OK folks, itís been awhile and I have a lot to talk about, so letís strap on the skates, get on the ice, and remember to keep the shifts short and the passes on the tape!

So Mario Lemieux thinks heís a fighter now. Donít get me wrong, Iím all for a great fight now and again, but leave it to the enforcers. I have to admit, Mario held his own against Brad Ference, at least before the benches cleared, and I can understand why he got hot under the collar, but I have a question. When youíre pursuing a scoring title, why would you risk injury by getting in a fight when it isnít your role? Steve McKenna showed us he can take on both Ference and the Florida goaltender, Roberto Luongo, at the same time, not to mention the rest of the team came to his aide. Why did Mario have to get his two cents worth in there? Absolutely ridiculous! I canít wait to see how the NHL assesses this one. At least Mario got his just desserts by getting ejected from the game. Why doesnít this cry baby just retire again already? Itís not like his return has bettered the game any (unless you happen to live in Pittsburgh), and if you believe for one second he came back for the love of the game and not the money the Penguins owe him, then youíre as disillusioned as our commissioner, which leads me to my next paragraph.

As if I didnít rant enough about Gary Bettman in my article ďOpen Letter to an NHL CommissionerĒ, he now has to once again insult the fansí intelligence and waste our time in his yearly All-Star break interview with Ron Maclean. For those of you who didnít see it, our friend Mr. Bettman blatantly refused to discuss any aspect of the pending expiry of the collective bargaining agreement in 2004. I donít know about you, but I felt as though I was watching an episode of South Park, particularly the Terrence and Phillip episode. You know the one, where they poke fun at Saddam Hussein. ďHey donít worry about itĒ, was essentially the attitude of Bettman. Now I trust you fans of the game out there, particularly fans in Canada, will support me in saying maybe it would be best if the CBC says to hell with tradition and bring in Don Cherry during the All-Star game and can their yearly interview with Gary Bettman. Iím sure Maclean would be first to applaud this move and fans would show the same kind of support they showed when the CBC was not going to renew his contract. If Hockey Night in Canada refuses to talk to Bettman, perhaps then and only then heíll realize he needs to inform the fans not just in Canada, but within North America and around the world, not treat us all like survivors of the FOX ďGlow PuckĒ era. You know what I mean, the old ďI canít follow the game, the puck moves too fast for my fried-chicken brainĒ mentality. I donít even want to go there any further. Having watched the interview myself and having listened to this clown on Sports Byline twice, Iíve come to the following conclusion: itís probably best not to ask this guy anything! I actually felt as though I knew less about the game afterwards than I did beforehand. Hell, I didnít even know what an offside was anymore. I want to share with you something I read in a newspaper in Ottawa, and I agree hole-heartedly. As columnists we should do our duty and make a statement, something like this:

ďHenceforth, the commissioner will be wired before all his pressers and the press will be equipped with zappers. Every time Bettman says the game's in great shape or there's no problem with attendance, writers will be free to give him a jolt. Admittedly, this won't make the game better but it will give people a reason to tune into his press sessions.Ē In the great immortal words of Tom Hanks as our favorite lovable character Forrest Gump ďAnd thatís all I have to say about thatĒ.

What exactly is going on in Ottawa? One minute, the team is in first place in the NHL, next minute theyíre missing payroll, then theyíre filing for bankruptcy protection. Now Rod Bryden has everybody embroiled in whatís hopefully going to end up a win-win situation for both the franchise, the creditors and ultimately the NHL. Then all of a sudden while all of this is going on, there emerges another fellow who just so happens to be a billionaire who will supposedly be there to buy the team and keep it in Ottawa should the Bryden deal fall through. Time will tell what happens, but ultimately if youíre within driving distance of Ottawa, do the one thing we as fans can control: buy a ticket and go out and see the team who is a significant threat to win the Stanley Cup this year (unless the Edmonton Oilers somehow pull off an in my dreams miracle). If you laugh at me for saying so, you havenít seen them play yet this season! I for one do not want to see yet another Canadian team fold and go south. Rest assured if anybody deserves this deal to work, it is Mr. Bryden himself. After talks with creditors seemingly went into triple overtime, all we are awaiting now is a decision from the courts, and a deal with Covanta Energy regarding the arena debt, which is a separate deal altogether, but necessary to make the whole arrangement work. Once the deal is finalized, the Senators should end up on better financial ground than theyíve ever been (but I still want you to buy a ticket!). One thingís for sure, itíll take more than a missed payroll to deter the players from getting it done on the ice. Itís actually refreshing to see a team with one of the lowest payrolls in the NHL actually accomplish more than a few nameless teams with high payrolls (these teams all know who they are!).

And while weíre on the subject of bankrupt NHL teams, the Buffalo Sabres did the inevitable and followed suit with Ottawa as they too filed for chapter eleven. Word out of Buffalo is the gentleman who was looking to buy the team has now decided to invest his money elsewhere. More proof as to why the NHL and the NHLPA needs to get to the bargaining table and fast, before more fans lose faith in the game, not to mention buyers. Iím just waiting for a salesman scene from an old familiar childrenís show to play out. I can see it now, Iíll be out and about and a little guy with a trench coat will approach me and say ďHey Bud, you wanna buy an NHL team?Ē

It seems my rant about officiating from last time around has done nothing to raise any eyebrows in the NHLís head office. I feel like Iím watching playoff hockey already, and we still have two months to go in the regular season! A memo went out before the All-Star break telling all referees to call dives and obstruction. Iíve yet to see a legitimate crackdown since the preseason. The referees seem to have adopted the attitude ďif you canít beat Ďem, join Ďem and put your whistle awayĒ. I will say this, if they canít do something soon, theyíre going to have to take the hockey sticks away before somebody gets hurt.

What is it about Toronto when they play against Tampa Bay? Somebody should tell the Lightning there are three periods in a game. Someone should also tell the Lightning Nik Antropov plays for the Leafs and wears #11. For some reason they keep coughing up the puck to this guy in overtime. Must be the hypnotic effect of a blue and white maple leaf logo headed in their direction, I donít know.

Hey, who told Bob Hartley he could take the entire Colorado Avalanche team with him when he assumed the role of coach for the Atlanta Thrashers? Whatever heís doing, itís working! The Thrashers are playing as a team and they have two hot sophomores who have already bettered their output from all of last season. Need I also mention Dany Heatleyís performance at the All-Star game? If itís too late for them to make the playoffs, someone better notify the team immediately, because theyíre playing like a team on a mission! Thereís still a lot of time to make some noise, so who knows?

Brett Hull, in his drive to score 700 NHL goals, must be relieved to finally get the monkey off his back. After a home and home against Colorado which yielded two wins for the Avalanche and a shutout for Patrick Roy, the elusive goal came against San Jose in a 5-4 win at the J.L.A. Iíll bet Lindy Ruff is breathing a sigh of relief in Buffalo as well, as the goal drought didnít last long enough to set up the potential history making goal against his Sabres, the same team Hull scored the controversial Stanley Cup winning ďNo GoalĒ crease goal against.

The excitement from the shootout at the recent All-Star game has caused rumblings in the NHL as to whether or not they should consider using it during overtime in the regular season. I for one wouldnít mind this, so long as they restrict it to regular season games only. I canít imagine seeing a playoff game decided by a skills competition. I think hockey fans would stage a revolt bigger than the Rocket Richard riots in Montreal way back when, not to mention it would make triple and quadruple overtime classics from the past seem pointless. As for Team Canada hockey fans, the mere mention of the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano should be reason enough to say forget it. The only way I could see the shootout work is if they were to: 1) Get rid of the single point regulation rule, after all there should not be any points for second best, and 2) Keep the four on four format in overtime and extend the overtime period to ten minutes instead of five. Weíve managed to shorten the games with the hurry up face off rule, why not give fans more for their money?

Weíre headed towards the downward stretch of the regular season, and Iíve got my tickets to my first live action of the year. Iíll be at the Edmonton/Ottawa game at the Corel Centre, as I am every year (I had my vacation booked even before I bought my tickets!). Hereís hoping I donít have another run in with a fan (but if I do youíll be able to read about it here!). If Iím lucky, maybe I can find a scalper in Montreal two days later when the Oilers play the Habs at the Bell Centre, part of Hockey Day In Canada. Later on this month, Iíll be catching Dallas/Ottawa in the much anticipated rematch of conference leaders. It should be a good month as the dogfight for conference positioning has already started. If current standings are any indication, thereís sure to be an upset even before the playoffs start. Last yearís Western Conference finalists Colorado and Detroit are on the bubble, while last yearís Eastern Conference finalist from Carolina is on the outside looking in. Itís still too early to tell, but Iím predicting Colorado and Carolina will fall short in the end, unless Patrick Roy can overcome the taunts of fans due to those three Stanley Cup Rings he has behind his ears.

Thatís all for now folks, so whatever you do donít blink because I can guarantee youíll miss something!

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