Tuesday May 12th, 2009

On the morning of Game 4 last Friday, Boston Bruins defenseman Aaron Ward said it was difficult to raise the level of "emotional involvement" against the Carolina Hurricanes because "they're a difficult team to hate. Small. Not real physical. Don't stir it after the whistle."

Ward talked about playing against Ray Whitney, his best friend in the game and a former teammate from Carolina's 2006 Stanley Cup champion, and how he was trying not to even look him in the face. He had given Whitney a stiff crosscheck from behind in Game 2. When he whirled, Ward said, Whitney had looked mildly surprised when he saw who had delivered the blow.

"Unless we can crank up the necessary level of emotional involvement," Ward continued, "Well ...

That should no longer be a problem.

Carolina forward Scott Walker took care of that by using Ward as a punching bag in the closing minutes of Game 5 on Sunday. Walker dropped his gloves and threw an overhand right that struck Ward, gloved hands still at his side, in the face. For his discipline and his troubles, Ward might have suffered a broken orbital bone. He made the trip to Raleigh for Game 6, and has said that he expects to play. At least no one in Boston called it a lower-body injury.

Curiously, Walker was not suspended although he was fined $2,500. According to NHL rules, the instigator, fighting and game misconduct penalties he richly earned with 2:47 left in a one-sided game should have resulted in an automatic suspension plus a $10,000 fine for coach Paul Maurice. Instead, the NHL decided it couldn't have been an altercation -- Ward didn't fight back -- and reduced the penalty to a tip-money fine. The logic escapes us more completely than Walker, who took exception to Ward's treatment of linemate Matt Cullen, escaped suspension. Apparently depending on the score, the conclusions of games are still the NHL's Wild West.

At least the shameful "sucker punch" -- an apt enough description even though Ward could see it coming -- raised the temperature on a series that finally had gathered the requisite heat.

Following their sleepwalk in Game 4 hours after Ward's musing about emotional investment, the Bruins, facing elimination, at last looked like the team that had freight-trained its way through its first five playoff games. Captain Zdeno Chara finally got the better of Hurricanes center Eric Staal -- no individual battle in the playoffs that has been this stirring; the Alex Ovechkin-Sidney Crosby deal is more of a virtual than physical battle -- and goalie Tim Thomas was bulletproof. Phil Kessel reentered the playoffs with a couple of goals.

There is no guarantee the Bruins can replicate the energy Tuesday but any excuse for not despising the erstwhile nice guys from Carolina in Game 6 is long gone.

For a guy stuck with the "C" by a general manager who was too clever by half, Vancouver Canucks goalie Roberto Luongo deserves a C-minus for his play against the Chicago Blackhawks.

Undermined by undisciplined penalties and an imploding defense, Luongo still was below average for any NHL starting goalie, let alone a man who has earned the reputation as the best puck-stopper, if not best overall goalie, in hockey.

Luongo gave up seven goals to the Blackhawks in a decisive 7-5 loss in Game 6 on Monday, two more than he allowed the St. Louis Blues in four games in their first-round series. In three of their four losses to the energetic and formidable Blackhawks, the Canucks coughed up leads in the third period. This might indeed be the biggest post-lockout improvement in the NHL -- late leads are no longer locks, not with the willingness of referees to call penalties -- but stouter goaltending might have averted disaster for a city that is second only to Montreal in its visceral passion for its hockey team.

After the season-ending defeat in Chicago, Luongo, who spoke because that is what captains are supposed to do, was nearly inconsolable.

In an apparent effort to flatter Luongo and differentiate the Canucks from 29 other teams, GM Mike Gillis gave the goalie the nominal "captaincy" -- recall the "C" on the mask? -- even though NHL rules have proscribed it for decades. This was a mistake. Stopping the puck is an onerous responsibility by itself; Luongo, even if he didn't realize it himself, didn't need another burden.

Like Patrick Roy, Martin Brodeur and others, Luongo could have continued to be a dressing room force without the accoutrement. He did not need to be anointed. Now, entering the final season of his Vancouver contract, he can hardly bail on the job.

With Luongo's disappointing play, suddenly Canada's rock-solid goaltending for the 2010 Olympics is an open-ended question. The two most logical candidates for the No. 1 job, Luongo and Brodeur, both had playoff meltdowns. (And other than getting Canada into the 2004 World Cup final with some splendid work in place of an injured Brodeur in the semifinal, Luongo does not have a hefty pro portfolio of victories in critical games.) Carolina's Cam Ward moves into the discussion based on his play this spring, but he was in goal in 2008 when Canada faltered late in the world championship gold medal game against Russia.

Russia's 2-1 win over Canada in the final of the 2009 World Championship on Sunday, their second straight over the Canadians, was a splendid hors' d'oeuvre for the main course next February in Vancouver. Russia-Canada would be a dream Olympic gold-medal match game, a fitting finale if this is the last time that NHL players participate in the Games.

While the United States occasionally flares as Canada's leading hockey rival, the memories of the 1972 Summit Series are embedded in Canada's hockey DNA. That won't change. And with the prospect of a best-on-best that includes Ovechkin, Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Ryan Getzlaf and the Olympic imprimatur, this could be a hockey Armageddon.

But as the two nations enter Vancouver as co-favorites, remember there have been six different teams in the three Olympic finals that have involved NHL players. In Turin, Russia knocked out Canada, 2-0, in the quarters but was blanked by Finland in the semis.

For those who wondered why Nashville contract jumper Alexander Radulov (Salavat of the KHL) was allowed top play in the IIHF-sanctioned worlds, an IIHF official told On The Fly that the wording of the old transfer agreement was such that the body was powerless to stop him. The rules have been rewritten, however, and go into effect July 1, 2010.

For all his persuasive charms and public relations panache in Canada -- pushing the prospective of a seventh Canadian NHL team is preaching to the choir -- Jim Balsillie is tone deaf in dealing with NHL power brokers. Even if a bankruptcy court judge in Phoenix abets his audacious plan to buy the Phoenix Coyotes for $212.5 million and move them to Hamilton, the NHL isn't going to simply allow the franchise into southern Ontario because of one judge. This will be a Warren Zevon song, replete with lawyers, guns and money. And when the smoke clears, Balsillie could have squandered his chances of owning an NHL team -- at least for the foreseeable future.

The marriage should be a good one: Balsillie, who failed in earlier bids to buy Pittsburgh and Nashville because of the relocation issue, is a wealthy man who likes hockey. (As for the unpleasantness this year with the Ontario Securities Commission over some backdated stock options, which resulted in a hefty fine and his having to leave the board of Research In Motion for at least 12 months ... well, given the business history of some NHL owners, he should fit right in.)

But Commissioner Gary Bettman is not about to abandon Phoenix or cede the southern Ontario market to a renegade who is more adept at end runs than the Packers' Paul Hornung was in the 1960s. If Balsillie can pull this off, anomie if not anarchy, would be the order of the day. And as attractive as it might be to some members of the Board of Governors to stop propping up the red-ink Coyotes, which the league contends it took over from owner Jerry Moyes last November, Bettman's numerous allies probably realize that their long-term interests lie in keeping an orderly process.

There is, of course, a principle of business that says an entrepreneur should put his franchise in a locale where there are actual customers. A McDonald's wants to be on a street with traffic, no? And there is some reason to believe Phoenix has too many hockey vegetarians for the Coyotes to ever succeed. The problem with that common assumption is it has yet to be proved definitively.

When the Winnipeg Jets moved to Phoenix in 1996, they played downtown in America West, a basketball venue. The Coyotes didn't move to Glendale until 2003, essentially blowing up their season-ticket base and obliging most fans to drive almost an hour to games. In other words, six years ago the Coyotes essentially became an expansion team, thanks to the $180 million largesse the ambitious suburb poured into building an arena. They might never succeed in their current location, but until they ice a winning team -- and GM Don Maloney is inching them closer -- there is at least a dollop of hope that this franchise will be more than a money pit.

The other conceit is that Hamilton/Southern Ontario will be a slam-dunk success. With a hockey-crazed population of nine million in the surrounding area, this seems likely. But back up a minute.

Hamilton, an old steel city, is not Shangri-la and the 24-year-old Copps Coliseum is not state-of-the art. (As one member Board of Governor told On the Fly a few years ago, "I can't put Tonight: Hamilton on our marquee." In a few years, presumably Balsillie would manage to have a new arena built, but that won't solve the larger problem of the neighboring Toronto Maple Leafs.

And we're not just talking about any territorial indemnification that Maple Leaf Sports and Entertainment might be entitled to, either. Despite the on-ice fecklessness, there is a deep-rooted attachment to the blue and white. As appealing an alternative as a second NHL team might appear to Ontarians who probably would elect Balsillie Prime Minister tomorrow -- lower ticket prices, perhaps, and maybe better hockey -- the Hamilton Steelers would be simply that: eternally the second team. (Like the New York area, there might be three teams, but only one -- the Rangers -- is a business bonanza.)

The Steelers would have a more serious impact on the cross-border Buffalo Sabres, which draw a fifth of their crowds from southern Ontario and are more vulnerable than the flush Maple Leafs.

The bankruptcy case continues May 19, a story that will elbow the playoffs out of the spotlight as long as it drags on.

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