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Where do they go now?

Rick Charlton

June 12, 2001

The human cost of the merger of the International Hockey League and the American Hockey League won't be truly known until training camps open this fall, revealing dozens of older professionals forced into retirement or out of North America in order to continue playing the sport they love.

The IHL was long considered something of a home for those occupying the grey areas of professional hockey, neither good enough to make the NHL as regulars or guys who had been in the "show" and were on their last legs.

But the AHL, as a true development league, is a different fish altogether. AHL regulations, unchanged as of this hour and not likely to be altered anytime soon, allow for only one "exempt" player per roster, "exempt" being defined as someone with more than 450 professional games (including European employment) on his resume. And only six other regular roster spots can be set aside for those with more than 250 professional games on their resume.

The purpose of the rules is to ensure that up and coming kids were generally playing against toffs of their own level, developing at a steady pace, rather than cowering in fear as older and stronger graybeards strutted their stuff.

So we look around the IHL and see little-known but excellent minor-leaguers like Steve Larouche of the Chicago Wolves having already taken the hint and signing a few weeks ago with Eisbaren Berlin of the German Elite League. The 30 year-old Larouche, with 751 games of professional experience, including 26 games with Ottawa, the Rangers and LA of the NHL, faced only three choices - retire, look to the lower, lower minors, or play in Europe.

It's difficult to say why the shifty Larouche, 5-11 and 180 lbs, never made it to the NHL for keeps. The obvious answer is his size but more probably it's one of those fill in the blank reasons that comes down to the heart and desire any small player needs to overcome his physical limitations.

His best season, ironically, was in the AHL in 1994-95 with Prince Edward Island where he racked up 101 points. He then got an 18 game look with the dreadful Senators the next year, chocking up 15 points. From there, the drift started. One game with the New York Rangers then seven with LA at the tail-end of 1995-96. From there he never saw the NHL again. Last season with the Wolves, Larouche racked up 31 goals, 50 assists for 81 points with 78 penalty minutes in 72 games.

And there are plenty of other Larouche's out there. Already we see names like John Slaney, Jesse Belanger, Fred Chabot and Kevin Dahl signing in Europe in the last few weeks.

A quick scan of the lineup of Grand-Rapids Griffins reveals Derek King, 34, Vyacheslav Butsayev, 31, Kip Miller, 32, John Gruden, 31, Marty McSorley, 38, Dave Roberts, 31 and Ed Patterson, 28, any one of which would have difficulty finding employment under the rules of the AHL. Only 29 year-old Mike Fountain can take advantage of goaltenders being the exception to the age rules.

Without the IHL, John MacLean would not have been able to put in a few games in Manitoba after being told to leave the Rangers. He eventually ended up in Dallas. Had the manitoba option not been open to him he might have had to retire.

A change in the AHL rules to allow more veteran depth would require agreement between owners and the Professional Hockey Players Association, something that is unlikely to happen.

With contraction occurring in professional leagues throughout the U.S. and now the demise of the IHL, it would not surprise anyone to see a large flow of older players like Larouche heading overseas rather than lowering themselves into the East Coast Hockey League. But many European circuits have quotas on imports, presenting another roadblock to employment.

Whatever the impact, the demise of the IHL marks a decisive turning point in the long history of minor pro leagues throughout North America, where the love of the game propelled many like Larouche to pursue a Slapshot-like meandering lifestyle, without hope of further NHL employment, through obscure places like Muskegon, Flint, Saginaw, Kalamazoo and Fort Wayne.

Days that might be gone forever for many.

IMPRESSIONS FROM THE JUST CONCLUDED PLAYOFFS

The Colorado Avalanche have probably turned the NHL back towards an emphasis on speed over brawn once and for all after their Stanley Cup triumph over New Jersey. There were subtle differences between the two teams which resulted in the Avalanche triumph, including better discipline shown by Colorado, but a key element might have been the Avalanche speedy forwards matching very well against the less swifty elements of New Jersey's lumbering defence, players such as Colin White, Scott Stevens and Sean O'Donnell. Martin Brodeur may have been superior to Patrick Roy as a puckhandler but the Colorado defence needed a lot less help  than the three Devils mentioned above. Speed has actually been a valuable commodity in the NHL for much of the last decade but mostly to enhance the ability to spring defensive systems such as the trap. Quickness, it is said, allows checkers to close on their quarry more rapidly, thus affording coaches the ability to focus on defensive schemes which slow the game down to a pace slower than at any time in NHL history. But what if the mystical qualities of speed were to be turned once again towards good rather than evil? Colorado, and to a lesser extent the entire Western Conference, spent the last few years gradually shifting speed away from the defensive side of the game, using it instead as a way to beat the trap and generate offence. While every team still has a place for a few lumbering players - witness Chris Dingman on the side of the Avalanche - a good set of wheels will become an even hotter commodity in the future. And finally, perhaps, we may see a turn away from the decade long cyclical trend towards defensive hockey, where preventing scoring was more important than actually finding the back of the net at the other end of the ice.

Saw a statistic that said in the last 10 years only once has a team been swept in the first round returned with a better regular season record the next season. Hello Vancouver?

A casual observer would state Patrick Roy had more poor games in this playoff year than at any time in his storied career. Yet Roy ended up with a .934 save percentage and a goals against average of 1.70 with four shutouts. And a Stanley Cup championship. Just win baby.

Classiest act seen in awhile - Joe Sakic taking the Stanley Cup from commissioner Bettman and immediately handing it to Ray Bourque. Some have complained the Bourque drive for the Cup was over-hyped but it was one of the most compelling and heart-warming stories to come out of the post-season in many years. If anything, Bourque's 22-year quest for a championship cements the reputation of the Stanley Cup as the toughest trophy to win in all of sport.

It's been two months since the Flames stopped playing hockey. And another nine weeks before training camps open. That's the difference between champions and also-rans.

One of the hottest free agents of the summer will be mid-priced Martin Lapointe - yet Lapointe had only one assist and no goals in Detroit's six game first round exit versus the LA Kings. That's the same offensive production as Alexei Yashin in four games versus the Leafs. Lapointe has scored more than 16 goals only once in his career yet could end up with a big payday through the summer. Buyer beware.

If the Devils had pulled out Game 7 in Colorado, Martin Brodeur might have gone down as the first number one goaltender in a long time to win the Stanley Cup with a save percentage under .900. He finished this playoff year with a very below average .897. While Roy seemed to put a lock on the number one job in Salt Lake City, Wayne Gretzky was wise to say last week that he would be waiting to see who was playing better next December. It would be a big mistake to assume Roy is the right choice for next February based on events in eight months previous. Brodeur could still be the number one guy in the Olympics.

Of the final eight teams competing for the Cup, Pittsburgh, surprisingly, had the lowest goals scored per game through the post-season at 2.1 per game. A remarkable stat when you consider a roster sporting the likes of Mario Lemieux, Jaromir Jagr, Martin Straka and Alexei Kovalev.

Overall, and not suprisingly, offence was harder to come by in the playoffs than the regular season. An average post-season game this year ran at 4.71 goals per game versus 5.51 during the season. The first round had 4.84 goals per game, the second round 4.41 per game, the third round 5.2 and the Stanley Cup round 4.29 goals per game. The interesting thing about those statistics is the best 16 teams in the league, presumably with the best talent, couldn't score more goals than you might find in a typical regular season game. And the final itself, with some terrific talent in both lineups, featured the lowest goals scored totals of the entire post-season. Can we blame the referees for allowing more clutching and grabbing? Better coaching? Or maybe better players does not necessarily translate into more scoring.  

Stephane Fiset and Jamie Storr will be on their way out in LA where the Kings must have been fortified by the resurgent play of Felix Potvin. Fiset might fit in nicely with the needs of Vancouver where Bob Essensa appears done as a Canuck. Essensa had a great line a few days ago when talking about his apparent demise. "It's interesting they think (Dan Cloutier) is just a 40-game guy," said Essensa. "In my mind you're a 20-game guy or a 60-game guy. I don't know many 40-game goalies." Which leaves a wise guy wondering what the Flames are doing with Fred Brathwaite and Mike Vernon. But that's another topic.

Keith Tkachuk had another indifferent playoff, showing his lack of motivation might have more to do with himself than being frozen into average lineups in Phoenix/Winnipeg.

If Bob Hartley hadn't made the Cup final, maybe if he'd even failed to win the Cup, he might have been toast in Colorado.

Where goeth the Leafs after a not so rosy regular season and getting one game further in the playoffs than the year before? Like Hartley, however, GM and coach Pat Quinn probably saved one or both of his jobs with his first round sweep of Ottawa.

EVERY YEAR I BRING THIS UP and every year I get shot down so here we go again - If Canadians love their hockey and the Game 7 final on Hockey Night in Canada drew an audience of 1.7 million people, then what were the other 29.3 million Canadians doing that night? The numbers indicate that 5.5% of Canadians were watching the game while 94.5% were not. That's right - nine in ten Canadians couldn't care less about the Stanley Cup playoffs even though Game 7 was one of the most watched HNIC productions of the year. I'll concede children under five probably had better things to do but the rest of the population is fair game, including women who make up 43% of an average NHL audience. As an example, my 78 year-old mother-in-law never misses a game. The HNIC viewership numbers in Canada are still far in excess percentage-wise than anything seen in the U.S. but may also indicate hockey might be less than the heart and soul of Canada that its proponents claim.

LAST WORDS
"They deserve it. They were the better team." - New Jersey centre Bobby Holik

"Are they better than we are? I don't think so. I think they worked a little harder and worked a little smarter." - New Jersey coach Larry Robinson.

"This is the best hockey team I have ever coached. I thank them. They gave me my first Cup." - Avalanche coach Bob Hartley.

"I see that (payroll) going down. I think we can be better by possibly spending less." - Florida GM Bill Torrey.

"If we're not satisfied with them, I wonder how many other teams would be? So what's the harm in turning them loose for awhile?" - Florida GM Bill Torrey talking about not qualifying youngsters Olli Jokinen, Mike Wilson and Anders Eriksson, thus turning them into unrestricted free agents.

Material from wire service reports, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this story.