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Hockey from the Hammock

Rick Charlton

July 25, 2001

For my grandfather, life in the trenches in the First World War consisted of long, long stretches of tedious boredom punctuated with short but intense flurries of action.

Which would be a good way to describe this NHL off-season.

A summer of gently swaying in the hammock has been interrupted by one of the more active draft weekends in memory followed a week later by a 72 hour free agent season then blissful sleep only to be rudely awakened once more by the announcement yesterday of Canada's Olympic list.

And now probably back to sleep until early September.

Some observations from the hammock this summer day.

THE ONE GREAT HOPE REMAINING FOR avoiding a labour confrontation in 2004 seems to be fading as Wayne Gretzky and Mario Lemieux begin to plant themselves firmly on the side of owners. It had been hoped these two - unique in the four major sports as icons on the player side but also respected by owners - might have been able to bridge the wide gulf of differences between the NHLPA and management when the NHL CBA expires in the summer of 2004. It was odd last week, therefore, to see Lemieux, in the interesting position of being both an owner and a player, to suggest a salary cap is necessary for the game to be healthy, a comment that was bound to fly like a lead balloon with the majority of players. Then we have Gretzky openly defying the wishes of NHLPA chief Bob Goodenow by effectively forcing a two-day mini-camp for Canada's Olympic team but also suggesting the invitees should show up for a full five days of workouts. Both Gretzky and Lemieux have now placed themselves firmly against the wishes of Goodenow and while time can still heal all wounds it seems the parties involved have a serious philosophical gap, which will be difficult to bridge. In 2004, the ability of these two icons to travel freely across both lines may be the key to averting a long lockout. But even that hope may be fading.

"YOU GO WITH WHAT PEOPLE WANT. If you raise the prices and people go for it, you're okay. If people don't buy it, that's when you adjust. That's the limit. But what's the sense of me saying to a team: 'Whoa, slow down.' It's not my responsibility to ask them to pay me less. It's up to them (the owners) to discipline themselves. If they want to pay me, OK, thank you." Vincent Damphousse of San Jose, reacting to Lemieux's call for a salary cap.

"THIS IS NOT A TRYOUT CAMP. The real camp will be in October, November and December. Obviously, we'll be watching quite a few other players and not just the ones on this list." - Gretzky, holding out some hope for Calgary's Jarome Iginla.

"ANSON'S ONE OF THE BEST PLAYERS I've seen at making the right play with the puck. He can skate, and I don't want to say where a guy should play, but he could be a fourth-liner with, say, Peca.'' - Oiler GM Kevin Lowe, Gretzky's left arm, on the obscure selection of Edmonton forward Anson Carter over more mainstream names like Brendan Shanahan, Iginla, Joe Thornton or Jason Allison. In the end, the only result that will stifle this controversy will be a gold medal around Carter's neck. Any other result and the controversy will rage another four years. I still remember, however, a very successful Canadian team with a willing Dale Hawerchuk, a superstar otherwise, centering the fourth line for Canada in the late 1980's. We need to remember these guys will do anything absolutely anything - to play for this team, including accepting a diminished role. A fourth line of Shanahan, Allison and Iginla versus Peca, Carter and Brendan Morrow, might look pretty good when the Czech's, backed by Dominic Hasek, are smothering Canada with a trap defence.

A GOLD MEDAL IN SALT LAKE IS HARDLY A CINCH FOR CANADA. As an example, Iginla was ranked 15th in points among NHL right wings last season but fourth among Canadians. Iginla finished with 31 goals and 40 assists, career highs, but names like Jagr, Guerin, Hull, Scott Young, Mogilny, Naslund, Hedjuk, Bondra, Selanne and Kovalev were all better. And none are Canadians. Among Canucks, Recchi, Audette and Fleury were ahead of Iginla. The stats also reveal the depth other countries might have at the position. The U.S., as an example, will have Guerin, Hull and Young on the right side. The Slovaks, should they make it to the final medal tourney, have Hossa and Bondra. The Russians have two Bure's and Mogilny and Kovalev. Sweden can put out Naslund and Alfredsson. The Czechs have Jagr and Hedjuk. The world is a different place than it was when Canada was bombing everyone except the Soviets.

"IT'S AN HONOUR FOR ME TO BE INCLUDED in this great group of players." - Theo Fleury on his selection to the Olympic mini-camp in a statement released through the Rangers. Fleury is currently hosting a hockey camp in Manitoba and will be in Calgary shortly for his annual charity golf tourney, but is apparently not talking with the media - some would say a good thing since he often said way too much in earlier years. In the future, look for a Fleury who is much lower key than the bombastic ball of fire we've seen in the past. Welcome back.

AN OBSCURE REFERENCE IN THE NEW YORK POST that the NHL is planning to reject the lockout proofing bonus structure of recent contracts for Joe Sakic and Rob Blake among others has yet to be confirmed elsewhere but would be a shocking development if true. Both Sakic and Blake are scheduled to received payments of $2 million each on Apr. 5, 2005. While the NHLPA failed to breach the $11 million barrier for star players this summer it might have gained a greater victory by ensuring the players with the most to lose during a lockout were effectively paid large bonuses while the game was shut down. It is of critical importance in any labour dispute that both sides have something significant to lose should a dispute go on any length of time, thus ensuring good faith bargaining. The NHL last summer allowed the Owen Nolan contract with San Jose to stand even though it effectively guaranteed Nolan would be paid through a lockout. But the NHL also warned it would not accept any further contracts structured in a similar manner. Amid all the trades, signings and other machinations of the summer, this will ultimately be the most important issue the NHL will have faced.

GARY SUTER CONTINUES TO SIT AS AN UNSIGNED UNRESTRICTED FREE AGENT, although he seems to be intent on bargaining only with San Jose. "I'm still hopeful we can get something worked out," he told the San Jose Mercury News. "I don't want to go anywhere else. It's a matter of making compromises. I'm optimistic we can get something done in the next couple of weeks." Suter is one of a group of lesser publicized unrestricted free agents, including Steve Thomas, Brett Hull and Dave Andreychuk, who have already signed for less money than last year or will probably have that fate put upon them. This is the balancing out of the frenetic 72 hour shopping spree that garnered all the headlines on July 1. But it alters little the fact only six teams or so were in the hunt for the best players. The final salary numbers, when they arrive in early November, will probably indicate the incongruity of salary inflation of five per cent or so, but an emerging two-tier league nevertheless

THE DETROIT RED WINGS SHOULD BE AN INTERESTING TEAM TO WATCH the first month of the season as ageless Scotty Bowman seeks to reinvent himself once again. Bowman plans to implement the mysterious "torpedo" innovation from Sweden. As befits any Bowman coached team, defence will be the ultimate watchword but Bowman hopes the innovation will open the game up and generate more offence five on five as well. Larry Wigge of the Sporting News had the torpedo described to him the following way: "In the torpedo, four forwards and one defenseman are used in sort of a full-court press. Two players (the torpedoes) are in deep on the forecheck, and two others (the halfbacks) play along the boards, with the defenseman back like a rover. The forecheckers, because they use up so much energy, change every 20 to 25 seconds instead of the usual 30- to 45-second shifts in the NHL." "We couldn't use it with all of our lines and defensemen because they don't all have the skills needed to play this system -- and it can't be used as an offense like it is in Europe because they don't have a center red line," Bowman told Wigge. "But it can be a very effective defensive system."

"WHEN PLAYERS DON'T FILE FOR ARBITRATION, I find very little gets done right off the bat. Things usually happen late in August or even early September. It's a slower process. There's no real rush to get things done so things don't get done very quickly. At least that's what I've found in the past." Florida Assistant General Manager Chuck Fletcher waxing philosophical about his lack of progress in negotiating a new contract with recently acquired Val Bure. This is one negotiation that will be interesting to watch, not because of the former Calgary connection, but rather because both sides appear to be in a position of blackmail. The Panthers have the carrot of owning Pavel Bure whom brother Val is salivating to play with while Val possesses the weight of public opinion which wants to see the Bure brothers re-united as quickly as possible. With those incentives, it seems improbable a lengthy holdout is in the works but stranger things have happened. At the moment, neither side seems willing to meet in the middle.

JASON ALLISON IN BOSTON REFUSED TO FILE FOR ARBITRATION even though he probably would have blown the Bruins out of the water. The Bruin superstar instead said primary players for a team should never go to arbitration; that the team involved should instead settle with them willingly. He challenged anyone to name players with his production who have gone to arbitration. The New York Post came up with Alexei Kovalev and Martin Straka this year, Joe Sakic and John LeClair last year and Ray Bourque earlier.

WHEN THE WINGS ACQUIRED DOMINIC HASEK, Scotty Bowman telephoned Chris Osgood, obviously trade bait, and thanked him for his years of service. The call lasted 15 minutes which, Osgood noted, was the longest conversation he had ever had with Bowman through his years in Detroit. Bet on Osgood ending up with an Eastern Conference team if only to avoid the possibility of Detroit meeting their former number one in the playoffs. In Vancouver, a logical destination otherwise, GM Brian Burke has flat out stated that Dan Cloutier will be his number one goalie next season. In Burke's mind, the only issue remaining is the question of a backup.