THE NHL / HELENE ELLIOTT : League Casts a Wary Eye on McNall

Official word was that Bruce McNall, the flamboyant and free-spending owner of the Kings, voluntarily resigned as chairman of the NHL's Board of Governors. You can be sure no one tried to talk him into staying.

NHL officials, although aware of McNall's legal entanglements, were surprised to learn that a federal grand jury is investigating whether he falsified loan documents. They had supported him, mindful of the huge debt they owe him for bringing Wayne Gretzky to Los Angeles and invigorating the league, but that news made them fear the NHL's image would suffer if he remained. As they reasoned, how could he run the board when he couldn't run his own businesses and couldn't meet a payroll without aid from his prospective partners?

Those partners, Joe Cohen and Jeffrey Sudikoff, were said to be extremely unhappy that McNall had painted a rosier picture of his finances than what is emerging. To soothe them, and to avoid the embarrassment of a team in the country's second-largest market plunging into bankruptcy, Commissioner Gary Bettman has been to Los Angeles three times in three weeks. NHL counsel Jeffrey Pash has established an L.A. beachhead to sift through the details of the deal.

"Obviously some issues have to be resolved," Bettman said. "Anything beyond (saying Pash's mission is) fact-finding is speculation at this point. I've been in constant touch with all the parties and we're in the process of evaluating where things stand and what we need to do."

McNall always wanted the best--a private jet for his team, the right to brag that he gave Gretzky the NHL's highest salary--but when it came time to pay up, he had nothing left but his credibility. That's gone now, too.

We've said it before, we'll say it again and we'll probably say it again sometime: Hockey survives despite the people who run it.


On to the quarterfinals--or conference semifinals, if you insist:

The New York Rangers are deep enough to overcome the Washington Capitals' tireless checking, as shown in their 6-3 romp Sunday. Washington's Dave Poulin did a marvelous job on the Penguins' Mario Lemieux in the first round, but even if Poulin shadows Mark Messier, the Capitals still must stop Adam Graves, Alexei Kovalev and a mobile, prolific defense. They won't be able to do it.

The coaches are a fascinating contrast. Mike Keenan motivates the Rangers through tyranny, whereas Jim Schoenfeld is a rah-rah back patter. Keenan has been to the finals three times. Before this spring, Schoenfeld had 20 games of playoff experience, all in leading the New Jersey Devils to the semifinals in 1988.

Rangers in five, but with a few bruises.

Every game in the Devils-Bruins series probably will be as defense-oriented as Sunday's 2-1 Boston victory.

New Jersey rookie goalie Martin Brodeur passed his first playoff test against Buffalo, but he didn't have to face the cannons of Ray Bourque and Al Iafrate at the points. Boston's Jon Casey surprisingly outplayed Montreal's Patrick Roy late in the first round, and Casey must be that good again for the Bruins to advance. He was Sunday, when he made 34 saves.

The top seeded teams in the West are gone, thanks to the San Jose Sharks' elimination of the Detroit Red Wings and the Vancouver Canucks' rally from a 3-1 series deficit--and a 3-2 deficit in Game 7--against the Calgary Flames.

In springing the biggest upset in years, the Sharks proved that defense wins games--hear that, Barry Melrose?--and that they're cool under fire. Latvian-born goalie Arturs Irbe has generally been, as he says, "like wall," and veterans Sergei Makarov and Igor Larionov provided poise and key goals. They're a dynamic team, fun to watch and coached well by Kevin Constantine.

Toronto is a stronger, more skillful version of the Sharks. Goalie Felix Potvin recorded three 1-0 victories against Chicago and Doug Gilmour was a workhorse, despite a sore right ankle, averaging 35 minutes and winning a high percentage of faceoffs. However, the Maple Leafs' offense was spotty--defensemen scored five of their 15 goals--and Dave Andreychuk wasn't a force on the power play. If Gilmour isn't hobbled, they'll win a low-scoring series in six games.

Here's proof that 50-goal scorer Mike Modano has become a complete player: Coach Bob Gainey let him kill penalties in Dallas' sweep of the Blues--and there's no higher honor from Gainey, a superb defensive forward in his day. The Stars have a pesky offense and a rugged defense, although they miss Mark Tinordi, out because of a broken leg. Vancouver stayed alive against Calgary when right wing Pavel Bure woke up and scored three goals in the last three games, then won when goalie Kirk McLean turned promise into performance. Canucks in seven.


The Pittsburgh Penguins' first-round loss was no shock, given their lack of discipline and speed. Few players were willing to grind it out, and the thin defense was overwhelmed. Jaromir Jagr and Kevin Stevens had no points until Game 5 and Mario Lemieux didn't score in Games 3-5, his longest playoff drought.

Lemieux, who has overcome Hodgkin's disease and a back injury in the last two seasons, again said he might retire. However, his agent, Tom Reich, said Lemieux will take a long rest before considering his future.

"He's drained," Reich said. "He's not sure how much of the fatigue was a consequence of the Hodgkin's (treatment) radiation. He was able to pick and choose which games he'd play so he wouldn't be drained in the last quarter of the season. In the playoffs it's all or nothing. He's got a legitimate concern about his health. His back is one thing and his endurance is another."


In Montreal, they called him "St. Patrick" when Roy left his hospital bed with a sore appendix and stopped 99 of 102 shots in Games 4 and 5. They removed his halo when he gave up three soft goals in Game 7 and Boston ended the Canadiens' Stanley Cup reign, but he wasn't to blame. Without Roy, the under-sized, underachieving Canadiens would have lost sooner.

Roy didn't cite his appendicitis to explain his fade at the finish, but it must have weakened him. He has always been a fierce competitor, and he had the added incentive of making Bruin General Manager Harry Sinden sorry for disparaging remarks about Roy after Game 6. Roy had no strength to answer this time, but he will next time. Count on that.


Sad to see the Blackhawks shut out in their final game at Chicago Stadium, but that sour ending was washed away by a flood of good memories. The roar, the thundering organ music, the building rocking when the crowd got going--it was a blast. . . . The Flames' inexcusable loss will trigger major changes. They probably won't be able to re-sign defenseman Al MacInnis, who will be a free agent without compensation and is seeking $3 million. Defenseman Zarley Zalapski and goalie Trevor Kidd will also be free agents; Theoren Fleury, Joe Nieuwendyk, Joel Otto, Robert Reichel, Mike Vernon and Frank Musil are entering their option years. . . . Still one of the best moments in sports is the handshaking ceremony after each series, no matter how intense the rivalry.

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