AWESTRUCK
Catching the Rocket on the alltime goals list is a humbling feat
for the Kings' Luc Robitaille

Kings left wing Luc Robitaille approaches hockey with the
enthusiasm of a kid skating on a Montreal pond, which he once
was and which he seemingly became again last week when he talked
of the NHL milestone he was on the verge of achieving. "I get so
excited and then so humbled," said Robitaille, who through
Sunday had 543 career goals, 19th in the NHL alltime rankings
and one shy of tying Rocket Richard."In a way it's embarrassing.
I mean, he's the Rocket."

Richard retired six years before Robitaille was born in 1966,
but growing up, Robitaille heard tales of Richard, a proud and
mystical fellow Quebecker who scored 50 goals in 50 games in
1944-45, led the league in goal scoring five times and won eight
Stanley Cups with the hometown Canadiens. "I heard about his
eyes," said Robitaille. "How he could look right through
goalies, bring fear into opponents just with his eyes."

To this day the 78-year-old Richard remains his country's most
beloved and esteemed French Canadian hockey hero. He not only
was the first Montreal native to win the Hart Trophy, in 1947,
but was also a symbol of the Quebecois spirit. In '54-55 Richard
slugged a linesman during a late regular-season game and was
suspended through the playoffs by the NHL's Anglophone
commissioner, Clarence Campbell, setting off the infamous
Richard Riot. The five-hour uprising by 10,000 fans outside the
Montreal Forum is regarded as a touchstone of the Quebec
independence movement.

Robitaille has had a magnificent career, thanks mostly to his
supple hands, but he's a plodding skater who would never evoke
memories of the supersonic Richard. What they share is a
heritage. When Robitaille scored his 500th goal last season,
Richard sent him a note saying, "It's good to see another little
Quebecker get No. 500."

Robitaille cherishes that letter as well as the occasions, at
the NHL All-Star Games of 1993 and '99, when Richard, who
attended those matches, gazed upon him with those fabled eyes.
"I can't remember what we talked about," says Robitaille. "I was
in awe he even knew who I was."

Olympic Participation
SAY GOODBYE TO SALT LAKE CITY?

The NHL may have the world's best players, but it won't partake
in the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City without a little help
from across the Atlantic. While the league's board of governors
and the players' association want to go to the Winter Games, the
IOC requires that the NHL gain approval from the International
Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) before its players are allowed to
compete. Last week four powerful members of the IIHF's executive
council--the Czech Republic, Finland, Russia and Sweden--joined
forces to try to block the NHL's path to Salt Lake unless the
league increases transfer payments to European federations.
Those organizations have developed about one third of the
players in the NHL, including many of its stars.

"We simply need more financial support if we are going to
continue to develop players," says Swedish federation president
Rickard Fagerlund. "We're not satisfied with the transfer fees
we receive." The 11-member council, which also includes Austria,
Canada, England, France, Japan, Switzerland and the U.S., passes
measures by a majority vote. The four nations who are demanding
concessions will almost certainly get at least two or more
countries to follow their lead.

The NHL now pays the IIHF between $5.5 million and $6 million
annually for player development. The IIHF then parcels out that
money to individual federations in proportion to how many
players a nation loses to the NHL. Last year 56 players bolted
Europe for the NHL, meaning that individual federations got
about $100,000 per player lost--far less than what it costs to
replace him. The federations receive no compensation for the
handful of players who jump to the Canadian junior leagues each
year.

NHL executives have been dismissive of the demand for added
funding--"It's just a lot of noisemaking," says spokesman Frank
Brown--partly because they know the league can lure Europe's
finest players whether it funds development or not. Though the
Europeans have little leverage apart from granting entree into
the Olympics, their bargaining position is strengthened by how
much the NHL wants to be in Salt Lake City. In a recent SI poll
21 of the 24 general managers who responded said they favored
participation in the Olympics.

IIHF president Rene Fasel, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman and
others will convene in early March to discuss the matter before
the IIHF votes at a congress in Russia in May. "We'd like very
much to reach an agreement, but we're not going to give in,"
says Fagerlund. "We've been playing in the Olympics for 75
years, and NHL players have been involved only once. I think we
could get by without them."

Hockey Fashion
THE CAT ON THE HAT

Chinese ideograms, known in the U.S. by the Japanese word kanji,
have become the tattoos of choice among rappers and their fans,
and now puckheads are sporting the symbols as well. After the
NHL unveiled a line of baseball caps emblazoned with the kanji
corresponding to each team's nickname, it made sense that
Predators general manager Dave Poile and his Penguins
counterpart, Craig Patrick, donned their respective kanji caps
for last month's announcement that Nashville and Pittsburgh will
play two regular-season games in Japan next October.

Poile, however, won't be wearing that same cap in Tokyo. Shortly
after the announcement, one of the Predators' minority owners,
Terry London, showed the cap to his Japanese daughter-in-law,
who pointed out that the kanji on it would be translated as
"pussycat." That's a far less intimidating creature than the
snarling, fanged feline on Nashville's logo would seem to
suggest, and lest the Predators get heckled for being a bunch
of...well, you know, the NHL stopped production on the Nashville
caps and will issue new ones with the kanji for tiger.

B/W PHOTO: DAVID BIER STUDIOS Richard, a hero among French Canadians, sent congratulations when Robitaille scored his 500th. TWO COLOR PHOTOS: J. MCISAAC/B. BENNETT STUDIOS (2)

WHOM WOULD YOU RATHER HAVE?

JOHN VANBIESBROUCK
Flyers G
He's 36, and his trip to the finals with the Panthers in 1996 is
the closest he has come to winning the Cup. Philly signed him
for '98-99, hoping he would take it over the top, but he was
beaten in the first round and he's been ordinary this season.

OR

MIKE VERNON
Panthers G
He's 36 and has won the Stanley Cup twice, with the Flames in
1989 and with the Red Wings in '97. The Panthers acquired him
from the Sharks in December, hoping he would get number three,
but he's been ordinary this season.

The Verdict: They have similar career stats in the regular
season, but in the playoffs Vernon thrives--and that's what
matters.

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)