Missing in action
Exciting forwards Datsyuk, Nash nowhere to be found on All-Star ballot
Posted: Saturday December 20, 2003 11:03AM; Updated: Saturday December 20, 2003 6:15PM
Fans in New Jersey and Vancouver are stuffing the ballot boxes in the hopes of having their teams well represented at the NHL All-Star Game. Martin Brodeur, Scott Stevens and Scott Niedermayer are all in good position to start for the East, while Todd Bertuzzi, Markus Naslund and Ed Jovanovski are among the leaders in the West.
Bertuzzi leads all Western Conference players with 63,560 votes, while Naslund (51,124) trails only his Vancouver linemate Bertuzzi among West wingers. Jovanovski (51,824) is running second to Colorado's Rob Blake (57,370) among Western defensemen, but three-time Norris Trophy winner Nicklas Lidstrom is breathing down Jovo's neck for second place, just 291 votes back at 51,533.
Brodeur's 76,032 votes are the most in the NHL, bettering Atlanta's Ilya Kovalchuk, who looks like a lock to be a starter with his 75,307 votes well ahead of second-place Martin St. Louis of Tampa Bay (39,694 ) and third-place Marian Hossa of Ottawa (38,359). Stevens (64,335) and Scott Niedermayer (57,531) have a big lead on Brian Leetch of the New York Rangers, who is third with 39,228.
But the NHL's top two goal scorers, Columbus' Rick Nash and Detroit's Pavel Datsyuk, are nowhere to be found because they weren't even on the ballot. Nineteen-year-old sensation Nash tallied his league-leading 20th of the season on Friday to break his tie with Datsyuk atop the scoring ledger.
Among Western Conference wingers, Nash has more goals than Jere Lehtinen (two in 17 games), Paul Kariya (three in seven games), Marian Gaborik (three in 21 games), Geoff Sanderson (four in 29 games) and Eric Daze (none in three) combined.
And Datsyuk alone has matched the performance of the bottom five pivots in the West voting, with his 40 points equaling the point output of Jason Allison (yet to play this season), Vincent Damphousse (17 in 32 games), Alexei Zhamnov (none in three games), Mike York (23 in 32 games) and Mike Comrie (yet to play this season).
Also missing from the ballot are goaltenders David Aebischer, Miikka Kiprusoff, Pasi Nurminen and Vesa Toskala, making it apparent that the NHL has something against Swiss and Finnish goalies. All of these players are in the running to be added as reserves by the league, but exciting young future stars like these should've been on the ballot in the first place.
Nurminen beat out Byron Dafoe for the Thrashers' starting job late in training camp, which made it hard for the league to know which of the two would be Atlanta's No. 1 goalie. And Kiprusoff and Toskala's exclusions are understandable because they started the season behind Evgeni Nabokov on the Sharks' depth chart.
But a more fluid and changeable ballot would allow emerging stars like this to be included in the fun. It may be too much to ask that paper ballots at arenas be done away with, but Internet voting is clearly the wave of the future, and the online ballots could be changed as injuries or performances dictate.
As I've said before, the NHL should extend voting past the current Dec. 31 deadline, since it's foolish to have the starters decided five weeks before the actual event. A deadline of two weeks before the All-Star Game would be much better, as many people probably have forgotten whom they voted for by the time the game rolls around. Presently, voting starts on Nov. 1. Changing the voting dates to Nov. 15 until Jan. 25 would allow surprising players like Kiprusoff and Toskala to appear on the ballot, as well as generating more overall votes by giving fans an extra 10 days to cast their ballots.
Among the other shams in the balloting are the fact that Mike Modano (who is having a terrible year) and Peter Forsberg (who has been injured for much of the season) are well ahead of Joe Sakic, Brendan Morrison and Pavol Demitra in the voting among Western Conference center. Sakic, Morrison and Demitra are all having All-Star seasons, while Modano and Forsberg clearly are not. If he'd been healthy for more than 11 games, Forsberg probably would've been an All Star, but not even his 19 points in 11 games are enough to get him in when he has missed nearly two-thirds of Colorado's game.
The inclusion of injured players (Allison and Dany Heatley) and holdouts (Comrie) is foolish, too. It's nice to vote for your favorite players, but if they aren't going to be able to play in the game or aren't deserving to be there, put your loyalty aside and cast a vote for someone who is deserving. Now, it's not too often that the defending Hart Trophy winner (Forsberg) and defending All-Star Game MVP (Heatley) will both be absent from the midseason classic just one year later, but Foppa's injuries have limited him to 11 games and Heatley hasn't even begun skating yet in his comeback from knee surgery.
In the week between Christmas and New Year's, we'll have a special All-Star balloting edition of Inside the NHL for those of you who want to beat the Dec. 31 deadline to cast your vote.
As old Joe Kennedy used to tell his buddies in Chicago, vote early and vote often. Just be sure to please vote sensibly.
Tough time for the alums
The NHL Alumni Association has been hit hard over the past 10 days by the deaths of past chairmen Keith McCreary and Keith Magnuson, as well as by executive committee member Rob Ramage's involvement in the car accident that claimed Magnuson's life. Ramage and Magnuson were returning from McCreary's funeral on Monday when the rental car Ramage was driving crashed in a northern Toronto suburb. Ramage suffered a broken leg and was charged with impaired driving and dangerous driving, charges for which he could face life in prison.
"It was a devastating day," current NHL Alumni Association president Brian Conacher told the Toronto Sun on Tuesday. "In a period of hours, our chairman [McCreary] was buried, our past president [Magnuson] was killed and our vice chairman [Ramage] badly injured. It couldn't get worse."
I had the pleasure of hearing Magnuson and McCreary speak at the NHL Alumni Awards dinner at the Diplomat Country Club in Hallandale Beach, Fla., on Jan. 31 as part of the 2003 All-Star weekend festivities. I was seated at a table with ex-NHL players Darryl Sittler, Dave Schultz, Ray Sheppard and legendary CBC broadcaster Brian MacFarlane for the dinner and banquet to honor several local and national charities toward which the NHL Alumni had pledged significant amounts of money.
The conversation at our table was enjoyable, as the former players bantered back and forth about the good old days. But the jokes and yarns from the stage were just as much fun, with host Alan Thicke and co-emcees Magnuson and McCreary presenting the numerous honorees and telling humorous stories. My experience with the two Keiths was but a small part of the goodwill they imparted to countless former players over the years, but it was clear that their dedication to serving the NHL Alumni was sincere, and it was also obviously appreciated by the other former players in attendance.
The Blackhawks will honor Magnuson before Sunday's game against the Devils with a three-minute video tribute. Chicago hasn't announced yet if it will retire the No. 3 sweater of Magnuson, the team's all-time penalty minutes leader. Several current Blackhawks, Hall of Famer Stan Mikita and Blackhawk Alumni Association representative Jack Fitzsimmons will serve as pallbearers at Saturday's funeral in suburban Lake Forest, Ill.
Conacher and the remaining board members (Andy Bathgate, Pat Flatley, Mike Gartner, Rejean Houle, Steve Larmer, Colin Patterson, Mike Pelyk, Larry Playfair and Gerry Sillers) will have a tough task in carrying on the work of Magnuson, McCreary and Ramage, all of whom were deeply committed to this under appreciated cause. Several of the former players mentioned that they don't think today's players will be as committed to such an organization because of the huge amount of money they are likely to make over their careers, so let's hope that the NHLPA will stress the importance of supporting this valuable, worthwhile organization to current players.
The American Hockey League has long served as the NHL's guinea pig, testing out possible rule changes while the big boys observe to see if it will result in a positive difference. And the AHL is going to conduct a limited test over the next five weeks involving wider lines which enlarge the neutral zone. The blue lines will be extended by 2 feet at the leading edge of the attacking zone, creating 4 more feet of space in the neutral zone, while the center red line will also be widened by two feet, creating more opportunity for passes up the middle that will result in fewer two-line offside calls.
"With all 30 NHL teams developing their prospects in our league, the AHL provides an ideal opportunity to evaluate these potential changes," AHL president and CEO David Andrews said. "We remain committed to assisting the NHL with the growth and development of our sport, and we are confident that this test schedule will allow for a fair assessment of the proposal without compromising the competitive balance of the AHL."
The test will be limited to eight games among four teams -- the St. John's Maple Leafs, the Hamilton Bulldogs, the Manitoba Moose and the Toronto Roadrunners -- and will take place between Dec. 27 and Jan. 24, with two of the games occurring in each of the four cities.
"The trap takes away your speed though the neutral zone," NHL vice president of hockey operations Mike Murphy told the Toronto Sun. "If we can increase the neutral zone, it allows players a better opportunity to generate speed. If we can make the rink bigger without removing seats, I think that's great."
Trapping coaches like Jacques Lemaire, Pat Burns, Mike Babcock and Jacques Martin may not agree, but the wider lines could be a simple solution to help add excitement and scoring to what is becoming an increasingly tough product to sell.
With one of the most boneheaded ideas in recent memory, Brandon, Manitoba native Darryl Wolski plans to select 64 goons to duke it out for a pay-per-view Battle of the Hockey Gladiators over Labor Day weekend in 2004.
Former NHLers Tony Twist and Kurt Walker are among those already committed to the barbaric event, which will feature players dressed in full uniforms punching it out on the ice for $50,000. Wolski had already received 20 applications on Tuesday from pugilists who were willing to fork over the $250 entry fee, and he hopes to get Enrico Ciccone and several players from Quebec's notoriously rough minor-pro league.
"The only people we're going to accept are people who have played or are playing hockey," Wolski told The Canadian Press. "We won't take street thugs."
Wolski hopes to have his plans finalized by Feb. 1, though a venue has yet to be secured. Ralph Engelstad Arena in Grand Forks, N.D. turned Wolski away, so now he is talking about trying to hold it at a Connecticut casino, Ricoh Coliseum in Toronto or at the MetroCenter in Halifax, Nova Scotia.
I've come out several times in support of fighting within the context of the game, and in fact, I love a good brawl when it's called for. But here's hoping this asinine project falls flatter than the bridge of Twist's often-punched nose.
Friday is the 86th anniversary of competition in the NHL, as the Montreal Canadiens beat the Ottawa Senators 7-4 and the Montreal Wanderers topped the Toronto Arenas 10-9 in the first regular-season games played in NHL history on that date in 1917. ... The NHL's holiday roster freeze began Friday at midnight and will last through 11:59 p.m. local time on Dec. 27. During that nine-day stretch, no players can be waived or traded, though teams can recall players from the minor leagues to fill roster sports for injuries. ... The Flyers have dropped three in a row at home after starting the season with a 14-game unbeaten streak at Wachovia Center. ... Tony Granato celebrated his one-year anniversary as the Avs' head coach on Thursday. He has posted a 48-19-9-5 regular-season record since taking over for Bob Hartley. ... The Flyers have fallen behind 1-0 in their past 11 games, but are a surprising 4-2-3-2 even with the early deficit. ... Roberto Luongo has faced an NHL-high 919 shots, approximately 16 percent more than second-place Pasi Nurminen's 792. ... With eight shutouts already, Martin Brodeur could challenge George Hainsworth's single-season record of 22 set in 1928-29 -- or at the very least, the post-expansion record of 15 by Tony Esposito in 1969-70. ... Among players 24 or younger, Sharks center Patrick Marleau trails only Joe Thornton and Marian Hossa in career points. ... Sheldon Souray's previous single-season high was three goals, but the Habs' blueliner has 11 goals already this season. ... The Flames are 12-2-1-1 when scoring first. ... Ottawa's Jacques Martin coaches the 800th game of his career on Thursday, improving to 377-309-112 with the Sens' 6-1 win over the Blackhawks. ... Avalanche defenseman Karlis Skrastins will play in his NHL-leading 300th consecutive games on Friday at Anaheim, while Canucks center Brendan Morrison will hit the same milestone on Monday against the Kings. ... Tony Amonte's goal on Thursday was the 382nd of his career, good enough for him to pass Reggie Leach for 84th on the all-time goals list. ... The Ontario Hockey League's Owen Sound Attack will retire Dan Snyder's No. 14 on Friday, with Snyder's family, Thrashers general manager Don Waddell and OHL commissioner Dave Branch all in attendance.
The Panthers are shopping left wing Kristian Huselius, who was previously thought to be a favorite of head coach/GM Rick Dudley. Former bench boss Mike Keenan made Huselius one of his whipping boys, but even with Keenan gone, Huselius has been a regular member of Dudley's dog house, including being a healthy scratch in three of Florida's past six games. ... It's looking more like Dudley will remain behind the Panthers' bench for the duration of the 2003-04 season, and then chose from a list including Craig Ramsey, Larry Robinson and John Paddock in the offseason. ... Georges Laraque has fallen out of favor of Edmonton, and the Oilers would love to move the tough guy and his $1.2 million salary. ... The Sabres claim they aren't actively shopping Miroslav Satan, but they'd be happy to move the disappointing winger who hasn't been the same since Buffalo took away from C from him at the beginning of November as part of their plan to rotate the team captaincy. ... The Senators are reportedly interested in Stars winger Brenden Morrow, but Morrow has a no-trade clause and Ottawa GM John Muckler will probably be reluctant to meet Dallas' high asking price for the popular winger. ... The Coyotes would love to dump perennial underachiever Brian Savage, but his $4 million salary will turn off most teams. ... Espen Knutsen's NHL career appears to be over after the Blue Jackets bought out his contract on Tuesday. Knutsen's never recovered emotionally following Brittanie Cecil's death, as the shot that killed the 13-year-old came off Knutsen's stick. ... Bruins checking winger Rob Zamuner has cleared waivers and will either be sent to AHL Providence or bought out.
If there was a Hall of Fame for sportswriters, George Plimpton would undoubtedly be enshrined in it. His work as a participatory journalist in football, baseball, hockey, golf and boxing resulted in some of the best-known sports books of the past 50 years. The Harvard-educated Plimpton passed away on Sept. 25, shortly before The Lyons Press re-released his celebrated catalog of sports books this fall in conjunction of the 40th anniversary of Paper Lion, Plimpton's tale of playing one series at quarterback for the Detroit Lions in a 1963 intrasquad scrimmage. SI named Paper Lion one of the top 10 sports books, but his hockey book, Open Net, is nearly as good.
Open Net resulted from Plimpton joining colorful head coach Don Cherry and the Boston Bruins as a goaltender for training camp in 1977 in the small town of Fitchburg, Mass., about 50 miles northwest of Boston. Plimpton recounts humorous tales of learning hockey lingo and strategy from his roommate, Jim "Seaweed" Pettie, who played in just 21 games over three seasons with the Bruins. Seaweed was buried behind Gerry Cheevers, Gilles Gilbert, Ron Grahame and Dave Parro on the Bruins' depth chart, so he had plenty of time to commiserate with Plimpton and teach him the finer points of the game.
One of the highlights of Open Net is the numerous talks Plimpton and Cherry had about Cherry's longtime coach with the Springfield Indians, Hall of Famer Eddie Shore. Cherry's hatred of the caustic and petty Shore goes a long way to explain his laissez faire attitude as a head coach, born out of a desire to make hockey fun for his players, unlike the chore that it was playing for a throwback tough guy like Shore.
The brilliant book ends with Plimpton hilariously recounting his five-minute stint in goal against the Flyers during an exhibition game at the Spectrum. Though Philadelphia scored on its first shot, Plimpton kept the net clean the rest of the way, including a sprawling Hasek-like save to stymie Reggie Leach on a penalty shot after Bruins defenseman Mike Milbury threw his stick intentionally in order for Plimpton to have to face the goalie's nightmare situation.
Plimpton's gorgeous prose and ability to recount every detail of his time with the Bruins makes Open Net one of the best hockey books ever written. Though it never achieved the same notoriety as Paper Lion, Open Net is among the most revelatory behind-the-scenes looks involving an NHL team, and stands proud as one of Plimpton's finest efforts.
Jon A. Dolezar covers the NHL for SI.com.