Red, white and Pleau
USA Hockey tabs two trusty NHL GMs to lead Team USA in 2004
Larry Pleau and Don Waddell played 2,646 fewer NHL games than Wayne Gretzky and Kevin Lowe. Not that anyone's counting.
But the newly appointed Team USA brass doesn't have to bow to its Canadian counterparts when it comes to international experience.
On Wednesday, USA Hockey selected Blues general manager Pleau to run the 2004 U.S. teams which will compete at the IIHF World Championships from April 24-May 9 in Ostrava and Prague, Czech Republic, but more importantly, in September's World Cup. Thrashers general manager Waddell will serve as Pleau's assistant.
Pleau and Waddell may have been the safe, expected choices, but USA Hockey kept its search process tight-lipped, not even contacting Pleau to gauge his interest until one week before announcing their choices. They will be replacing 1996 World Cup GM Lou Lamoriello, who is too busy with his dual role with the Devils and Nets to take part again in next year's tournament.
"It's a great tournament," Pleau said. "It's a world event in hockey and I'm looking forward to the challenge. Lou Lamoriello and his staff did a great job, so we have a lot to live up to."
Pleau and Waddell have known each other for 14 years, since Pleau was the assistant general manager of the New York Rangers and Waddell was running the Flint Generals of the IHL, the Rangers' top farm club. Both have exceptional experience on the international level and deep roots in the USA Hockey system.
Pleau wore the red, white and blue at the 1968 Olympics in Grenoble, France as well as at the 1969 IIHF World Championships. He later played on the 1976 U.S. team at the Canada Cup, assisted on the 1989 national team staff and was the associate general manager for Team USA at the 2002 Salt Lake Games.
Pleau was inducted into the U.S. Hockey Hall of Fame in 2000 and was selected as one of the 2002 Lester Patrick Award winners for helping build hockey in America.
Waddell played for the U.S. in the first World Junior Championships in 1977 and also returned a year later in 1978, when a 17-year-old Brantford, Ontario, native not yet known as The Great One scored 17 points in six games for Canada and was named the tournament's top forward. But Waddell's biggest involvement with Team USA is actually something that didn't come to fruition.
He was the last player cut from the 1980 Olympic team, with only an injury preventing him making Herb Brooks' Miracle on Ice squad. The self-deprecating and wry Waddell likes to joke that it's a good thing he didn't make the team, because he probably would've screwed something up to cost the U.S. the gold medal. More recently, Waddell served as the assistant general manager for the World Championships in 1999, and then as the GM in 2001 and 2002. Their combined management experience makes up for the big advantage the Canadian brass had in their on-ice careers.
One change they hope to effect is to gain greater support from American players for the World Championships, an event that has languished in popularity for North Americans due to the fact that it's held during the Stanley Cup playoffs. Making the 2004 World Championships even more crucial is the fact that the top eight nations in the world rankings following that tournament will automatically qualify for the 2006 Olympics in Torino, Italy. The U.S. is currently ranked only seventh, mostly due to mediocre recent finishes with undermanned teams at previous World Championships.
"The World Championships is important for us," Pleau said. "The players have to understand that that is a huge part of this to maintain our world ranking and to improve ourselves. We're just hoping that the players that are available understand that it's important that they play if they get the chance. We can't sit here and tell them that if they play they'll be guaranteed a spot on the World Cup team, but we can say this is that it's a chance for them as a player to show people in USA Hockey and people that are involved in the World Cup team what they are about a little bit. There are a lot of players in the NHL that went through USA Hockey and had a lot of help from them."
Securing a commitment from players on teams that don't make the playoffs will be the key task for Pleau and Waddell this spring. Like Gretzky and Lowe among the Canadian players, the Team USA brass is hoping that stressing the importance of going to the Czech Republic in April will help build that tournament up in North American, and in turn aid in promoting the more visible World Cup four months later.
And if tough decisions need to be made between a player who bothered to go over to the Czech Republic and one who didn't, the player who made the trip to Europe for the World Championships would have a decided advantage when the final World Cup squad is selected.
"We're hoping that there are some guys that maybe we on the fence who didn't go to the World Championships will go now," Waddell said Wednesday after the first period of the Thrashers' 5-4 overtime win against the Bruins. "We're trying to get their A game for the World Cup. And particularly if we end up with the same coach for both tournaments then I think it would be ultimately important for all of the players who are available to go."
Pleau and Waddell will work with USA Hockey senior director of international administration Art Berglund and senior director of hockey operations Jim Johannson to put the team and coaching staff together, but Pleau will have the final say on all personnel matters. The four men plan to meet within the next couple of weeks to begin sketching out an initial list of coaching and roster candidates.
Possible coaches for Team USA include John Tortorella, Ron Wilson, Tony Granato, Mike Sullivan and Ed Olczyk. But when I asked Waddell on Wednesday if he might give his old buddy Scotty Bowman a call, he smiled and said "You never want to count anything out, so you at least have discussions." When asked about Bowman on Thursday, Pleau said "My mind is open for any coach. I think you have to look at all situations."
The amount of turnover from the 2002 silver-medal winning Olympic team won't be that great, but the U.S. is likely to have an old team for the World Cup. And the 2006 Olympic team (if the NHL lets it's players participate for the third consecutive Winter Olympiad) would look vastly different than the 2004 World Cup team.
In a perfect world, the U.S. would select a young, up-and-coming coach like Granato (39), Sullivan (35) or Olczyk (37) who could remain a viable bench boss candidate for the Olympics and World Cups for years to come. But the impressive job done by the 45-year-old Tortorella with the Tampa Bay Lightning probably makes him the favorite at this point.
It wouldn't be at all surprising to see Team USA veterans like Pat LaFontaine, Mike Richter and Gary Suter show up working with the team in some capacity, if only as team liaisons. Richter was the MVP of the '96 World Cup, so bringing him back would be a natural link to the last time the tournament was played.
The final key issue facing the Team USA brass is the attempt by all parties to move back the initial deadline of Feb. 1 to name 18 players for the World Cup roster. It is likely that the date will be pushed back until at least April or May (perhaps shortly after the World Championships), though even later than that would be preferable.
"I don't see that there's any need to do it in February," Pleau said. "You could do it in June -- what's the difference? Let the NHL get the Stanley Cup out of the way. Why do we want to announce it during the Stanley Cup? It can hold its own at the right time. Even at the draft."
"It's to everybody's advantage if we could just wait until the playoffs are over or mostly over," Waddell said. "That way you don't want to affect any player's ability with their team right now either positively or negatively. If the players could finish the year out and then we could pick the team that would be ideal."
American hockey fans are just hoping that Pleau and Waddell turn out to be the ideal men for the job so that a repeat of the red, white and blue's World Cup title from 1996 is in the cards 10 months from now.
Heritage Classic not on regular cable TV in the U.S.
The Heritage Classic won't be available on television in the United States unless you have the NHL Center Ice package through your digital cable system or satellite dish. But it's through no fault of the NHL or ESPN, who both tried to air it in the U.S.
"By the time it was finalized, ESPN was already locked into their football schedule and had contracts and commitments they couldn't get out of," NHL group vice president of communications Bernadette Mansur said. "Possibly if we moved the game back a week or up a week, it would've happened. But that wasn't a consideration because of the temperature in Edmonton. It makes a huge difference from the 22nd to the 29nd, and as it is, it's already pretty cold. But our DirecTV subscribers will be very happy people on Saturday."
ESPN Classic will show both The MegaStars Game and the Heritage Classic on Saturday, Nov. 29. NHL.com will also be streaming the game on Sunday. Neither of which is much consolation to folks in the U.S. who don't have the $159 to plunk down for the Center Ice package but still want to see the game live.
"We couldn't do it on this date because of our prior commitments to college football," ESPN spokesperson Michael Humes said. "It wasn't like we chose between the two. The college football game was scheduled months in advance before this date came up in conversation."
"ESPN really tried hard to make it happen," NHL2Night anchor John Buccigross said. "We actually were thinking about maybe doing our own game in Michigan like they did two years ago with Michigan and Michigan State. But I guess Edmonton had asked first, so they didn't want to undermine their process. And we have such a big college football lineup. We asked them to move [the date for the Heritage Classic], but it's hard for them to move it because of the weather up there. But I'm surprised that no one else picked it up -- like the YES Network or somebody like that -- because I'm sure it would get a good number."
Assuming Saturday's game is a rousing success, the league is likely to make an outdoor game a yearly occurrence. The logical scenario would be to alternate sites between the U.S. and Canada to expose the excitement of this big event to as many of the Northernmost cities around the league as possible. The amount of planning for this event has been incredible, so the NHL will likely get an earlier jump on it if they decide to try it again next season.
Minnesota and Michigan are two of the sites most prominently mentioned because of their strong youth hockey programs, but the football stadiums in both the Twin Cities and Detroit are indoors. Certainly in Michigan, they could opt to play at either Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor or Spartan Stadium in East Lansing, but the Twin Cities doesn't have a lot of other viable options. Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, Mass., would be another prime possibility, since a good percentage of U.S.-born players hail from New England. But Buccigross lists an impressive suggestion that would allow the NHL brass to walk down the street from the league offices in Manhattan.
"Having one in Central Park with the Rangers would be pretty cool, too," Buccigross said. "I think the league realizes that it's a great, really unique way for them to get attention for the sport. I'm sure they will explore it more in the future."
Bruins' goalie platoon surprisingly successful
Normally teams platoon their goaltenders because they don't have one that stands out. But the Boston Bruins have two No. 1s, not two No. 2s, yet they continue to alternate Felix Potvin and Andrew Raycroft.
"They are both playing great and we have confidence in both of them," Bruins right winger Glen Murray said. "I'm not sure what they have planned for them, but they have a great relationship. Rayzor idolizes Felix from his years in Toronto and I think it's a great relationship between them."
The Bruins had Steve Shields penciled in as the starter as the preseason approached, but they inked free agent Potvin on Sept. 3 and traded Shields to the Panthers. After three years in the AHL, Raycroft was clearly ready for a regular shot at the NHL and Boston was more than happy to move the ordinary Shields once it had a more capable veteran in Potvin to share time with Raycroft.
"They've both been great," Bruins defenseman Jeff Jillson said. "Both goalies have been unbelievable. You can't say enough about them because they make my job a lot easier. When you have two guys that are playing like they are playing it doesn't matter. Our team has the utmost confident when either Raycroft or Felix are in there."
The goalies seem to be treating the situation with respect rather than the disdain most netminders have for a platoon. That may stem from the fact that Raycroft grew up in Belleville, Ontario, and was an impressionable 13-year-old when 21-year-old rookie Potvin took the Leafs to within one game of the 1993 Stanley Cup finals.
"I think the main thing is we are pretty similar personality-wise off the ice," Raycroft told the Boston Globe recently. "We're both pretty low key. We don't get to high or too low at any point at all. We like coming to the rink and having fun. It's easy to come in and talk to him and see what's going on. He talks about kids. He tells me what's going on. It's just a real easy relationship."
Bruins rookie head coach Mike Sullivan has stuck to his rotation diligently, even though Raycroft has put up the better numbers. Raycroft is 7-2-1 with a 1.80 goals-against average and a .936 save percentage, while Potvin is 4-3-2 with a 2.47 GAA and a .907 save percentage. The platoon situation seems to be sitting well with the veteran netminder who has played more than 65 games five times in his 12-year career.
"I like playing a lot," Potvin told the Globe. "But this is a situation where Andrew is playing tremendously well and I just look at it as a bonus. It's early in the season. We both play well. We get wins and that's all that matters. We'll see what happens in the future, but right now it's working."
After rolling through Byron Dafoe, John Grahame, Jeff Hackett, Raycroft, Shields, Peter Skudra, Tim Thomas and Kay Whitmore in the previous three seasons, the Bruins are just glad to have it narrowed down to two guys they can trust.
Rocky Mountain robbery
Pierre Lacroix did it again. The NHL's best snake charmer appears to have swindled Capitals general manager George McPhee in the Steve Konowalchuk-Bates Battaglia deal from Oct. 22.
While Battaglia is scoreless in 13 games in Washington and has a minus-8 rating, Konowalchuk has eight goals and a plus-1 in 14 games since coming to Colorado. The Avs also gave up the rights to prospect Jonas Johansson (14 points in 24 games with the Kamloops Blazers of the WHL), but got a valuable third-round pick in return for the former Caps captain.
Kono was brought in by Lacroix to be a solid locker room presence and add some toughness to the notoriously soft Avs. But no one expected him to be scoring at a Milan Hejduk-like pace. Konowalchuk's goals per game since coming to Colorado (.571) barely trails that of Hejduk (.579), the reigning Rocket Richard Trophy winner.
The 31-year-old left winger scored 15 goals last season, but only passed the 20-goal mark twice in his 11 seasons with the Capitals. As the go-to-net grinder Colorado has lacked so badly since Adam Deadmarsh went to Los Angeles in the Rob Blake deal, Konowalchuk could potentially challenge his career high of 24 goals.
Thanks to another Lacroix special, the Avs may finally have the power forward they have needed to help take pressure off their high-priced scorers in the postseason.
Tickets went on sale Friday for the 2004 World Cup games in Montreal, St. Paul, Minn., and Toronto. They are already on sale for the European bracket games in Stockholm and Cologne, Germany, while the Helsinki and Prague venues will begin selling tickets early in 2004. All ticketing information can be found at http://www.wch2004.com/. ... CBC will broadcast Saturday's Heritage Classic on Hockey Night in Canada in its first high-definition broadcast. ... The players and coaches involved in the Heritage Classic have a combined 129 Stanley Cup championships. ... Scott Stevens will pass Larry Murphy for first place on the all-time games played list for defensemen at 1,616 when the Devils meet the Mighty Ducks on Wednesday. Stevens will then trail only Gordie Howe (1,767), Mark Messier (1,697) and Ron Francis (1,668) overall in league history. ... Brett Hull is just seven goals behind Marcel Dionne (731) for third place all-time. ... Dionne (1,771) is also likely to soon be passed on the points list for fourth place by Francis (1,764), who is just seven behind. ... Ed Belfour needs one victory to tie Glenn Hall (407) for fifth place all-time. ... The Flyers are 8-0-2 at home this season, their second-best home unbeaten streak to start a season -- in 1979-80 they opened 19-0-7 in their first 26 games at the Spectrum. ... Thrashers center Marc Savard is back skating, just 2 1/2 weeks after surgery that was expected to keep him out for up to 10 weeks. Savard is hopeful of a return within the next week, though Atlanta team doctors haven't cleared him for contact yet. ... The Avalanche are 7-0-1-1 in their past nine games, even though Peter Forsberg has missed seven of those. ... The Canucks' blue line has an NHL-best 18 goals and 33 points, led by Ed Jovanovski's five goals and nine assists. ... The Flyers' top line of Tony Amonte, Mark Recchi, and Jeremy Roenick has 51 points in their 15 games together. ... Former SI.com staffer Jamie MacDonald (now with USA Hockey) informs us that their "Relax, It's Just A Game" campaign to get hockey parents to chill out at their children's games has its own Web site up. From there, you can view the public service announcements, as well as order the videos and read more about USA Hockey's efforts to educate overzealous parents about the dangers of losing their temper at youth hockey games.
Jarome Iginla's name continues to be linked to the Devils, who would be scary if they could add a power forward of his magnitude. ... The Maple Leafs and Mighty Ducks are talking about a deal that would send Darcy Tucker to the defending Western Conference champions, with defenseman Vitaly Vishnevski heading to Toronto to add depth to the Leafs' blue line. ... Andy McDonald's impressive play since returning from a long battle with post-concussion syndrome has made it possible that he could be thrown into a package for the Ducks to acquire holdout Oilers center Mike Comrie. ... The Kings and Rangers have reportedly joined the Red Wings as teams interested in acquiring Martin Straka from the Penguins. ... Radek Bonk and Petr Schastlivy are being mentioned as the Senators most likely to leave town in the wake of the team's sluggish start. ... Ty Conklin's solid play as a fill-in could make Tommy Salo expendable, but who would want a $3.9 million netminder with a 3.42 goals-against average and a .866 save percentage? ... The Coyotes have been scouting the Senators lately, with the target of their interest believed to be veteran blueliner Curtis Leschyshyn.
Minnesota native John Rosengren grew up a fan of high school hockey, which is nearly unavoidable in the Land of 10,000 Lakes. While watching the 1997 state tournament on television, Rosengren decided it would make an interesting subject for his next book. He was granted unlimited access to the Bloomington Jefferson Jaguars for the 2000-01 season, getting the chance to follow legendary head coach Tom Saterdalen and his players as they pursued their sixth state title in 21 seasons. That turned into Blades of Glory, Rosengren's fantastic new book about the Jaguars' pressure to uphold the school's impressive legacy on ice.
Jefferson is a hockey factory in suburban south Minneapolis that is the alma mater of SI columnist Steve Rushin. The school has produced notable hockey alumni like Islanders right wing Mark Parrish, Penguins minor league center Toby Petersen, 1984 Hobey Baker Award winner and 10-year NHL veteran Tom Kurvers, two-time Hobey finalist and NHL washout Mike Crowley and Wisconsin sophomore and Avs 2002 fourth-round pick Tom Gilbert.
Rosengren is a veteran freelance journalist who has written for Sports Illustrated, Reader's Digest, Men's Health and numerous other publications. But the opportunity to pen a book about the greatest love of his home-state residents is clearly in his wheelhouse, as his passion and love for the sport of hockey jumps off every page.
Blades of Glory goes beyond just the hockey played by the Jefferson Jaguars and delves into their personal lives and family issues. While the story of goaltender Timm Lorenz and his mother moving to Minnesota from Colorado after his father's death is touching, most of the other family stories are only mildly interesting. But the hockey action is engrossing and Rosengren's impressive narrative brings out emotions that any former high school athlete is sure to recall.
While Rosengren's book is entertaining, it's tough to compare it to a classic like Friday Night Lights, H.G. Bissinger's 1990 book about Odessa (Texas) Permian High School's football team was named the fourth-best sports book of all-time by SI last December. Rosengren's subject matter of Minnesota high school hockey is much more limited in its appeal to the masses than Texas high school football. But Blades of Glory is a breezy and enjoyable read for hockey fans, and it would be especially enjoyable for high school hockey players and parents who are likely to relate to the pressures and drama of balancing school work, dating and high-level athletics.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for SI.com.