THE BIG MESS

Last summer's most significant transaction has been bad news for
the Rangers, who let Mark Messier go as a free agent, and for
the Canucks, who signed him to a three-year, $20 million deal.
New York (23-35-18 through Sunday) fell flat without Messier,
its captain the past six seasons, and cries of "We want Mark!"
have resounded at Madison Square Garden.

Meanwhile, the 37-year-old Messier, who had 21 goals and 37
assists through last weekend, has done little to justify his big
contract. By the time Vancouver had gone 4-13-2, coach Tom
Renney and general manager Pat Quinn were fired, and Messier
ally Mike Keenan was brought in to run the Canucks. Vancouver
has played poorly under Keenan (20-26-11), and when popular
center Trevor Linden was traded to the Islanders on Feb. 6,
wounded Canucks fans heard no regrets from Messier, who had
taken Linden's long-held captaincy in training camp.

Part of the reason the Rangers allowed Messier to leave, even
though he has played on six Stanley Cup champions and is widely
regarded as the most inspirational leader in hockey, was that
the front office had grown wary of his thirst for power. Last
week Gino Odjick, a Canucks winger for eight seasons before also
being traded to the Islanders, on March 23, offered a harsh
indictment of Messier to the Vancouver Province. "Everybody was
on board, waiting to go along with him. But he didn't break a
sweat the first 10 games, waiting for Renney and Quinn to get
fired. He's not with the players. He's the one who controls
everything."

Said Messier last week, "When I got here, this was anything but
a team. It was failing in the most important part of the
business--winning. Everybody knew changes needed to be made."

Recently winger Pavel Bure, Odjick's best friend and the
Canucks' most talented player (47 goals through Sunday), has
hinted that he wants to be traded, too. With or without Bure,
Messier and Keenan will try to whip together a winner largely
out of the existing talent in Vancouver next year, while the
Rangers rebuild. Here's the capper: For the first time since
Messier and New York's Wayne Gretzky broke in together with the
Oilers in 1979-80, both will miss the playoffs.

Rules of the Game
SOME TINKERING DOWN BELOW

In arena-sized laboratories across the country, the NHL last
month conducted two-game experiments in the AHL and IHL with
seven rules modifications that might enliven the action and
increase scoring chances. The NHL's general managers will
discuss the results when they convene in June. Here are the five
most significant experiments and the impressions of some of the
minor league coaches and players who were involved.

1) Playing four 15-minute quarters. Las Vegas and Detroit tried
this in the IHL. The changes slightly improved the quality of
the ice late in the games because of the shorter periods and
because the rink was resurfaced three times instead of the usual
two. But players complained that the shorter periods curtailed
momentum and that the brief breaks (eight minutes after the
first and third quarters, 14 minutes at halftime) were more
disruptive than restorative because by the time the teams
trudged to the dressing rooms it was time to return to the ice.

2) Players serve all of a two-minute penalty even if a
power-play goal is scored. In 20 power plays over the two AHL
games, no team scored once, let alone twice, during a minor. "It
didn't help us because our power play sucks," says Providence
coach Tom McVie, whose Bruins were 0 for 12 with the man
advantage.

3) Goalies can't play the puck behind the net. Robb Stauber,
Hartford's usually active stickhandling keeper, had to restrain
himself in an AHL game against Springfield and says the rule "is
definitely bad." But on-ice officials reported an increase in
tempo as forwards attacked and followed the puck into the zone,
and used the endboards to send passes to their teammates.

4) Players with the puck can't stop behind their own net. McVie
said this rule increased game flow and discouraged the defensive
team from setting up the trap. Players, however, said there was
little impact.

5) Goal lines moved two feet farther from the endboards.
Hamilton coach Lorne Molleken, whose AHL Bulldogs played twice
on the reconfigured surface, likes this change. "It created some
good scoring chances with players setting up behind the net," he
says. However, his goalie, Steve Passmore, feels the rule's
biggest impact was that it clogged the neutral zone, which was
reduced in size to compensate for the extra space behind the
goals.

Tampa Bay Goalie
ROCKING AND ROLLING IN THE NET

Zac Bierk, the Lightning's 21-year-old rookie goalie, won his
first NHL game last week, beating the Rangers 3-1 on the road.
Though Madison Square Garden wasn't full of screaming
adolescents wearing T-shirts bearing Bierk's likeness, at least
he could ruminate on the thrill of the big-city spotlight with
his 30-year-old brother, Sebastian.

That would be Sebastian Bach, who has reached fame as the
sapling-thin, spandex-clad lead singer for the metal band Skid
Row, and whose stage name seems out of the satirical
rockumentary This Is Spinal Tap. Bach's band has produced two
platinum albums, and he was on the cover of Rolling Stone in
1991. Thus, Zac's teenage education included touring with
Aerosmith.

Last week it was Bierk who landed his brother a ticket to the
main event, and after the game Bach was as wide-eyed as any
starstruck metalhead. "It blew me away to see Wayne Gretzky
trying to score on my little baby-faced brother and failing," he
said. "I'm stoked, man!"

COLOR PHOTO: ROCKY WIDNER CAPTAIN CRUNCHED Part of the reason for Vancouver's fall has been Messier's subpar year. [Mark Messier in game] COLOR PHOTO: DONALD WALLER/FOX [Foxtrax glowing hockey puck] COLOR PHOTO: B. BENNETT/B. BENNETT STUDIOS [Referee's hand holding hockey puck]

BUST AND BARGAIN

FOXTRAX GLOWING PUCK
Cost: $2 million-plus to develop
The innovative puck, which returns with Fox playoff broadcasts,
is distracting and often harder for TV watchers to follow than
the standard disk.

PLAIN OLD PUCK
Cost: About $1
It glides, it flies, it scores. It also attracts the best
players in the game.What more does a viewer need?

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)