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Last Friday, Senators center Alexei Yashin sat at his locker answering a series of if-you-were-a-tree-what-kind-would-you-be? questions from an Ottawa reporter. "If you had an ordinary day job, what would you do?" the reporter asked. Yashin, 27, paused and then squinted in puzzlement. "What do you mean?" he asked. "For me, hockey is an ordinary day job."
Ordinary? The interview took place three days after Yashin had been harshly booed in a home game against the Maple Leafs. It was one day after he'd had a dominant nine-shot performance in a 6-5 win over the Rangers. It was the day before his third-period assist helped secure a 2-2 tie with the Blue Jackets, raising his point total to 15 and running the Senators' record to 8-1-4, best in the Eastern Conference.
No player this season has inspired more emotional reactions than has Yashin. Powerful public resentment over his seasonlong holdout in 1999-2000 has been offset by admiration for the skill level at which the unrepentant Yashin has played through the controversy. "I don't want to change what people think of me," he says. "They have their opinions, I have mine. It doesn't matter. I just play"
Coming off an MVP-caliber, 94-point season in 1998-99 and seeking to have his $3.6 million salary more than doubled, Yashin refused to play out the last year of his contract—a desertion that may have cost the talented Senators a chance at the Stanley Cup. After Ottawa lost to the Maple Leafs in the first round of the 2000 playoffs, Yashin hoped an arbitrator would declare him a free agent. The Senators argued that he still owed them a year of service. In May, the arbitrator ruled for Ottawa, and after the Ontario Superior Court upheld that decision on Sept. 5, Yashin returned to the Senators. "I won't apologize," he said then. "The arbitrator's decision compelled me to come back to Ottawa, [and] I will do my best."
Senators fans called Yashin a "piece of poison" and a "cuss," among other things, in e-mail to the team's website. In the preseason he was booed everywhere from Halifax to Vancouver, and on opening night at the Corel Centre the jeering was relentless. "I'd have thought that kind of booing would bother him," says Ottawa center Radek Bonk, "but if it did, he never showed it."
Bonk and the rest of the Senators have welcomed Yashin back not least because, as left wing Shawn McEachern says, "We want to win, and Yash helps us do that." Yashin's mix of speed, strength and savvy enhances a fabulous group of forwards that includes dynamic right wing Marian Hossa (a team-high 20 points through Sunday).
With the Senators'—and Yashin's—eye-popping early success, the boos have begun to wane in Ottawa, yet contempt awaits Yashin on the road. Last week Fryers general manager Bob Clarke called Yashin "an ass" for having held out That's not likely to shake Yashin, whose demeanor at the rink is unchanged from before the holdout: He remains a quiet, somewhat distant man who is very, very good at his day job.
Don't be alarmed, but some unfamiliar faces are lurking behind NHL masks. Through Sunday, 13 teams had played a rookie in goal this season, and even more striking was the fact that the first-year netminders on the Blues, Avalanche, Coyotes and Sharks—the league's top four teams in goaltending performance—had gone a combined 17-1-2. "I don't know if there have ever been more good goalies coming into the league than there are now," says Red Wings general manager Ken Holland.