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Inside the NHL
By Kostya Kennedy
Now a backup, Maple Leafs goalie Felix Potvin pines for a trade
Day after day Felix (the Cat) Potvin practices as intensely as any other Leaf. Day after day he stands at his locker and fields questions about his unlikely role as a backup goalie. He doesn't criticize his employers. He volunteers praise for his teammates. Then before long, his big brown eyes turn downward, and he says things like, "I hope I'm traded in an hour."
The departure from Toronto of the 27-year-old Potvin, a two-time All-Star, has seemed imminent since July 15, when the Leafs signed free-agent goalie Curtis Joseph to a four-year, $24 million contract. CuJo, 31, was coming off excellent playoff performances in 1997 and '98 with the Oilers, and Toronto made the move so it could use Potvin as a powerful bargaining chip: a premier goalie for some badly needed scorers.
It had primarily been Potvin, with his butterfly style, who had carried the Maple Leafs to the Western Conference finals in 1993 and '94, when he also became the first Toronto goalie to start in the modern All-Star Game. But the Cat knew as soon as the signing was announced that Joseph would be the top dog because the Leafs considered him a better goalie. Potvin hoped to be traded before training camp, and though Toronto held discussions with several teamsthe Panthers, the Canucks and the Islanders most prominent among themthe Leafs' determination to maximize their return kept a deal from being made.
When camp began last month, Potvin declined to pose for the team photo and begged out of a team charity golf tournament. His wife, Sabrina, and their two children remained in Quebec with family members, and Potvin sold their primary residence, in Toronto. During the season opener he applauded from the bench as Joseph stopped 38 shots and the Leafs beat the Red Wings 2-1. "The Cat's been first-class," says winger Kris King. "He knows he'll be leaving us to be a Number 1 goalie for someone else."
For now Potvin, who through Sunday had played in one of Toronto's four games, bides his time. After beating the Flames 7-3 last Friday, he said, "It felt good to be out there with the guys, good to win a game for them." For them. He said it as if he were already gone.
Two winless games into what promises to be another miserable season for the Lightning, Phil Esposito, the franchise's founding father, was fired as general manager. Owner Art Williams, who bought Tampa Bay in June, said the dismissal "breaks my heart," while others with the Lightning paid homage to Esposito's role in bringing hockey to Tampa Bay. The firing, though, was long overdue.
Esposito, 56, is a charismatic salesman whose exuberance as head of the Tampa Bay Hockey Group in the early 1990s helped pave the way for the NHL's successful expansion into the South. But even though he had been a Hall of Fame player Esposito had no business being a general manager. In a tenure defined by dubious drafts, strange signings and baffling trades (for example, he unloaded All-Star Roman Hamrlik to the Oilers for little return last December), Esposito rendered the team rudderless and incurred the ridicule of hockey observers for his ineptness and thin skin.
In 1992 Esposito struck a sportswriter who had criticized Tampa Bay, and faced assault charges until he made a public apology. In 1995-96, the only season in which the Lightning made the playoffs, Esposito bristled when coach Terry Crisp received most of the credit for Tampa Bay's success.
Esposito's follies with the Lightning came as no surprise, given his three-year stint as the Rangers' general manager in the late 1980s. Ever impetuous, he made 43 trades during his tenure in New York, but the Rangers never got past the first round of the playoffs in those years. In '87 he gave away two frontline forwards, Mike Ridley and Kelly Miller, for underachieving center Bobby Carpenter. A week before the playoffs began in '89, Esposito fired colorful coach Michel BergeronEspo had dealt a first-round draft pick to Quebec for Bergeron before the previous seasonfor what Esposito deemed to be insubordination, despite New York's 37-33-8 record. Esposito then went behind the bench, and the Rangers lost their last two regular-season games before being swept by the Penguins in the first round of the postseason.
In the aftermath of last week's firing, Esposito was disheartened but hardly humbled. "This isn't fair," he said. "I could have done more with a little more time in charge."
Esposito's time was up, and even in a league in which executives are recycled as swiftly as soda cans, it's hard to imagine he'll be put in charge of a franchise again.
Bodychecking became safer in some corners this season when the Canadiens, the Flames and the Islanders installed spring-operated end boards in their arenas to help cushion players when they are driven into the woodwork and glass. In the newly developed CheckFlex system, the four-foot-high boards surrounding both offensive zones are equipped with springs that compress as much as three inches and serve as shock absorbers. The eight-foot-high glass extensions are attached to the boards and move with them. "It's much easier on the body," says Calgary wing Rocky Thompson.
Calgary installed CheckFlex after Flames players complained about the lack of give in the Saddledome's old-style boards. Roughly half of the NHL arenas still have unyielding boards topped by glass; other venues use boards topped with acrylic shielding (instead of glass), which gives about an inch. Calgary trainer Terry Kane says of CheckFlex, "This will not only help prevent single-incident injuries but also will lessen the cumulative effect of getting pounded into the boards all season."
Since winning the Cup in '96, talented Colorado has twice been K.O'd from the playoffs earlier than expected. In June, Lacroix replaced coach Marc Crawford with Bob Hartley, who had no NHL experience. At week's end the Avalanche was 0-4-1, the worst start in franchise history.
Issue date: October 26, 1998
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