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Inside The NHL

March 26, 2001
March 26, 2001

Table of Contents
March 26, 2001

Baseball 2001 Preview

Inside The NHL

A Great Idea
Wayne Gretzky should play for Canada in the 2002 Olympics

This is an article from the March 26, 2001 issue Original Layout

This version of the classic Western ends with a young boy
standing with his back to the mountains of Utah wearing a SALT
LAKE CITY 2002 sweatshirt and calling out into the distance,
"Wayne, come baaaack." In this version the hero does come back.
In this version Wayne Gretzky plays for Canada in next year's
Olympic Games.

We're not just scripting an improbable plot inspired by Mario
Mania and the rumors that Michael Jordan intends to drop from his
skybox into the Washington Wizards' starting five. Not every
sports icon turned team owner should, or can, play Lazarus. We're
not suggesting that Gretzky, who is a minority owner of the
Coyotes and G.M. of the Canadian Olympic team, return to the NHL
fray. We merely want him for a fortnight next February, to carry
the torch for hockey one last time. "We all wish that," says
Ducks forward Jeff Friesen.

"It's a nice thought, but it's not going to happen," Gretzky, 40,
said last Friday. "Being a player takes a dedication that I
haven't had since I retired [after the 1998-99 season]. I used to
work out three hours a day; now it's three hours a week. I have
too much respect for the game and the players to come back at
this stage."

Gretzky could show great respect by suiting up. His presence
would raise hockey's Olympic profile immeasurably. Also, he
wouldn't have to be in 100% game shape to assist Canada's quest
for the gold. Gretzky could play six to eight minutes a night as
the world's premier power-play specialist. During his final NHL
season, when his performance was undermined by back pain, Gretzky
led the Rangers with 53 assists, including a team-high 27 with
the man advantage. Olympic clubs carry 23 players (three more
than dress for NHL games), so Canada could use Gretzky's
unparalleled passing skills, even if his on-ice appearances were
limited, without compromising the team's depth. "It's a fantastic
idea," says Caps center Adam Oates. "For a few minutes a night he
could still be a great player."

Gretzky practiced with the Coyotes earlier this month, and
although he said he did so just for fun, seeing him on ice got
others to fantasize about a comeback, an eventuality that could
scumble one of the enduring images of Gretzky's career. In that
picture he is sitting dejectedly on the bench shortly after
Canada's gold medal hopes died in a loss to the Czech Republic at
the 1998 Olympics. "It's the worst feeling in the world--I'm
devastated," Gretzky said later. "A gold medal wasn't in the
cards for my career."

If he stays in his business suit, that's true because the IOC
doesn't award medals to G.M.'s. Or else, Gretzky could pull on
his number 99 and give himself--and Canada--a chance for a happier
ending.

No Deals for Lindros, Peca
Owners Stand Their Ground

By the time Eric Lindros relented on his long-held stance that he
would play only for the Maple Leafs, it was essentially too late
for Philadelphia to deal him. On March 8, just five days before
the trade deadline, the 28-year-old Lindros, an unsigned
restricted free agent, said he would also consider playing for
any of three other teams--the Blues, the Capitals or the Red
Wings. But Washington and Detroit had no interest in trading for
him, while St. Louis rightfully didn't want to rush into a deal
as complicated as one for Lindros would have been. That's because
Lindros was angling for a long-term, big-money contract at a time
when his history of concussions (six in eight years) made him a
risky commodity. "It's disappointing, but it's not a
catastrophe," says Lindros's lawyer, Gord Kirke. "Eric's a young
man who has a long career ahead of him."

Or does he? Lindros is blessed with MVP-caliber talent, but his
attempts to control the particulars of his deal are the latest in
a string of selfish moves that began when he refused to play for
the Quebec Nordiques, the team that drafted him in 1991. Consider
also that the Flyers, who hold Lindros's rights for three more
seasons, have shown no eagerness to deal him. So, has Lindros
played his last game in the NHL? "There is always that chance,"
Kirke acknowledges.

Lindros's case is similar to that of Sabres center Michael Peca,
another restricted free agent sitting out the season. After
turning down a four-year, $11.4 million package from Buffalo,
Peca, who wants $14 million over that time, began pushing for a
trade in November. Then, after the deadline passed last week
without his being traded, Peca alleged that the Sabres were
engaged in a collusive effort to punish him. "They were
determined to teach me a lesson," Peca told The New York Times.
"I have no doubt they had strong support from the league to carry
that out."

The NHL and Buffalo general manager Darcy Regier dismissed the
charge ("Ridiculous," responded Regier), but Peca is not the only
one to voice such suspicions. "One of two things has happened,"
says Kirke of the similarity between Peca's situation and
Lindros's. "Either teams are taking a hard stand under the
guidance of the NHL, or it's a coincidence. It's hard to tell."

Messier's Guarantees
One Out of Two Ain't Bad

One of the most stirring games in NHL history was played on the
night of May 25, 1994, when the Rangers faced elimination by the
Devils in Game 6 of the conference finals. "We are going to win,"
New York captain Mark Messier had guaranteed that morning, and
then he delivered three third-period goals in rallying the
Rangers to a 4-2 win. With that, Messier became known as the
Messiah, and when he returned to New York last July after three
years with the Canucks and announced, "I guarantee we're going to
make the playoffs," Rangers fans took his prediction on faith.

Last week, however, Messier conceded, "We're not in the playoff
hunt," a fact that New York fans have known for weeks. Through
Sunday the Rangers were 13 points out of a postseason berth with
11 games left. "It's going to be a tough next month," Messier
said, slipping into his prognosticating ways. That much we could
have guaranteed.

For the latest scores and stats, plus more news and analysis from
Michael Farber and Kostya Kennedy, go to cnnsi.com/hockey.

COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO Even if he took the ice only on power plays, Gretzky would boost hockey's profile in Salt Lake City. COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK COLOR PHOTO: B. WINKLER/B. BENNETT STUDIOS

WHOM WOULD YOU RATHER HAVE?

TODD BERTUZZI
CANUCKS C-LW
The 26-year-old former first-round pick (1993) was traded from
the Islanders to Vancouver in '98. At 6'3" and 235 pounds, he has
established himself as a solid scorer and through Sunday had 25
goals and 26 assists.

OR

BRYAN SMOLINSKI
KINGS C-RW
The 29-year-old former first-round pick (1990) was traded from
the Islanders to Los Angeles in '99. At 6'1" and 208 pounds, he
has reestablished himself as a solid scorer and had 24 goals and
28 assists.

The Verdict: Smolinski was a floater with the Islanders, but now
that he's playing defense and making the occasional hit, he's our
man.