THE NHL / STEVE SPRINGER : It Was Penguins' Year of Triumph, Tragedy

It was the year of Badger Bob and Elusive Eric.

It was the year the Minnesota North Stars shocked the experts by coming back to the finals, the year the Stanley Cup came back to the United States and the Canada Cup went to the Canadians.

Coach Bob Johnson capped a lifetime of achievement in hockey by leading the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Stanley Cup last spring only to die of a brain tumor several months later.

The Quebec Nordiques made 18-year-old Eric Lindros, tabbed the game's next superstar, the No. 1 pick in the NHL draft. But Lindros refused to sign because of what he considered bleak prospects in Quebec, both on and off the ice, for fame and fortune, not to mention a Stanley Cup.

There were Sharks on the ice in San Francisco in 1991, but another beached whale in Los Angeles, a powerful Kings team, potentially the best ever, that roared through the regular season only to wind up high and dry in the playoffs, out as usual in the second round.

While the league continued to expand with one new team already playing and two more--Ottawa and Tampa Bay--paying for the right to do so next season, the NHL's problems also expanded.

The year failed to produce a new collective bargaining agreement, leaving the old one in limbo, or a true national television contract, leaving the league in the dark through much of North America.

There were some ugly scenes as well, with old-time players claiming irregularities in their pension fund, a burgeoning FBI investigation of the Players Assn., and an announcement by a doctor that a deceased female patient of his claimed to have had sex with about 50 NHL players before dying of AIDS.

But don't think it's all been said and done in '91. There will be plenty ahead in '92.

Here are a few predictions:

The players will perform publicly in the skills contest at this month's NHL All-Star game and complain about it privately.

Wayne Gretzky will turn 31 this month and be asked 3,100 times if he feels he is slowing down.

King Coach Tom Webster will throw a few more tantrums, but no more sticks.

There will be a bloody brawl, the NHL will decry violence, but then do nothing.

Stories will circulate that the new teams in Ottawa and Tampa Bay will never make it to the ice.

They will.

Bernie Nicholls will be traded to an Eastern team and announce he is finally happy.

Gretzky will have two bad games in a row and people will say he is finished.

Gretzky will have two great games in a row and people will say he is as good as ever.

There will be reports Nicholls is unhappy and wants to be traded.

In March, rumors will begin that the players, operating without a collective bargaining agreement and far from agreeing on a new one, will go on strike at the end of the regular season.

That will be followed by a rumor that the owners plan to lock out the players.

Neither side will deny the rumors. Nothing will happen.

As the playoffs approach, teams fighting for division titles will say home-ice advantage will be crucial in the postseason.

Teams failing to win division titles will say it doesn't matter, that the playoffs are a whole new season.

The Vancouver Canucks and Detroit Red Wings will win their respective divisional titles, but experts will predict they will fold in the playoffs.

They won't.

The North Stars will finish fourth in the Norris Division but caution everyone to remember what happened last year. We'll do it again, they will tell everyone who will listen.

They won't.

The Kings will finish third in the Smythe Division, pull off a first-round upset, then suffer their usual second-round ousting, this time at the hands of the Canucks.

Larry Robinson will retire.

Critics will suggest Rogie Vachon and Tom Webster do the same.

They won't.

Bruce McNall will step down as team president, appointing executive vice president Roy Mlakar as his successor.

The Montreal Canadiens and the New York Rangers will join the Canucks and the Red Wings in the conference finals.

Detroit and Montreal will meet for the Stanley Cup.

Montreal will win in six games.

Mark Messier of the Rangers will win the Hart Trophy.

At season's end, the NHL owners and players will begin negotiating in good faith and finally hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement.

In the end, nothing will change much. The players will get a little loosening of the rules on free agency, but not the total freedom they demand. They will get a little more playoff money, but not the revenue sharing they would like.

There will be a demand for NHL commissioner John Ziegler to step down.

He won't.

Lindros trade stories will start in earnest. Before they are finished, he will be reportedly headed to every team in the league except Tampa Bay and Ottawa.

The Kings will offer Luc Robitaille, Rob Blake, Tony Granato, five draft choices and $15 million.

The Nordiques will ask for Gretzky and the Kings' team plane.

Quebec will settle on the Kings' first offer and Lindros will become a King.

Lindros will not get a point opening night and somebody will call the trade a bad deal.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World