His head was spinning, the windshield wipers mesmerizing, nearly hypnotic, and Ken Belanger knew there would be no battling through it. Even a fighter knows there are times to stop the struggle. He pulled to the side of Route 128, called home, and told his wife to come rescue him.
''An anxiety attack -- that's what that was," Belanger said Friday night, recalling how his career began to unravel during his short stay with the Bruins some six years earlier. ''I mean, I was down, mentally exhausted from the game, just didn't want to do it anymore. The passion wasn't there. I bet a lot of guys could relate to that."
But it was a vastly different-sounding Belanger who spoke Friday, as he and his Los Angeles Kings were about to board a bus for an exhibition game in Anaheim. After three years of nearly not playing at all, including a 2003-04 season in which he was effectively retired, the 31-year-old forward late last week landed a one-year contract with the Kings. The one-time Hartford draft pick (No. 153 overall in '92) has a job again, and by the sounds of it, a whole new look at his career.
''I came out here [as a training camp invitee], and this was the ultimate goal," said Belanger, his enthusiasm all but crackling over the cell phone connection. ''But, really, it's been a two-year thing to get here.
''I went home to Sault Ste. Marie [Ontario], put a gym in my house, skated every day, and realized I came to that path in my life, wondering what direction I wanted to take. Well, this was it, I wanted to play again, and with a wife and three kids, that gave me some focus, too."
A strapping 6 feet 4 inches, 235 pounds, Belanger has a game centered on force rather than touch. Headed into the final weekend of preseason play, he led the league in penalty minutes (60 in four games). LA coach Andy Murray no doubt wants him around to play protective cop to the likes of Jeremy Roenick, Pavol Demitra, and Alexander Frolov.
''Yeah, it's the same idea as I was doing before," said Belanger, who has also seen time on a line with Jeff Cowan and Sean Avery. ''But the game has changed a bit the last few years, too. Everyone has to be able to skate, play. A guy who doesn't have some skill can't play in the league anymore."
Belanger is back, in part, because he developed a new ability: how to appreciate the game he's played since childhood.
''I'm just excited to be back, I'll tell you that," he said. ''The time away, I got to do some things that people with 9-to-5 jobs take for granted. You know, just spend time with my kids.
''My grandfather got sick, died, and I got to spend some quality time with him that I'll never forget. I enjoyed all that and, slowly, I began to feel better about playing. It wasn't one day or anything, just time, I guess.
''There had been the travel, the pressure of playing, all that built up over the years and no release. But finally, I got a breath of fresh air, and I'm just going with it."
Russian game now in the dumps
New Bruin Alexei Zhamnov returned to Russia during the lockout and collected 27 points in 24 games with Podolsk. Zhamnov, who turned 35 yesterday, hadn't played regularly in Russia since spring 1992, just prior to his leaving for Winnipeg, and he was surprised to see North American elements of the game now part of the Russian fabric.
''When I left, we weren't playing the dump-and-chase game -- we always held on to the puck," noted Zhamnov, who was drafted by the Jets when he played for Moscow Dynamo. ''But I'm not saying it's bad.
''Their game has taken on some of the North American style, and here in the NHL, some of the European traits are part of the game. It's good, we learn from each other."
Meanwhile, over in Siberia, former NHL and Canadian Olympic coach Dave King is running the bench for Mettalurg Magnitogorsk. He is the first North American to be a head coach in Russia. Toronto-based writer Al Adams, in a recent story for Sportsnet.ca, had King noting that one of his missions is to get his squad to build more defense into its game.
''At times," said King, ''they pass the puck too much."
Sutters lose boyhood haunt
The indoor rink in Viking, Alberta, where all the Sutter brothers cut their early ruts, was razed last week, following a July 7 electrical fire that damaged the old barn beyond repair.
''I hate to say it," said Darryl Sutter, coach/general manager of the Calgary Flames and one of six brothers who made it to the NHL. ''But growing up, going to that rink was more important to me than going to school or church."
Darryl also recalled being in the building some 40 years ago with his brother, Brian, when the midwinter cold was so mind-numbing that it brought the two youngsters to tears. In walked their dad, Louie, a man with little patience for a sob story.
''Never bawl in a hockey arena," Louie warned them, ''or I'll never bring you back."
Viking residents plan on building a rink across town. The old building, known as the Cararena, was built in the 1950s, with funds raised in a car raffle. Sutter brother memorabilia, which survived the July fire, will be incorporated in the new building.
Hope and Crosby is now the headline act in Pittsburgh
Granted, it's much too late to say that the Sidney Crosby hype begins Wednesday when the rookie phenom and the Penguins open their season in New Jersey. Truth is, the Crosby hype began a year or two before his name was even known in Steeltown.
But perhaps an ounce or two of perspective is in order, for everyone, before Sid the Kid takes his first faceoff. Maybe we should let him log that first shift before the Hall of Fame orders his blue jacket and shiny ring.
The Hockey News recently ranked Crosby the 26th-best NHLer, only three spots removed from linemate/team owner Mario Lemieux. Boston captain Joe Thornton, by the way, is ranked No. 6.
Some of those who rank below Crosby: Todd Bertuzzi, Milan Hejduk, Zigmund Palffy, Marian Gaborik, and Dany Heatley.
Oilers boss Kevin Lowe, who played much of his career trailing in Wayne Gretzky's wake, said last week that he hopes all the Crosby hype is true, because it would portend great things for the league.
But, as the astute Lowe also noted, ''Joe Thornton is one of the best in the league -- but it took him two or three years to get going."
Goalie shuffle in Finland
Jokerit had to scurry for goaltending help when Tim Thomas bolted Helsinki two days before the Finnish season to join the Bruins. In hopes that another Yank could be the same superlative stopper that Thomas was, Jokerit quickly signed ex-North Dakota goalie Karl Goehring, favorite son of Apple Valley, Minn. According to Bill Zito, Thomas's agent, Thomas's endorsement helped persuade Jokerit bosses to take a flyer on the diminutive Goehring (5 feet 8 inches, 160 pounds). Headed into the weekend, however, it had been tough going for Goehring, who stood winless in six games, with a 3.34 goals-against mark and an lackluster .894 save percentage. His partner, Joonas Hallikainen, was winless in four appearances, with a 4.67 GAA and .861 save percentage. According to league stats, one-time Bruins prospect Matti Kaltiainen, ex- of Boston College, has played a little over a period for the Espoo Blues. The Bruins opted not to offer Kaltiainen a contract in August, thus rendering him an unrestricted free agent.
Meeting in St. Louis
A little more than three months after Bill and Nancy Laurie put the Blues up for sale, the St. Louis Post-Dispatch reported Thursday that a group headed by former Madison Square Garden boss Dave Checketts was the winning bidder (pending league approval). The same day, the Blues welcomed back power forward Keith Tkachuk, who two weeks earlier was denied entrance to camp when he failed the team physical. Reports had it that Tkachuk, listed at 225 pounds on the roster, had put on at least 30 pounds since the end of the 2003-04 season. There is no relation, of course, between the Blues finding a bidder and a slimmed-down Tkachuk making it back in time to earn his full $7.6 million this season.
Getzlaf gets going
The 2003 draft, which brought the Bruins Mark Stuart (now in Providence) at No. 21 and a hidden gem in Patrice Bergeron at No. 45, looks as if it's about to pay off handsomely for the Mighty Ducks. Anaheim's top pick (19 overall), Ryan Getzlaf, late last week ranked second league-wide for assists (7) in exhibition play. The 20-year-old is a 6-foot-4-inch center who also can play the wing. The Ducks' second first-round pick, center Corey Perry at No. 28, hasn't been as obvious on the scoresheet. But like Bergeron, he gets his shots on net (6 games, 23 shots, third overall). Mark Hunter, general manager in London (Ontario), where Perry played his junior hockey, offhandedly refers to Perry as ''another Rick Nash."
With exhibition play to end tonight, the draft's Late Find Award goes to the Senators, who selected Brandon Bochenski No. 223 overall in 2001. As of late last week, the 6-2, 195-pound Bochenski had 8 points in the preseason, tying him for the rookie lead with Andrew Hutchinson (Carolina) and Thomas Vanek (Buffalo). One veteran scout's assessment of Bochenski: ''Skates like Ray Sheppard [note: not a compliment], but gets open like Brett Hull."
The return from lockout did not create an active job market for a few former Bruins goalies. To wit:
Felix Potvin, after engaging in initial conversations about returning to Causeway Street as a budget backup to Andrew Raycroft, remains in search of an offer. His agent, Jay Fee, reports that a couple of NHL clubs last week evinced some interest but were waiting to see how injuries played out for their goalies under contract.
Byron Dafoe, who chose not to take up Boston on a tryout offer last month, hasn't caught on anywhere. A source familiar with Dafoe's situation said he turned down a couple of feelers from Russian clubs.
Steve Shields took up Anaheim (his port of call in 2001-02) on a tryout offer, but a strained chest muscle kept him out of the action nearly the entire time. He was hoping to push Ilya Bryzgalov, a second-round pick in 2000, for the backup job to Jean-Sebastien Giguere. The Ducks cut the 33-year-old Shields on Thursday.
No room here or there
Yan Stastny chose not to sign an NHL deal with the Bruins, in part because he looked at Boston's depth at center and figured Mssrs. Thornton, Zhamnov, and others would make it too long a haul. Stastny, dealt to Edmonton over the summer, last week was demoted to the AHL by the Oilers. As it turned out, Edmonton was also too deep in the middle, with Michael Peca, Shawn Horcoff, Jarret Stoll, ex-BC Eagle Marty Reasoner, and Todd Harvey.
Card game for Ace
The Ace Bailey Foundation and the Bruins' Alumni Association will stage a Texas Hold'em tournament Friday, 6 p.m., at the Radisson Hotel at 200 Stuart Street. Among the Black-and-Gold brethren participating: Gary Doak, Tim Sweeney, Billy O'Dwyer, Bob Sweeney, Bruce Shoebottom, and Paul Stewart. The buy-in is $150, with major credit cards accepted. For more information, contact: Steven Zaniboni at 781-864-5209. And if you go, think how the late Ace, who was killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, would have draped an arm over your shoulder and whispered in your ear that you just might be the world's worst poker player. Only from Ace would that have felt like a compliment.
Kevin Paul Dupont's e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.