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Ferraro Wishes Kings Well, but . . .

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For three-plus seasons, center Ray Ferraro was the Kings’ conscience. An articulate and passionate voice during some awful days, he was always honest about the team’s failings but hopeful better times were ahead.

Better times are here, but Ferraro isn’t. His age, 35, and creaky knees made him expendable, and the Kings didn’t keep him from signing with the expansion Atlanta Thrashers as a free agent last summer. He’s again enduring plenty of losses, but he’s happy the Kings are thriving.

“Of all the teams I’ve played on, they’re the one I’m glad is doing well,” said Ferraro, who will face the Kings Wednesday at Staples Center. “I had so much fun in L.A. Some guys there, I consider close friends. We suffered through some tough times, but they’ve made some good moves. Getting [Ziggy] Palffy was a great move. Everybody knows he can score, but they’re surprised how good a player he is without the puck. And with Blakey [Rob Blake] healthy, that’s a big boost.

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“I don’t have any ill will toward anyone. I sure wish we would have won more, but the organization treated me really well. . . . Everybody [in his family] had grown very fond of living in Manhattan Beach, including myself. When I first got to L.A., there was disappointment I had been traded from the Rangers and it took a while to get used to it, but it really became home.”

He knew last season he wouldn’t fit into the Kings’ youth movement, but he was playing too well to quit.

“I wanted to play, and this is the best chance for me to play,” said Ferraro, second in scoring among the Thrashers with five goals and 16 points. “I’m not ready to retire. I still love to play and can be effective.”

In building the team, General Manager Don Waddell collected veterans such as Ferraro, Kelly Buchberger, Nelson Emerson, Mike Stapleton and Gord Murphy.

“We knew we’d struggle a bit, scoring goals, but one thing that’s a little disappointing is, we’re giving up more goals than I thought we would,” Ferraro said.

Nonetheless, fans in Atlanta are responding enthusiastically to the first NHL venture there since the Flames left for Calgary in 1980.

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“The fans have been great,” Ferraro said. “At certain times, you can tell they might not have a grasp of everything that’s going on, but they’re excited. We’re averaging well over 17,000 and have had quite a few sellouts.”

He hopes to see some familiar faces on and off the ice Wednesday.

“It sure will be different playing against them and playing at Staples [Center]. Last time I saw it, there were construction workers hanging off it,” he said. “I’m not kidding anybody. I’d like to win there. I’m looking forward to going out there and playing well.”

BLACKHAWKS TURN GRAY

Mighty Duck Coach Craig Hartsburg, who coached the Blackhawks from 1995-96 through 1997-98, sympathizes with Bob Murray, who was fired as Chicago’s general manager last Thursday. At the same time, Coach Lorne Molleken was demoted to associate coach and silver-haired Bob Pulford assumed both jobs.

“It’s a terrible thing to go through,” Hartsburg said. “I feel bad for [Murray] because he’s a hard-working guy who has great intensity in his job. When things don’t go well, he takes it personally, and I know exactly how he feels.”

Hartsburg was surprised Pulford, 63 and a senior vice president, returned to coaching after an absence of 12 1/2 years. But he thinks Pulford can calm the team.

“He’s like your grandfather. When you’re around your grandfather you feel relaxed,” Hartsburg said. “I always enjoyed it when he was around the coaching staff. He let you do your job. I really respect Pully.”

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Unfortunately, these aren’t your grandfather’s Blackhawks. They’re on the way to missing the playoffs for the third successive season, they’ve traded and drafted badly for the last decade and they have problems in goal. Besides, Murray goofed in signing Wendel Clark and Doug Gilmour, and came out a loser in the Chris Chelios trade.

Pulford won’t keep both jobs long. He has already talked to Mike Smith, who was general manager in Winnipeg and associate general manager in Toronto. Molleken remains behind the bench with Pulford and was making line changes, but that could be too awkward to last.

HANDOUT OR HANDOFF?

Ottawa Senator owner Rod Bryden’s announcement of his putting the club up for sale but “the odds of the Senators leaving Ottawa is [sic] not very high,” smacks of more than grammatical ignorance. It’s politicking of the lowest order.

Why would prospective buyers be interested after hearing Bryden say the team probably won’t move? He merely wants tax relief from the Canadian government, after getting breaks from local and provincial politicians.

Sentiment is split over whether the Senators--and other Canadian clubs that face high taxes and a punitive exchange rate--are a unique institution and deserve federal help, or must accept those problems as the downside of owning sports teams.

Mighty Duck General Manager Pierre Gauthier, who was the Senators’ general manager for 2 1/2 seasons, is watching the debate with interest.

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“He’s right about the taxes,” Gauthier said. “It’s unbelievable the amount of taxes those people pay, considering the amount of economic activity they generate. It’s certainly a competitive disadvantage. His argument, if I read it correctly, is a very solid one.

“If he’s saying our industry is in trouble and we need help for the time being, that’s a fair argument. The Canadian government helps a lot of other industries, and hockey is a big industry in Canada.”

CAPITAL IDEAS

The Capitals’ new owner, Ted Leonsis, chats with fans online every few weeks and regularly answers e-mail at washingtoncaps@aol.com. His computer literacy is no surprise--he’s a co-founder of America Online.

Leonsis’ chats are amusing and offer inside information, such as telling fans the team’s jerseys will have “a new look and feel next season by a world class designer.” He also said he’s still learning his way around NHL boardrooms.

“I have been very quiet and polite around the other owners,” he said. “I’m hoping to learn from them, but I don’t want to end the pageant as Mr. Congeniality.”

When asked about a Washington Post story that examined why the Capitals and Wizards don’t draw well, he replied: “The Post is a petroleum-based product and is very wrong in many of its assertions. . . . However, who cares? As long as you’re happy, I’m happy.”

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TWO-PRONGERED STAT

Hits are considered a key stat in any game, but St. Louis defenseman Chris Pronger ignores them when he looks at the score sheet.

“What some statisticians deem a hit in some buildings, others don’t, and vice versa,” he said. “I think a lot of times a hit that makes the biggest noise or just a big, open-ice collision is what’s deemed a hit, and a lot of times the little things get overlooked.”

He’s right. Homerism often colors such statistics as hits and shots, and they can’t be taken as absolutes.

However, one statistic he likes is the voting for the North American team in the All-Star game. As of last week, Pronger had a narrow lead over the Kings’ Blake among defensemen.

“It’s a great honor, with the caliber of players and the names that are on the ballot,” Pronger said. “It’s still early, but it goes to show the type of year I’m having and the way our team is playing.”

SLAP SHOTS

With debate escalating over intra-conference play, variations on the idea will be discussed--but not voted upon--at Board of Governors’ meetings today and Wednesday at Boca Raton, Fla. For those who don’t want to lose the annual visit from traditional rivals, a compromise may be devised to allow teams to play mostly within the conference and go outside the conference for four to six games. . . . The Maple Leafs will be without leading scorer Yanic Perreault for at least six weeks. He suffered a broken left forearm when he was slashed by Pittsburgh goalie Tom Barrasso on Saturday. No penalty was called but NHL disciplinarian Colin Campbell suspended Barrasso for four games. . . . Canuck center Mark Messier tested his sprained right knee last week but is still two weeks from returning. He was injured Nov. 9.

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