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Miracle Man?

Feb. 13, 2006
Feb. 13, 2006

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Feb. 13, 2006

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Miracle Man?

Hurricanes coach Peter Laviolette has lifted underdog Carolina to the top of the NHL. Next week in Turin he'll try to turn long-shot Team USA into medal material

Peter Laviolette,hockey's equivalent of the driven fifth-grader who always raises his handbecause he has figured out the math problem first, is finally getting noticed.After a month in which his Carolina Hurricanes bellowed, "Hey, look atus!"--winning 13 of 14 games in January and improving their overall recordto an NHL-best 38-12-4--the team at last found a way to grab the attention ofthe hockey world.

All it took was a simple waive.

Center Doug Weight, who will play for Coach Laviolette in the Olympics nextweek, waived his no-trade clause and left the foundering St. Louis Blues forCarolina. The Jan. 30 deal smacked of ambition--the Stanley Cup--in a hockeymarket fragile enough that the Hurricanes felt compelled to reassure it withthe phrase here to stay on the cover of their media guide. The acquisition ofthe 35-year-old Weight (for draft choices, spare parts and about a third of his$5.7 million salary) was a wake-up call to the league. Said Carolina left wingErik Cole, "For the Number 1 team in the league to go get the Number 1 guyavailable [on the trade market] is pretty exciting." A superb playmaker,Weight, who is ninth alltime among U.S.-born point scorers, said he merelyhoped to "fit in" with Carolina and not impose himself on a team with akeen sense of the new-style NHL.

This is an article from the Feb. 13, 2006 issue Original Layout

Honing that sensehas been the 41-year-old Laviolette, who joined the Hurricanes in December2003, after being fired by the New York Islanders despite leading them to theplayoffs in each of his two seasons behind the bench. He began easing Carolinainto hockey's new reality with a pedagogical drill brilliant in its simplicity.During preseason games he allowed his team three "new-rule"penalties--such as restraining fouls or delays of game. Starting with thefourth penalty, the Hurricanes would have extra skating in practice, a reminderto get with the NHL's revised program. Through Sunday, Carolina was fifth inpower plays allowed.

The Hurricanes,rank underdogs at the start of the season, seemed to figure out life on thefly, a learning curve Laviolette will have to replicate on the world stage nextweek as coach of another long shot, the U.S. Olympic team. Tampa Bay's JohnTortorella was deserving of that job--in 2004 he became the first U.S. coach towin the Stanley Cup since Bob Johnson with the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1991--butto succeed Herb Brooks, USA Hockey chose a coach with more internationalexperience and closer ties to its program. "Peter's one helluva coach,"says Tortorella, Laviolette's assistant at the 2005 world championships."No team will be more prepared than his."

Indeed, Laviolettestarted laying out systems during Olympic orientation camp last September inColorado Springs. With big, skating forwards such as Cole and Mike Modano, TeamUSA essentially plans to play get-it-deep, grind-'em-down Hurricanes hockey;Laviolette will administer a crash course on Valentine's Day, the date of theteam's only pretournament practice. Says Weight, a three-time Olympian whoplayed for Laviolette in the worlds, "He can get the best out of guys notonly in a whole season but in a short tournament. The drills he does, thesystems he puts in, are very effective [in a tournament]. He also knows how tomotivate. He tells you how much your team needs you. He does it in front of theguys sometimes but never in a demeaning way. The pressure to play for the guynext to you is the greatest you can apply."

Laviolette hasfound the formula for a Carolina team bereft--pre-Weight--of marquee names,although rampaging 21-year-old center Eric Staal, whose 34 goals were just twooff the league lead through Sunday, soon will be the most famous Staal inCarolina since Dean Smith's Four Corners. Last month Laviolette crunchednumbers and saw that 17 of the 22 players on the roster at the time were onpace for career seasons. "This team," says veteran forward Kevyn Adams,"is basically maxing out." Wingers Cole and Justin Williams anddefenseman Frantisek Kaberle already have surpassed their previous season highsfor points, while combative goalie Martin Gerber, a first-time NHL starter, hasbeen solid and occasionally stunning behind a team that forechecks likemarauding dogs. "This is the most selfless team I've coached,"Laviolette says. "That said, you can say 'team, team, team' all you want,but you need individual excellence within that concept."

The message willbe repeated next week half a world away by a man who would jump through hoopsfor the Olympic rings. A Massachusetts kid, Laviolette was weaned on the 1980miracle, rising from Division III Westfield State to become an NHL defenseman(12 games with the New York Rangers) and a two-time Olympian. He played on thehigh-powered 1988 entry that included Brian Leetch and Kevin Stevens (the U.S.finished seventh) and served as captain of the more modestly gifted 1994 team(eighth). After those Olympics in Lillehammer he saw his parents and wept."No, that wasn't the last time I cried," he said last week. "I'memotional. I always cry."

As ringmaster atthe Turin hockey circus, Laviolette has a third chance to turn on the spigotthat controls tears of joy. If he can infuse Team USA with the same sense ofpurpose he has given to Carolina, the Americans just might come in from thecold.

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For more on the U.S. hockey team, and the rest of Team USA, go toSI.com/olympics.

PHOTOPhotograph by Bill WippertFORWARDFOCUS - Laviolette, who helped Carolina adapt swiftly to the new NHL, begandevising Team USA's game plan in September.PHOTOJEFF GROSS/GETTY IMAGESOUNDSFAMILIAR - U.S. forwards Modano (9) and Mike Knuble know Laviolette'smotivational style from the 2005 worlds.