Friday May 22nd, 2009

At some point, Jeremy Roenick's wildly flapping gums are going to make him some decent post-hockey coin. Unless, of course, he burns all bridges with comments like the ones he made on Thursday suggesting that Detroit Red Wings coach Mike Babcock is anti-American.

Heading into Game 3 in the Western Conference Finals, the former Blackhawk did his best to stir the pot by criticizing Babcock's handling of 47-year-old Chris Chelios on Chicago's Monsters of the Morning radio program.

"The coach just doesn't like him for some ungodly known reason," Roenick said. "I think he's got a grudge against American players...I don't know if it's hatred because hate is a strong word, but there is some underlying issue there that I don't understand."

Roenick babbled on: "If you'd know some of the things that Babcock says to Chris Chelios, it would make your stomach churn. Just total disrespect for not even just one of the best Americans, but one of the best defensemen to ever play the game. The way he is talked to is just unacceptable."

There may be something to the latter part. It's likely that Chelios feels slighted by his lack of playing time, and his relationship with the coach may in fact be strained. As my colleague Michael Farber pointed out, Chelios can be a pain in Babcock's behind with his constant lobbying for playing time, and at 47, Chelios's declining performance just hasn't warranted more than spot duty.

Babcock isn't one to mollycoddle his players, Hall of Fame credentials or not, so a few harsh words have probably been exchanged that may have rubbed the veteran the wrong way. Still, there's no chance that a guy with his eyes on the Cup is going to blackball a useful player because of his nationality...never mind the fact that Babcock's own children are American.

The key word here being "useful."

As much as it may hurt the pride of Chelios, the reason he's no longer one of Babcock's top-six blueline options is because of age, not bias. He should take a few moments to recognize that while he's sitting in the press box tonight. And if he's going to blow off some steam with anyone, he'd do well to look for an option other than Roenick.

What a time to be in Chicago. The weather's warming up, Kuma's Corner has been recognized for having one of the nation's top burgers, and the city is hosting Games 3 and 4 of the Western Conference Final.

Still, all things considered, I'd rather be in Rimouski.

As interesting as the Wings-Hawks clashes will be, the small town north of Quebec City is hosting what may be the weekend's most compelling hockey with the final two games of the 2009 Memorial Cup set for Friday night and Sunday afternoon.

Friday's semi-final (7:00 PM, Rogers SportsNet/NHL Network) features the OHL champion Windsor Spitfires taking on the top team from the QMJHL, the Drummondville Voltigeurs. The winner advances to Sunday's final (4:30, same TV) against the WHL's Kelowna Rockets.

The Spits dropped their first two games in the round robin, but earned a spot in the semis with a 6-4 win over host Rimouski on Thursday. Windsor entered the third period trailing 4-2, but Dale Mitchell (a 2007 pick of the Toronto Maple Leafs) scored three goals in a 3:33 span to keep the pre-tournament favorites alive in the win-or-go-home tiebreaker.

The result may have disappointed the home fans, but it was just another thrilling twist in what's been a highly entertaining tournament that features some of the NHL's most promising prospects.

If you're going to tune in (and it says here you should), here are six players to watch.

Taylor Hall (Windsor): The lanky 17-year-old winger is the early favorite to go first overall in the 2010 draft. He hasn't finished like he did as the MVP of the OHL playoffs, but he's had his moments. A nifty move on a one-on-one against Rimouski (in which he chipped the puck up in the air and then batted it down once he was around the defender) displayed the skill level that has dazzled scouts all year.

Ryan Ellis (Windsor): The OHL's most outstanding defender will be a first-round pick in this summer's draft. Lack of size will keep him out of the top five, but his vision, patience and puck skills suggest he'll be an elite power play quarterback in the NHL.

Yannick Riendeau (Drummondville): A free-agent signing by the Bruins in March, Riendeau is an offensive marvel who scored 29 goals and 52 points in just 19 QMJHL playoff games this spring. Some think his skating may relegate him to the minors, but as he's shown in this tournament, he finds a way to get to where offensive chances happen.

Dmitry Kulikov (Drummondville): His smooth skating and savvy transitional skils have earned him comparisons to Sergei Zubov, but Kulikov brings a physical dimension that the Dallas defender rarely does. The Q's rookie and defenseman of the year is likely to be a top-10 pick this summer.

Jamie Benn (Kelowna): The big (6-2, 212) left winger looks like the steal of the 2007 draft. The Stars, who nabbed him in the fifth round, see Benn as top-six forward. He's not as physical as some would hope, but there's no questioning his hands. He had four goals in a round-robin win over Drummondville, just one off the record of five (set by Caps coach Bruce Boudreau).

Tyler Myers (Kelowna): Seen as something of a project when Buffalo traded up to select him 12th overall last summer, Myers looked more like a finished product when he was named MVP of the WHL playoffs. As he's grown more comfortable in his 6-8, 215-pound body, Myers' skating and confidence have improved dramatically. It's hard to imagine him not starting next season on the Sabres' blueline.

Now that Gary Bettman has expertly doused that little brushfire in the desert, setting new standards of charm, transparency and efficiency in the process, perhaps he'll be able to turn his attention to a little flare-up that's appeared closer to home.

The New York Islanders -- not part of his Sun Belt footprint, but apparently a legitimate NHL franchise nonetheless -- took another step toward vacating Long Island when owner Charles Wang announced an Oct. 3 deadline for the Town of Hempstead to approve the long-delayed Lighthouse Project.

If that deadline passes, it's a near certainty that the Islanders won't be islanders for long.

Not that anyone can blame Wang (the man who recently bemoaned in public his decision to buy the team) for drawing this provocative line in the sand. The franchise has been bleeding cash at a nearly Coyote-like pace ever since he purchased it nine years ago, to the tune of $15-$20 million last season, and there's no chance of staunching the flow. Well, no chance without the Lighthouse Project, a large-scale multi-purpose plan that includes a new arena (good for the Isles) but also a high-end hotel, luxury residences, a convention center, a minor league ballpark and an entertainment district.

While there's support for the arena, it's the larger scale project that's leading to the political foot-dragging in Nassau County. And that's a problem because these "peripherals" are what will prove to be the actual money generators for Wang.

At a time when development has stalled around the country, this should be a no-brainer for the good folks of Nassau County. It's not just a job creator, both in the short and long run, it's a quality of life issue.

But the chance to bring Bruce Springsteen and the Shriners to a modern facility in Nassau County hasn't swayed Kate Murray, the Hempstead town supervisor who appears to gain as much senseless personal satisfaction from stonewalling Wang as Bettman does from poking Jim Balsillie. The plan now has been stalled for more than a year and, by all accounts, won't get past her desk.

So now Wang has put a deadline on the proposal. Pass it by Oct. 3, or the project is dead. And with it, the doomsday clock on the team's residency on Long Island begins to tick. The club's lease runs out in 2015. Approaching that, Wang certainly would enjoy the full support of the league as he explores his options, much as the Penguins did when they allowed Kansas City to come courting while trying to get a replacement for Mellon Arena approved.

Of course, there are options open to the Islanders that are far less drastic than having them become the new Monsters of the Midwest. There's been talk of sharing space in a building in Brooklyn with the NBA's Nets. Queens is said to be a possibility. There may even be an opportunity to build an Islanders-first facility elsewhere on the island.

But if Lighthouse fails, Kansas City becomes a legitimate option. If Balsillie's end-around is thwarted (unlikely, from this perspective), there's Hamilton. Or Houston. Or Las Vegas. Or any of the other usual suspects. But the one place the Islanders likely won't be is on Long least, if that deadline passes.

Which is where Bettman comes in...only this time, he's wearing a white hat for a change.

There's an election coming in November, one that could see a shake-up of the make-up of the political scene in Hempstead. One of the outstanding civil servants who needs to defend her record before the hoi polloi? Yep -- Kate Murray. If she's returned to the private sector (a possibility if not a likelihood), Wang's plans may finally fall on a more sympathetic set of ears.

Or they may not. We'll never know, because Wang's deadline is before the election...unless Bettman convinces him to extend it another couple of months.

Seems like a simple stop-gap measure, doesn't it? If Murray stays in office, Wang can look into finding a new home, a buyer or both. If she's removed, maybe the Islanders have a chance to stay and build towards a future worthy of their storied past.

So let's hope Bettman focuses some of those charismatic healing powers of his on Wang. After all the miracles he's worked in Phoenix, that isn't too much to expect, is it?

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