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MIGHTY DUCKS / ’94-'95 PREVIEW : This Great Game Best Served on Ice, Not the Rocks

“I see great things in hockey. It’s our game--the North American game. It will take our people indoors, fill them with sausage and beer, give them a larger physical stoicism. Tend to relieve us from being a nervous, dyspeptic set. Repair these broken noses, and be a blessing to us. . . . “

OK, so Walt Whitman never really said that.

Even if he had, old Walt’s words would have never seen the light of some windy, droning, 18 1/2-hour PBS documentary titled, simply, grandly, “Hockey.”

Hockey is too unpretentious for that.

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But Walt would have loved hockey, had he lived a century later. How could he not? The game is a poet’s delight--a daiquiri-blend concoction of the rhythm and flow of soccer, the smash-mouth violence of football and the fast-breaking go-to-the-hole energy of basketball. All the things that make the world go ‘round. And not a rain delay in sight.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for a brain delay, which is the only thing that could possibly stop hockey in its blade tracks, as has been the dark threat in recent weeks.

Wee Gary Bettman and his Napoleon complex have hogged far too many headlines lately, climbing up that stepladder to reach the microphone and rail against the players for wanting to be paid like professional athletes, circa 1994.

And if the players wouldn’t agree to artificially stifling their earning power after 75 years of having the owners quite naturally stifle it for them, well, Wee Gary was going to stamp his foot and order the NHL season to hold its breath until the faces of everyone who truly cares about the sport--you, me, Wayne Gretzky--turned blue.

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In the meantime, we continue to wait for the puck to drop. That’s all that should happen this weekend. Put the puck in play, put the players in play.

Because, to paraphrase Walt again, we see great things in hockey this season, given half a chance.

* Paul Kariya. Will he be able to play up to half the hype--which, to date, has pegged him as equal parts Gretzky, Gandhi, Tom Cruise, Merlin the Magician and John, Paul, George and Ringo?

* Barry Melrose. He appeared grim and uptight through much of his rookie turn as a playoff analyst for ESPN last spring. Will the look remain the same as he realizes Rick Tocchet’s on the trainer’s table, Luc Robitaille’s in Pittsburgh and no one’s left to take pucks from Gretzky and aim them toward the net?

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* The New York Rangers. For 54 years, they prayed for a savior and got the devil, Mike Keenan, instead. Did they sell their souls for one chance to roll the Stanley Cup down the steps of Penn Station? Is Colin Campbell the right man at the absolute worst possible time? Where will any of us be in the year 2048?

* Mike Keenan. How long will it take for hockey’s Billy Martin to burn all his bridges in St. Louis, too, to say nothing about The Arch?

* The San Jose Sharks. They were the success story of last season’s playoffs, they just added Viktor Kozlov to their burgeoning Russian Red Light Army and they seemed poised to step up into the Western Conference’s ruling class in just their fourth year. Then, their unflappable goaltender, Arturs Irbe, has his left hand chomped by his pet Labrador. How will the team respond to the first recorded case of dog biting Shark?

* The Detroit Red Wings. If they are really only a goaltender away from the Stanley Cup, who says that goaltender’s name is Mike Vernon?

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* Pavel Bure. With Mario Lemieux back on the shelf and Gretzky soon to turn 34, can a diminutive right winger from Moscow playing in British Columbia win the hearts and minds of the American megastar-craving masses?

* The New Jersey Devils. Can they win the Stanley Cup? And if they do, will we need to consult the engraving on the side of the trophy before we can play “Name Five New Jersey Devils”?

* Brett Hull. St. Louis is a city of nearly 400,000 people, 34th largest in the United States. But is it big enough for Hull and Keenan, at least through next June?

* The Philadelphia Flyers. Bobby Clarke is back. Ron Hextall is back. The Flyers are calling this their throwback season, but to where? How about 1988-89, the last time Philadelphia qualified for the NHL playoffs?

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* Luc Robitaille. If he is truly going to pick up the slack left behind by Lemieux, will somebody in Pittsburgh inform him that goals scored during the playoffs count, too?

* Sergei Fedorov. Is this the year we finally get the spelling right? That’s two O’s in Fedorov. As in “G-O-O-A-L!”

* The Buffalo Sabres. If they could ever assemble all their injury-prone players--Pat Lafontaine, Alexander Mogilny, Craig Simpson--on the ice and in uniform at the same time, wouldn’t Buffalo be a much happier place in late January?

* The Mighty Ducks. With Karpov, Semenov, Shtalenkov and Tverdovsky in the fold, do they now have enough to stave ov San Jose’s cosmonauts in the race for the Western Conference playoffs? Has ex-Canadien, ex-Sabre, ex-Devil, ex-Maple Leaf, ex-Canuck and ex-Islander Tom Kurvers finally found a purple and green place he can call home? Will Ron Wilson implement a fine system for any player using the words “sophomore” and “jinx” in the same sentence? Even with Kariya, how does a second-year NHL team improve on 33 victories and the same amount of road wins--19--as the Penguins had in 1993-94?

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At this point, we don’t know.

As I said before, we are waiting for the puck to drop.

Any day now will be just fine.


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