Friday, September 09, 2005

The Hockey Buzz is Back!

Shane Doan may have to catch his breath Tuesday when he hits the ice at the Phoenix Coyotes' training camp and sees the greatest player in the history of the game back on skates but with a whistle in his mouth.
Training camps open around the NHL next week, with Wayne Gretzky beginning his coaching duties with the Coyotes in Glendale, Ariz.
"I just can't wait," Doan, the Phoenix captain, said Friday. "You feel like a little kid again because you haven't played in so long. Everyone's excited about that. But then you add the fact that every day Wayne Gretzky is going to be our coach _ that's pretty special."
Most of the league's 30 teams, 21 to be exact, officially open camp Monday while the rest will follow suit Tuesday or Wednesday.
There's a buzz around the league about the return of hockey, a stark contrast to a year ago Wednesday when commissioner Gary Bettman triggered the lockout, a labour fight that wiped out the entire 2004-05 season.
While the Coyotes are trying to accommodate a huge number of media requests for Gretzky's first day on the ice, there'll also be a crowd in Pittsburgh where phenom Sidney Crosby officially begins his NHL career.
Perhaps not getting enough attention are the Tampa Bay Lightning. Brad Richards, Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis begin their quest to defend the Stanley Cup championship they captured 15 months ago.
"The guys are all back here in Tampa and we're real excited," Richards said Friday. "The city's been unbelievable, very enthusiastic. It's pretty cool to see, the atmosphere hasn't changed."
A year without hockey apparently hasn't dulled the love affair between the Bolts and their fans.
"Everywhere we go, people are talking about opening night and the banner and defending our title," Richards said. "It used to be you could walk around here and do whatever you wanted. But it's a great buzz.
"Even compared to football it seems people are more interested in us."
In sunny Southern California, longtime King Luc Robitaille says the fans are also pumped.
"I know in L.A., the core fans are coming back, they're really excited," the 39-year-old winger said Friday. "I'm not sure we've gained the casual fans yet. We just need to compete, if we're one of the top teams, we'll draw a lot of new casual fans."
The 18-year NHL veteran can't wait for camp to start Monday.
"I feel like a little kid again, getting back into it, it's a lot of fun," he said.
In the Windy City, the Blackhawks have undergone a major face lift with the likes of Matthew Barnaby, Curtis Brown, Jassen Cullimore, Nikolai Khabibulin, Adrian Aucoin, Jaroslav Spacek, Martin Lapointe and Jim Dowd coming on board since Chicago ended the 2003-04 season out of the playoffs for the sixth time in seven years.
The fans have noticed the changes.
"There's a buzz in the city," Hawks GM Dale Tallon said Friday. "We're getting a lot of good coverage. Our fans are excited and our ticket sales are up.
"People are talking about us again, so that's good."
Tallon, who has held a number of different positions with the team over the years after playing for them, aggressively hit the free-agent market in the hope of resurrecting what was once one of the league's proudest franchises.
"This is my 28th year with the organization," he said. "It's been a long time coming. We have to get back to the status we used to have.
"There's been a lot of suffering here in recent years."
The Hawks could even possibly challenge Detroit in the Central Division. The Red Wings, who had the NHL's biggest payroll at more than $80 million US in 2003-04, had to trim down significantly to fit under the cap, buying out Derian Hatcher, Darren McCarty and Ray Whitney and not picking up Curtis Joseph's option.
GM Ken Holland has worked furiously at trying to make everything fit, and he's keeping his fingers crossed that star centre Pavel Datsyuk decides to return to Detroit instead of playing in Russia this season. The 27-year-old playmaker will make that decision over the weekend.
"His agent basically told me that Pavel would make his decision by Monday," Holland said Friday.
Holland started the week with news out of Russia that Datsyuk had signed a deal with a Russian club which had no out-clause but it now appears there's still a chance he'll return to Detroit if he decided to accept the Wings' offer.
"Anything that gives us a ray of hope that he might be in a Red Wings uniform is good news," said Holland.
The Philadelphia Flyers open camp Monday with high expectations after GM Bob Clarke deftly upgraded his roster with the additions of Peter Forsberg, Hatcher, Mike Knuble, Turner Stevenson and Mike Rathje - among others. Highly touted prospects Jeff Carter and Mike Richards will also likely make the team.
Forsberg (ankle) and Hatcher (left knee) will have to watch from the sidelines for two to three weeks but head coach Ken Hitchcock is still looking forward to moulding his new-look lineup starting Monday.
"You get pretty excited to work with the players," he said Friday. "Especially with us having half our team turn over, there's a high level of anticipation all over this city to see what happens."
Hitchcock said it's surreal right now in Philly.
"This is a very intense time in Philadelphia," Hitchcock said. "The Phillies are in a playoff race. The Eagles start up on Monday night. We open camp Monday. So sports is the buzz right now in this city. Everything is going on."
The Boston Bruins also have a drastically different lineup after a summer of free-agent signings brought the likes of Brian Leetch and Alexei Zhamnov to Beantown but they open camp Monday possibly without their No. 1 goalie and all-star defenceman.
Andrew Raycroft and Nick Boynton, both restricted free agents, remain unsigned. The Bruins only have about $5 million left under the $39-million salary cap to get both players under contract.
"We want both players back, hopefully we'll get that done," Bruins GM Mike O'Connell said Friday.
"We're not squeezing either one of these guys," he added. "We've offered them good money. They've been treated very fairly."
Both players will end up signing one-year deals, O'Connell said.
Raycroft's agent Jordan Neumann hopes Rick DiPietro's new $2.5-million, one-year deal with the New York Islanders will help cement his client's deal with Boston because both young goalies are of similar experience and statistics, but O'Connell dismissed that notion.
"No, it doesn't help at all, because it doesn't matter," O'Connell said. "Andrew is not at that stage yet where he's able to compare, he hasn't earned that right yet to compare contracts."
Mark Messier, meanwhile, has yet to make a final decision on his playing future. "There's nothing new to report today," New York Rangers spokesman John Rosasco said Friday.
-courtesy of www.tsn.ca

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