Toronto Maple Leafs captain Wendel Clark says that his back is fine. Doug Gilmour insists that he has forgotten his winter of discontent—a contract dispute and a trade from the Calgary Flames to Toronto. And Pat Bums, who deserted the Montreal Canadiens over the summer to become the Leafs’ new head coach, says he is looking forward to a fresh start, a new team and a bigger salary. Such is the optimism of the National Hockey League pre-season, where players on 24 teams exercise lungs and legs and do their best to exorcise the memories of
last winter’s disasters. For one NHL entry, ignoring the past is easy: the Tampa Bay Lightning, an expansion team, has none. But for the eclectic mix of hopefuls and has-beens who will become the new Ottawa Senators, the year’s other expansion addition, history will be a burden. The original Senators won nine Stanley Cups between 1903 and 1927 before folding in 1935, a total surpassed only by hockey’s hallowed Canadiens and Maple Leafs.
When the season opens on Oct. 6, the NHL will again resort to hockey’s noisy, colorful past as a way to distract attention from its turbulent
and troubled present. Last year, the league celebrated its 75th season. This year it will observe the centennial of the Stanley Cup. But the anniversaries cannot mask the upheavals off the ice—in April a players’ strike, in June an owners’ revolt which toppled longtime league president John Ziegler. The NHL did confront its reputation for excessive violence by adopting tough new rules aimed at reducing fighting and high-sticking. But the league then took the strange backward step of allowing players to again play without helmets. Only the lack of job security for coaches was a constant—over the summer, no fewer than 10 of the 22 established teams changed coaches. For them, the start of a new season is a time to forget the past and focus, realistically, on the present. “Our number 1 goal is to make the playoffs,” said Leafs coach Bums. “I don’t think we’re Stanley Cup contenders, whether the cup is 100 years old or two years old.”
For the new Ottawa Senators, earning one of 16 playoff berths next April may also be an unrealistic goal. But in a ceremony before the team plays its home opener against the Canadiens on Oct. 8, owner Bruce Firestone plans to raise nine Stanley Cup banners to the rafters of the Ottawa Civic Centre, where they will hang
as silent reminders of the Senators’ years of glory. Some lifelong Ottawa residents have fond memories of the original Senators. Ethel Hamilton, 81, had just started high school when her brother Hector Kilrea joined the team as an 18-year-old in 1925. “My mother and father used to go to every game; we were basking in his glory,” she said. “All my schoolmates were dying to meet Hec. In those days, teenagers were as much in love with their hockey team as today’s teenagers are with their music.” The new Senators drew a sellout crowd to the 10,250seat Civic Centre for their first exhibition game, a 4-3 loss to the Washington Capitals. But one sellout did little to ease anxieties about the long-term health of the Senators. Terrace Investments, g the development company § that brought the Senators to C Ottawa, has had trouble rais§ ing the money required to I build the team’s proposed ö new 18,500-seat arena to be “ called the Palladium. Fire£ stone has announced that construction will be posted poned until the 1995-1996 S season, one year behind schedule. And the city’s two daily papers already carry classified ads from season ticket holders anxious to sell their seats for games against weak teams.
For the team without a past, the Tampa Bay Lightning, the major challenge will be attracting the citizens of a Sunbelt state to a game played on ice, and more closely associated with cold, snowy winters. Many Tampa residents wore tank tops to the team’s first exhibition home game and shivered through three periods of hockey in the air-conditioned arena. That led one local newspaper, the Tampa Tribune, to dispense hints on how to dress for a hockey game. “The closer you sit to rinkside, the cooler it will be,” the Tribune advised. “Those sitting in the lower third of the arena should never arrive without a sweater or light jacket, and maybe a second pair of socks.” Celebrated: Seasoned hockey fans everywhere will have less than great hopes for the Senators and the Lightning. But they will have extraordinarily high expectations for Eric Lindros, who this fall becomes the most celebrated rookie to enter the league since Mario Lemieux joined the Pittsburgh Penguins in 1984. Lindros, a six-foot, four-inch 19-year-old from Toronto, infuriated Quebecers last year when he refused to sign with the Nordiques, who had drafted him. Quebec finally traded him to the Philadelphia Flyers last June for a reported $15 million, six players and Philadelphia’s first-
round draft picks in each of the next two years.
The Flyers, banking on Lindros to succeed the Los Angeles Kings’ Wayne Gretzky and Pittsburgh’s Lemieux as the NHL’s premier marquee player, signed him to a six-year deal that made him the league’s highest-paid athlete before he had ever played a single professional game. He will earn $3.5 million for the 19921993 season. But Lindros seems to thrive on the pressure. When he finally played his first game, fittingly an exhibition contest against the Nordiques in front of a noisy crowd of 17,226 in Philadelphia on Sept. 19, he recorded a goal and an assist and roughed up several Quebec players as the Flyers won 4-3.
Lindros will get to test himself against Lemieux when the Flyers open their season against the defending two-time Stanley Cupchampion Penguins. With Gretzky sidelined by a back injury, Lemieux is undisputably the league’s dominant player, although he, too, has a history of serious back trouble. He is healthy now, but his team is in the midst of its third coaching change in as many seasons. Scotty Bowman, an icy and remote disciplinarian, replaced the late Bob Johnson last year and guided the talented but touchy Penguins to a Stanley Cup triumph. Unhappy behind the bench and as unpopular as ever with his players, Bowman then relinquished his coaching duties for a scouting assignment.
Three assistant coaches have guided the Penguins through training camp.
The Penguins may find success a burden, but it is a welcome pressure in Vancouver. Last season, the perennially mediocre Canucks surprised their fans, and the city’s skeptical media, by winning their first divisional title since 1974-1975. This year, season ticket sales have surpassed 10,000, after sinking to just 4,000 five years ago.
But the Canucks could lose some of those hard-earned fans if they falter again. “We have a young team that has to learn to deal with the expectations of others,” said Pat Quinn, the team’s president and coach. “We’ve shown promise in the past but the following year we always slid down the greasy pole. We’ve never risen to a plateau and stayed there.”
But no team is as spooked by history as the Montreal Canadiens. Hockey’s most successful franchise, the Canadiens won the last of their 23 Stanley Cups in 1986—and they have been considered legitimate contenders every season since then. But every year, the team must cope with the volatility of high fan expectations, a critical media pack, and the intrusion of Montreal’s language politics into everyday lineup changes—a combination that elevates hockey to a communal obsession. Last year’s coach, Bums, admitted that the pressures led him to quit the one job he ever dreamed of holding.
And, prodded by fans and media to produce a more exciting team, general manager Serge Savard hired the emotional Jacques Demers to replace Bums. Demers’s first act: he promised an approving press corps that the Canadiens would play a more offensive style this year.
Another general manager under fire is the Edmonton Oilers’ Glen Sather. Architect of the most successful team of the 1980s, when the Oilers captured five Cups in seven years, fans have now become more accustomed to seeing Sather engaged in dismal, annual contract disputes with his players. Over the past five years, the Oilers have traded six of the players, including Gretzky and Mark Messier, who formed the nucleus of their dynasty teams. Last week, the team disclosed that Kevin Lowe, team captain and the last remaining veteran of all five Cup teams, was on the trading block.
Struggling: Many Edmonton fans have fought back by not renewing their season tickets. During the Gretzky era, all but a couple of hundred seats in the 17,503-seat Northlands Coliseum were held by season ticket holders. Now the team is struggling to sell 10,000. But Oiler executive Bruce MacGregor defends the parsimonious approach. Said MacGregor: “Kevin Lowe wants $900,000. We can’t pay him that and survive as a viable operation.”
In the NHL of the 1990s, as in other major professional leagues in North America, contract disputes and other financial issues frequently eclipse the games themselves. But in some parts of the country, NHLers are still revered, and the game itself is admired for its speed and beauty. Recently, the Flyers trained for a few days in O’Leary, P.E.I., and the Leafs held a couple of scrimmages in Collingwood, Ont. The two towns are in different regions and different time zones. But in both cases, when big-time hockey arrived in small-town Canada, the reaction was excitement and adulation.
A sellout crowd of nearly 2,000, ranging from school kids to senior citizens, showed up for a Leaf scrimmage last week at Collingwood’s Eddie Bush Memorial Arena, normally home to Junior B hockey and the Collingwood Blue Mountain Figure Skating Club. Kids hovered around the players’ benches hoping for autographs, while adults talked knowingly about players’ chances of making the team. When it was over shortly before noon, they left for school, work or home, satisfied that for a while, they had left behind the turmoil that frequently threatens to consume Canada’s national sport.
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