Saturday, February 1, 2003
Will Florida warmth take chill off NHL season?
By Alan Robinson
The Associated Press
SUNRISE, Fla. - Mario Lemieux. Mats Sundin. Ed Belfour. Brian Leetch. Pavel Bure. Saku Koivu. Certainly, a lineup that could hold its own in any All-Star game. Just not this All-Star game.
As the NHL takes its annual midwinter's break, some of its biggest names will gather in South Florida. They just won't be on the ice.
Maybe a condensed schedule that now finds NHL teams playing 82 games in 180 days, rather than the once-standard 192 days, has nothing to do with it. But with players visibly tired from the demanding pace and, perhaps, more eager than usual to skip what essentially is a meaningless game, it seems there are more All-Star no-shows than usual.
Sundin, for example, was healthy enough to get a goal and assist for the Maple Leafs on Thursday night, but plans to rest his sore shoulder this weekend.
Lemieux was expected to be the centerpiece player as he needed just one goal to break a tie with Wayne Gretzky for the most career All-Star goals. But he's sitting out with a sore groin that has sidelined him for all but a couple of shifts since Jan. 7.
Even though there's virtually no hitting in an All-Star game, Lemieux didn't want to take a chance before he returns to play in games that count. He expects to play Tuesday night when the Penguins entertain Vancouver.
And, fittingly enough for a league in which nearly one-quarter of the coaches have changed since the season started, even having a scorecard won't assure fans of knowing who's playing and in what uniform Sunday at Office Depot Center.
Sandis Ozolinsh, for example, was voted as an Eastern Conference starter for All-Star host Florida, only to be traded Thursday night to Anaheim. He'll play for the East on Sunday before he heads West.
Alexei Kovalev, Pittsburgh's productive scorer, also could be packing for another destination - Toronto, Colorado, Vancouver? - after the Penguins' Craig Patrick huddles with his fellow GMs. Kovalev is due for a big salary hike after this season that Pittsburgh can't afford.
"It's just rumors," Kovalev said, sighing, as he awaited an on-ice reunion with former Pittsburgh linemate Jaromir Jagr, also voted an Eastern Conference starter. "Until it happens, it's just rumors. I'm happy where I'm at, playing with the guys here and having fun."
Fun wasn't a word on everyone's mind as players and team executives streamed into the Miami area Friday. They may have been warmed by the 70-degree temperatures, but they couldn't totally escape one of the NHL's most problem-filled seasons ever.
The bankruptcies in Ottawa and Buffalo and the sagging attendance in some markets, especially in the southern United States, likely will be addressed during the NHL Board of Governors and general managers meetings Saturday.
Also hanging over the league is a possibility of a long labor shutdown beginning next year. With owners gearing up to campaign for a salary cap that would rein in their huge payrolls - and players starting to speak out against such restraints - the NHL is already counting down to what may be the most acrimonious labor talks in its history.
No wonder ABC will be keeping a close eye on the All-Star audience, which dwindled to an infomercial-like 1.8 rating for last year's game in Los Angeles. With so few watching - Stanley Cup finals ratings were only about twice as large - the network may be looking to bail out of hockey or substantially cut its right fees when its contract, shared with corporate partner ESPN, ends next year.
ESPN2's ratings have been so low this season, they almost can't be measured, attracting only about two-tenths of one percent of the nation's TV households.
One team glad the break has arrived is Dallas, and not just because the Stars have three All-Stars. Thanks in part to Eastern Conference leader Ottawa's 3-0 loss in Los Angeles on Thursday night, the Stars have the league's best record.
The significance? The last four teams to lead at the break went on to win the Stanley Cup: Dallas (1999), New Jersey (2000), Colorado (2001) and Detroit (2002).
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