For all that's holy in hockey ...

Do you believe in God?

Do you believe modern churches help that belief, or hurt it?

Do you believe in the NHL?

Do you believe modern hockey arenas help that belief, or hurt it?

Last week, within days, I went to an NHL arena and a house of worship, and neither place inspired me very much. Yes, I believe architecture matters. I believe presentation and form matter. Howard Roark matters. Michelangelo, the 15th century's Thom Filicia, matters. Tex Rickard matters.

When you are a paying customer, you expect some atmosphere. Plus, it's just good business. Whether you are St. Thomas the Apostle Catholic Church in Beloit, Wis., or the Pittsburgh Penguins, if the house atmosphere is a rockin', folks will come a knockin'. It's why people take pilgrimages to the Vatican, Fenway Park, Wrigley Field and Hammerstein Ballroom in New York City to see The Decemberists on Nov. 3 and Ben Folds on Nov. 19. We are human beings, and we react to our surroundings, especially intimate ones.

When I download my childhood images of the NHL and churches, they are primarily gothic. The pictures in my hockey books were of seemingly big, dimly lit, 15th-century-like cathedrals with helmet-less gladiators streaming blood, sweat and tears. The giant, bulky scoreboards with the analog clocks, for some reason, frightened me. Those scoreboards, hanging precariously like a baby grand piano above a city street, seemed implausible, and implausible things always scared me. It was all a perfect setting for a My Chemical Romance video on MTV2. Black-and-white pictures of Maple Leaf Gardens, the Forum or Boston Garden were part haunted house, part church.

A few weeks ago, I met up with Keith Jones and the publisher of his autobiography at the Sheraton in downtown Philadelphia. I got there early, and it was a perfect fall day, so I walked around the block. Whether it was luck, the grace of Ross Lonsberry or the spirit of Kate Smith, I found the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter (Peeters) and Paul (Holmgren) around the corner. I love big, old churches, and I always go inside to experience them wherever I am. Inside, I found hordes of Flyers fans praying for the spirit of Rick MacLeish to overtake the body of R.J. Umberger.

Construction of the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul was completed in 1864, and it's the largest Catholic church in Pennsylvania. When I walked into the grand structure on 18th Street and the Benjamin Franklin Parkway, I felt as if I was in Chicago Stadium. There was a hovering organ there to belt out inspirational melodies to get the congregation into a spirited mood, and wooden seats, mysterious ceilings and programs to help follow along with the passion play. As a kid, I always linked churches to hockey arenas. Both had me on edge, bombarding my senses with imagery and tone. Both put me in a mood, put me in a place that made the experience indelible, even if you weren't sure why. And when an experience is indelible, you take it with you. Forever and ever, amen. When it's not, you don't; you click on life's trash can icon and toss it aside.

As a child, the pictures in my hockey books did not look fun, but I could never turn away. Players were bloody. Eyes were on fire. Desperation and sacrifice were on every page. A picture of Flyers goalie Doug Favell -- on his side, lifting up his left pad with all his might, trying to protect the upper reaches of his net -- is still burned in my brain 25 years later. His life depended on making that save. Keith Magnuson, bare-fisted and bleeding, fighting for his livelihood, his city, his sweater, his family. Dave Keon, shaving the ice with a sudden stop. With humanness-to-the-core actions played in a house of worship that looked and felt like church, each page was mesmerizing.

Like those pictures in my hockey books looked, church was never Chuck E. Cheese's fun. As a kid, walking through those doors, the initial image was of a crucified man about the age of Gerry Cheevers, but in much better shape. (Although, what do you expect when a guy's nickname is "Cheesy"? I guess the only thing worse would be "Fried Cheesy.")

The walls of my church told the bloody story, with pictures, of how the man on the cross got there. The mood inside the building was serious and somber. There was a consistent hum of prayer and song with paperback missals. As with the inside of my rudimentary hockey books, desperation and sacrifice was on every page. The courage was mesmerizing.

As an adult, comparing a house of worship to a Devils-Flames game in Continental Airlines Arena is probably absurd. But, as a child, when the imagination skates on an ocean-size sheet of ice, there are no limits, and the two buildings will always be linked for me.

Churches and hockey often get a bad rap. Both have hundreds of movements that are difficult for some to follow and leave many uninterested. But if you strip down those movements and the hundreds of pages outlining both, you reach the childlike conclusion that I found in my hockey books and missals: In hockey, as in life, you will bleed. But if you sacrifice with passion, courage and vision, if you, very simply, just be a good teammate, you will come out on top. Even if you swear a little, or buy "Jackass" on pay-per-view. I was reminded of this belief this past week as I sat in what I felt were soulless pieces of architecture.

I just hope there is an owner or an architect out there who has the vision and the courage to build the NHL fan a "destination" once again, a hockey rink of worship that has the sightlines and camera angles of Boston Garden and the soul of Chicago Stadium. An arena every hockey fan just has to experience to bring back that loving feeling. I don't see why this can't be done, why an intimate hockey arena can't be built again with the purist in mind. Baseball did it, and it reinvigorated the game.

It appears Jim Balsillie, the Penguins' owner-in-waiting, will have the next shot at building that rink, whether it is in Pittsburgh or in Waterloo, Ontario. He'll have the chance to build an arena that gives me that same feeling I get when I walk into a place like the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul. A feeling of awe. A feeling of inspiration. A beautiful cathedral to extol the values of sacrifice, assists, teamwork and love. That arena has not yet been built, although a few are in the ballpark.

All we can do is hope Balsillie will have enough hockey heart and soul to build us, the fans, that destination building.

All we can do is hope. And pray.

From October through June, my nightly television viewing consists only of NHL hockey. If I'm going to write about the NHL, I should watch the games. I'd like to watch "Lost" and "Scrubs" reruns, and anything with William Shatner on occasion, but there isn't time.

My goal, between my job and the NHL Center Ice Package, is to watch more games than anyone else. Do I? I don't know, but I have to be in the top 10. The ink is still wet from the first month of the season. Here are 10 players that I've enjoyed watching and whose teams I'm drawn to on nights when there is too much to choose from.

1. Maxim Afinogenov: You could make the argument that the 27-year-old winger was the most exciting player in October. His sheer speed and agility have produced the most pleasing goals of the month. Since coming back from his concussion in 2002, he has gotten better every season. He could be a 40-65-105 player this season. He has that Buffalo Sabres virus of enjoying playing team hockey, of getting as much joy from setting up a goal as from scoring one.

2. Scott Niedermayer: This man is the best player in the NHL right now. He does more over a 200-by-85 area than anyone else in the league. Another factor is his under-the-radar nastiness down low. His competitiveness is underrated, as well. It doesn't take much to get him angry and I've always liked those kinds of players. Plus, he has a son named after me, another named after one of my sons, and another named after U2's best CD. Hat trick.

3. Evgeni Malkin: He couldn't be in a better place. He plays a lot because he's one of the best players on the team. He lives with a guy, Sergei Gonchar, who is making $4.5 million a year. He plays center, but his left winger takes all the faceoffs. And he plays in a division and conference that aren't very good. The NHL is set up again for the best players to be the best players no matter the age. Remember, Wayne Gretzky's best years were from 21 to 25. With No. 71 and No. 87 playing together, when the Penguins are on, you have to watch.

4. Sidney Crosby: He was my pick to win the scoring title, and I'll stand by that a month into the season. Not only do he and Malkin have impeccable vision and touch to make the right play at the right time at the right pace, but they are also finishers. Crosby has that ability to get a lot on his shot without much of a backswing. He has a shot at the Hart Trophy if the Penguins make the playoffs. Go ahead, Pittsburgh, it's OK to name Crosby the captain now. His fire is what can get you to the playoffs. It's definitely his team now.

5. Chris Drury: His goal-scoring shooting percentage is 33.3 percent. That's entering Ben Wallace free-throw percentage territory. I always wished the Hockey Gold would shoot more. He has a great shot. Ten goals on 30 shots. He continues to be a model hockey player. He is great on draws. He doesn't overstay his welcome on any of his shifts. He plays the penalty kill and power play with equal aplomb. When you look at him, you say, "That's how I want my son or daughter to play."

6. Brian Rolston: He is the best player on the Minnesota Wild roster. When the Bruins decided not to lock him up, it was another in a long line of crappy decisions made by the club. He can do just about everything. Why would you ever let a player like that get away? Rolston is making $2.4 million this year, and he'll probably score 43 goals. That, my friends, is value.

7. Mike Modano: It would be nice to see him get a 95-point season at age 36. Oh, yeah, that would be a career high. He is still the smoothest player in the NHL. He hasn't had much to work with in Dallas in recent years, but it seems as if the Stars are flowing together nicely this season. Michael still has a lot on his shoulders. He has to be Dallas' best player again. Dallas' best players are older players and that's not a good thing in the new NHL.

8. Ryan Smyth: Edmonton probably will make the playoffs because it might not lose a game on home ice. The passion of last spring's postseason run obviously has carried over to this season, and it is all led by Smyth. The Oilers will miss Chris Pronger desperately in those tough road games against teams with a big-time player, but it looks as though there is enough here to squeak into the playoffs. They'll need Smyth's leadership and good health to do it.

9. Ryan Miller: The more you watch Miller play, the more you can't imagine him not playing for a Stanley Cup this spring. He has skill, dexterity and calmness. That, not stats, is what wins Stanley Cups. He makes it look as if he's making all of these saves while lying in a hammock.

10. Eric Staal: There are thirty players who could go here, from Briere to Fleury to MacDonald to Shanahan to Ovechkin to Kovalchuk, but I'm going with Staal. His talent is still breathtaking. He reminds me of Modano, but in the end, Staal will have a better career. He has all the tools to dominate just about every game he plays. That's a great gift to have, and one that should be used to its fullest while you have it.


Rumor is that Stevie Y just made Chuck Norris cry. Oh, it's damn true!

Gary Ryder

When Stevie Y does a push-up, he isn't lifting himself up, he's pushing the Earth and Chuck Norris down.

Hey John,

I just finished reading your latest article and there is a message that must go to the e-mailer that wanted to trade Martin St. Louis. As a die-hard Bruins fan, I can assure them that trading your best player (Joe Thornton) does not spark the team. Even worse, trading your best forward is followed by trading your second-best forward (Sergei Samsonov), your best defenseman (Nick Boynton) and your best goalie (Andrew Raycroft) within a year. Even worse, St. Louis would then win the Hart Trophy again this season. I just think all NHL fans should be warned about wishing their best player out of town in a trade.


Oh, by the way, Martin St. Louis has a no-trade clause.


A couple of years ago on TV, you used a Nick Hexum analogy ("What Nick Hexum is to 311, Erik Cole is for the Hurricanes") that my friend asked you to use. He is still touting that as his claim to fame and connection with all things hockey. Can you post this in your column so I can knock him off his high horse a bit?

Greg Fisher

What Thomas DeLonge is to Box Car, Greg Fisher is to the e-mail bag.

Hi John,

What's the name/author of that backyard rink book you're always talking about?


"Home Ice" by Jack Falla. It should be read by every person who loves hockey, family or words. I received this e-mail from Jack a couple of weeks ago:

"Put up a few rink boards this week as I ready the Bacon Street Omni for Season No. 24. Got the big 25th in 07-08. Have to come up with a logo. Shoulder patches. A TV special. A legends game ... and mainly a corporate sponsor to pay for it all."

This is Year 6 for my backyard rink. I'm often asked about my rink. I buy my stuff from nicerink.com. They have everything you need to get started, and they are truly friends of the game.


The Buffalo Sabres are good this year. Scary good. But I will avert my eyes if they win the Cup. I can't watch someone hoist Lord Stanley's prize in that ridiculous sweater. I think they should be required to wear their throwback third jerseys for all playoff games.

Jeff Kukitz
State College, Pa.

I'm warming to the colors and the design, but I can't get past Barney Rubble's toupee on the front of the sweater.


I have played hockey for 20-plus years, from mites to high school and then into adult leagues (my college didn't have an ice hockey team). I have argued with friends of mine who played football all their lives that hockey players give and get harder hits than a football player. We are faster and have walls around our play area! So who do you think hits harder?

Go Sabres

You have to be brave to play both sports, but hockey players skate faster than football players run, ice is harder than grass and hockey players have boards while football players have sideline photographers. Advantage hockey.


I just had to respond to that letter from ex-hockey fan Mark. You said "the girl of your dreams would never take you away from hockey." Exactly.

Speaking from experience -- and my husband will vouch for this -- instead of taking you away from hockey, she'll get you Rangers tickets for Valentine's Day so you could see Gretzky play before he retired. She'll watch every game of the Stanley Cup playoffs (Bourque going for the Cup was a compelling story, especially living in Boston). She'll listen to you patiently, at midnight, when you get back from pickup hockey -- late because the kids get the better ice times, which is as it should be -- as you describe the sweet goal you got, low, stick side. She'll start ordering the NHL Center Ice package for you, watching all the games and understanding what offsides and backchecking are. And finally, she'll start playing the game herself -- goalie if you're really lucky -- so that you'll always have at least one net filled at your scrimmages. (Besides, what better marital therapy is there than firing slap shots at your wife?)


I just filed for divorce and am now hitchhiking to Minnesota.


How about this format: After two regular OT periods, play five minutes (or 10) of 4-on-4. If no score, then go to a shootout with five shooters instead of three. A 3-OT game is probably going to be decided on a fluky play anyway, so why not use the shootout? Remember, nothing good ever happens after 2 a.m., including GWGs.

Coppell, Texas


Please go see Scorsese's "The Departed." I know you don't talk movies, but the acting is as deep and talented as the '80s Oilers. A little comparison if you will:

Jack Nicholson = Wayne Gretzky (Legends)
Leonardo DiCaprio = Mark Messier (Soon-to-be-legends)
Matt Damon = Paul Coffey (Slick and effortless)
Mark Wahlberg = Esa Tikkanen (Spices up the game with words and actions)
Alec Baldwin = Craig MacTavish (Consummate veterans and much-needed comic relief)
Martin Sheen = Kevin Lowe (Classy good, in their own way)
Ray Winstone = Glenn Anderson (Unheralded, yet potent)
Martin Scorsese = Glen Sather (The Mastermind)

(P.S. -- Athlete is an amazingly talented band. So are The Weepies. I think you would like them both.)



As I watched Thomas Vanek slide the puck into an empty net the other night, my tired, yet hockey-aware mind couldn't help but wonder, what's the etiquette? Do you blast it home? Do you just slide it in? Do you flip it across and skate to the bench? I don't know about you, but I would love to tee it up two feet in front and slam the door on the game by burying the puck and leaving no doubt. But hey, I'm a bean-counter in Buffalo with a weak wrister, so what do I know? Help me, oh wise one.


As long as you don't 360 pirouette it in Ryan Shannon shootout style, you're OK, Mark. Do that and you'll be a human turnstile in the end boards. Scoring goals is hard. Scoring them is never looked on as piling on like in football. Just don't go Shakira after you score in a blowout.

One of my favorite sportsmanship stories is from Mike Cameron's four home run game for the Seattle Mariners. Cameron hit those four home runs in the first five innings, which means he had a chance to hit five, which no one has done. During one of those at-bats, he had a 3-0 count, the perfect count to hit No. 5 and make history. He was going to get a batting-practice fastball down the middle. He got that pitch, but took it. Why? The Mariners were blowing out the White Sox, and it would have been bad form to swing from the heels in a one-sided baseball game on a 3-0 pitch. Cameron has a soul. That kind of sportsmanship makes me emotional, and it is those subtle things in life that we should teach our children. If you are over the age of 12, don't celebrate goals in a one-sided game, whether you are winning or losing.


Quick question: Why can't the Columbus Blue Jackets play defense? The majority of the goals this year come from an untouched man in front of the net down low. Every game I always scream, yes, sometimes at the TV, "WHY IS THAT GUY STANDING ALONE AND UNTOUCHED IN FRONT OF THE NET!?" Why is this happening? How can they fix this?

Wishing for better in Columbus,
Matt McCall

Columbus has an interesting mix of forwards that will need some time to come together. They might have to deal one of those to get some help on the back end. They are not making the playoffs in the West with their current roster.


This will probably be the last time I'll ever be able to take part of the mailbag (I just got hired by ESPN), so I might as well make it count.

1. Buffalo's Jaroslav Spacek looks like Dan Aykroyd and sounds like Beldar Conehead. Aside from that, he has one of the deadliest slap shots around. How many times do you think he will "Narfle the Garthok" this year (Conehead-ian for goals scored)?

2. Who has the best Chicken Parm in the Hartford area?

3. In one word, how would you describe Barry's mullet?

A.J. Bloomquist
Rochester, N.Y., soon to be from Bristol, CT

• Alain Vigneault is also a finalist in the annual Dan Aykroyd look-alike contest. I always thought Doug Gilmour looked like Bob Geldof in a hockey helmet.

• Best Chicken Parm in the Hartford area? I like the Baked Chicken Parm Pasta at Ruby Tuesday. Hold the swiss.

• I need three: Fifty ... years ... old.

Hey John!

Last year, we had a guest priest say Mass at our church, and he just so happened to be a chaplain for the Chicago Bears. That got me wondering. Do you know if NHL hockey teams have team chaplains like the NFL does?

Kansas City

Hockey teams don't have team chaplains, they have team bartenders.


Who do you consider to be the best Swedish player to have played in the NHL?

Can't stop seeing Zdeno Chara when I hear The Automatic's song "Monster." "What's that coming over the hill? Is it a monster? Is it a monster?" Great band.

Lars Skagerlind
Umea (home of the twins Patrik and Peter Sundstrom), Sweden

Nicklas Lidstrom. He's a prince among scumbags. I put myself in the scumbag group.

But seriously, John,

Killers Shmillers. Here's a list of bands/records that will bump up your indie-cred status from bench-warmer to starter. You can trust me because I work in a snooty independent record store. Here they are in no particular order:

Pavement -- Wowee Zowee (It's slated for re-release on Nov. 7. Get psyched.)

Tapes 'N Tapes -- The Loon
Gang Of Four -- Entertainment!
Matthew Herbert – Scales
The Hold Steady -- Boys And Girls In America
Islands -- Return To The Sea
Minus The Bear -- Menos El Oso
Mylo -- Destroy Rock & Roll
Ted Leo and The Pharmacists -- Shake The Sheets
Ratatat -- Ratatat
The Thermals -- The Body, The Blood, The Machine

Any of these records will blow your mind. Each are an experience as thrilling as listening to Daryl Reaugh invent new words during a Stars broadcast.


Hi John,

As an Atlanta Thrashers fan, I have been impressed with the effort of the entire team, and in particular, Ilya Kovalchuk. Do you think he has turned the corner in becoming more than the most dangerous sniper in the NHL? Also, we are expecting our first son in February. Your naming prowess is being called upon by me and my wife. Go Thrashers!

Eric Stifter
Acworth, Ga.

I always thought Ilya was the most dangerous sniper. but I wished he cared how much his teammates thought of him the way Alexander Ovechkin does.

You have to name your child Steve Stifter. You have no choice. Steven Seann Stifter.

Hockey Fact: Top Nine Active Stanley Cup Droughts:

1961 (44 seasons) -- Chicago Blackhawks
1967 (38 seasons) -- Toronto Maple Leafs
*1967 (38 seasons) -- Los Angeles Kings
*1967 (38 seasons) -- St. Louis Blues
*1970 (35 seasons) -- Buffalo Sabres
*1970 (35 seasons) -- Vancouver Canucks
1972 (33 seasons) -- Boston Bruins
*1974 (31 seasons) -- Washington Capitals

1975 (30 seasons) -- Philadelphia Flyers

(* -- have never won the Stanley Cup)

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