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Inside the NHL
Posted: Tuesday November 17, 1998 05:35 PM
Let's Talk to The Expert | The Heat's On
In The Crease
A rejuvenated Wendel Clark has brought electricity to the Lightning
By Kostya Kennedy
When the lowly Lightning signed him to a one-year, $1.5 million contract in July, NHL observers branded the deal as another bit of barminess on the part of Tampa Bay's then general manager, Phil Esposito. At best, it was felt, Clark might be a serviceable spare part. What no one expected was that Clark would not only be as hardy as kale and have a team-high nine goals (tied for fourth in the league through Sunday) but also would be anchoring the top line of an improved club (6-9-2). "The puck's bouncing right," says the modest Clark, who has a wicked wrist shot.
While his scoring has been abetted by the excellent passing of center Craig Janney, Clark's other contributions to the Lightning have been purely his own. Last year Tampa Bay was plagued by a lack of unity, and Clark set about changing that in training camp. He rounded up stragglers and led them into the weight room. He organized team lunches and demanded full attendance. When the season started he was the first player at the rink on game nights. "One time we had a bad practice, and even before the coaches came in, Wendel was all over us," says center Darcy Tucker. "He has such a presence that you have an ear to everything he says."
Coach Jacques Demers has Clark rooming with 18-year-old center Vincent Lecavalier, Tampa Bay's future, and Clark's locker is adjacent to that of right wing Alexander Selivanov, a talented offensive player who needs to add some hard edges to his game. "Wendel brings professionalism and determination," says Demers. "Players are following him because he's Wendel Clarkbut also because he's scoring."
Picture a marvelously skilled center, 27 years old, the kind of man who can bring 40 goals and as many assists to an NHL team. Imagine him following a path he believes will make him rich, but instead he finds himself in self-imposed purgatory: Though healthy and able, he's missing the heyday of his career. A case you might only find...in the Twilight Zone.
Petr Nedved's prolonged holdout is indeed that bizarre. Nedved, a restricted free agent who hasn't put on an NHL uniform since April 1997, vows never to play again for Pittsburgh, a team for which he had a combined 78 goals and 92 assists during the 1995-96 and 1996-97 seasons. In October 1997 he rejected a five-year, $14.8 million offer from the Penguins, who, in turn, rejected Nedved's five-year, $18.5 million counteroffer. Subsequent negotiations have proved futile.
No one in the league would be surprised if Nedved were traded tomorrow, but irreparable damage has already been done to his career. He has not only lost a significant chunk of his prime earning years, but he has also become a symbol of the increasingly difficult dealings between NHL players and teams. In September, Bruins general manager Harry Sinden characterized three Boston players who were not in camp because of contract spats as "Nedveds."
"It's not O.K.," Nedved says of the time he has missed. "If you ask 100 people, 95 percent would say I made the wrong decision. I have to live with it."
Nedved, who recently fired his longtime agent, Tony Kondel, and hired the respected Mike Barnett (whose clients include Wayne Gretzky and Brett Hull), has a history of sitting down for his rights. After scoring 38 goals for the Canucks in 1992-93, he became a restricted free agent but didn't sign with a team until March '94, when the Blues gave him $4.05 million for three years. Then, after being acquired by the Penguins, he sat out the '96 preseason before agreeing to a one-year, $1.7 million deal.
This time, however, Nedved miscalculated. His contract demands weren't ridiculous16 centers and 32 forwards will earn more than $3 million this yearbut Pittsburgh general manager Craig Patrick, restrained by the Penguins' financial woes and fed up with Nedved's and Kondel's hardballing ways, refused to buckle. Now Nedved is playing for a minimal wage (no more than $150,000) in the IHL and hoping Pittsburgh will trade him. Unfortunately he has been devalued in the eyes of NHL general managers wary of both the ice time Nedved has missed and his attitude. Says Mighty Ducks general manager Pierre Gauthier, "I wouldn't pay him as much money now as I would have a year ago."
When center Jeff Shantz was traded from the Blackhawks to the Flames last month, he completed the circuit of the Sutter brothers, hockey's hard-nosed sextet. Brian Sutter is Calgary's coach, and Shantz had previously been coached by Duane in the minors and by Darryl in Chicago. He also roomed with forwards Brent and Rich during his five-year stint with the Blackhawks, and worked at a hockey camp with Ron.
Shantz extols all the Sutters for their dedication to hockey and says that Brent is the brother "most likely to put Vaseline in your helmet" and the one you'd least like to meet in an alley. Because he has had three Sutters in his face as coaches and three as roommates on the road, Shantz is qualified to answer a more intimate inquiry: Which Sutter has the best breath? "Hmmm, that's tough," Shantz says. "They're all bad."
When rookie coach Graham, Chicago's former rugged captain, was hired in June, his mandate was to galvanize the listless Hawks. But in its first 16 games under Graham, through Sunday, Chicago often came out flat and stayed that way, earning only four wins. In addition, Graham feuded with assistant Denis Savard over game plans. Said Graham last week, "I've let the team down."
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