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Warm-Up or Audition?

Rick Charlton

September 18, 2001


In the grand scheme of things, notching a pre-season win is about as relevant as one more cow patty in Brian Sutter's pasture.

Theoretically.

For many individuals, the pre-season is a time for those with odds against them to shine and for others already accustomed to large paycheques to ensure they haven't played themselves out of employment.

Teams usually have only two to four jobs available on a full roster of 23 and, realistically, only a handful of bodies are actually in competition for even that slim number of positions.

The rest of those in camp are jockeying for minor league ice time, looking to give the NHL coach something to remember in case of injury. Then there are the dough-eyed teenagers, rubbing shoulders with real NHL'er's and hoping something more than dandruff wears off on their rube-like selves.

For a team such as the Calgary Flames, however, five years removed from the playoffs and every preview rag in existence picking them to belly-flop even further in the standings, the pre-season might also serve as a confidence building springboard as well.

Should the Detroit Red Wings mysteriously go 2-6 in games leading into October, most would brush it off as veterans holding back until the real season starts or Scotty Bowman flubbing the new "torpedo" system he's threatening to employ.

If the Flames do the same thing, the experts will nod their heads in winking agreement. The meltdown was starting sooner than expected.

Former Flames coach Sutter viewed the pre-season as many coaches do, an eye to developing a team agenda to be sure, but more importantly as an opportunity to finger individuals who might display the determination and skill to fill those final roster spots on the third and fourth line. His habit of determining his roster at the last minute, however, when other coaches had been putting out most of their regular season roster for several games, led the Flames to a dismal pre-season record, which snowballed into three consecutive terrible Octobers as well.

The hallmark of Sutter teams seemed to be spending the first 15 games of the regular season getting to know each other a task one would have expected to be accomplished in camp - then looking at the remaining 67 as a belated sprint to catch up in the standings.

Don Hay perhaps saw the value of using the pre-season to build confidence in a group of players afraid of sticking their collective heads out the front door lest they have them hacked off by a flying tomato from yet another hackneyed fan.

Hay's lineup in pre-season matches last year tended to be just a little bit better than the other guy's and the Flames emerged from the grapefruit season at above .500 and not a little full of themselves.

When the Flames entered the regular season last year it was on a wave of optimism.

Below average goaltending in October and November, however, quickly tore that facade away, as the Flames were reduced to a group of individuals trying to do to much and inevitably distrustful of the actions of their teammates on the ice.

A Sutter-like result by an indirect route.

In the end, pre-season means little for most, a tune-up in systems for coaches and a chance for marginal individuals to find out where they fit into the greater good.

Building confidence, however, particularly for a talent-challenged team inching towards six consecutive years out of the post-season, may well be a vital factor in the coming year.

This is a team which will win or die in how it adapts to a defensive style of play, much of which relies on trusting teammates to be doing the right thing at the right time rather than the instinctive razzle dazzle of firewagon offensive hockey.

Will coach Gilbert go the Sutter route, feeling even the most thick-headed on his team can tell the difference between the pre-season and the real war, testing combinations until the last possible moment?

Or will he attempt to cut his roster down to size early, stack his team up a bit against less desperate coaches, and put some wins up on the board in an effort to springboard into a strong start when the real shooting starts?

With three games in the coming three nights, the heat on the Flames may already be turning up.

"IT'S AN IMPORTANT SEPTEMBER FOR US in order to find some chemistry because if we're going to spend the first half of the year searching to see who fits with who, you can get behind the eight-ball in the Western Conference." Ken Holland, talking about his Detroit Red Wings with the Globe and Mail. "Ninety points missed the playoffs last year."

"IT'S A LONG WAY FROM RUSSELL, MANITOBA, THAT'S FOR SURE." - Theo Fleury, in Manhattan after watching the World Trade Center towers collapse.

"I'M SURPRISED THERE ARE PEOPLE HERE TO WATCH HOCKEY. This just puts a serious different spin on everything that's important to everyone. " Boston defenceman Don Sweeney at an open practice which attracted hundreds of autograph seekers the day after the WTC bombing.

THE HOCKEY WORLD WAS STUNNED BY THE ANNOUNCEMENT FROM PETER FORSBERG that he would step back from the game until he felt he had been fully healed from his recent spate of injuries. "I don't want to retire, but I'll stay out of hockey for as long as it takes. Right now, it hurts every time I go onto the ice. Sometimes I've felt afraid (of further injury). There's been so much recently and I want a life after hockey.'' It's the latter comment that has attracted some attention with quiet whisperings that the events of the last week rattled Forsberg, a white-knuckle flier to begin with. One of the by-products of paying exorbitant sums of money to players, however, is that they can afford to step away from the game without blinking an eye. That's true in a holdout situation (Alexei Yashin, Mike Peca), an injury situation (Eric Lindros) or for those simply wanting a break (dare I bring up the name of Alex Daigle). When you've already paid a chap $30 million to $60 million over his current career, can you really surprised an additional $10 million doesn't turn his crank like it used to?

THERE IS SOME QUESTION AS TO WHETHER OR NOT NIKOLAI KHABIBULIN will show up for Team Russia at the Olympics. Khabibulin was a member of the gold medal winning Russian team in 1992, but as a back up. At the time, team officials said a relief netminder hadn't earned a gold medal and gave the gold medal to a team official instead. Vyachislav Fetisov, in charge of putting together the 2002 Russian team, understands the issue. "I can appreciate his hurt," Fetisov said recently. "A team is a living organism and there should be no differences between the No. 1 goalie and his backup. I'll do my best to get Khabibulin his rightful medal."

THE JIG IS UP FOR LEAF FANS IN BUFFALO. The Sabres have stopped selling single game day seats for Leaf games, instead forcing Toronto fans to buy 12 game packs or season tickets. The policy even impacts group sales where purchasers of large blocks must also buy an equal amount of tickets to another game featuring a different team. "The demand is so great for (Toronto) games that we prioritize with the people who make the largest commitment to us -- in other words, season ticket holders," says Steve Katzman, Sabres director of Canadian Sales and Marketing. "The individual ticket buyer is the person that makes the least commitment to us." Katzman calls the policy "leveraging" while Leaf fans might call it "scalping."

THE EUROPEAN THREAT HAS BEEN USED for years by players looking to lever more money out of their respective NHL teams and this season is no different. Leafs defender Tomas Kaberle is preparing to give Toronto a skip this year in favour of some indeterminate location out of the limelight on the other side of the Atlantic. "Tomas is absolutely prepared to play in Europe if he has to do that," said Kaberle's agent Jay Fee "We have had substantive talks with teams all over Europe for amounts that would be much higher than the Maple Leafs' qualifying offer." And there is the rub. The fact the Leafs might lose the services of their top defenceman for a year is one thing - and Derek Morris threatened the same thing last year - but the NHL has always held the trump card of a higher salary. Only a few Europeans - Robert Reichel being the classic example - and almost no North Americans have ever followed through on the threat. Even in Reichel's case the money never equaled what he could have earned in the NHL. Spending a season in Europe is usually an empty threat if money is the only consideration. But a wily GM has to evaluate particularly if dealing with a European if he's running a "temper tantrum" risk nonetheless. It helps neither side if the threat is followed through.