In Winnipeg the weather has turned cold, but the Jets, their management, fans and media are all hot, hot, hot.
The Jets, 12-16-5, are last in the Central Division, and their struggles on the ice have been made worse by off-ice feuding.
General manager Mike Smith has taken a large brush and painted the Winnipeg media as "bigoted" for articles and comments on the team's Russian contingent.
"He hasn't named names," said WJOB radio talk show host Vic Grant. "He has simply labeled us all. In my opinion he is simply trying to deflect the attention from himself and the fact that his decision to build a winning team by drafting from a specific country, Russia, isn't working."
Winnipeg Free Press columnist Scott Taylor has responded with a column stating the problem isn't with the Russians, it's with "being trained" in Russia, where there are "bigger ice surfaces, less aggressiveness and a tendency toward too much puck-handling."
Winnipeg Sun writer Ed Willes said: "Eighteen of the last 35 players drafted have been Europeans, 15 of them from Russia, and there are problems in the dressing room. That's pretty objective, no matter what you think of Europeans.
"I'm not upset that he's said I'm bigoted," Willes said. "I've written tough things about him too. I just think the bottom line is that this was to be their big year and it isn't happening. Losing is the problem. It's not an ethnic problem."
The Jets are troubled. Smith projected a big season, another 70-plus goal-scoring year, for Teemu Selanne and a lot of noise in the playoffs.
But Winnipeg has given up 126 goals, the most in the league. And, Selanne -- who is from Finland and who has been criticized by Smith -- is 10 goals off his pace of last season, when he tied Buffalo's Alexander Mogilny for the NHL goal-scoring title with 76.
"Our press is ultra-conservative," Smith said yesterday. "They make distinctions between Russian and European players. They did it last year. They're doing it this year. It shows bigotry. We have no internal problems. . . . We have no language problems -- and we've heard that.
"Our team feels, our players feel, the constant harping on our Russians is uncalled for."
The three players drawing the most criticism are defensemen Igor Ulanov, Sergei Bautin and Boris Mironov. Bautin was benched for the first time Sunday.
Like those three, center Alexei Zhamnov is from Russia. "I don't know why people don't like Russians," Zhamnov told the Winnipeg Sun. "I know it's not everybody or all the media. Just some people."
The players did hold a meeting last week, talked about their differences and acknowledged them. The Europeans admitted having trouble appreciating the physical play of North Americans such as Tie Domi. The North Americans said they were frustrated seeing Europeans failing to finish their checks.
Winning likely would ease the problems, but until then, at least the players are trying to clear the air.
Is it the goaltending?
The NHL is on pace for its lowest average goals per game total in six years. Through Dec. 8, an average of 6.7 goals had been scored per game.
Add to that the fact that nine teams through last Wednesday had goals-against averages of 3.00 or less and the question has to surface: Is there great goaltending in this league, or what? According to NHL information officer Greg Inglis, since the 1984-85 season, the highest number of teams to finish with a GAA of 3.0 or lower is three.
The nine teams with a GAA of 3.0 or lower this season: New York Rangers, New Jersey Devils, Chicago Blackhawks, Toronto Maple Leafs, Montreal Canadiens, San Jose Sharks, Boston Bruins, Calgary Flames and the expansion Florida Panthers.
Lemieux calls body shots
The Pittsburgh Penguins and the NHL can barely wait to get Mario Lemieux back on the ice. But when will that be?
A team spokesman said Lemieux is continuing his daily conditioning and rehabilitation routine and might begin skating this week. But no date has been set for a return to game action.
Before a recent Penguins game, team owner Howard Baldwin discussed his superstar and the criticisms of his on-again, off-again return this season.
"No one can crawl inside the guy's body and know how it feels," Baldwin said. "He has to make the ultimate judgment. He said he was ready. You don't know, but you give it a shot. He wasn't quite ready. He jumped the gun."
Baldwin said he, Lemieux and coach Eddie Johnston are in agreement that Lemieux should take his time and come back at 100 percent -- however long that takes.
The Portland Pirates (formerly Baltimore Skipjacks) went 4-3 on their longest road trip of the season and are tied with Adirondack for first place in the AHL's Northern Division. They returned home Saturday night and lost to Albany, 6-5. The crowd of 7,192 at the Portland Civic Center was the largest to watch a hockey game in Maine.
Around the ice
Ottawa has lost 11 consecutive home games to tie the NHL record held by the 1924-25 Boston Bruins and 1974-75 Capitals. The Senators are 1-12-1 at home. . . . The Panthers have 28 points this season with a 12-14-4 record. Last year, Ottawa's first, the Senators had just 10 victories and 24 points in the entire 84-game season. . . . USAir Arena will be the final stop Dec. 23 on Gordie Howe's 65th birthday tour.