The so-called Hockey Gods have been accused of many things during the lifetime of the sport, but smiling has seldom been anywhere near the top of the list.
So it is again that NHL camps are opening and the gods seem to be looking down with distain at a handful of players who are coming off "down" seasons, long-term injuries or comeback attempts. One could argue an even more powerful force, the money gods, also have a hand in things at this time of year, putting the touch on players who seemingly still have more to give but because of their contracts or lack of same, find their careers in peril.
Here's a list of those who have come to camp this week hoping, in some cases against hope, for another opportunity to find themselves worthy of a smile from the Powers That Be.
Tim Connolly, Buffalo SabresThe consensus is that the Sabres' playoff fortunes ride on the shoulders (and glove hand) of Ryan Miller and a return to the form that landed him on the list of the top 10 netminders in the league. There is some truth to that, but the fate of the franchise this season is truly in the exceptionally skilled hands of Connolly. He has the on-ice vision of a prophet, but in recent years the injury gods have cursed him with both head and leg injuries. He's even battled the curse that befalls most of us mere mortals: weight problems. Still, if he is blessed with some good fortune this time around, he'll be the lynchpin of Buffalo's success as their No.1 play-making center and key creator on the power play. If that happens, the Sabres are back in the postseason...unless of course the gods frown on Miller.
Simon Gagne, Philadelphia FlyersOh what a splendid team the Flyers would have been last season if the multi-talented Gagne had been able to overcome the effects of a series of head injuries that produced virtually a lost season for the talented centerman. Gagne was supposed to be the recipient of all the ice that the rough and tumble Flyers opened up last season, but he never could answer the bell even when his teammates cleared the zone of all opponents. He comes to camp claiming to be fully recovered and ready to contribute, but the gods, like Flyers fans themselves, appear to be taking a wait-and-see approach.
Jose Theodore, Washington CapitalsThought to be the answer to all the prayers offered up to St. Patrick of Roy in Quebec, the oft-troubled Theodore played like it for a good portion of last season with Colorado. Then the money gods got involved. In the whirlwind of free agency, Theodore landed Oz-like in Washington after the departure of Cristobal Huet (Chicago) and long-time Cap Olie Kolzig (Tampa Bay). Some argue that it will take a miracle for Theodore to show a sustained effort given that his career has always been marked by high highs and low lows. With high expectations in Washington, it could be a little tough to measure up, but if the gods are friendly and Theodore has put in the necessary offseason effort, this could work. He needs to play to a form that won him raves in Montreal and, at least in the latter part of his career in Colorado, to make that happen.
Doug Weight, New York IslandersHistory and statistics both show that Weight, 37, one of the finest American-born players to ever dress in the NHL, should quit. He's bounced all over the map in recent years and managed to slide out of both St. Louis and Anaheim last season. The gods of logic have indicated that Weight, who was given his outright release by the Ducks after they acquired him a trade for Andy McDonald, simply can't compete at this level any longer. To his credit, however, Weight won't quit and signed instead with the New York Islanders, a franchise that one might argue that even God forgot. It remains to be seen if Weight will make an impact or an exit on the Island, but if you are favored by the gods of optimism and perseverance, you have to be rooting for this guy.
Patrice Bergeron, Boston BruinsThe gods made Bergeron the tortured toy for unsportsmanlike conduct while cursing the entire Boston team with injuries in excess of 350 man games lost last season. Bergeron suffered the cruelest fate. He was run from behind by a thug in a Flyers sweater and missed almost the entire regular season with headaches and assorted post-concussion problems. Bergeron suffered mightily and even now no one is certain he can resume his career at the level he was at prior to the injury, but he's in camp to find out. He's one of many who deserve a better fate.
Darren McCarty, Detroit Red WingsProving once again that the hockey gods are inexplicable in their behavior, McCarty was cursed with personal problems then shown the way to redemption. He worked his way back into Detroit's good graces after a recovery from issues that included bankruptcy, first catching a gig in the minors that led to a promotion to the bigs for last season's playoffs. There does not appear to be much left in the 36-year-old winger's tank and, as always, Detroit has a lot of talent in, well, the wings. But McCarty did get a new one-year contract this week and another chance to make the roster. Here's hoping his time of torment is over.
Brendan ShanahanShanahan, one of the most complete players the game has ever known and a surefire Hall of Fame inductee at some fast approaching date, has been left at the curb by the New York Rangers. They might still sign him, particularly if they don't sign the gods of mystery's plaything, Mats Sundin. But for now, Shanahan sits and waits for a phone call that should have come weeks ago. He's not the player he once was, and though he believes that last season's disappointments were caused by injuries that have fully healed, it seems that no one believes in him any longer. It would be a sad way for a great player to end his career -- short of a farewell season in Ranger blue (so many greats have done it before him that it's almost a rite of passage). It would also be wrong. Shanahan has something left simply because he has too much pride not to go out in style. He's a good hire even if his skills have eroded because of what he brings to a team in terms of pride and passion. Alas, the money gods have no sentiment for that type of player any more.
Martin Gerber and Alex Auld, Ottawa SenatorsOr is it Alex Gerber and Martin Auld? The Senators will try to cobble a Frankenstein goaltender out of the bits of two still-young men who separately once held great promise but can't seem to make the pieces of their game fit. The gods wreaked havoc with goalie Ray Emery's headlast season and had so much fun that they also messed with the minds of Gerber and, in the offseason, the defense that will play in front of him. Sens GM Bryan Murray brought in Auld to provide support for the always fragile Gerber, but Auld is a bit of a mind-games victim himself. He's been passed among teams like a beer ball at a frat party. Still you can't help rooting for these two guys because they keep coming back to climb the same wall they've never been able to get over. Perhaps they can make it by helping each other, but given the unsettled state of the Sens, one gets the feeling that the gods have still more games to play.
Jeff Finger, Toronto Maple LeafsIt is with Mr. Finger that the hockey gods have been at their creative best. First they lay clear the way for the fledgling defenseman to win a free-agent contract good for $14 million over four years ... with arguably the worst team in the league. The Leafs have a media contingent the size of Godzilla and equally as angry.
Now, Finger is better than his critics would have you believe. He's rugged in his own zone and has size and a willingness to use it. He had 24 points last season for Colorado. For an eighth-round pick who worked his way up from nowhere, that's very good. The problem is that he's now in Toronto where expectations are always a multiple of 20 in regards to overall talent. Had he signed in Nashville, Phoenix or with any of a half a dozen teams that need a decent, hard-working journeyman with an upside, no one would have noticed. In some markets, he would be praised as a decent acquisition albeit a little pricey. But no, he had to go to Toronto where they run even decent-to-great defensemen out of town just for sport.
The gods weren't just cruel to Finger, they were sadistic.
And lest we forget...
Jay FeasterThe former Tampa Bay Lightning general manager doesn't have a camp to go to. Feaster does have a Stanley Cup ring on his finger (circa 2004) and the somewhat unfairly-placed devil's horns that come from being hamstrung with a big payroll and a Collective Bargaining Agreement that proved to be a curse for his team and several others. He earned no love with the new ownership group in Tampa and seemingly none from other clubs as well. Feaster has time left on his Tampa Bay deal, so he will not suffer the affliction of poverty, but it appears he'll be sitting out this season. As all know, out of sight is quickly followed by out of mind in hockey. Ask former GMs Pat Quinn and Doug MacLean and any of a half dozen coaches who were gainfully employed as late as the end of last season how cruel the hockey gods can be.
Click here for an SI photo gallery of these players.