Inside The NHL

December 14, 1998

SAGE ADVICE
Astute counseling by a veteran helped Phoenix to get off to a hot
start

The Coyotes' surprising early-season success--they were 15-3-3
through Sunday--can be attributed to the fact that they've
played solid defense, gotten fine goaltending and allowed a
league-low 35 goals. But Phoenix is also on a roll for a less
obvious reason: 34-year-old right wing Rick Tocchet, whose
influence on the Coyotes' younger team leaders, Keith Tkachuk
and Jeremy Roenick, has changed Phoenix's personality.

Consider that Roenick, 28, had never been serious about working
out before Tocchet persuaded him last June to join him for six
weeks of punishing circuit training at a gym in Venice, Calif. "I
threw up, I cried, it was brutal," says Roenick, a center who led
Phoenix with 26 points. "He convinced me to do it."

By then Tocchet had already begun work on the psyches of Roenick
and Tkachuk, both of whom are two-time 50-goal scorers. After the
Coyotes squandered a two-games-to-one lead to the Red Wings last
spring to continue the franchise's 11-year streak of failing to
win a playoff series, Tocchet questioned the team's leadership.
He didn't single anyone out, but the 26-year-old Tkachuk was the
captain and Roenick an alternate. In case Tocchet's subtle
message didn't get through, he spelled it out before this season.
"I talked to them about providing a strong example, because
others will follow," says Tocchet. "The team starts with those
two. I reminded them they can't take a night off."

That's the kind of leadership Phoenix general manager Bobby
Smith was counting on when he signed Tocchet as a free agent in
July 1997. Tocchet, the lone member of the Coyotes to have won a
Stanley Cup (in 1992, with the Penguins), is a 15-year veteran
and, with 393 goals and 2,677 penalty minutes, one of the most
tenacious and effective right wings of his time. He has played
alongside Mario Lemieux and Wayne Gretzky and is so popular
among his peers that some 30 NHLers attended his wedding in
August. "Rick tells a guy to work harder, and it means
something," says Coyotes coach Jim Schoenfeld.

Still, it took time, as well as that sobering playoff loss, for
Tocchet's star pupils to lend their ears. Now that they have,
Phoenix's locker room has evolved from a spiritless place to one
in which conviviality is underlined by responsibility. Tkachuk,
the Coyotes' leader with 14 goals, is at its epicenter. He
good-naturedly exhorts laggards to hustle onto the team bus, he
rides Tocchet and right wing Dallas Drake ("I just can't tell
who's uglier," he says), and he also turns off the house music
when it's time to prepare for practice.

Roenick's transformation is clearest on the ice. After
disappointing 29- and 24-goal seasons, he has curbed his
freewheeling style for a grittier game. This season Roenick and
Tkachuk are regularly playing on the same line for the first
time, and last week, when the Coyotes outplayed the Oilers but
lost 4-3, the two combined on a telling goal. Tkachuk had the
puck behind the Edmonton net, where he was driven to the ice by
a defender. While falling, he passed to Roenick, who swept in
front of the cage, held off another Oiler and dished to Drake
for an easy goal. There's no doubt that Roenick's role in that
play traces to his summer sweat.

"He went hard in L.A., and it's paying off," says Tocchet. "There
were days he got so broken down I didn't think he'd show up the
next morning. But he always did."

Oilers Play the Bears
Ursines of The Times

The Moscow Circus has long featured bears trained to skate,
stickhandle and shoot pucks, so the troupe's arrival in Alberta
last week helps explain how three Oilers found themselves
skating with a pair of black bears at Edmonton's Clive Arena. In
the words of Oilers defenseman Boris Mironov, the quarter-ton
honey lovers were "a lot bigger than [6'8", 247-pound Kings left
wing] Steve McKenna."

Mironov, a Russian, coaxed teammates and countrymen Andrei
Kovalenko and Mikhail Shtalenkov to join him and the bears on ice
for a photo op. Mironov knows the circus organizers because his
wife, Katrin, worked for them as an acrobat and a magician's
assistant before she and Boris moved to Canada in 1993. "She
loved being in the circus," says Mironov, "but I thought it was
dangerous."

Though Kovalenko and Shtalenkov believed that the bears were
also perilous--"I didn't get close unless I had to, and I kept
asking if they had been fed," says Shtalenkov--Mironov was
unconcerned. "The man who trains them was there," he says, "If
anything went wrong, he would have handled it and said, 'Quiet,
bear!'"

Shooting Statistics
Lies and Damn Lies

Even as the NHL smartly expands the variety of statistics that
it keeps, it continues to proffer a worthless number: players'
shooting percentages. That stat--derived by dividing the number
of goals by the number of shots--isn't a reflection of shooting
accuracy, as it is in basketball.

While middling offensive talents like Flames center Jeff Shantz
(six goals at week's end) and Sabres right wing Dixon Ward (10)
were at the top of the league with percentages of around 30%,
Bruins defenseman Ray Bourque, who has won the
most-accurate-shot competition at the All-Star Game in five of
the past nine years, was at a measly 4% (three goals on 75
shots). In fact, many superior snipers, including Penguins right
wing Jaromir Jagr, were shooting under 10%.

Outstanding shooters find ways to put the puck on net much more
often than other players, so their percentage is expected to be
lower. But anytime a shot is on target, good things can
happen--including a rebound goal by a teammate. Says Islanders
director of player personnel Gordie Clark, "Shooting percentage
doesn't tell you much. I don't even look at it."

COLOR PHOTO: GLENN JAMES A fired up Tkachuk (7) has scored 14 goals in leading the Coyotes to a 15-3-3 mark. [Keith Tkachuk in game with opponent] COLOR PHOTO: J. LEARY/B. BENNETT STUDIOS [Chris Gratton] COLOR PHOTO: B. BENNETT/B. BENNETT STUDIOS [Martin Straka]

BUST AND BARGAIN

CHRIS GRATTON, C
Flyers
1998-99 salary: $1.5 million

In the summer of 1997, Philadelphia gave free agent Gratton, the
Lightning's franchise player, a $9 million signing bonus. He
played erratically last year and through Sunday had one goal
this season.

MARTIN STRAKA, C
Penguins
1998-99 salary: $500,000

In the summer of 1997, Pittsburgh gave free agent Straka, an
unheralded journeyman, no signing bonus. He played solidly last
year and at week's end led the Penguins with 14 goals this
season.

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)