Archive for the Category ◊ NHL Unrestricted Free Agency ◊

07 Jul 2012 Seeing Red Over Semin Slams
Alexander Semin

A face the (Canadian) media loves to hate — why?

It looks like TSN/NBC analyst Pierre McGuire is up to his old tricks.  Once again he has taken the opportunity to lambast long-time Capitals winger Alexander Semin.

On the July 1 “Free Agent Frenzy” show on Canada’s TSN (and simulcast on the NHL Network), McGuire and the apparently anti-Semin panel launched a blistering attack on the Russian, who is now a free agent.

The firebombing started with ex-NHL coach-turned-analyst Marc Crawford who referred to Semin as “a loser,” without giving a single reason why he deserved such an appellation (barring Crawford’s own disdain for him).  He continued the barrage, saying that although Semin’s point production was greater than fellow UFA Zach Parise’s, he does not help his team at all, while Parise helps “in every way.”

Marc, could you be a little more vague with those comments?  Is there any proof to this accusation, or did a Russian rub you the wrong way at some point in your career?  Because, calling somebody names on a national network simply isn’t professional journalism.

Not wanting to miss his chance to bash Semin, McGuire eagerly jumped in with equal venom, saying he  ”is not a great teammate” and describing him as the “ultimate coach killer.”  Aren’t you being a bit melodramatic, Pierre?

Clearly, McGuire has a short memory.  He sang Semin’s praises during one of the better playoff runs the Capitals have had in years.  In fact, Semin was the talk of the NHL during the first round as we reported on this website in April.

Playoff performance aside, lets look at the stats.   Semin been an amazingly solid producer since he arrived in Washington.  Looking at his numbers, one would never guess that he has been riddled with injuries each year.  He has done everything his coaches have asked him to do.  And he has even been hailed as “caring too much” by his former general manager George McPhee.

He has been a loyal teammate.  He is never late to practice.  He does what is asked of him and doesn’t argue with the coach or management.  He’s not a prima donna with huge demands, nor does he expect special treatment.  One can’t even accuse him of being a one-way player, as he’s proved that this certainly isn’t the case.  No, he simply wants to play.

Why then, do members of the Canadian media wage war against this player?  They certainly would never talk about one of their “own” this way, no matter how detrimental that person was to their team.  It would be unacceptable.  Why is this any different?

Pierre McGuire

Members of the Canadian media, including Pierre McGuire, seem to enjoy denigrating Russian players.

Maybe Semin turned down a request for an interview or perhaps he refused to give McGuire his private mobile number so they could exchange text messages and give Pierre another name to drop.  Or maybe his discomfort with the English language makes him somehow less human and, therefore, easier to excoriate.  Or, as I’ve often thought, there may be a more sinister reason for trying to ruin his reputation.  The NHL is still very much an Old Boys club, and anyone different is not well received.

Whether they are motivated by xenophobia or some other reason, the attacks on Semin’s character are unacceptable and unethical behavior on the part of TSN’s “expert” panel.  Yet I don’t see it stopping any time soon.  Bashing Russians seems to be a time-honored tradition in certain circles and it seems the people who do it will not be happy until all of the Russians have gone home to the Kontinental Hockey League.  And while Semin is far too talented to play in that league, Sergei Fedorov, the new GM for CSKA Moscow has said he will make a play for him.

Yes, the Cold War still rages on the ice.  It’s time for a change.  It’s time for the old ideas of what a Russian player is to change.  It’s time for some in the Canadian media to forget the contentiousness of the 1972 Summit Series, get with the times and do some rethinking.  Do those old stereotypes of the stoic, unfeeling, passionless Russian still apply?  And, perhaps more importantly, did they ever?  Until this relatively small, but influential segment of Canada’s press corps is willing to look at their own biased attitudes and commit themselves to a little fairness, I fear hockey slip further into the realm of “niche sport.”  Certain big name, absurdly suited and coiffed commentators are already laughingstocks.  It’s time for a change, before the sport we love becomes one too.

Photographs:  Alexander Semin by Geneen Pipher/Hockey VIPs Magazine; Pierre McGuire from Wiki Commons. 


03 Jul 2012 Why the Stars Really Signed Jagr
Jaromir Jagr

Bust out the 10-gallon hats and whoop it up — Jaromir Jagr is going to Big D.

On learning Jaromir Jagr signed a big one-year deal with the Dallas Stars, most hockey watchers seemed either confused (Why would the Stars bring in yet another player over 40?) or snide (Ha! Another has-been player for an irrelevant team in a city that doesn’t care anyway). As a Texan, born and bred, I get my back up when anyone starts in on our fair state. And, as a hockey fan from Texas, I feel the Northern media has once again missed the point.

The Stars are not bringing Jaromir Jagr to Big D expecting him to be what he once was. They aren’t expecting him to win any scoring races. Heck, I’d argue they aren’t even bringing him in for leadership or to share his Zen philosophy of training or eating. Dallas has secured the services of Jaromir Jagr for one reason: Star Power.

It’s no secret the Dallas Stars have suffered in recent years. Times have been hard, with the team coming oh-so-close to the playoffs and petering out at the bitter end.  The reasons (excuses?) are many:  Ownership difficulties, bad marketing, loss of focus, exorbitant ticket prices in a dreadful economy, and competition with collegiate and NFL football and MLB, as well as a popular championship-winning NBA team …  Really, the list of the Stars’ woes seems endless.

All of these factors have contributed to the franchise’s downward spiral, but none of these has hurt more than the loss of the face of the franchise, Mike Modano.  In Dallas, star power is required to get the public’s notice.  It is football country and in order to turn heads away, a team needs to either win or have a true super star (preferably both).  That person must have the cocky swagger we Texans like, but he also must be humble and human (see Michael Irvin, Deion Sanders, or, say, Matthew McConaughey).  He needs to have a presence that demands notice and skills that make people say, “you gotta see this guy!”

Jaromir Jagr meets all of those criteria.  He has the kind of personality Texans adore.  He has massive talent that he attributes to a higher power.  (Texans doubly love that.)  He is confident in himself and his skills.  He works hard. He’s personable, quirky, has a good sense of humor and is quick to laugh.  And he is the kind of player who flirts with the media.  He winks and smiles and teases — and Texans like their personalities big — the bigger the better.

Is he slowing down?  No doubt.  Will he shine like he did in his mulleted glory days?  Perhaps not.  But he is almost guaranteed to provide enough dazzling moments of otherworldly brilliance to get people in Dallas talking about hockey again.  He is the kind of  player who transcends the sport he plays.  He is the kind of player people mark their calendars to come and see.  He is the kind of guy you want to see before he retires.

He is what hockey in Dallas has been missing:  He is a true star, now with a capital “S.”

Photograph:  Geneen Pipher/Hockey VIPs Magazine


19 Nov 2010 Semin + Caps = Good Sense
Alexander Semin - rookie

Semin at training camp in 2003.

As a longtime Washington Capitals fan, I’ve had the sometimes rough duty of sticking up for a certain player (Alexander Semin) who, incidentally, was the main reason I became a Caps fan back in 2003. My first Capitals game on the 12th of November 2003 gave me my first glimpse of him. I fell in love with his playing style immediately. His stick-handling skills were enchanting and, to this day, he still makes my jaw drop at some of the dekes he can pull rushing up the ice. His lone goal in the 7-1 shellacking of the Carolina Hurricanes during my inaugural game was a sneaky little deke around a veteran defenseman and a total undressing of the goalie. (Check it out for yourself.)

Semin joined the team at one of the most trying times for the Capitals organization. That year the team was dismantled at the trade deadline. Fans bid farewell to iconic winger Peter Bondra, as well as Robert Lang, Sergei Gonchar, and the man fans love to hate: Jaromir Jagr. At the end of the 2003-04 season, majority owner Ted Leonsis declared the team was going to rebuild from within. He started later that summer by selecting Alexander Ovechkin and Mike Green in the 2004 NHL Entry Draft.

By all accounts, Semin’s rookie season was anything but pleasant. Rumored dissension inside the Caps locker room did not create a healthy atmosphere for the young Russian, who was still trying to adjust to life in North America. And, his lack of English skills created a natural barrier between him and most of the team. Semin missed the final game of the regular season, oversleeping and missing the team flight out of Washington. When the season ended, he was sent to Portland, Maine to play for the Capitals’ American Hockey League farm team, the Pirates, to help with their unsuccessful Calder Cup run. Semin ended the season with 10 goals and 22 points in 52 games, playing mostly on the third and fourth lines.

Semin plays for Lada Togliatti of the Russian Super League.

The following season, the NHL lockout forced Semin to find work elsewhere. He signed a one-year deal with Lada Togliatti of the Russian Super League, opting not to report to the Hershey Bears (the Capitals’ new AHL affiliate). The Capitals subsequently suspended his contract for failing to report to Hershey. He finished the season Togliatti.

When the NHL labor dispute ended and the 2005-06 season was on the horizon, Semin was expected to return to the Capitals for the final year of his entry-level contract. However, Semin and his agent, Mark Gandler, were sued by the Capitals for more contract violations after he signed a 1-year extension with Lada. Gandler managed to have the suit nullified by claiming Semin’s contract with Lada was satisfying his two-year military obligation to the Russian Federation.

Whether it really was Russian military obligations or something else is unclear, but Lada gave him numerous incentives to stay. He was given a car, an apartment and a $2 million (USD) contract to play for the team. At just 21 years old, $2 million was much more than the chump change the Capitals were offering, and for that reason alone, I can’t blame him for wanting to stay in Russia where he also didn’t have to deal with a struggling team and language barrier.

Semin’s decision ultimately backfired as he fell victim to the unstable system in which the RSL governed itself by before the league revamped in 2007. Semin was let go by Lada a month into the season as the team salary was cut by 50 percent. The team avoided folding altogether by letting go of multiple players and loaning some out to other RSL teams.

Semin (in gold and blue) skates with Khimik.

At that time, Semin’s was the highest contract on the Lada roster. He was the first to be let go along with his car, apartment and contract. He didn’t stay unemployed for long as he signed with Khimik Mytischi, taking a pay cut. He finished the season with Khimik only notching 3 goals and 10 points in 26 games.

At the conclusion of his two-year stint back in Russia, Semin managed to mend fences with Capitals management and returned to Washington for the 2006-07 season, signing a 2-year deal.

Semin may have returned to Washington ready to get his NHL career back on track, but much of the Capitals’ fan base and media were more than a little annoyed by his antics. Critics saw Semin’s “military obligations” as a farce and Semin faced a backlash from fans who felt they had been spurned. He was labeled as the stereotypical “Mother Russia” player from then on out. His actions prior to rejoining the team reduced his popularity among the core Caps fans and heavily tarnished his reputation.  To this day he is still seen by many fans as a ticking (two-time) Russian defector.

Semin did his best to let his play do the talking where his still limited English could not. He amassed 38 goals and 73 points in the 2006-07 season. While his efforts were a step in the right direction, his reputation among fans was still fairly dismal. He was routinely criticized for his lazy style of play and his tendency to take costly penalties.

In 2007-08, Semin only notched 26 goals and 42 points in an injury-plagued year. The 2008-09 season saw Semin struggle yet again with injuries, but he finished with a career-high 79 points and a dramatic improvement in the plus/minus column at +25.

Alexander Semin and Alex Ovechkin

Semin and Alexander Ovechkin seem ready to take over the NHL -- one city at a time.

In 2009-10, Semin showed he was beginning to mature as a player, scoring a career-high 40 goals. Management took notice of Semin’s improved play and signed him to a 1-year contract extension that will expire when he becomes a free agent at the end of the 2010-11 season.

Most of the ill will from his controversial return to the Capitals has dissipated, but his faults in the eyes of fans have shifted to his poor performance in the playoffs. Much of the anger stems from the playoff embarrassment the Capitals suffered against the Montreal Canadiens last April. Semin ended the series scoreless, though he pounded 40 shots on goal. His lack of desire to talk to the North American media and his insistence on not saying three words in English (at least publicly), add fuel to the arguments of those who want Semin out of D.C.

Now we find ourselves nearly a quarter of the way into the 2010-11 season, and Semin is atop leaderboard, outplaying his fellow Russian teammate, Alex Ovechkin. He has already scored two hat tricks this season and shows no sign of letting up. This is, after all, a contract year for Semin and while his out-of-this-world play is beyond entertaining for Caps fans to watch, it is bittersweet. With his elevated level of play, will come elevated salary expectations — expectations the Capitals simply cannot afford with the current roster and the possibility of a lower salary cap.

In a recent interview with Russia’s Sport Express, Semin made a simple statement on his future in Washington that might put to rest the argument among Caps fans on Semin’s agenda:

“I don’t agree that Washington can not afford me. If I want to play here, we’ll resolve it.”

Alexander Semin

Semin shows off his signature style.

Since day one, I have said this kid could be the best player in the league if he gave half the effort most forth-line grinders give game-in and game-out. His pure talent, world-class stickhandling skills, pinpoint accuracy and superb skating, would put him among the top five players in the league should he stay healthy. He is a unique combination of smooth skating and raw, unrivaled skill that transforms NHL players into legends.

The fans who cheer for him, love him for his dazzling performances on the ice, as well as his flamboyant off-ice personality. We look forward to his zany, trademark facial expressions. We love to see what sort of remarkable outfit he’ll throw together (we can assume these wild designer looks cost him thousands of dollars, yet they also make us wonder if he got dressed in the dark or in the wrong house). Whether he’s streaking across the ice or cruising down the road in one of his many ultra-expensive sports cars, we can’t help but take notice of him.

Perhaps this season will finally put an end to the disagreement about Semin among Capitals fans, as we all fall in love with the quirky Russian.

Here’s my bold prediction.

Semin is in the best shape of his life and is entering the prime of his career. He will reach the 45 goal plateau and, if he stays on his current pace, will break 50. I expect him to sign with the Capitals for $6.5-$7 million a season for at least five years. If we are lucky and Semin truly wants to stay and play alongside Nicklas Backstrom and Alex Ovechkin for the remainder of their decade-long contracts, he may take a hometown discount and sign for $6 million a season for a longer contract.

Bottom line: I don’t see Semin leaving the Capitals. Period.

Photos: Alexander Semin rookie year, and Semin and Alex Ovechkin from Getty Images; Semin with Lada Togliatti from The Associated Press; Semin with Khimik from the team’s official team site; Semin portrait by Kyle Christy Photgraphy.

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09 Aug 2010 Ex-Thrashers, Current Drama Queens

Kovalchuk Kilt

Too late to break out Kovalchuk's Kombat Kilt? Maybe. Maybe not. Either way, divas dress to kill.

I have to say I gasped, then laughed like crazy when I saw the latest in Ilya-gate. The arbiter ruled in favor of the National Hockey League! WHAT?! As the late, great Johnny Carson would no-doubt have said (if he’d been a hockey fan), “that’s some weird, wild stuff.”

What is it with these ex-Atlanta Thrashers who become drama queens when they leave the team? Maybe Kovy has always been a bit of a diva (yeah, he has been), but we’ve had a string of interesting former Thrasher players all mixed up in the drama: Hossa-gate (and all the unnecessary rudeness surrounding it, of which I disapproved), Dany-gate (and all the rudeness that he did deserve), now this. A high-profile player cannot leave the Thrashers without drama ensuing — either immediately, during or after his departure. (So we stand on alert waiting for Kari Lehtonen to implode, get thrown from a bucking bronco at a dive bar in Dallas and tweak his groin, or eat himself into a fast food coma.)

Kovy, Kovy, Kovy. You could have avoided all of this ages ago by just taking the sweetheart deal the Thrashers begged you to sign.

This is all very amusing to me. Is it just me?! Perhaps “drama queen” is overstating it, but really. This is crazy. Kovalchuk is a free agent again! A little more than a month after he became a UFA, Kovalchuk could flit off to the Kontinental Hockey League and join the super team SKA St. Petersburg seems to be amassing over there. He could crown himself a Los Angeles King after all. Or, the humble and loving Thrasher fan in me naively, somewhere in the back of her mind thinks, he could come home to Atlanta. Yes. Go get him Dudley! (Oh! Silly me. We are not a “class organization” in his eyes, so never mind the bollocks!)

Am I spiteful? Just experiencing a wicked case of schadenfreude and am all giddy? Feel free to leave a comment and let me know. Until then … LOL Kovy. Oh dear!

Photo: Ilya Kovalchuk from kiltmen.com. If I am not mistaken, that photograph originally appeared in a fashion spread in a magazine many years ago. The Hockey Goddesses regret not knowing the original copyright owner, but would welcome this information (as much as we would welcome knowing how the author of the story and/or photographer persuaded him to pose in this garb — delightful and oddly sexy as it is.)

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05 Aug 2010 The NHL’s Silly Season
Bill Guerin

Bill Guerin: Do not need. Do not want.

Bob McKenzie has the right idea. A few days after the opening of the free agent market, he took himself off on vacation and, other than a couple of Kovalchuk comments, has mostly Tweeted about his hammock and golf game.

Other NHL media folk would be wise to follow suit. Or at the very least, as my mother used to say, think before they speak (or type, or Tweet).

Unfortunately, too many hockey media, with too much time on their hands, too eager to listen to any whispered rumors (whispered by whom? Agents, perhaps? Perish the thought!), are too ready to pass along any ridiculous crap they hear and call it “news.”

Case in point: The Boston Bruins are interested in Bill Guerin.

The story “broke” from St. Louis (St. Louis?) on July 27, in the midst of Blake Wheeler’s salary arbitration hearings. The New England Sports Network’s web site picked it up:

The Bruins could be welcoming back a familiar face to the Hub as the team is speaking with Bill Guerin about a potential return to Boston, according to Radio host and St. Louis Blues writer Andy Strickland.

“The Bruins are talking to veteran Billy Guerin,” Strickland Tweeted Tuesday. “They need to make a roster move before they can sign him…”

OK, obviously nobody stopped to ask one simple question. No, not WTF? (though I’ll admit that’s the first thing that crossed my mind.) The question would be “Why?”

The Bruins already have their Designated Old Guy. They’re in cap hell, and are going to have to move a player or two even without signing any free agents. Though they haven’t hung out signs saying “We’re going with a youth movment,” it’s fairly obvious to anyone paying attention that they’re aiming to get younger and more dynamic, with Tyler Seguin only the tip of their young prospect iceberg; they’ve got some real talent knocking on the door.

In a nutshell, signing Bill Guerin would make no sense whatsoever.

Meanwhile, that bastion of sports journalism The Bleacher Report picked up the story, with an added twist:

Reports from NESN have stated that the Boston Bruins have significant interest in veteran winger Bill Guerin.

Oooh, so now it’s “significant” interest!

The story grew, making it onto both of Boston’s sports radio stations, as well as ESPN’s web site. For 24 hours, Bruins fans hotly debated the pros and cons of the Return of Bill Guerin.

Until Joe Haggerty of CSNNE.com came along:

…A Bruins source told CSNNE.com Wednesday [July 28] there was no interest on their part in the 39-year-old free agent winger.

A Bruins source. Imagine that. A member of the media picked up the phone and, y’know, actually asked someone in the Bruins F.O. about it. Responsible journalism – who would have thunk it?

Mark Recchi

We've got our Designated Old Guy (Mark Recchi), thanks.

(And when you’re praising Joe Haggerty as a bastion of responsible journalism, you’re in trouble. But that’s a commentary for another day.)

However, like Monty Python’s iconic Black Knight, it’s not dead yet! Seriously. From yet another Bleacher Report blog (written on July 31):

I am hearing that Bill Guerin is generating interest from the Bruins, Penguins and Islanders.

And lest you think it’s just fannish blogs, think again

Former Penguins forward Bill Guerin was linked to the Boston Bruins but given their limited cap space in the wake of their acceptance of Blake Wheeler’s arbitration award, they can’t afford him.

No, he wasn’t! It was a rumor, probably started by his agent, aiming to drum up interest… oh, never mind. Just go on vacation. Please.

Photos:  Bill Guerin from The Associated Press.  Mark Recchi from Getty Images.



22 Jul 2010 What’s Happening to My Avs?

Not even Alexander Ovechkin could help fill the Pepsi Center last season

Today I saw a car with an Avs flag flying at half-mast.  I’m sure it wasn’t intentional, but it was rather fitting.  Yes, many Avalanche fans are in mourning for our team.

Why, you might ask?

Well, while the rest of you were getting excited about prospect camp, taking pictures and watching the final scrimmage, us Avalanche fans were sitting quietly at home twiddling our thumbs.  While you were anxiously watching the news wire for free agent signings by your team, we were napping.  And while you were being wooed to renew or buy more season tickets, we were already making plans as to how we would spend the money that we used to spend on season tickets, our phones silent as no one from the organization even called to ask why we didn’t renew this year.

Yep. The Avalanche organization has simply stopped caring.  How, you ask?  Let me count the ways.

First, there’s the development camp.  Apparently, according to the organization, the team had an “off-ice orientation” for the prospects.  Excuse me, but has anyone ever heard of such an “orientation” before?  An orientation where they ask all their prospects to interrupt their off-season training to come hang out for a few days and get “oriented” without stepping on the ice once?  How stupid does the organization think we really are?  If I were a betting woman, I’d say that we were being lied to, and that the Avs were having a development camp that is closed to the public and hence hush hush.  Of course there is the slight possibility that they really were having just an off-ice orientation, in which case they really have thrown in the towel.  Yes, while teams like the Caps, and even the God-awful Islanders were pulling in fans by the thousands we Avs fans could only read about other team’s camps with envy.

But wait!  That’s not all!  No, not only do you get a team who doesn’t take advantage of a great marketing opportunity, but you get a team that shows no interest in improving next year.  That’s right, folks.  No free agent signings, no help for a goalie who got the team to the playoffs almost completely on his own and no new, talented players for the fans to go watch.  In fact, the Avs have done so little that they actually haven’t even reached the cap floor!  The organization claims they’re “building from within” like the Red Wings, but let me tell you I’ve seen what’s coming up in the system and we have no Datsyuk or Zetterberg in our system to build around.  Hmm.  Maybe that’s why they didn’t have a camp.  They didn’t want the fans to see what kind of talent we really did (or didn’t) have.

Unfriendly policies have discouraged fans from attending Avalanche games.

Finally, you’ve all heard me bitching about the treatment of season ticket holders but it begs repeating – those of us that have cancelled our season ticket haven’t gotten so much as a simple call asking us why or to reconsider.   Perhaps it’s because it was seen as a waste of resources, or perhaps it’s because they just don’t care.

Of course, if this were Phoenix or another small-market, you might suspect that the organization was in financial trouble and just couldn’t afford the marketing, but alas, Kroenke Entertainment has more investments than you can shake a stick at, including the NFL Rams, Arsenal, Nuggets, a soccer stadium, a new ticket agency and whatever else I might be missing.  Doesn’t look like struggling ownership to me.

Which leads me back to my original hypothesis:  That the organization just doesn’t care.  And if that’s the case, why should we fans?

I suppose it’s too early to say R.I.P., but I’ll say it anyway.  Maybe the team will survive, or maybe it will be sold and shipped off to Winnipeg.  Stranger things have happened.

Photos:  Alexander Ovechkin and Pepsi Center by Goddess Sasha. 2009-2010.  All rights reserved.

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03 Jul 2010 Will Kovalchuk Get ‘Yashin-ed’?

Ilya Kovalchuk

Kovalchuk has said he just wants to win, but is it just lip service?

As I’ve watched the Kovalchuk bonanza (note slight sarcasm), the thought has occurred to me repeatedly that perhaps he will be the next Alexei Yashin. Some of the warning signs might already be there.

Yashin. Awesome player, but a guy maybe too many people expected too much out of. Maybe they expected more leadership than he could give. Hey, some guys just aren’t made that way. Maybe he was overpaid. (Maybe, they all are, but we won’t go there.) But being deemed an “overpaid” player brings massive pressure and expectation. Yashin was a captain for two different NHL teams — that’s a heaping helping of stress and responsibility for pretty much anyone, but for some it’s like trying to put a square peg in a round hole. Some guys are best left doing what they do best and no more. In Kovalchuk’s case, wind up, shoot, score, sneak out of the area and slip off to Morton’s in your sweet baby blue Bentley. No questions asked. As captain in Atlanta, he was never the media guy or the go-to-for-a-quote guy, which is part of the captain’s gig.

But what does Kovy have to do with Yashin? You’re probably thinking I am crazy. Maybe you’re right, but I am thinking several steps down the line. Let’s say Kovalchuk signs with the New York Islanders as is now the tasty rumor of the day. (The Islanders are, coincidentally, Yashin’s last NHL team. I won’t even mention the coincidence that Kovy and Alexei have the same patronymic, er, middle name: Valeryevich) Anyway. So, he signs with the Isles, he gets massive dollars, massive term. With it he gets the scrutiny of the New York media. He also gets the love (and hate) of the New Yawk fans. Whereas in Atlanta, he could slip out the back door without answering questions, in New York (or any other hockey haven) he’ll be held to account. A quiet night at The Cheesecake Factory (a Kovy fave)? Fuggetaboutit. In New York the fans will put him to the test even as he tries to enjoy that triple turtle cheesecake with extra whipped cream. Nobody will be polite. Nobody will call him Mr. Kovalchuk. It’ll be right up in his face with something like this: “What the [bleep] were you [bleeping] doing in last night’s [bleeping] game you [bleepity-bleepity-bleep]?! You bum!”

Kovalchuk has said in the past that he prefers anonymity and after years of watching how he handles himself around Atlanta, I am inclined to believe it. He’s spent years ducking the two or three reporters who make the ATL locker room scene. How will it feel to have a face full of ultra pushy reporters every single night and no way to sneak off into the darkness? Will he wilt? Thrive? Get angry? Or get “Yashin-ed” (that is to say, blamed for everything)?

Alexander Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk

As exciting as Ovechkin, left, Kovalchuk differs from his friend and countryman in some important ways.

Let’s say he is made captain of his new team. Can he handle the pressure? People might argue that sure he can. Of course! He’s held up under the gun of the Russian national team. He’s even excelled. But I argue, this is different. Much different. As a member of the national team, he’s among friends and fellow countrymen. He’s at home. In North America, he’s a bit of a fish out of water. He doesn’t seem to have the same comfort level here as, say, an Alexander Ovechkin (or his NHL-trailblazing forefather Sergei Fedorov), for example. He’s a bit of a homebody. Married young, with three young kids. Yet … like Yashin, he has a wife who was somebody once. Where Yashin has former supermodel Carol Alt, Kovalchuk has Nicole, who sang in a popular Russian, all-female group before settling down. Maybe she’s pushing to jumpstart a career here in the U.S.? If that’s the case, L.A. or N.Y. would be A-OK from her standpoint.

Alexei Yashin was vilified for holding out for more money when he was with the Ottawa Senators. Kovalchuk is painted by many here in North America as a “greedy bastard” — all about the money, not about the winning. Is it true? The jilted Thrasher fan in me has a tiny “yes” peeping inside. If he wanted to win, he could have done what Marian Hossa did: Hand-picked teams he felt had excellent chances of winning. Instead, if rumors are true, and that he’s asking for the sun, the moon AND the stars, he will have a limited number of teams able to pony up that kind of money. And, by all accounts, the number of teams is quite limited (teams in the Kontinental Hockey League notwithstanding). At the moment he seems to be proving the all-he-cares-about-is-money crowd to be correct. People said that about Yashin too.

Yashin was a solid player, really, but he could not shoulder the heavy burden of expectation that his contract placed on him. Some players thrive under such burdens, some break their sticks in frustration, cast them into the stands and get suspended by the league (hello Kovalchuk!).

Alexei Yashin

Yashin is all but forgotten in North America -- except by the Isles who will continue to pay him until 2014.

Let’s say he gets his big NHL pay day. He gets his long-term contract. He gets the sought-after no-trade clause. Let’s say he’s playing in the pressure cooker of a New York or under the bright lights in Hollywood. How will he hold up? One could argue that he didn’t hold up particularly well in Atlanta, where the spotlight isn’t as bright and the pressure is, well, close to nil. Sure he got his goals, but he was prone to brooding and fits of immaturity, particularly when things weren’t going well. (He was prone to moments of brilliance as well, no doubt about it.) One could argue that he didn’t lead Atlanta to glory. As a matter of fact, one wouldn’t need to argue that. It’s a fact. One could argue he’s a sniper, pure and simple, not a leader. One could argue — and many have — that he’s obsessed not with winning, but with money. Time will tell the true tale.

Five or six years down the road, I think we could be talking about one of two things: Kovalchuk being “Yashin-ed” — bought out and essentially forgotten by the league; or he experiences a modicum of success, but not as THE leader of whatever team he is playing for. If Kovalchuk wins anywhere, he will be a key piece, but not THE piece that seals the deal. He’s just not that kind of guy.

A third option — and one I still consider a possible scenario — is that he does go ply his trade in the KHL, spurning whatever offers come his way here in North America and going for the really big dollars the KHL can offer. I believe superstars like Kovalchuk are leaned on heavily by the powers that be in Russia and Kovalchuk recently supplanted Alexei Morozov as the captain of Team Russia. I could see Kovalchuk returning in glory to play in the KHL. Coincidentally, the KHL team said to be the front runner for his services? SKA St. Petersberg — Alexei Yashin’s team.

Photos: Ilya Kovalchuk; Alexander Ovechkin and Ilya Kovalchuk; and Alexei Yashin by Goddess Kaatiya. Copyright 2007-2010. All Rights Reserved.

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02 Jul 2010 How Do You Solve a Problem Like Modano?

Mike Modano

The former face of the Dallas Stars Mike Modano.

Mike Modano had a storybook ending to last season (the Dallas Stars failing to make the playoffs notwithstanding). His final home game saw him get an assist, a goal and the game-winning shootout goal. His last game took place in Minnesota, where his career began. The crowd cheered his shifts (after years of booing), the Stars won, and after the game he came out in an old Minnesota North Stars jersey, once again receiving thunderous applause.

The Stars produced video tributes. People flew from all over North America to be a part of Mike’s final games. Hockey pundits lavished praise upon the career of America’s greatest scorer. The problem is, Mike Modano wasn’t and isn’t ready to retire.

Now, what does an organization do when they are ready to turn a corner, but the face of their franchise isn’t? According to GM Joe Nieuwendyk, you don’t even offer the player a contract.

Legions of Dallas Stars and Mike Modano fans have taken to the talk radio airwaves and the Internet to voice their displeasure about the organization’s decision. You see, in the South, we’ve been brought up with better manners than that. Up North, you can get away with letting a Saku Koivu (or any other player that has spent his entire career with one team) go. But with Modano … this one is going to hurt.

Mike Modano

Mike Modano's good looks, easy charm and incredible play helped sell hockey in Texas.

When Mike and the former North Stars came to Dallas, Modano was the one the organization used to sell tickets. His was the face on the billboards. Pretty enough for the big-haired Texas woman to pay attention to, and talented enough to keep even the most diehard Cowboys fan watching in amazement as he weaved his way around defenders with his hair and jersey flapping in his wake.

As for me, I had hoped Mike would retire. Not because he doesn’t still have more hockey in him, but because I felt, in some ways, the Stars needed to move on, both on and off the ice. I’m also someone who hates seeing an athlete’s skill diminish as he struggles to keep up with the game he has played all of his life.

Sadly, few remember how feared Chris Chelios was. New York Rangers fans watched Mark Messier become a shadow of the player he had been. Even beloved Vancouverite Trevor Linden was a healthy scratch many times during his final season.

Mike Modano is my favorite player. He took that position the very first time I saw him skate. (Sorry Neal Broten!) I’ve watched him his entire career, even when he didn’t have his familiar No. 9 on the back of his sweater. As he and I take on different roles for the first time in more than 20 years, I hope he goes somewhere that will make him happy once again. You could see his frustration last season at how he was being utilized; and when Mike isn’t happy, he doesn’t play as well.

So, Mike, as you embark on this new chapter in your career, I wish you nothing but clean, fast ice … and may your jersey forever flap behind you!

(But please … land out East!)

Photos: Mike Modano from mikemodano.com.

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02 Jul 2010 Columbus Calling: Dan Hinote’s New Career
Dan Hinote

Hinote joined the Columbus Blue Jackets coaching staff Thursday.

Amidst the July 1st free agent signings was one that was of particular interest to me.  That’s because it involves my friend and former Avalanche player Dan Hinote. Well, he isn’t really a friend.  I mean, we don’t keep in touch or anything, but Dan has a way of making everyone he meets feel like his friend.

I met Dan a little more than three years ago.  We were both rehabbing at the same physical therapy practice: He after yet another shoulder surgery and me after surgery for a tri-malleor fracture of my ankle. By then, he was a member of the St. Louis Blues, but living in Denver in the off-season, he chose to rehab close to home.

Honestly, I hadn’t been all that star-struck.  After all, one of Denver’s “Most Eligible Bachelors” (as voted by a local magazine) wasn’t what I considered a dreamboat, nor was he someone that did much for me on the ice.  Yet after spending many hours working out, rehabbing and chatting with him, I realized what all the fuss was about.

Dan is one of the most genuine guys I have ever met.  He takes great interest in everyone he meets.  He never forgets anyone’s name.  He asked me a lot of questions about speed skating, about my competitions, my injuries.  We had a common friend on the Avalanche, and he had nothing but glowing things to say about him.  Every time I saw him, he’d come sit on the treatment table next to me and ask me how I was doing.  Elderly women would come in and Dan would remember all of their names and give them a big hug.

He was humble, and talked about how lucky he was to have broken in when he did — when it was still a trapping, clutch-and-grab league because he was just scrappy, and guys like him were no longer being drafted or given a shot in the NHL.

He was in love.  We got to hear all about Amy, his then-girlfriend (now wife).  He talked about taking her to the Sushi Den for her birthday.  He told us all about his trip to Las Vegas with the guys where he would relax and decide if he really was going to pop the big question.  When he got engaged, we all knew the next day.

It wasn’t hard to see why he was so well loved in Denver.  He was very social, being seen out and about the city, having a great time with whoever was willing.  Back then, you might see him hanging out at the famous country bar Stampede with Peter Forsberg, partying downtown or dining with John-Michael Liles in the ritzy Cherry Creek area where he lived.  He became a media darling, a fan favorite, and women and men alike just fell in love with him.

Then in 2006, he signed with St. Louis, but no one felt ill feelings towards him.  You just couldn’t.  He was cheered when he returned with his new team to play the Avs.  People still followed his social life and his lavish wedding back in Colorado was an item of great interest.  And, of course, we all cheered when he reunited with Peter Forsberg this year to play for Modo of Sweden’s Elitserien.

Today, we again applauded Dan when we heard he would become an assistant coach with the Columbus Blue Jackets. I can’t think of a better guy for the team.  He’s smart. Very smart.  After all, very few get accepted to West Point.  More importantly however, is his personality.

Much like Ted Nolan, Dan cares about people.  With a young, budding team like the Blue Jackets, he will be the perfect man to nurture these kids, to instill confidence in them and to give them advice.  He will be a shoulder to cry on, a confidante and a great role model.  He will quickly learn what makes each player tick and will know how to get the most out of them.  For now, he’s only an assistant, but I predict he is going to have more of an impact on this team than anyone is expecting.

Just ask anyone in Colorado.  Because we all know him well.

He’s our friend.

Photo: Dan Hinote by Goddess Sasha. Copyright 2008-2010. All Rights Reserved.

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