The goals total
put Gionta head and shoulders above the 5'8"-and-under crowd. But unlike
Bri�re, Gionta has no chip resting on his shoulders. "[My size] is
something I've always had to deal with," he says. "Just a fact of
make it out like we're the same size," says Gomez, eyeing Gionta across the
New Jersey dressing room before the second round started. "I mean, look at
him over there." Gomez was holding his hand waist high and grinning.
is happy. The Edmonton Oilers' tiny dancer of a left wing has a resourceful
playoff team watching his back against the San Jose Sharks, rabid and
sophisticated fans encouraging him, the best home ice in the NHL and a nifty
scoring partner, right wing Ales Hemsky. Late in Game 6 of the Oilers'
first-round upset of the Detroit Red Wings, Samsonov saucered a delicate pass
through the legs of Detroit's star defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom that Hemsky
tapped in for the series-winning goal. It was the kind of exquisite, skillful
play Edmonton made often in the franchise's glory days and can make again
because of Samsonov, a 5'8" import from Moscow, by way of Boston.
shifty, so strong on his skates," says San Jose's Thornton, another exiled
Bruin and a close friend of Samsonov's since their rookie year in 1997-98, when
the Russian won the Calder Trophy. "He's one of the best puckhandlers in
acquired at the trading deadline in early March from the Bruins, shuns the
perimeter and is the type of player the cash-strapped Oilers used to delete
each March. Under the NHL's new economic model, however, general manager Kevin
Lowe traded for all-world defenseman Chris Pronger and nabbed veteran center
Michael Peca before the season, then added goalie Dwayne Roloson also at the
deadline. They all made mighty contributions in upending the Red Wings and
expanded the ambitions of a hardy city. "Being in a hockey town like
Edmonton, it's exciting," says Samsonov, who had an assist in the Oilers
2-1 loss on Sunday night. "All the guys are working toward the same goal.
It's a fun time of year."
Gary Bettman is
happy. At least that is what an NHL public-relations official says when asked
what her boss thinks about the state of the game. (Bettman declined to be
interviewed for this story because, the official said, he thought it might be
personally aggrandizing. The league did offer director of hockey operations
Colin Campbell, an undersized former defenseman who is slightly taller than
Bettman. The commissioner's height is not mentioned in his league biography. A
good guess: 5'6".) And while making the television rounds for the past few
weeks on Bloomberg TV's Bloomberg Market Movers ("absolutely
incredible," Bettman said of the postlockout recovery) and on KRON 4 in the
Bay Area before a Sharks playoff game ("We came back very strong this
season"), he sounded chipper. Why not? In CBA negotiations he beat the
players as if they were rented goalies, instituting a salary cap and
orchestrating higher revenue, which translated into a windfall for owners. With
the offense-first rule changes, he oversees a league that offers a more
Bettman is almost always happy. Publicly, anyway. With the exception of Glum
Gary during the lockout, his Stanley Cup has always been half full. The on-ice
product was fine in his eyes, until the board of governors revamped the game.
The foot-in-the-crease rule was grand, until it disappeared. Attendance was
always solid, even if the 2005-06 record numbers that Maria Bartiromo gushed
about on CNBC's Wall Street Journal Report were based on tickets distributed,
not sold. Whatever institutional speed bumps he has encountered in his 13 years
on the job, Bettman's public face has been a smiley one.
U.S. network TV ratings and several of the league's large-market teams
( Rangers, Flyers, Stars, Red Wings) eliminated from the playoffs, the NHL faces
the eternal challenge of joining the national sports conversation, beyond
incidences of extreme goonery. If that talk ever does turn to the NHL, the
little Big Guy will make sure it is a happy conversation.