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Tiny, Happy People (Holding Sticks)

May 15, 2006
May 15, 2006

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May 15, 2006

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Tiny, Happy People (Holding Sticks)

In the diminishing world of the playoffs--only eight teams left!--diminutive players throughout the league are wearing big smiles as they lead their teams to big wins

After a bizarregame of pond hockey that was missing only snowbanks for boards, an old tennisball for a puck and a golden retriever in one of the nets, Buffalo Sabres coachLindy Ruff should have stepped up to the microphone last Friday night andthanked all the little people. Bite-sized center Derek Roy (admittedly 5'83/4", but he prefers 5'9") had two goals and three assists; combativeDaniel Brière (5'8 3/4", he says, "but I think I'm taller thanDerek") set up the tying goal with 10.7 seconds remaining; and Chris Drury(officially 5'10", but like the start times in movie listings, that's anapproximation) ended the 7-6 mess against the Ottawa Senators with a goal 18seconds into overtime of Game 1 of the Eastern Conference semifinals. ¶ If theSabres go on to win the Stanley Cup--Buffalo led the Senators two games to noneafter a 2-1 win on Monday night--they will have to pass on going to DisneyWorld because half of their stars are too small to go on the rides. (O.K.,enough. There's a moratorium on short wisecracks. No hockey jockey references.No power-play units called the wee five. Promise.)

This is an article from the May 15, 2006 issue Original Layout

The NHL, ofcourse, still has ample room for big and tall. The average player, according toleague statistics, is 6'1", 204 pounds; the average Sabre is 6'1", 199.(Thirty years ago, when André Dupont roamed the Philadelphia Flyers' blue line,the Broad Street Bullies defenseman was nicknamed Moose because he was 6 feet,200. Now he wouldn't even qualify as an elk.) But with the crackdown onrestraining fouls, many players driving the bus toward the Cup can barely seeover the steering wheel. (So much for the moratorium.) "The new NHL ... isa mobile man's game," says Sabres defenseman Jay McKee, who is listed at6'4" but answers to 6'3". "It's not the biggest guy. It's thecompetitive one who's the most skilled." So to summarize, it's not the sizeof the dog in the fight but the size of the fight in the dog. As the playoffsprogressed in the second round, the NHL was awash in tiny, happy people.

THE CAPTAIN OFLILLIPUT

Daniel Brière ishappy. Not because of his three goals and eight assists in eight playoff gamesthrough Monday, but because for the first time since his NHL debut in 1997-98his team sent an opponent--the Brobdingnagian Flyers--home for the summer."We kept hearing [Philadelphia coach] Ken Hitchcock and some of theirplayers say that the longer the series went, the tougher it would be on usbecause they could wear us down," says Brière, who alternates as teamcaptain with Drury, who is known as Little Bulldog. "We were smaller, butwe proved we can play with the big boys."

On a team builtto thrive under the NHL's new rules, Brière is showcasing his freewheelingstyle--a mix of swerving skating, feistiness and creativity--in front offriends and families and against his hometown team. He grew up, if not tall,five minutes from downtown Ottawa, across the Ontario border in what is nowGatineau, Que. He lied about his height throughout junior hockey, sometimeslisting himself as 5'10" ("That double digit seemed important, but 6feet was a little too obvious," he says), but the fudging stopped long ago.He still hears jibes--Senators winger Dany Heatley, who played with Brière inSwitzerland during the lockout, says his friend "looks 12"--and themean-spirited ones are stored in his memory's hard drive.

"Being asmaller guy actually helped my career," he says. "That's been mymotivation: to prove people wrong. When I was drafted, I saved the newspaperclippings with experts saying how I'd never make it. If I'd been 6'1" or6'2", if everyone had been telling me, 'You're good, you're going to makeit,' I don't know if I would have had the drive."

Working toimprove his game, Brière has left no stone unturned. From 2002 through '04 helifted boulders as part of his summer training with Hugo Girard, a powerfullink in the historic chain of Quebec strongmen and a mainstay on those loopycompetitions that ESPN2 televises at odd hours. Brière would do the farmer'swalk (carrying heavy weights in each hand), tote fire hydrants across parkinglots and flip monster tractor tires "as big as me." He credits Girardwith developing his strength and, by extension, his scoring. In his first 190pre-boulder-lifting NHL games, Brière averaged .53 of a point per game; in thesubsequent 212 postboulder games, he averaged .85. This season he had 58 pointsin 48 games, a 1.2 average that ranked 11th in the NHL. If you're counting, andBrière isn't, that computes to about .83 of a point per inch.

THE LINEMATES

Brian Gionta andScott Gomez are happy. The New Jersey Devils linemates were the NHL's mostproductive pair during the winning streak of 15 games that ended last Saturdayagainst Carolina as, ahem, 5'10" Ray Whitney scored twice in theHurricanes' 6-0 rout in the series opener. In those 15 wins Gionta and Gomezcombined for 50 points and 20 goals. "It's awesome playing with[Gomez]," the 27-year-old Gionta says. "We've known each other since wewere 15 and can read off each other's game."

The reportedly5'11" Gomez (yeah, right, who's doing this height reporting? JaysonBlair?), who looks to be 5'9" and hunches as he skates, is the passer.Gionta is the triggerman. For a rightwinger purportedly 5'7"--his father,Sam, is 5'4"; his mother, Penny, about 5-foot--Gionta is fearless stormingthe net and playing in traffic. "He's always been that good around thenet," Gomez says. "He's like a four-foot John LeClair." ThePittsburgh Penguins' bruising LeClair was a classic power forward in hisheyday, while Gionta is more of a darter, spinning in and out of holes,engaging in an elaborate game of hide-and-seek with defensemen. And with thenew rule interpretations, defenders have to play fair. After scoring 37 goalstotal in his first three NHL seasons, Gionta pumped in a team-record 48 thisseason (his all-important points-per-inch index was 1.3), and like Gomez, headded two goals and four assists in the first-round sweep of the New YorkRangers.

The goals totalput Gionta head and shoulders above the 5'8"-and-under crowd. But unlikeBrière, Gionta has no chip resting on his shoulders. "[My size] issomething I've always had to deal with," he says. "Just a fact oflife."

"Hey, don'tmake it out like we're the same size," says Gomez, eyeing Gionta across theNew Jersey dressing room before the second round started. "I mean, look athim over there." Gomez was holding his hand waist high and grinning.Happy.

THE IMPORT

Sergei Samsonovis happy. The Edmonton Oilers' tiny dancer of a left wing has a resourcefulplayoff team watching his back against the San Jose Sharks, rabid andsophisticated fans encouraging him, the best home ice in the NHL and a niftyscoring partner, right wing Ales Hemsky. Late in Game 6 of the Oilers'first-round upset of the Detroit Red Wings, Samsonov saucered a delicate passthrough the legs of Detroit's star defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom that Hemskytapped in for the series-winning goal. It was the kind of exquisite, skillfulplay Edmonton made often in the franchise's glory days and can make againbecause of Samsonov, a 5'8" import from Moscow, by way of Boston.

"He's soshifty, so strong on his skates," says San Jose's Thornton, another exiledBruin and a close friend of Samsonov's since their rookie year in 1997-98, whenthe Russian won the Calder Trophy. "He's one of the best puckhandlers inthe league."

Samsonov,acquired at the trading deadline in early March from the Bruins, shuns theperimeter and is the type of player the cash-strapped Oilers used to deleteeach March. Under the NHL's new economic model, however, general manager KevinLowe traded for all-world defenseman Chris Pronger and nabbed veteran centerMichael Peca before the season, then added goalie Dwayne Roloson also at thedeadline. They all made mighty contributions in upending the Red Wings andexpanded the ambitions of a hardy city. "Being in a hockey town likeEdmonton, it's exciting," says Samsonov, who had an assist in the Oilers2-1 loss on Sunday night. "All the guys are working toward the same goal.It's a fun time of year."

THECOMMISSIONER

Gary Bettman ishappy. At least that is what an NHL public-relations official says when askedwhat her boss thinks about the state of the game. (Bettman declined to beinterviewed for this story because, the official said, he thought it might bepersonally aggrandizing. The league did offer director of hockey operationsColin Campbell, an undersized former defenseman who is slightly taller thanBettman. The commissioner's height is not mentioned in his league biography. Agood guess: 5'6".) And while making the television rounds for the past fewweeks on Bloomberg TV's Bloomberg Market Movers ("absolutelyincredible," Bettman said of the postlockout recovery) and on KRON 4 in theBay Area before a Sharks playoff game ("We came back very strong thisseason"), he sounded chipper. Why not? In CBA negotiations he beat theplayers as if they were rented goalies, instituting a salary cap andorchestrating higher revenue, which translated into a windfall for owners. Withthe offense-first rule changes, he oversees a league that offers a moreeye-catching game.

Of course,Bettman is almost always happy. Publicly, anyway. With the exception of GlumGary during the lockout, his Stanley Cup has always been half full. The on-iceproduct was fine in his eyes, until the board of governors revamped the game.The foot-in-the-crease rule was grand, until it disappeared. Attendance wasalways solid, even if the 2005-06 record numbers that Maria Bartiromo gushedabout on CNBC's Wall Street Journal Report were based on tickets distributed,not sold. Whatever institutional speed bumps he has encountered in his 13 yearson the job, Bettman's public face has been a smiley one.

With minusculeU.S. network TV ratings and several of the league's large-market teams(Rangers, Flyers, Stars, Red Wings) eliminated from the playoffs, the NHL facesthe eternal challenge of joining the national sports conversation, beyondincidences of extreme goonery. If that talk ever does turn to the NHL, thelittle Big Guy will make sure it is a happy conversation.

SI.COM

Get the latest playoff news and analysis from MichaelFarber, Allan Muir and Darren Eliot at SI.com/nhl.

PHOTOPhotograph by David Duprey/APNEW HEIGHTS Brière, who helped Buffalo eliminate the Flyers, is playing in the second round for the first time; New Jersey's Gionta (inset, with Gomez) is having the best goal-scoring year of his career.PHOTORICHARD SCHULTZ/WIREIMAGE.COM[See caption above.]PHOTOLOU CAPOZZOLA (DRURY)NO BIG DEAL The Ottawa defense, including 6'9" Zdeno Chara (3), couldn't stop Drury, a.k.a. the Little Bulldog, from scoring the game-winner in Game 1.PHOTODAVID ZALUBOWSKI/AP (SAMSONOV)SLICK LITTLE OILER Samsonov (getting a rubdown from center Jarret Stoll) employs his skill nimbly on the NHL's fastest ice.PHOTOM.J. MASOTTI JR./REUTERS (BETTMAN)SMILEY FACE As usual Bettman (5'6"?) is pleased with his product.EIGHT ILLUSTRATIONS