Problems overshadow NHL glitter League's 75th season begins tonight

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The National Hockey League begins its 75th season tonight and will even get some help from Michael J. Fox to go back to the future.

Fox will be one of 22 "celebrity team captains" (Yogi Berra, John Candy and Larry King are some of the others) who will help the league celebrate the milestone.

The glitz begins tonight, when the league's six original clubs have the opening-night stage to themselves. The New York Rangers will be on the road to play the Boston Bruins, the Toronto Maple Leafs will visit the Montreal Canadiens and the Detroit Red Wings will travel to the Chicago Blackhawks. Each of the teams will wear replicas of their original jerseys.

But, not far removed from the celebration, the NHL has big problems, including no national television contract in the United States and the never-ending criticism that too many teams (16 of 22) make the playoffs. Also, the NHL has no collective-bargaining agreement with the NHL Players' Association, and there is a threat of a strike or lockout during the season.

The players, whose contract expired Sept. 15, have said they will open the season, play without a contract and continue to negotiate. Then in November if there is no real progress, the players say they would be prepared to walk out for as long as it takes.

The NHL has grown from 21 to 22 teams this season with the

addition of the expansion San Jose Sharks in the Smythe Division.

Two additional teams, the Ottawa Senators and the Tampa Bay Lightning, are scheduled to begin play in the 1992-93 season. But neitherteam has yet to turn over $22.5 million payments, which were due in June. The NHL has said it plans to have 28 teams by the year 2000.

As for this season, an emotional scenario surrounds the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.

Pittsburgh coach Bob Johnson, 60, has been seriously ill since late August when he learned he had two brain tumors. Johnson is undergoing treatment at his Colorado home and has vowed to coach again.

The Penguins waited until two days ago to name an interim coach. But, in selecting Scotty Bowman, they chose the winningest coach in NHL history.

Bowman (739-327-210 with the St. Louis Blues, Canadiens and the Buffalo Sabres and five Stanley Cups with Montreal) was entering his second season as director of player development and recruitment for the Penguins.

Bowman inherits a team that stunned the NHL last season, advancing past the second round of the playoffs for the first time and winning its first Stanley Cup.

Some say Johnson did it with mirrors and a hot Mario Lemieux in the playoffs. Others say he did it by teaching the Penguins to pay more attention to their zone and to make defensive instead of offensive decisions.

The spotlight also will shine on the Los Angeles Kings and their two superstars, Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri, who are together again thanks to Kings owner Bruce McNall.

Gretzky at center and Kurri on right wing played eight seasons together for the Edmonton Oilers before being separated after the 1987-88 season when Gretzky was traded to the Kings.

In those eight seasons, the two combined for 2,712 points (1,057 goals, 1,655 assists) and four Stanley Cup titles.

Kurri, 31, returns to the NHL this season after spending onseason playing in Italy.

McNall and the Kings engineered a three-team, multi-playetrade with the Oilers and Philadelphia Flyers to acquire, in part, the rights to Kurri.

Two weeks before the trade was announced, McNall jokingly said at the NHL Awards Night in Toronto on June 5: "I heard Wayne wasn't going to be named the Most Valuable Player in the league. I thought I had better get him a consolation prize, so we went out and got him the Jari Kurri Trophy."

Brett Hull of the Blues won the Hart MVP Trophy that night, and two weeks later Gretzky had his consolation prize.

Stanley Cup odds

Team.. .. .. .. .. Odds

Calgary.. .. .. .. 5-1

Chicago.. .. .. .. 5-1

Los Angeles.. .. .. 5-1

Pittsburgh.. .. .. 5-1

Boston.. .. .. .. . 6-1

Montreal.. .. .. .. 6-1

St. Louis.. .. .. 12-1

Rangers.. .. .. .. 15-1

Edmonton.. .. .. . 20-1

Minnesota.. .. .. 25-1

Detroit.. .. .. .. 30-1

New Jersey.. .. .. .. 30-1

Buffalo.. .. .. .. .. 40-1

Washington.. .. .. .. 40-1

Philadelphia.. .. .. 50-1

Vancouver.. .. .. .. 75-1

Quebec.. .. .. .. .. 100-1

Winnipeg.. .. .. .. 100-1

Hartford.. .. .. .. 150-1

Islanders.. .. .. .. 150-1

Toronto.. .. .. .. . 150-1

San Jose.. .. .. .. 250-1

WALES CONFERENCE

Patrick Division

The only players the Pittsburgh Penguins lost from last season's Stanley Cup championship team were checking C Randy Gilhen and D Randy Hillier. That shouldn't hurt too much. But missing is the enthusiastic coach Bob Johnson, who is fighting 2 brain tumors. Scotty Bowman, the winningest coach in NHL history, has been named the interim coach and will try to provide the same kind of spark.

If C Mario Lemieux and the Penguins slip, the New Jersey Devils, Washington Capitals and New York Rangers are considered good enough to fight for first place.

New Jersey lost free-agent LW Brendan Shanahan to St. Louis, but the Devils came out a winner when Blues D Scott Stevens was awarded to them as compensation. Washington will need more goals out of C Dino Ciccarelli this season to go along with its strong defense. The Rangers have excellent goaltending in Mike Richter, a strong defenseman in Brian Leetch and a strong power play. But their track record for winning (their last Stanley Cup came in 1940) isn't too good.

The Philadelphia Flyers have missed the playoffs for 2 straight years, and need big contributions from newcomers D Steve Duchesne, C Steve Kasper, LW Rod Brind'Amour and C Dan Quinn if they're to make it back. The New York Islanders are for sale, and their superstar, C Pat LaFontaine, has refused to report until the club is sold. The status of the team has kept the Islanders from making any major deals, which they sorely need to do.

Adams Division

The Montreal Canadiens, Boston Bruins and Buffalo Sabres are considered the "haves" in this division that has been on the decline over the past decade. One of the "have nots," the Quebec Nordiques could change their image quickly if No. 1 draft choice C Eric Lindros has a change of heart and decides to play for a team that won only 16 games last season. But that is extremely unlikely, and the Nordiques will have to trade Lindros and get enough in return to lift them out of last place.

The other have-not is the Hartford Whalers, who either need to make a major trade or hope their young players develop rapidly to avoid a long season for first-year coach Jim Roberts.

Montreal has to be viewed as a Stanley Cup contender if G Patrick Roy remains healthy and if RW Stephane Richer bounces back from a disappointing season. Boston will once again be a solid, respectable team and will surely register their North American pro sports record 25th consecutive winning season. Buffalo needs a superb season from G Daren Puppa to have a shot at first place.

CAMPBELL CONFERENCE

Norris Division

A repeat of last season's 2-team race between the Chicago Blackhawks and the St. Louis Blues is expected in what possibly has become the toughest division in the NHL. Chicago nipped St. Louis by 1 point for first place in the Norris and in the overall standings last season. The Minnesota North Stars, fourth in the Norris regular-season race last season, made a shocking run to the Stanley Cup finals.

Chicago has to bounce back from a crushing first-rounelimination by Minnesota in the playoffs last season. There was talk that coach Mike Keenan lost control of the Blackhawks in the playoffs last season when he got tough once too often. Keenan traded center Troy Murray and defenseman Doug Wilson, but there still may be more problems this season.

St. Louis has the league's MVP in RW Brett Hull but the Bluestill signed free agents RW Brendan Shanahan and RW Dave Christian to improve their scoring. The Detroit Red Wings need to learn to win on the road before they can challenge either the Blackhawks or Blues -- finding a backup for G Tim Chevalde, who played in 65 games last season would help. Minnesota will have a tough time following last season's Cinderella act that had them score 32 goals in the playoffs. New Toronto Maple Leafs GM Cliff Fletcher is promising a little more stability this season as the once-proud franchise continues in a rebuilding program. A key acquisition was former Edmonton Oilers G Grant Fuhr.

Smythe Division

The Los Angeles Kings are the headline-grabbers in this division, with Wayne Gretzky and Jari Kurri being reunited after being apart for 3 years (they played 8 seasons together for the Edmonton Oilers). Gretzky, Kurri and the Kings figure to duel the Calgary Flames for first place.

Edmonton still has some of the game's top players, including G )) Bill Ranford and C Mark Messier. The Vancouver Canucks went 9-13-4 last season after vice president/general manager Pat Quinn fired coach Bob McCammon and went behind the bench himself. Quinn led the team to the playoffs, and got a 3-year extension to his contract. He will coach again this season.

The Winnipeg Jets and the expansion San Jose Sharks figure to anchor the division. Winnipeg finished last in 1990-91 but the Jets should be spared the last-place tag this season, thanks to the Sharks.

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