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Inside the NHL
Posted: Tuesday December 08, 1998 05:04 PM
Lies and Damn Lies | Bust and Bargain
In The Crease
Astute counseling by a veteran helped Phoenix to get off to a hot start
By Kostya Kennedy
Consider that Roenick, 28, had never been serious about working out before Tocchet persuaded him last June to join him for six weeks of punishing circuit training at a gym in Venice, Calif. "I threw up, I cried, it was brutal," says Roenick, a center who led Phoenix with 26 points. "He convinced me to do it."
By then Tocchet had already begun work on the psyches of Roenick and Tkachuk, both of whom are two-time 50-goal scorers. After the Coyotes squandered a two-games-to-one lead to the Red Wings last spring to continue the franchise's 11-year streak of failing to win a playoff series, Tocchet questioned the team's leadership. He didn't single anyone out, but the 26-year-old Tkachuk was the captain and Roenick an alternate. In case Tocchet's subtle message didn't get through, he spelled it out before this season. "I talked to them about providing a strong example, because others will follow," says Tocchet. "The team starts with those two. I reminded them they can't take a night off."
That's the kind of leadership Phoenix general manager Bobby Smith was counting on when he signed Tocchet as a free agent in July 1997. Tocchet, the lone member of the Coyotes to have won a Stanley Cup (in 1992, with the Penguins), is a 15-year veteran and, with 393 goals and 2,677 penalty minutes, one of the most tenacious and effective right wings of his time. He has played alongside Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky and is so popular among his peers that some 30 NHLers attended his wedding in August. "Rick tells a guy to work harder, and it means something," says Coyotes coach Jim Schoenfeld.
Still, it took time, as well as that sobering playoff loss, for Tocchet's star pupils to lend their ears. Now that they have, Phoenix's locker room has evolved from a spiritless place to one in which conviviality is underlined by responsibility. Tkachuk, the Coyotes' leader with 14 goals, is at its epicenter. He good-naturedly exhorts laggards to hustle onto the team bus, he rides Tocchet and right wing Dallas Drake ("I just can't tell who's uglier," he says), and he also turns off the house music when it's time to prepare for practice.
Roenick's transformation is clearest on the ice. After disappointing 29- and 24-goal seasons, he has curbed his freewheeling style for a grittier game. This season Roenick and Tkachuk are regularly playing on the same line for the first time, and last week, when the Coyotes outplayed the Oilers but lost 4-3, the two combined on a telling goal. Tkachuk had the puck behind the Edmonton net, where he was driven to the ice by a defender. While falling, he passed to Roenick, who swept in front of the cage, held off another Oiler and dished to Drake for an easy goal. There's no doubt that Roenick's role in that play traces to his summer sweat.
"He went hard in L.A., and it's paying off," says Tocchet. "There were days he got so broken down I didn't think he'd show up the next morning. But he always did."
The Moscow Circus has long featured bears trained to skate, stickhandle and shoot pucks, so the troupe's arrival in Alberta last week helps explain how three Oilers found themselves skating with a pair of black bears at Edmonton's Clive Arena. In the words of Oilers defenseman Boris Mironov, the quarter-ton honey lovers were "a lot bigger than [6'8", 247-pound Kings left wing] Steve McKenna."
Mironov, a Russian, coaxed teammates and countrymen Andrei Kovalenko and Mikhail Shtalenkov to join him and the bears on ice for a photo op. Mironov knows the circus organizers because his wife, Katrin, worked for them as an acrobat and a magician's assistant before she and Boris moved to Canada in 1993. "She loved being in the circus," says Mironov, "but I thought it was dangerous."
Though Kovalenko and Shtalenkov believed that the bears were also perilous -- "I didn't get close unless I had to, and I kept asking if they had been fed," says Shtalenkov -- Mironov was unconcerned. "The man who trains them was there," he says, "If anything went wrong, he would have handled it and said, 'Quiet, bear!'"
Even as the NHL smartly expands the variety of statistics that it keeps, it continues to proffer a worthless number: players' shooting percentages. That stat -- derived by dividing the number of goals by the number of shots -- isn't a reflection of shooting accuracy, as it is in basketball.
While middling offensive talents like Flames center Jeff Shantz (six goals at week's end) and Sabres right wing Dixon Ward (10) were at the top of the league with percentages of around 30%, Bruins defenseman Ray Bourque, who has won the most-accurate-shot competition at the All-Star Game in five of the past nine years, was at a measly 4% (three goals on 75 shots). In fact, many superior snipers, including Penguins right wing Jaromir Jagr, were shooting under 10%.
Outstanding shooters find ways to put the puck on net much more often than other players, so their percentage is expected to be lower. But anytime a shot is on target, good things can happen -- including a rebound goal by a teammate. Says Islanders director of player personnel Gordie Clark, "Shooting percentage doesn't tell you much. I don't even look at it."
CHRIS GRATTON, C
MARTIN STRAKA, C
Issue date: December 14, 1998
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