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Inside the NHL

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Posted: Wednesday January 06, 1999 01:08 PM

This week's topics:
Mr. All-around | Everyone Has a Role to Play 
You Make Your Own Bad Breaks | Bust And Bargain
In The Crease

Mr. All-around 

Steve Rucchin is the ideal guy to play with the Ducks' mightiest stars

By Kostya Kennedy

Sports Illustrated
  Rucchin (left) is having a career year centering Anaheim's No. 1 line for Kariya and Selanne. Todd Warshaw/ALLSPORT
At first blush, seeing workmanlike center Steve Rucchin skating between dazzling Ducks All-Star wings Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne seems as incongruous as the thought of Gerald Ford's head between Washington's and Lincoln's on Mount Rushmore. Closer inspection, however, reveals that Rucchin is an ideal complement to Anaheim's dynamic duo and a deserving mainstay on a line that, through Sunday, had accounted for 43 of the Ducks' 87 goals. Eleven of those goals (along with 22 assists) belonged to the 6'3", 215-pound Rucchin, who's having a career season.

"Steve's smart with the puck, and he knows us," says Selanne, who had a team-high 18 goals. "Whenever I forget to play defense, he's there. People say we need a superstar center, but we're doing great with Steve."

"I'm the luckiest guy in the league to be playing with them," says the modest Rucchin. "And the most envied."

Last summer, instead of trying to land high-scoring free-agent center Ron Francis to play on its first line, Anaheim re-signed the 27-year-old Rucchin to a four-year, $9.2 million contract. The raise of some $2 million over his 1997-98 salary came four years after Ducks scouts discovered Rucchin on the campus of the University of Western Ontario where, he says, he was studying biology earnestly and playing hockey for fun. Anaheim liked his skills and chose him in the '94 supplemental draft.

While Kariya, who had a league-leading 47 points at week's end, and Selanne often make plays that show up on highlight tapes, Rucchin does the unglamorous work with exceptional efficiency. His 46 takeaways were third among NHL forwards, and he had committed a paltry 19 turnovers. Rucchin had also taken more face-offs (1,054) than anyone else in the league (and won 52%) and, partly because of his duties as a penalty killer, was averaging 23 minutes and 45 seconds of ice time per game, sixth among NHL forwards.

Still, Rucchin's style isn't about to make him famous. While Kariya and Selanne were being detained by reporters and then by autograph seekers after a game last week in Toronto, Rucchin pulled on a dark suit and slipped into the still crowded corridors of Maple Leafs Gardens. He walked along quietly, unpestered by fans who didn't know they were near the most envied man in the league.

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Everyone Has a Role to Play 

When Maple Leafs assistant coach Alpo Suhonen talks about a cat on a hot tin roof, he's not describing the status of goalie Felix (the Cat) Potvin, who left the Leafs last month in an attempt to force a trade. Instead, Suhonen is citing the Tennessee Williams play he produced in 1994 in his native Finland, where Suhonen is a legendary coach and a notable figure in the theater. To Suhonen, all the rink's a stage, and the Maple Leafs are merely players.

"An actor and a hockey player have similar tasks," says the 50-year-old Suhonen, who was hired by Toronto in August and who usually runs the Leafs' practices for coach Pat Quinn. "They have to perform. Remember that a hockey player isn't always a hockey player--only when he's on the ice, when he's in character."

Suhonen, the Finnish national coach from 1982 through '86, has directed several plays over the years, and in '90 he left his job as a Winnipeg Jets assistant to become the artistic director for Finland's nationally renowned Turku Theater. Three seasons later he had a return engagement with the Jets.

"Sometimes an actor will have excellent technique but he's missing something inside," says Suhonen. "Same thing in hockey. Some players have great tools, but they're missing something that keeps them from being dominant. What you have to look at is the performer's emotional state."

With a new coaching staff, the resurgent Leafs had a 21-14-2 record through Sunday. For his part Quinn is pleased to have Suhonen expounding his theories. "They can be very useful," Quinn says, "but, of course, actors don't usually have somebody ready to pound them on the nose and take the puck."

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You Make Your Own Bad Breaks 

No hockey executive has had a sorrier last 18 months than Flyers general manager Bobby Clarke, chief saboteur of his team's championship hopes. Since Philadelphia was swept in the 1997 Stanley Cup finals by the Red Wings, Clarke has replaced two coaches and made several misguided trades that not only have weakened the Flyers' still formidable lineup but also contributed to dressing-room dissension.

In August 1997 he signed Lightning restricted free-agent center Chris Gratton to a five-year, $16.5 million deal that included a $9 million bonus. Instead of compensating Tampa Bay with four first-round draft choices as stipulated in the collective bargaining agreement, he worked out a deal in which Philadelphia sent talented winger Mikael Renberg and stay-at-home defenseman Karl Dykhuis to the Lightning. Last month Clarke traded Gratton, who scored only 23 goals in his 1 1/2 seasons in Philly, back to Tampa Bay for Renberg.

Clearly unafraid to admit a mistake, Clarke last week reacquired Dykhuis for popular veteran defenseman Petr Svoboda. Several Flyers met that trade with arched eyebrows and found Clarke's justification odd: He said that while Svoboda was a lay-it-on-the-line player who was prone to injuries, "Dykhuis never gets hurt."

Apparently the hockey gods decided to exact revenge on Clarke for his string of blunders. In Dykhuis's first game back with the Flyers, he was struck by a stick and suffered a broken cheekbone. He's sidelined indefinitely.

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Capitals Tickets Average price: $52.71
The seats in Washington are the third-most expensive in the NHL, yet the Caps were 12-20-3 at week's end and subjecting fans in the U.S. capital to the Eastern Conference's second-worst offense (80 goals).
Senators Tickets Average price: $32.60
The seats in Ottawa are the third-least expensive in the NHL, yet the Senators were 18-13-4 and treating fans in Canada's capital to the Eastern Conference's second-best offense (105 goals).

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Issue date: January 11, 1999

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