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Hockey Notes

Outside shot of success

NHL must pick its spots for game

By Kevin Paul Dupont
January 4, 2009
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NBC's ratings for the Winter Classic in Chicago nudged a smidgen higher than last year's New Year's Day game in Orchard Park, N.Y., up from 2.6/5 to 2.9/6.

OK, the distant sons of Rocket Richard and Gordie Howe haven't run off and stuffed the clicker under the couch pillows, even amid what has become national bowl game ennui in the USA. But in an era when most working stiffs in America wake up and ask, "Hey, Ethel, how much do ya figure we'll lose today?," any number north of the old number is a good number.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, his league the weakest TV draw among the four major sports, said after Thursday's game that he is uncertain when or if there will be another Winter Classic. If there is, he said, he doesn't know where it will be, but he figures more cities will want to host it now that the NHL has staged three outdoor games, with progressively better results.

"It's not something we can do every week," mused Bettman, after just shy of 41,000 puck lovers streamed to the hallowed North Side grounds of Wrigley Field. "It's not something that I think you can do many, many times a year. But it's something that we know can be a special part of our game, if we do it right."

Kudos are due the NHL, especially Icemeister Dan Craig, for being able to drop a Grade A playing surface wherever it is so desired. One caveat, of course, is Mother Nature. Temps above 60 Farenheit one day could kill the league's best intentions, as could rain (note: the league took out an insurance policy around those very issues). But with weather conditions permitting, and 10 days or more lead time to allow for installation and the freezing of a firm, "mature" sheet, Craig's crew can take a parking lot and put up a paradise (regular readers of this space had to know that was coming).

One possible application for the NHL to consider, beyond the Jan. 1 Winter Classic niche, would be its annual All-Star Game. Serious hockey fans don't give a hoot about the game itself, but the league believes it is an essential corporate/client schmooze, which makes the weekend far more about marketing and selling than mucking and grinding. Getting everyone outside could be a breath of fresh air for the game.

Even if the league didn't want to take the All-Star Game outdoors, its proven portable rink could be the perfect centerpiece to bring to the All-Star city each year. The league could cordon off a downtown area for a week or two before the game and bring a little bit of Rockefeller Center to the host city. Fans could skate in open sessions, bands could play, and on All-Star weekend, current All-Stars and NHL legends could be brought in for skating and autograph sessions.

Charity events would be a natural, as would youth hockey games and maybe a figure skating competition. All with that NHL logo at center ice. Put all those shiny NHL trophies on display, including the Stanley Cup, and the league might have itself the single best goodwill piece in all of sports each January.

Here in the Hub, perhaps they could drop that sheet in the Vault's parking lot along Causeway Street, right where the old Garden once stood. For a $20 donation to the Bruins Foundation, John Bucyk will hip check all pretenders right over the boards.

Meanwhile, the betting here is that the Winter Classic will be a go for Jan. 1, 2010, setting the stage for the Olympic Games only a little more than a month later in Vancouver. Not a bad way for NBC to whet fan appetite for Olympus, which again will have NHLers going for the gold. Great synergy there.

Vancouver could be the ideal host city for the Winter Classic 2010, and it probably would be prudent (read: politically correct) for Bettman & Bros. to bring their outdoor game back to Canada. The first one, in November 2003, had Montreal in Edmonton to face the Oilers, and some folks in the crowd that day just last week were able to break the icicles off of their noses and ears. In a word, numbing.

Boston, you ask? Its time will come, and sooner rather than later, what with Spoked-B owner Jeremy Jacobs the league's Chairman of the Board (yes, reason No. 8,673,264 why it's good to be king). Pencil in Jan. 1, 2011, or better yet, 2012, the year Fenway Park turns 100 years old. The Winter Classic would be the icing on Fenway's birthday cake.

After Quick call-up, goalie is zeroed in

Jonathan Quick knew he was ready to move on to pro hockey after his two years at the University of Massachusetts, and now, less than two years later, the 22-year-old from Hamden, Conn., looks as if he could be become a fixture in the Los Angeles Kings net.

Summoned from Manchester (AHL) prior to the Dec. 19 NHL roster freeze, Quick posted shutouts over Columbus (Dec. 23) and Phoenix (Dec. 27), and headed into last night he had allowed a total of three goals over four starts, turning back 97 of 100 shots for a sizzling .970 save percentage.

"As far as all that goes," said Quick, chatting by cellphone last week as he dined on sushi at Manhattan Beach, "I think the numbers are just a reflection of some great team defense. These guys make my job pretty easy."

The Kings really have never had a homegrown goalie in their 40 years of NHL existence. Two of their best, Rogie Vachon (Montreal) and Kelly Hrudey (Islanders), found their way to LA after launching their careers elsewhere. But the Kings made Quick a third-round pick, 72d overall, in the 2005 draft.

Seven other goalies, including Carey Price (5, Montreal) and Tuukka Rask (21, Toronto) were picked ahead of Quick in 2005. As of today, Price is the only one close to being a household name. Rask awaits his chance with the Wanna-B's in Providence.

"Obviously, there's a little transition period between the AHL and the NHL," said Quick. "The shots are a little quicker off the stick up here, and you have to get used to that. Mostly that's a timing thing, getting that down to a point where you're comfortable."

Quick played three seasons at Avon Old Farms prior to being drafted his senior year, then played two more at UMass, going 23-22-6 before launching his pro career. He went 34-19-3 between the ECHL and AHL last year, getting a three-game taste with the Kings.

"I loved it at UMass - it was really a great time," he said. "A great group of teammates, and a great coaching staff. They helped me with everything I needed. But I was ready to try to get to my ultimate goal, to make it to the NHL."

The 6-foot-1-inch Quick was 180 pounds his draft year. These days he's at around 220.

"That's about 5 pounds over where I like to play," he said. "Too many holiday cupcakes, I guess."

Etc.

Taking it slowly with Bergeron
It has been two weeks since we've seen Patrice Bergeron playing the pivot for the Bruins. He remains home at his downtown condo, recovering from his second concussion in less than 14 months, delivered in his head-to-shoulder collision with Carolina defenseman Dennis Seidenberg. "Right now, there's no timetable," his agent, Kent Hughes, reported as the weekend began. "At some point, maybe [this] week, he'll try some light exercise and then see how he responds to that." According to Hughes, Dr. Robert Cantu, the concussion expert overseeing Bergeron's care, said he felt "99 percent of the players who sustained the same hit would have been concussed."

Calder becomes a tougher call
The play of Kings defenseman Drew Doughty has slipped a little - as it does for many first-year players. The kid is still a stud back there, but now he is in a three-man race with Chicago forward Kris Versteeg (134th pick in '04) and Columbus goalie Steve Mason (69th pick in '06) for Rookie of the Year honors. Blue Jackets coach Ken Hitchcock on Mason: "Between his disposition and his hockey sense, you know when a goalie is going to be good - and he's good." The 20-year-old recorded three straight shutouts (over Philly, LA, and Anaheim), turning back a total of 71 shots, which tied a rookie record set by Detroit's Glenn Hall in 1955-56, before giving up a goal in a win at Colorado Friday night. If Mason gets the Calder, he'll be the first goalie to cop the award since Andrew Raycroft in '04 - about the last good thing in Razor's career.

Powerless Penguins
Way too much talent in that Penguins lineup for them to struggle so mightily on the power play, in part why they called a players-only meeting after the Bruins rubbed them out at the Igloo Dec. 30. Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin are among the two best young forwards in the game, and they can't get the job done on the power play? Clearly, they miss Sergei Gonchar (shoulder), who has been out all year. But some of it is coaching, and Michel Therrien has always been a bit of a strange fit there, even when they made their run to the Cup finals last spring.

Hip check in Minnesota
Bad news for Wild, who are without star forward Marian Gaborik for 10 more weeks now that he needs (hold on) hip surgery. Great talent, when he actually can get in the lineup. Now the Wild can't trade him, which means he'll likely walk as an unrestricted free agent July 1 and they'll get zippo in return. GM Doug Risebrough, whose squad will be at the Garden Tuesday night, will have to get star goaltender Niklas Backstrom on a new deal very soon, or risk losing him to UFA, too. He's likely to command the $6.875 million average that Henrik Lundqvist is coining with the Blueshirts.

Loose pucks
Red Wings GM Ken Holland presented Scott Bowman with his 2008 Cup ring at Wrigley Field's home plate Wednesday, the day before the Winter Classic. Bowman now works as a senior adviser in the Blackhawks front office . . . The two-way deal Claude Lemieux signed with San Jose will pay him $500,000 if he is brought up from Worcester. Short money for a guy with 19 game-winning goals in the playoffs, third all-time behind Wayne Gretzky and Brett Hull (each with 24). That slouch Rocket Richard potted only 18 GWGs in all those Habs Cup runs . . . Finally, something to keep in mind about teams with long winning streaks. The longest on record are: 1. Pittsburgh, 17, in the 1992-93 season; 2. NY Islanders, 15, in '81-82; 3. Bruins, 14, in '29-30. Of those three, only the Islanders went on to win the Cup.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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