THE NHL / HELENE ELLIOTT : Canadian Politics Could Create Mess

NHL executives were anxiously awaiting the outcome of Monday's referendum in Quebec, anticipating legal and financial problems if the province voted to secede from Canada and became independent.

Among the chief concerns was that political uncertainty created by a Yes vote would send the value of the Canadian dollar plummeting, as many economists predict. That could devastate the NHL's seven Canadian franchises because they are obligated to pay many of their players in American dollars, but get much of their revenue in Canadian funds.

The Canadian dollar was worth 73.4 cents U.S. Friday, but currency analysts have said a Yes vote could drop the Canadian dollar to 65 cents U.S., or lower.

Other questions included whether Quebec would be entitled to a team at the Olympics and world hockey championships and how a separate Quebec would affect the Dream Team plan for the 1998 Olympics. Prominent Quebec natives in the NHL include Mario Lemieux, Patrick Roy, Luc Robitaille, Pierre Turgeon and Ray Bourque. Additionally, a separate Quebec would present the NHL another set of tax and labor laws.

Commissioner Gary Bettman refused to comment on the referendum last week. But Brian Burke, the NHL's director of hockey operations and an attorney, acknowledged that he was closely watching Monday's vote.

"It raises a whole series of issues if the separatists are successful," he said. "There may be different customs and immigration difficulties getting in to play Montreal. . . . I hope these are issues that we don't have to deal with."

AVALANCHE OF GOALS FOR FORSBERG

Games and weeks went by and still Colorado's Peter Forsberg, last season's rookie of the year, hadn't scored a goal.

"I wasn't worried," Coach Marc Crawford said. "I knew it was a matter of time before he put one home."

Forsberg wasn't so sure.

"I was really starting to get frustrated," the Swedish center said. "One game at home, I had an open net and I missed. You know the goals are going to come, but you don't always think that way."

Forsberg ended his drought with a goal and two assists last Wednesday and quickly began to make up for lost time. He had two goals and an assist Friday as the Avalanche continued to shake off its slow start and moved into first place in the Pacific Division.

"When you get a couple of goals, you get more confident," said Forsberg, who led rookies last season with 35 assists and 50 points in 47 games. "You shoot the puck a little bit more and it starts going in."

Forsberg's revival was one of two major events involving the Avalanche last week. Eager to find an offensive-oriented defenseman after Uwe Krupp suffered a season-ending knee injury, General Manager Pierre Lacroix acquired Sandis Ozolinsh from San Jose for winger Owen Nolan.

On the surface, it looks as if Lacroix got taken. Nolan is a rugged forward who has scored at least 30 goals in each of his three full seasons and Ozolinsh has been disappointing since he scored 26 goals in the 1993-94 season. Lacroix says Ozolinsh was worth it because he so precisely fills a large void.

"At this point, you're trying to get the best makeup possible," Lacroix said. "You've got to have skill, character and a defenseman who can help the offense. Sandis Ozolinsh is a quality player. There's no more than a dozen of his type of player in this league."

FROM RED ARMY TO RED WINGS

The great Soviet hockey teams of the 1970s and '80s deployed five-man units, on the theory that defensemen and forwards developed better chemistry if they always played together. Detroit Coach Scotty Bowman adopted the idea and made NHL history when he used a unit of former Red Army players.

After acquiring Igor Larionov from San Jose, Bowman moved Sergei Fedorov from center to right wing and aligned him with Larionov and Viacheslav Kozlov. Their defense mates were Vladimir Konstantinov and Viacheslav Fetisov. They combined for two goals and countless clever passes in a 3-0 victory over the Flames last Friday.

The players loved it.

"That was old Russian hockey," Larionov said. "It was nice for the fans to watch too."

MARIO LE MAGNIFIQUE

Lemieux initially felt strong enough to hope he could play almost every game this season, but a cross-check that brought on back pain and kept him out of a game against the Kings 10 days ago prompted him to reconsider.

Lemieux, who sat out last season to recover from back surgery and Hodgkin's disease, now intends to avoid games on consecutive nights and lengthy trips.

A team spokesman said Lemieux will make the Penguins' coming trip to Ottawa, San Jose and Los Angeles but probably won't play every game. Lemieux, who has had two successive hat tricks, has nine goals and 20 points in seven games, tying him with Philadelphia's Eric Lindros for the league lead.

"I was thinking that maybe I was going to be able to play more than 65-70 games this year," said Lemieux, who was fitted for a protective shield for his back. "But I got brought back to reality, I guess."

HULL OF A MESS

When Brett Hull criticized St. Louis Coach Mike Keenan for benching veteran Dale Hawerchuk and rejected Keenan's claim that club executives had jointly decided to strip him of his captaincy, he sounded like a man trying to provoke his boss into trading him. Not so, says Hull's agent, Mike Barnett.

"He knows Mike, and he knows Mike has his own way to attempt to lead a hockey team and motivate individuals," Barnett said. "If taking the captaincy away from Brett is conducive to winning the Stanley Cup, then Brett is all for it.

"He was disappointed, but he feels there are honorable and dishonorable ways to lose it and he felt he lost it in an honorable way, by standing up for a teammate. . . . He absolutely does not want out. He thoroughly enjoys St. Louis and hopes to spend the rest of his career there."

But don't be surprised if Keenan, who has been told to trim his payroll, does that by trading Hull before the season ends.

SO FAR, SO GOOD

Among the first moves by new Montreal Coach Mario Tremblay was taking Vincent Damphousse off the top line, where he was playing with Pierre Turgeon and Mark Recchi. With Brian Savage on the left side, the line is on a scoring spree and has carried the Canadiens to a five-game winning streak. Savage has seven goals and Turgeon has 12 points since Tremblay replaced Jacques Demers.

"It was one of the worst times in the history of the franchise," assistant coach Steve Shutt said of the 0-4 start under Demers.

SLAP SHOTS

Calgary's eight shots against Detroit last Friday weren't a record for fewest in a game. The Capitals had seven on Feb. 12, 1978. . . . The NHL, NHL Players Assn. and International Ice Hockey Federation will meet in Zurich, Switzerland, on Nov. 13 to discuss details of the World Cup (formerly Canada Cup) tournament. . . . Ranger defenseman Ulf Samuelsson, who sat out two games after a punch by Toronto's Tie Domi left him with a concussion, separated his shoulder in his first game back. He missed another two games.

Fans from such far-flung places as Alaska and Bermuda have asked the Bruins for a souvenir when the Boston Garden is demolished. Former Bruin Terry O'Reilly was promised the penalty box, only fitting, given his 2,095 penalty minutes. . . . Lindros has at least one point in each of the Flyers' 10 games. . . . The Hartford Whalers are 0-4-1 since their 4-0 start. . . . Chicago Blackhawk goalie Ed Belfour is day-to-day because of back problems. . . . Maple Leaf Coach Pat Burns was offered a one-year contract extension.

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