Lafleur in Quebec. The equipment guy told me that No. 16 was available. I thought about it and said "well, 1 plus 6 equals 7, so I guess that'll work." The new number made me look closer at guys like the Pocket Rocket and other guys who wore No. 16. From that season on, No. 16 always seemed to be available no matter where I played.
Q: What is your most vivid Buffalo memory?
A: I have so many great memories of my time in western New York. But I'd have to say the moment I'll always cherish is the night we closed the Aud [Buffalo Memorial Auditorium]. I think it was April 14, 1996, and we had beaten the Whalers 4-1 that night. I had scored my 40th goal and the old barn was really rocking. After the game, a Sabres player from each generation was selected to take down the banners and wave to the fans. [Then-owner] Seymour Knox was already ill at the time, but he gave a very touching speech that ended, "Farewell, old friend."
I was honored to be the last player on the ice that night. I skated in, scored the last goal in the Aud, and then the lights went out. A solitary spotlight was on the goal and the puck. Fans began to fire up their lighters and we all enjoyed one last great moment. I had one of the stick boys grab the puck after the ceremony and the players had it plaqued up. At our end of year dinner, the guys on the team presented the puck to Seymour. He passed away about a month later.
When I retired from hockey four years later, Neil Smith and the Rangers had a wonderful farewell party for me at Madison Square Garden on St. Patrick's Day. Seymour's widow, Jean Knox, was one of the many wonderful people who attended that night, and she presented me with a special gift. When I opened the bag, it contained the plaque we had presented to Seymour just weeks before he passed. She said, "He would have wanted you to have this." It is one of the most cherished items from my career. "Farewell, old friend."
Q: Tell me about your foundation and the upcoming triathlon.
A: The Companions in Courage Foundation (www.CiC16.org) was inspired by the many kids in hospitals that I met throughout my career. I saw firsthand how my teammates and I could visit a bunch of sick kids, and help make their day a little brighter. I used to enjoy playing video games with the kids in the hospital because it gave us some common ground to get to know each other. When I retired from the game, I wrote a book called Companions in Courage, and it just seemed right to take that to the next level.
We engaged the famous designer Edwin Schlossberg to create an environment that would be inspirational and functional for kids stuck in a hospital. We were able to recruit great corporations like Microsoft, Cisco Systems and FullArmor to donate hardware and software, and corporate leaders such as George Ross of TV's "The Apprentice" and Tom Golisano of the Sabres to help us. The interactive game rooms that we build in children's hospitals connect sick kids to their families, and friends and celebrities with XBox games, PCs and video conferencing. The initial reaction from patients and their families has been overwhelming, so we are inspired to build more "Lion's Den Rooms."
On Saturday, Nov. 5, I will be competing in the Florida Ironman Triathlon to raise money so we can build more of these rooms in North America. As I swim the 2.5 miles, bike the 112 miles and run the full 26-mile marathon, I'll be inspired by all those little smiling faces that face a better day because of the rooms we build for them. If anyone is interested in helping us out, they can make a donation on our Web site (www.CiC16.org) or by going directly to www.active.com/donate/imflorida2005.
The Mother of all Mailbags
I enjoy reading your articles and I have a question about goalies. We saw the Tampa Bay Lightning win the Stanley Cup the last NHL season with their starting goaltender Nikolai Khabibulin playing in only 55 games in the regular season.
With the NHL being more offensive oriented, that would lead one to think that being a goalie could tire you out faster than in years past. Do you feel the days of starting 65-70-plus regular-season games and being effective long enough without fatigue being a factor in the playoffs to win the Cup are over? With that in mind, would you rather have two very good goalies that nearly split time in the regular season or one great goalie and a backup that plays about 12-15 regular-season games?
P.S. Let's Go Rangers!
I'll take the high-level goalie playing 60-65 games every time. But you make a good point on goaltending and the style of NHL play this season. There are more shots, more odd-man rushes and shootouts. Shootouts put an enormous amount of mental and physical strain on goalies. Goalies are so flexible and athletic today, they put themselves in precarious positions for hip and knee injuries. Their added flexibility and athleticism has actually put them in danger of injuries. It's something worth watching. I bet at least one NHL goalie tears an ACL at worst, or has a significant injury at "best" this season.
I have one question about hockey being shown on TV, and I'm not sure if you have the answer. I am turning to you because you are probably the only person I can think of to ask. Why does OLN and even ESPN before them, put on the Rangers, Flyers or Red Wings seemingly every broadcast?
The higher the television rating, the more a television network can charge for a commercial. It costs more money to run your 30-second, giant-headed Burger King dude on "Desperate Housewives" than it does on "Moesha" reruns. New York is the biggest television market in the country. Philadelphia is the fourth biggest. Detroit is a big market, and additionally, there are Red Wings fans all over the country. Television networks want eyeballs watching televisions so they can charge more for ads. Also, east of the Mississippi, sporting events rate better than west of the Mississippi. The numbers don't lie. That's why networks do what they do.
Gotta believe you are wrong in picking the 'Canes to finish 14th in the East. While they may not have any marquee names today, they have a team that has good talent from top to bottom with some future stars that just aren't household names yet. These guys are good, and your assessment is bad. I'll print this e-mail and eat it if they don't make it to the playoffs.
As I've said before, making predictions is an inexact science because you never know when a young player will make a huge leap and when a veteran may unexpectedly take a fall. The Hurricanes have had two young players step up in a big way. Cam Ward looks like an Andrew Raycroft clone in net in terms of his technique and coolness. Also, Eric Staal's hands and feet have gotten two gears quicker. When you are 6-foot-3 and you have quick hands, you will have little problem scoring goals. The Hurricanes' special teams are playing well. Go to "statistics" here on ESPN.com and go to "special teams." Notice something? I still question that Carolina will have enough over 82 games to make the playoffs, but yes, they are better than I thought they would be, because Ward and Staal are way better than I projected. I hope they keep it up, because they are classic, graceful NHL players. Staal could be this generation's Jean Beliveau.
As Brett Hull retires, there are now five "sure" Hall of Famers eligible in the same year. The Hockey Hall of Fame has a ridiculous rule that only four can be inducted in the same year. Hull, Messier, MacInnis, Stevens, Francis. Somebody will not be elected in their first year of eligibility.
Arlington Heights, Ill.
I wonder since Brett Hull retired in the middle of the season, if he will get pushed back a year. If not, I'm sure the Hockey Hall of Fame will do the right thing and waive the "four only rule." That rule is designed to keep the quality of the player high for Hall of Fame voting. There is no question the quality of player we are talking about with Messier, MacInnis, Stevens, Francis and Hull. To leave one home because of a rule not applicable because of the lockout would be rude and insensitive.
Care to revamp your thoughts on the Rangers being 13th best in the East this year?
They look better than 13th. This NHL with lots of power plays and little contact is perfect for Jaromir Jagr. However, as the season progresses there WILL be fewer power plays and things will get more defensive. I think we will slowly see the Rangers struggle and not make the playoffs.
What do your 'peeps' call you? JB? Bucci? Grossy? Otterboy? Just pondering
Usually Butchy. On the weekends, they call me Beverly.
Hi there, Mr. Buccigross,
I was wondering if you think Sid the Kid will end up like Jeff Gordon and/or Tony Stewart in NASCAR. From the NHL message boards I read and the e-mails posted in your columns, it seems like every hockey fanatic either hates Crosby or loves him. There isn't anybody who is "neutral" about Sidney.
Every NASCAR fan either loves Gordon/Stewart or hates them, there are no indifferent people. So do you see Sidney Crosby being loved or hated, with no in between?
Take it easy,
Great call, Jim. That is the case right now. Naturally, most of the love is found in Pittsburgh. And most of the hate-r-ade is from fans of teams who have rookies like Alexander Ovechkin, who they feel is being overlooked. I can't imagine hating a player like Crosby. Or Ovechkin. Or Staal. Or any great talent.
Following up on your current mailbag in which Steve Skalka of Mich., complains about OLN's coverage, and Mark McKee of N.M. complains about having to buy Center Ice in order to see games.
Well, guess what -- in Australia, we will not see even one complete game this year. None. Zip. Nada. There are only two sports networks here, ESPN and Fox Sports. ESPN Australia won't be carrying any games because ESPN in the U.S won't. Every hockey fan I know has sent Fox Sports an e-mail, asking if they'll show any games this year, and the answer is always "no." There is no satellite package we can buy, no alternative cable provider who carries the right channel, nothing. All we have is SportsCenter, and while that's good, it's no substitute for watching a whole game.
I think anyone who complains about OLN's coverage, or the cost of Center Ice, should quit [complaining]. It could be worse.
Sadly, the NHL informed ESPN that we can't show in-progress highlights of NHL games. All this does, throughout the course of a long season, is take away hundreds of highlights off the biggest sports network in the world. How does this make ANY sense? TNT and the NBA lets ESPN (SportsCenter/ESPNEWS) show first-half NBA highlights. As the NHL tries to embed itself into the mind of sports fans again, it seems all of its decisions are counterproductive to that. Sports highlights are the best advertising for sports networks because they are repetitive and FREE.
I just wanted to let you know that the future of the NHL has yet to arrive. He's currently skating with the Minnesota Golden Gophers as a freshman, and believe me, Phil Kessel will be a better NHL player than Sid the Kid.
Phil Kessel was born 56 days after Sidney Crosby was in 1987, the year The Cure's "Kiss Me, Kiss Me, Kiss Me" album was released. As a 14-year-old, Kessel had 174-110--286 totals in 86 games with the Capitols Bantam AAA team in 2001-02. Kessel will become the first Wisconsin native to letter at the University of Minnesota this year since Kenneth Byerly in 1929-30.
In your most recent (at least that I saw) column, you said that you have no favorite team. Just curious, do you have hated teams? I truly feel, when reading your column, a bias against a few certain teams. Come clean, you have teams that you like a lot less than others, don't you?
As I've said before, announcers and referees don't care who wins the game. Hometown announcers do care, because the longer a team plays into the postseason, the more money they make. Most announcers are paid per game, and playoff games are bonuses.
The only show Fleury will make it to at this point, is The Surreal Life.
Do you think ESPN could find another use for the "Hockey Night" theme music? It was the best intro since the John Tesh "NBA on NBC" song, just perfect for their respective sports.
I know some of the great guys at the South Windsor Arena pro shop have the Hockey Night tune on their cell phones. Whenever they get a call, I have to excuse myself from the skate sharpening room, and weep.
John Buccigross' e-mail address -- for questions, comments or cross-checks -- is firstname.lastname@example.org.