Lemieux illness shows where puck stops News illustrates NHL identity crisis NHL notebook


Whenever fans talk about the Big Four professional sports, the general consensus is that they're talking baseball, football, basketball and hockey. But the way the news of Mario Lemieux's illness was covered last week, the NHL still may have a ways to go to firmly establish itself on the same plateau as the other three -- or even pro tennis and golf.

"It wasn't long ago that the NBA and NHL were talked about in the NHL notebook

same breath," Washington Capitals coach Terry Murray said. "Now it seems the NBA has pulled ahead. But that's one of the reasons why we've hired Gary Bettman as our new commissioner. Our board of directors believe we need a higher profile."

When Magic Johnson tested HIV-positive, when Arthur Ashe tested HIV-positive, when pro golfer John Daily announced he was withdrawing from the tour because of alcohol problems, each of them received banner headlines and continuous coverage from coast-to-coast in newspapers big and small. For days.

Heck, notes Jack Button, Washington's director of player personnel, "The turf in San Francisco and its groundskeeper George Toma got more coverage than Lemieux" last week.

JTC When the Penguins announced Lemieux has Hodgkin's disease, the story was prominently played in many cities outside Pittsburgh, including Baltimore and Washington. But in other cities the news that hockey's highest paid superstar has cancer found its way to inside pages. In Charlotte, N.C., where there is a minor-league team, the story was inside, as it was in Dallas, where everyone was wrapped up in the Cowboys.

In New York, the announcement that the NHL's biggest star has a life-threatening disease received major headlines the day it happened, but overall got less attention than the firing of New York Rangers coach Roger Neilson.

In Canada, said Buffalo general manager Gerry Meehan, "when the Lemieux story hit, it was the No. 1 story."

In Canada, a week later, Lemieux is still the most talked-about story.

"I was there [Tuesday] for the major-junior all-star game in Montreal, and it was what everyone was talking about," Button said. "I suppose it depends on where you are . . . That's the battle hockey has always had to fight. We just to have to work harder to make our sport bigger. The biggest hope we all have is that Mario will come back because his personality will help us market the league."

Initially, Lemieux was expected back in six weeks. Now it's eight weeks, because he has to wait two weeks for radiation treatment.

No one in the arena was second-guessing the Hartford Whalers the other night, when, during a delayed penalty, goalie Mario Gosselin skated off the ice and was replaced by an extra forward. As soon as the Canadiens touched the puck, of course, play would stop. Unfortunately for the Whalers, the Canadiens never touched the puck.

Hartford's Pat Verbeek grabbed it behind the Montreal goal and passed in front of the net. But there were no teammates near the puck, which slid down the ice as if drawn by a magnet right into the Hartford net.

It was the sixth Montreal goal in the game the Canadiens won, 7-5.

"I wonder, if the NHL will count that in my game-winning goal stats," Verbeek said.

Verbeek can forget it. The goal goes to Kirk Muller, the last Canadien to touch the puck.

"Pat and I always did click well together," said Muller, who used to be a line mate with Verbeek when they played for New Jersey.

How costly city ties?

For years area indoor soccer fans heard Baltimore native Tim Wittman sing the blues about how his love of the city worked against him in contract negotiations with the local team. In St. Louis, Brett Hull may be about to sing the same song.

Blues president Jack Quinn said he will appeal to Hull's enjoyment of St. Louis when he begins serious contract talks at the All-Star Game in Montreal in two weeks.

"We are going to do everything on our end, but I think it's a two-way street," Quinn said. "He loves living in this city. He has two restaurants. He loves the ease in getting around. He loves the golf courses. We hope he does everything on his end to stay."

Hull earns $1.5 million and is expected to ask for a lot more.

The power in Washington

Sure, Bill and Hillary Clinton moved into the White House yesterday, but no one knows what kind of power play they'll develop. Down the road at the Capital Centre, however, there is little doubt about the Capitals.

They're the best power-play team in the NHL on home ice, with a 30.3 percent success rate. And they're no slouches on the road either. In 24 away games, the Capitals have 31 power-play goals, nearly as many as Ottawa and Philadelphia combined.

"They might be the best-shooting team in the league, in terms of quick release and accuracy," New York Rangers coach Ron Smith said. "They hit the net, and that's why their power play is the best. It's as simple as that. They hit the net, with some velocity, time after time."

The Capitals unit features Dimitri Khristich at the far post, to the right of the goalie, and Pat Elynuik or Dale Hunter across the ice down low. At the points are Al Iafrate and his 101.4 mph slap shot, and Kevin Hatcher or Calle Johansson.

@4 Stop one of them and another is likely to score.

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