Without the great Wayne Gretzky, the Los Angeles Kings were supposed to be a flop. Plain and simple. But the Kings coach Barry Melrose, new to NHL coaching ranks, refused to listen. Instead, he decided to preach the gospel of positive thinking, team motivation and the hard-charging style he used as a player in the minor leagues.
L The results have been -- until the last week -- eye-popping.
So good, L.A. has been able to sustain a six-game winless streak and still possess a 20-13-4 record, third best in the Smythe
"No one ever gets anywhere with negative thoughts," Melrose said by phone before his Kings lost to the Philadelphia Flyers, 10-2, Tuesday night. "The thing for us to do is remember what we've accomplished, recognize that injuries are the reason we're struggling right now and not panic."
Eight of the Kings top players are injured, including defenseman Rob Blake (cracked rib), center Corey Millen (pulled groin) and right wing Tomas Sandstrom (bruised wrist).
"No one is going to play very well in the NHL with eight starters sitting on the bench," Melrose said.
One starter who has been on the bench is Gretzky, but the Great One practiced this week. Melrose said he looks good and has not felt even a twinge from the herniated thoracic disk that has had him sidelined.
"It's one of the funniest things," said Melrose. "When the season started, everyone said we'd be terrible without him. Now he's coming back -- probably by mid-January -- and everyone is saying his return could upset our team unity."
Melrose laughed. He spends nearly all of his free time reading books on positive thinking, motivational skills and group psychology. A favorite author is Anthony Robbins, the star of late-night cable television infomercials.
"It's just a natural byproduct of coaching," Melrose said. "There's a lot of spare time and you find yourself asking questions: Why is a certain coach successful, what makes people do what they do, what makes a player want to play hard? I've found the reading has really helped what I do. It's helped me to understand and to motivate."
So Melrose laughs at the skeptics.
"A lot of things they said early on weren't true," he said. "If the team was different or if Wayne was a selfish player and a bad guy, I'd worry. But the way we play fits his style and he's a terrific guy. All he wants to do is win."
Hardly just a bloody lip
Chicago Blackhawks right wing Jocelyn Lemieux required more than 120 stitches to repair a slashed lip Tuesday, but Lemieux said he hoped a full face shield on his helmet would keep him playing tonight.
Lemieux was struck by Detroit defenseman Vladimir Konstantinov's stick late in the first period of Chicago's 6-3 victory.
"His lip was just hanging there," Chicago coach Darryl Sutter said.
"I could feel the stick grinding on my teeth, that's how much it went through," said Lemieux, who also lost a tooth.
Konstantinov said it was an accident, but Blackhawks general manager Bob Pulford will send a videotape to NHL officials and ask that Konstantinov be suspended.
Lindros out again
Eric Lindros, the Philadelphia Flyers talented rookie who previously missed nine games with a sprained ligament in his left knee, missed Tuesday night's game in Los Angeles after aggravating the injury at practice. He also missed last night's game in San Jose.
"He went to make a right-hand turn, caught his foot in a rut and twisted his knee again," coach Bill Dineen said of the mishap. "He went to the doctor . . . and it didn't look like there was any further damage. But it was pretty tender. Hopefully, he'll be ready for Calgary [on Jan. 2], but we're not sure."
Howe on tour
Gordie Howe, who played in five different decades before retiring in 1980, just couldn't let the '90s go on without him. It seems 12 years after retiring, Howe wants to give something back to his fans with a 65th birthday tour to raise money for charities.
Six cities, including Detroit and Hartford where Howe played, have signed up. Washington Capitals vice president of marketing Lew Strudler said he hopes to participate in some way. But 11 other NHL teams have turned it down, including Toronto, where Howe had hoped to blow out the candles on his 65th birthday cake March 31.