Last week there was a purplish mouse under the right eye and a
nick over the left eyebrow on the happy and handsome face of New
Jersey Devils center Jason Arnott, but the lasting scars were
hidden. They were caused by growing pains, the result of his
having been thrown into the NHL spotlight as a teenage phenom
before he was ready for the attention and the pressure. At 25 he
has again found a home--but a comfortable one--in the headlines,
just as he found a home above teammate Scott Stevens's garage
2 1/2 years ago. When Arnott was traded to New Jersey in January
1998, the Stevenses (Scott, his wife, Donna, and their three
young children) treated him to home cooking, sage advice and
multiple viewings of The Lion King.
Arnott moved out of the Stevenses' house a few months later.
These days he lives in the kitchen of Dallas Stars goalie Ed
Belfour. Arnott also has a pied-a-terre in the Stars' brains, a
place so addled that the defending Stanley Cup champions can't
seem to figure out that when a playoff series is best-of-seven,
they don't have to play seven games. The price Arnott pays for
living so close to Belfour is steep--Dallas defenseman Derian
Hatcher extracts a heavy toll on crease crashers--but the views
are spectacular. If Arnott gazes out he can see the Cup, which
was one victory away following the Devils' 3-1 win on Monday
night in Game 4 on the Slurpee otherwise known as Reunion Arena
In the finals New Jersey has exposed Dallas's weaknesses,
forcing the Stars back on their heels with superior size and
speed. Dallas seems to derive a certain satisfaction in testing
its elasticity by bouncing back from some of the most awful
postseason games ever played by a certifiably good club, but
Arnott mostly has proved to be more than either Mike Modano or,
at times, Guy Carbonneau can handle. The 40-year-old Carbonneau
lives for responsibility--after his Montreal Canadiens lost Game
1 of the 1993 Cup finals to the Los Angeles Kings, he begged to
play head-to-head against Wayne Gretzky--but on his first shift
against Arnott in Game 3 last Saturday the Devils had two good
chances before scoring when Arnott split the defense and
shoveled the puck past the poke-checking Belfour. Arnott's
effort, stunning more for its will than its skill, tied the
score in what would become a 2-1 Devils win. "What I saw there
was what Jason used to lack: second effort," New Jersey general
manager Lou Lamoriello said afterward. "That was a second-effort
goal, a goal that picks up the bench, a competitor's goal."
Lamoriello traded for Arnott in what Wall Street would term a
value play. Arnott had been the No. 1 draft choice of the
Edmonton Oilers in 1993, and he'd scored 33 goals in '93-94, a
total no rookie has since surpassed. His career stagnated
thereafter, a victim of heightened expectations and a
startlingly low level of maturity. In 1995 Arnott fathered a
child out of wedlock. He earned a reputation in Edmonton for
driving so fast that Glen Sather, the Oilers' president, bought
him a $300 radar detector. Then, after a desultory loss to the
Winnipeg Jets in '95, he uttered the immortal line, "I just
wasn't into it tonight."
That quote stayed with him like "I am not a crook" did with
Richard Nixon. The working-class Oilers fans could handle the
breakup of their dynasty, but sloth from a first-round
dilettante was out of the question. A generation of stars left
Edmonton to seek riches elsewhere. Arnott, whose passion for the
game was questioned, had to be jettisoned like ballast.
"He was a typical Oiler player when he started there--all revved
up, 100 miles an hour, full-court press," says Dallas coach Ken
Hitchcock, a native Edmontonian. "At the end of his [Oilers]
career he was frustrated. He wore that pressure poorly. Now he's
free. He uses his size [6'4", 225 pounds] to his advantage
better defensively than he used to. In Edmonton his game started
and ended with the puck, but he's a strong positional player now
and, with that size, very effective."
His transformation was laborious. When the Devils acquired him
for disgruntled forward Bill Guerin, Arnott, who'd always been a
center, was told to play right wing on a line with veteran
playmaking center Doug Gilmour. Arnott responded with five goals
in 35 games, the exact number he'd had in the first half of the
season in Edmonton. He continued to flounder with the Devils
until December 1998, when Robbie Ftorek, New Jersey's coach at
the time, decided to thrust him between flashy young Czech
forwards Patrik Elias and Petr Sykora.
"We were all young guys who had started out well but knew we
could play better," recalls Sykora, 23. "As soon as we got
together, I felt we could get something going. Arnie has the big
shot. Me and Patty are on the puck a little more. We could learn
from him, how to shoot and go to the net and to hit, and he
could learn from us some passes and how to use the boards."
In an era that emphasizes duos, such as Dallas's Modano and
Brett Hull, a trio that sticks together for almost two years is,
like Arnott's physique, practically carved in stone. Devils
coach Larry Robinson broke up Arnott, Elias and Sykora when he
took over for the fired Ftorek with eight games left in the
regular season--he wished he had done the same in Game 2, a 2-1
Dallas win, when neither Elias nor Sykora showed legs or
grit--but they were reunited after two games, much to Arnott's
delight. The Czechs have helped Arnott grow on and off the ice.
"They've changed me as a player by bringing the fun back into
the game," Arnott said after getting four points in a 7-3
victory in Game 1. "They've also brought me back to life."
The trio often eats dinner together on the road, discussing
anything but hockey. They talk of their backgrounds, their
lives. "To see these guys, away from their parents for a long
time, on their own, really enjoying it, that opened my eyes,"
Arnott says. He helps Elias and Sykora with English, and they
have taught him enough profane Czech words that he could get a
job on late-night cable in Prague.
If the swear words are unintelligible to referees, they're no
more puzzling than Belfour's pronouncements after Game 1, in
which Arnott's line torched him for 11 points. Belfour said he'd
been disoriented by the prescription antibiotics he'd been
taking for a sinus infection, accounting, in part, for the six
goals he allowed on 18 shots. If you need an excuse, a note from
your doctor is usually bulletproof.
While the congestion in Belfour's sinus cavities might have
rivaled the congestion Arnott's line was causing in his crease,
Belfour's alibiing stretched credulity. For one thing, injuries
and illnesses are considered no more suitable a topic for
discussion during the playoffs than politics and religion were
at an Eisenhower-era dinner party. NHL teams are so secretive
about injuries in the spring that if a player were about to
undergo an autopsy, they would merely say he was out
indefinitely. Stanley Cup lore is rife with men who soldiered
through ailments, among them Dallas general manager Bob Gainey,
who played Game 6 of the 1984 semifinals with one separated
shoulder and one dislocated shoulder, and Modano, who last year
performed in the Cup finals with a broken wrist.
But there in the dressing room was Belfour, who's rarely chatty,
blabbing about the pills he was taking. While the Stars declined
to identify the antibiotic that caused Belfour's "misjudgment,"
as he described it, the drug must have been one whose side
effects appeared to be a widening of the space between the pads
and a slight tremor in the glove hand. Belfour could have been
auditioning for a public service spot: This is your goalie on
drugs. Any questions?
After winning the Stanley Cup last season, Belfour seemed to
have unburdened himself of his unfulfilled past. Says Hitchcock,
"When you're told every day a team can't win with you, that
you're going to melt down, and you finally get over that hurdle,
it's like a weight's been lifted from your shoulders. Now you're
gauged on the competitive areas, not on your baggage."
Too bad Belfour couldn't leave the Samsonite alone. On March 8
he was charged with assault and resisting arrest--police say he
offered them $1 billion if they didn't take him to jail--after
an incident involving a female companion and a security guard at
a fashionable Dallas hotel. (A hearing is set for June 30.) If
the Stars don't win the Cup this spring, Belfour will also have
suffered the most celebrated cold in NHL history. He seemed to
be sniffle-free in Game 2 when he foiled three gilt-edged
chances by Devils right wing Randy McKay. Belfour made tougher
saves in Game 3, although he failed to hold Sykora's power-play
shot from the point that ticked off the webbing and into the net
for the winning goal. Still, he stopped 56 of 59 shots in those
two matches, stealing a victory and keeping New Jersey from
steamrolling to the Cup.
Hatcher decided the rent was due with fewer than eight minutes
to go in Game 4 when he threw caution to the wind and his
forearms to Arnott's head. Arnott was practically out on his
feet as he was carried over the locker room threshold by two
equipment managers, fair enough considering that Arnott had
carried New Jersey for a week. By that time the Devils had
already sealed the game--and very likely the series--on the
strength of a 3:41 rampage that blew three goals by Belfour
early in the third period. The stunner was a highlight-film goal
by John Madden, the wildly aggressive rookie penalty killer.
Time, and the Stars, seemed to stand still. Madden had broken in
two-on-one against Belfour only to fire the puck wide, but less
than a minute later on the same Dallas power play, Madden buried
another two-on-one opportunity, the game-winner.
Arnott was seeing stars, but then Hatcher's cheap shot was ample
proof that the Stars had seen more than enough of Arnott.
size and speed.