Every team wanted a Kono

In a sense, I'm glad Steve Konowalchuk retired from the Colorado Avalanche on Friday. I can only imagine what might have happened had he played this year.

Konowalchuk, 33, was diagnosed recently with Long QT syndrome, a genetic disease that can lead to irregular heart rhythms, according to media outlets. Had he played, the strenuous extertion that he displayed shift after shift in his 13 seasons might have triggered a incident, much like Jiri Fischer's heart-related near-death experience last season in Detroit.

Granted, he wasn't known as a top-line scorer, averaging a half-point a game (396 points in 790 games) during his career. But it was his dogged determination that defined his game and made him a valuable player with the Avs and the Washington Capitals, the team that drafted him in 1991.

I'm sure many general managers and coaches around the league wanted a player with Konowalchuk's abilities and grit in their lineups or, at the least, asked a couple of their players to emulate.

After Friday's announcement, I'm certain that courage and intelligence will also be used to describe his career.

Adding to the library

With renovations going on at work, there's been a whirling dervish running through the sports department throwing away just about anything that isn't nailed to the walls or weighing more than 200 pounds.

Fortunately, I was able to save these from the Pinellas County landfill and add them to our growing hockey library. In all, there were three Minnesota North Stars guides, five from the Hartford Whalers, three Quebec Nordiques guides and six from the Winnipeg Jets.

Being a Buffalo Sabres fan, I also preserved a baker's dozen of their guides.

Sorry, folks, but they're not for sale. Not now, nor ever. Unlike others, I can't put prices on hockey history.

C'mon, just look at the Nordiques 1991-1992 yearbook cover. That's Joey Sakic and Mats Sundin. I guess the team didn't have room to put Owen Nolan and the team's 1991 No. 1 draft pick Eric Lindros (we all know how that turned out) on the cover.


Fearlessly, predictions

With the start of the NHL 2006-07 season less than a week away (Thank God), I figure it's time to produce some prognostications for the upcoming campaign:

Eastern Conference
Division winners

Atlantic: New York Rangers
Northeast: Buffalo Sabres
Southeast: Carolina Hurricanes

Making the playoffs: Boston Bruins, Montreal Canadiens, New Jersey Devils, Ottawa Senators and the Tampa Bay Lightning
Just missing: Philadelphia Flyers

Western Conference
Division winners

Central: Nashville Predators
Northwest: Calgary Flames
Pacific: San Jose Sharks

Making the playoffs: Anaheim Ducks, Dallas Stars, Detroit Red Wings, Minnesota Wild and the Vancouver Canucks
Just missing: Edmonton Oilers

Presidents' Trophy: Sharks, with 127 points

NHL playoffs
Eastern Conference champion: Rangers, beating Sabres in 7 games
Western Conference champion: Sharks, beating Red Wings in 6 games
Stanley Cup champion: San Jose Sharks in 5 games

Individual honors
Art Ross Trophy (top point scorer): Alexander Ovechkin, Washington Capitals, 119 points
Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy (perseverance and sportsmanship): Jeremy Roenick, Phoenix Coyotes
Calder Memorial Trophy (top rookie): Gilbert Brule, Columbus Blue Jackets
Conn Smythe Trophy (playoff MVP): Joe Thornton, San Jose Sharks
Frank J. Selke Trophy (defensive forward): Mike Fisher, Ottawa Senators
Hart Memorial Trophy (league MVP): Alexander Ovechkin
Jack Adams Award (top coach): Ron Wilson, San Jose Sharks
James Norris Memorial Trophy (top defenseman): Zdeno Chara, Boston Bruins
King Clancy Memorial Trophy (leadership and humanitarian efforts): Jarome Iginla, Calgary Flames
Lady Byng Memorial Trophy (gentlemanly conduct): Brad Richards, Tampa Bay Lightning
Lester B. Pearson Award (players' MVP): Joe Thornton
Maurice Richard Trophy (most regular-season goals): Alexander Ovechkin, 58 goals
Vezina Trophy (top goalie): Ryan Miller, Buffalo Sabres
William M. Jennings Trophy (fewest goals scored against): Ryan Miller and Martin Biron, Buffalo Sabres


What's this? 1.4

Well, seeing that the correct answer to last week's question came pretty quickly, this week's edition might be a little tougher. Again, it is related to hockey, as all items will be.

Congratulations, too, go out to Tracy, also known as Slegr_71, for calling upon her institutional knowledge to know that last week's What's This? was, indeed, detail from a McFarlane Don Cherry image. Kudos as well to Mike for being in the neighborhood. Specifics, however, take home the title.

For the season, it's Readers 2, Puckhound 1.

It's easy to play. Be the first to post the correct answer in a comment and I'll be eternally grateful and you'll see your name, or as much as you're willing to provide in bold type.

As always, thanks for playing. Have fun.


A bit of respectability

A few weeks ago, NHL.com contributing blogger Paul Kukla put out a call for hockey bloggers to check in with him. Naturally, I responded. Hound Central 2.0 has become much more than a passing interest and a hobby.

Like other hockey bloggers, some better than others, my site has become somewhat of a part-time job. I work on it every day. And to maintain my editorial independence, and my journalistic integrity, it will remain an unpaid entity.

What keeps me going? Shout-outs like this (look under Around the blogs), listed yesterday at NHL.com, that bring new visitors to this blog.

I can't thank Paul, the author of Kukla's Korner, enough for the mention of Hound Central 2.0 and his support for all hockey bloggers. A special thank you, too, goes out for my favorite Wicked Bruins Fan, Jaclyn Donahe. A lot of traffic to this blog comes from her excellent site as well.


You have to like his attitude

The St. Petersburg Times reported this morning that goaltender Sean Burke had been waived by the Tampa Bay Lightning. There's a good chance, too, that the veteran could start the season with the Bolts' AHL affiliate, the Springfield Falcons.

While some players might balk at the demotion, Burke, who has also played for the New Jersey Devils, Hartford Whalers, Carolina Hurricanes, Vancouver Canucks, Philadelphia Flyers (twice), Florida Panthers and Phoenix Coyotes in his 17 years in the NHL, told the Times that he would report to the Falcons.

Rather than sulk, the personable Burke, 39, is viewing this development as a positive experience.

"I'm going down there and get on the ice and look at it as an opportunity to work with the younger guys." he told the Times. "It's a new experience in my career."

With an attitude like that, you can only wish Burke the best. If, in fact, this is the end of his NHL career, here's hoping that he remains a part of the game, perhaps as a goaltending coach.


Oh, yeah, I checked the mail today ...

. . . and guess what I found. A large postage-paid, pre-addressed envelope with a bulky, but soft, item inside.

Yeah, baby, Lucky Luc came through, returning the vintage Los Angeles Kings' Robitaille jersey with his autograph. Even better, he honored a request (see above) to personalize it to Colin.

You should have seen Colin's eyes when he saw his name.

"Daddy," he said, "is this for me?" Yeah, buddy, it's all yours.

I guess we'll have to start shopping around for a nice frame. With a keepsake like that, it belongs on display, not tucked away in a closet.

I'll admit to being a little nervous sending it out, but I should have known a class act like Robitaille would deliver.

Thanks again, Luc.

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Ah, grasshopper . . .

I don’t know whether to be proud or upset, but today marked a turning point in my hounding career. It was the first time that Colin, armed with a cheap-skate team sheet (at left), got more autographs than his daddy did.

For the record, Colin scored 13 autographs, including ones from Mike Modano and Marty Turco. I, on the other hand, got only 10, but did manage to score a couple nice items (see related posting below) that immediately went into one of our two hockey-hounding trophy cases.

Besides Dallas' top stars, Colin also got autographs from Matt Barnaby, Trevor Daley, Dan Ellis, Jon Klemm, Mark Lamb, Junior Lessard, Antti Miettinen, Steve Ott, Stephane Robidas, Patrik Stefan and Dave Tippett.

"That’s what I am," Colin said. "A better autograph-getter than you, Daddy."

The team, which arrived at their Tampa hotel (no, I’m not going to say which one as we were the only three getting autographs) about 3:45 p.m. today, paraded to the bus at game time. I’d say he did pretty good, much better than I did, standing at the bus’ entrance as the players lined up.

On a side note, Lisa got to meet Modano again, having him sign a mini Stanley Cup featuring upon it the best American-born hockey player. Needless to say, Lisa, all googly-eyed, was more than thrilled to meet him, though she did say he looked a little scruffy.

"He’s so much better-looking when he’s clean-shaven," she said.

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Making the right call

As I said yesterday, I was having some difficulty deciding what to bring when the Dallas Stars came to town today. Should I maintain my focus on pucks or should I start working on my centerpiece project, a 1999 NHL All-Star Game helmet?

Late last night, after putting together my book of cards and creating a team sheet for Colin, I opted for the pucks. After all, my hounding handle is Puckhound. And after this afternoon’s visit to an undisclosed Tampa hotel, I realized it was the right call.

If you read the post above, you know that Colin scored more autographs than I did. I can live with that. He’s respectful to the players, saying "please" and "thank you," and he doesn’t care whether they’re future Hall of Famers or fourth-liners. To him, an autograph is just that -- an autograph. And that's the way it should be.

Yet, as I get closer toward my goal (the significance of which should be obvious to any hockey fan with half a brain cell) of 1,072 autographed pucks, I’m getting pickier about who I get on a puck. For the record, I'm at 1,023.

Though I had a dozen pucks in my bag today, the two I got signed (see photo above) were pretty damn good. That’s right, Mike Modano signed not one, but two pucks –- a Prince Albert Raiders, from his junior days, and a Minnesota North Stars, the team that drafted him first overall in 1988.

Sure, I wanted to add a couple each from Marty Turco and Eric Lindros, but it didn’t happen. I flat-out missed Turco, as I was moving my pucks closer to the team bus. As for Lindros, he didn't make the trip. Nor did Stu Barnes, Jeff Halpern, Brenden Morrow, Darryl Sydor or Sergei Zubov.

But a pair of pucks from Modano? Who wouldn’t be happy with that? Geez, I’m downright ecstatic. Besides, the Stars are staying overnight and I can always head back to Tampa tomorrow morning. Jere Lehtinen made the trip and he's certainly worthy of a puck or two.

Addendum: Though it would have been nice to add to the collection, I chose to stay home, take a nice, long nap and get ready for Colin's first T-ball game. Again, it was another good call. Besides, the Stars will be back in February.

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Decisions, decisions, decisions

The Dallas Stars are in town to play the Bolts in preseason tomorrow night and I'm having a hard time figuring out what to bring.

On one hand, I'd like to get Mike Modano on a Minnesota North Stars puck, seeing he was the No. 1 overall pick in 1988, as well as his junior team, the Prince Albert Raiders of the Western Hockey League. Then again, I'd like to start working on my 1999 NHL All Star Game helmet, getting Modano, as well as Eric Lindros, Darryl Sydor and Sergei Zubov, to sign and truly make it my centerpiece project.

Though it doesn't qualify as a dilemma, I still can't decide on what to present. Thankfully, the Stars come back to town in late February, I'll get another shot at them.

By the way, this helmet was a real bargain. First, I won it on eBay, from the AHL Springfield Falcons, for $12.51 plus shipping. Then, a couple weeks ago, when we were at the Lightning's IceFest, I stumbled across official helmet stickers from Tampa's all star game, for $1. Sweet deal, if you ask me, eh? Anyways, I digress.

Lisa and Colin will make their second hounding trip of the year. As usual, they'll work on a Stars team sheet. Between the Islanders, Bruins and Lightning, Colin's getting a real nice collection of those.

Beyond Modano, my puck targets will be Matthew Barnaby, Stu Barnes, Jeff Halpern, Brenden Morrow and Marty Turco. Will I get them all? Who knows? It won't keep me from trying, though. Either way, I'll let you know how we did.


More to Florida than oranges

It's pretty easy, living and hounding here in Florida, to believe that there are only two professional teams -- the Florida Panthers and the Tampa Bay Lightning. That's not the case, though.

With the Florida Everblades and the Pensacola Ice Pilots of the East Coast Hockey League, as well as the Florida Seals and Jacksonville Barracudas of the Southern Professional Hockey League, fans from all corners of the Sunshine State can easily get their fill.

And just because some of the teams may belong to the minor leagues, they certainly don't take a bush-league attitude toward connecting with fans.

To wit:

~ Check out these
online player cards produced by the Everblades, an affiliate of the Carolina Hurricanes. Pretty cool, eh?

~ Have you ever wondered how a Zamboni ice-resurfacing machine works? The Ice Pilots, an affiliate of the New York Islanders,
answer that question.

~ Want to be an Ice Girl for the Florida Seals? You can download your application
here for the Oct. 7th audition.

~ Learn more about
Chomper, the Jacksonville Barracudas' mascot.


What's this? 1.3

Alas, there were no correct answers in last week's feature. One person made a guess, thinking it was part of the Boston Bruins logo. I could see why, too. The colors were pretty similar. But I'm sorry, Jaci, but it wasn't that.

Last Thursday's What's This? 1.2 showed detail from a hockey shin guard -- Easton's 2002 Ultra Lite Pro to be exact.

For the season, the score now stands: Readers 1, Puckhound 1.

This week's item might be a little easier. Certainly is colorful, isn't it? One might even say loud. Garish even.

Remember, it's easy to play, too. Just leave a comment with your guess. The first correct answer gets an acknowledgement. Have fun.


Don't let the door hit you, Domi

Through his career, former NHL enforcer Tahir "Tie" Domi has been called lots of things. Tough guy. Fan favorite. An instigator. A good teammate.

I'm sorry, but I have never been able to call him anything but a useless, oxygen-stealing thug. I'm tickled he finally stopped denying a deserving Toronto Maple Leafs prospect a chance at the National Hockey League when, after the team bought out the final year of his contract, the chucklehead announced yesterday that he was, indeed, retiring.

I must admit, though, that I wouldn't mind seeing someone give Domi one final shot in the chops. Then again, maybe the Leafs will bring Bob Probert or Marty McSorley in for a ceremonial beating on opening night.

Thankfully, I live in the states and won't have to see his ugly mug working as a broadcaster for TSN in Canada. I wonder, though, how many Toronto-area telephone books they'll need to get his head and shoulders above the desk.

For the record,
Domi scored 245 points and 3,515 penalty minutes (third overall in league history) in 1,020 regular-season games while playing for the Winnipeg Jets, New York Rangers and the Leafs.

What I'll remember him most for were some bush-league moments. In his earlier days, he'd celebrate scoring a goal by riding his stick. Then, in a game against New Jersey, he knocked out all-world defenseman Scott Niedermayer with a cheap-shot elbow to the melon.

And who can forget the infamous "water bottle" incident in Philly? Sitting in the penalty box for one of his many stupid penalties, Domi took exception to a fan's heckling and squirted water on him. Then, when the fan came crashing in when the glass gave way, Domi couldn't resist the urge to pop the fan a few times.

I'm certain he'll be glorified in Toronto. Good for him. Just as long as he stays there.


Why hockey is the best

Every so often, I come across a story that makes me proud to be a hockey fan.

Today is one of those days. If you have the time, please read this
story. You'll feel much better.

If you don't have the time, make some.


Well, I'll be ...

You'll never guess who followed Ruslan Fedotenko's lead and stopped to sign for fans after today's practice in Brandon?

It was one of Tampa Bay's Big Three. Nope, it wasn't Vinny Lecavalier. And it sure as heck wasn't Brad Richards. They both drove right by, not even offering a wave.

So, by process of elimination, you should know who stopped. Yep, that's right, it was Martin St. Louis.

As usual, security had the barricades set up as, apparently, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers' 0-2 start has led some fans to jump ship and remember that the Lightning, the Stanley Cup champion of two years ago, are getting ready to play. As a result, these fans have started finding their way to training camp. Though I expected bigger crowds on the weekend, today's gathering of about 30 was somewhat surprising.

God bless him, though, it didn't deter St. Louis. He pulled over, got out of the car and made sure that everyone -- scumbag dealers included -- got at least one autograph. For the record, St. Louis signed a 2004 World Cup of Hockey-Canada puck (shown above, on right) for me.

Other notable signers were Hall of Famer Bill Barber, who signed a Kitchener Rangers puck (shown above, on left), Dmitry Afanasenkov, Dan Boyle, Sean Burke, Ryan Craig, Marc Denis, Fedotenko (who repeated Sunday's classy move) Luke Richardson, Cory Sarich and Tim Taylor. Prospect Blair Jones also signed a couple cards for those, myself included, who recognized him.

Oh yeah, I finally got Lisa's Nolan Pratt jersey signed, reminding him that we used to watch him play for the Carolina Hurricanes when the team's home rink was the Greensboro Coliseum.

"Boy, that was a long time ago," he said.


A good hockey day

With Sunday being the only day of the week that work and school schedules allow us a full day together, we try to plan some type of event for the three of us. Today, like most other Sundays, was no different. Instead of heading to the beach, visiting an aquarium or taking in a Rays game, we headed over to the Tampa Bay Lightning's training camp in Brandon.

The team, which opened camp last Thursday, started having scrimmages on Saturday. As a result, the weekend crowds were considerably larger than weekdays. Still, that didn't keep us from going. Besides, Colin needed some new elbow pads and Lisa wanted a game-used Nolan Pratt stick.

Though we didn't get to see too much of the scrimmages, we watched as coach John Tortorella put the Lightning through more torturous skating endurance drills. At one point, with the team gathered near the boards for a quick on-ice chalk talk, associate coach Craig Ramsay, a former Buffalo Sabres, roofed an errant puck into a yawning net.

"Nice shot, Rammer," I yelled from my perch above the rink.

"Still got it, don't I," he replied, looking up at us, as a smile broadened across his face.

"Yeah, you do," I said. "Maybe you oughta suit up and the show the boys a thing or two."

"I don't know about that," he said.

It's exchanges like that, which happen on the spur of a moment, that makes being a hockey fan so much fun.

Getting autographs, too, goes a long way to solidifying a team's fan base. Take Ruslan Fedotenko, for example. While I figured that Tampa Bay's Big Three -- Vincent Lecavalier, Brad Richards and Martin St. Louis -- wouldn't stop after practice because of the big crowd (about 40 people, I'd say), I was hoping that Fedotenko would. Like the Big Three, Fedotenko didn't disappoint.

While other players were kind enough to stop and sign, Fedotenko not only stopped, but he parked his loaner ultraviolet Jaguar XK, got out and made sure that everyone got an autograph. He's a good player and a nice guy.

When all was said and done, Colin did pretty good in his first trip of the year. Besides Fedotenko (who's quickly becoming our favorite player), Colin's efforts (see above) produced signatures from Sean Burke (he's the one who wrote upside down), Ryan Craig, Andreas Karlsson, Paul Ranger and Cory Sarich on one of my original cheap-skate team cards.

Most of all, though, it was a good day. A good hockey day. And those, my friends, are priceless.

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Long live the Blue and Gold

Though I may root for a number of NHL teams, my deepest loyalty belongs to the Buffalo Sabres.

Having grown up in Western New York, including a few years in Buffalo’s West Side (corner of Albany and Barton streets, attending Public School No. 18 and taking Sunday morning walks to the Bluebird Bakery), it was a given that you’d root for the Sabres.

It was easy, too. The Buffalo Evening News, the now-defunct Buffalo Courier-Express and the Olean Times-Herald all covered the team. Every Sunday night, I’d tuck my red transistor radio under my pillow and listen to Ted Darling (long since passed now) call games on WGR 550-AM.

It was a great time, too. We had the French Connection –- Richard Martin, Gil Perreault and Rene Robert. We had a rock ’em, sock ’em defense that included Jim Schoenfeld, Jerry "King Kong" Korab and Lee Fogolin. And who can forget Al Smith’s salute to management after learning on-ice that Donnie Edwards was starting in goal?

Or how about infamous draft picks Morris Titanic and Taro Tsujimoto?

To this day, I still get tingles (like, right now) remembering the chant "Thank You Sabres! Thank You Sabres! Thank You Sabres!" echoing through The Aud.

Every once in awhile, I listen to the original "We’re Gonna Win That Cup" although I remember crying when the Flyers, and not my beloved Sabres, became the 1974-75 Stanley Cup champions on Bob "Hound Dog" Kelly’s winner in Game 6 at The Aud and Bernie Parent’s near-mystical goaltending. But I also remember, earlier in The Fog Game (the third of the series), when Jim Lorentz plucked a bat out of midair and Robert’s overtime bullet gave the Sabres new life.

Even today, when Colin and I play street hockey, I become Danny Gare and register a hat trick in the 1975-76 season’s final game to reach a magical 50 goals.

I bring up this walk down memory lane today because the Sabres -– my Sabres -– are showing off their new uniforms today. The red-white-and-black scheme is gone. The Blue and Gold is back. Granted, some may believe the new logo (shown above) resembles a slug, but the colors, which, along with a retro jersey, take me back to the team's early days, are more important to me.

"Thank You Sabres! Thank You Sabres! Thank You Sabres!"

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Quality over quantity

I swear this isn't a case of spin, but I'd have to count today's trip to the Lightning's training camp as one of the best ever hounding adventures.

Not only did I add signed sticks from Ruslan Fedotenko (Stanley Cup winning goal scorer) and Vaclav Prospal to the collection, but the Bolts' Big Three all stopped to sign.

Vincent Lecavalier and Martin St. Louis signed Stanley Cup Champions pucks (shown above). Brad Richards, who blew by a small group of hounds yesterday, stopped without asking and signed for all eight of us.

Now that Richards signed my mini Stanley Cup, I need only coach John Tortorella, new team captain Timmy Taylor and defenseman Dan Boyle to complete it. Because there's not enough room for everyone, and I'll soon start working a full-sized team helmet, I'm cherry-picking this piece.

I also got a chance to talk to other hounds. More than half, like me, were collectors. Nice people, very friendly and, most of all, true hockey fans. Unlike the three scumbag dealers (including a potty-mouthed husband and his wife) who took the bait for some verbal jousting, we work too hard to put a price tag on our efforts.

Like I said before, this is going to be a fun season. For me, that is.

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In the books

My 2006-07 hounding season officially started today with a trip to the opening day of the Tampa Bay Lightning's training camp.

It was mostly skating tests (15 sessions of nearly net-to net three-lap drills) and physicals, but that didn't stop a handful of hounds, myself included, from adding to our collections. As usual, there were a few dealers, but that was to be expected.

At the end of day, I went home with another 30 autographs, including three pucks (shown above) from the Lightning's new goalie Marc Denis. I also added autographs from Vincent Lecavalier, Martin St. Louis and general manager Jay Feaster to my mini Stanley Cup.

The best story of the day came courtesy of NHL Hall of Famer
Bill Barber, who serves as the team's director of player personnel. After flagging him down to sign, Barber rolled down his window and said: "You know, I'm not a player."

I didn't take the bait. "Yeah, you're not a player now, but you were a helluva one back in the 1970s. You beat my Sabres for the Cup back in 1975."

Other notable signees were new Lightning captain Tim Taylor (four cards), defenseman Dan Boyle (four cards), goalie Sean Burke (four cards), who wasn't on the ice because of a sore back, second-year defenseman Paul Ranger (Springfield Falcons and Oshawa Generals pucks) and goaltending prospect Karri Ramo (a cheap skate card). Brad Richards didn't stop to sign, despite only six people waiting.

For the record, defenseman Mike Egener signed the first items (three cards) of the season.

I'm heading back on Friday, but will be taking Saturday off. Stay tuned.

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What's this? 1.2

First off, congratulations to Jaci Donahe for correctly guessing that last week's What's This item was a closeup of the Stanley Cup champions ring awarded to members and staff of the Tampa Bay Lightning for their thrilling victory over the Calgary Flames in 2004.

Granted, she was the only entrant (Everyone else must have been too busy -- yeah, that's it), but we all have to start somewhere.

Jaci, who runs the Wicked Bruins Fan blog, was also mentioned on NHL.com blogger Paul Kukla's posting. Way to go, kid.

As promised, this week's item, which requires a specific answer, is much more difficult. In fact, I'll be surprised if anyone can guess what it is. Everyone, except Jaci. She's wicked smart, don't ya know.


Can you feel it?

Ever since the Ottawa Senators dispatched the Tampa Bay Lightning last April, I've been waiting for the days to pass by.

Went to a bunch of Tampa Bay Devil Rays games, including two when they beat the Red Sox. Created the family's 2006 Sunburn Beach Tour, including a stop at North America's No. 1 rated beach, Fort DeSoto Park's North Beach. Even tried my hand at fishing for some snook (No luck yet).

But now, as the hands on the clock on my desk race to midnight (it'll be a tie), the waiting will soon come to an end. Like a child on Christmas morning, I'm excited by the opening day of the Tampa Bay Lightning's training camp. For me, hockey season has begun.

That's right -- the HOCKEY SEASON!

I've been homesick for hockey-rich New England, and a couple wicked Bruins fans, for the past few weeks. And though I wish I was back there, to visit friends as well as enemies (eBay-dealing scum) I really ought to ignore, this will be my first full season of hounding in Florida.

No more bitter-cold nights on Avery Street in Boston. No more hassles with security at Copley Place. No more wondering why one hound (Nope, it's not Eddie) always slicks back his thinning hair and bathes in strong cologne, like a hounding trip is his first date. No more wondering why one kid isn't working toward college, rather than working in a card store. No more waiting, either, for one hound's hairpiece to come flying off. And, sadly, no more hypotheses on the reason why women wear knee-high boots.

Instead, though, it's T-shirts and cargo shorts. Sunscreen and Gatorade. Palm trees and warm breezes. Convertibles and sailboats. Thankfully, the idiocy of Tampa's dealers can be found here, too. They're just as dumb as Boston's bozos, not knowing anyone beyond the stars, using their children to load up on 8x10s and trying to justify the miserable existence for what passes as a life.

Yes, my friends, it's going to be a fun year. Maybe I'll send you a postcard.


Who's the best young forward?

As I began the research for this feature, I quickly realized that some great younger players, including some favorites, wouldn't even see the light of day. Because of that, I nearly expanded the focus to break it down by position -- centers, left wings and right wings.

Here at Hound Central 2.0, I don't take the easy way out. I stick to my principles and follow the rules. Though I'd never, ever, want to be considered for the Lady Byng, following the original mandate is the right thing to do.

Having said that, though, these top players should not come as a surprise. The order, perhaps, but not the talent. As always, rankings are based on overall play -- they must put up lots of points, post solid plus/minus numbers, contribute to the power play and penalty kill, and put in a full season, unless, of course, they have a ridiculously high point-per-game average. Winning Lord Stanley's Cup provides bonus points, too.

Finally, in classic countdown fashion, here are my top five young (under 25 years old at the time of the writing) forwards in the NHL:

No. 5: Jason Spezza, Ottawa Senators, 23 years old (6.13.83)
From piling up the points (19 goals-71 assists=90) and posting a plus 23 last season, this center does it all. Spezza is living up to the hype (remember, he was The Next One before some kid from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia, came along) but needs to play a full season before he moves up the chart. Ilya Kovalchuk was a strong contender here, but he still hasn't learned to play defense.

No. 4: Sidney Crosby, Pittsburgh Penguins, 19 years old (8.7.87)
If you haven't heard of Sid the Kid, you're most likely helping my cousin teach English in Mongolia. Sure, some Russian wunderkind may have stolen a bit of his rookie-year thunder, but it's not like this center is a one-hit wonder. It's not so much that the sky is the limit for Crosby, it's more like he must avoid a dark hole in outer space. He's still growing -- physically, mentally and emotionally -- and will be a fixture on not just this list, but any other top-player list produced by anyone with a granule of hockey intelligence.

No. 3: Eric Staal, Carolina Hurricanes, 22 years old (10.29.84)
Let's see, the center scored 100 points (45 goals and 55 assists), potted power-play, shorthanded and game-winning goals and won a Stanley Cup in his second year in the NHL. Maybe his defense (a minus 8) could improve, but Staal is the type of player that teams and dynasties can be built around. Know what's scary? He may not even be the best Staal to ever play in the league.

No. 2: Alexander Ovechkin, Washington Capitals, 20 years old (9.17.85)
OK, I still admit to practicing his sensational rolling-on-his-back goal, but have taken it outside now that Bella runs at the sight of a hockey stick and the good folks at Target have stopped asking why I buy so many lamps. Ovechkin (who I pray plays at this level for a long, long, long time) is simply amazing. What I like most, though, are not his insane rookie year numbers (81 games played, 52 goals-54 assists=106 points, a plus 2, 21 power play goals, 3 shorties and 5 game-winners), but this left winger's sheer joy for the game. It's intoxicating.

No. 1: Dany Heatley, Ottawa Senators, 25 years old (1.21.81)
Feel free to check out this left winger's stats on your own. You'll see how he stacks up and, based on numbers alone, is deserving of this ranking. What impresses me the most, however, is how he responded to the change in scenery after the memories of a tragic night in Atlanta proved too hard to shake. Though Heatley will be too old for next year's list, good health should keep him among the NHL's elite for many years.



Colin's ready

With the opening of the Tampa Bay Lightning's training camp set for Thursday, I've spent just about every free moment getting ready for the first hounding trip of the year.

The first book of cards, filled to the gills, is erased, loaded with rookies and set up, as usual, in alphabetical order. Beyond the regular complement in my hounding bag, there's a fresh box of blue Sharpies and a half-dozen silver DecoColors in reserve. And I've started on my cheap skates and cheat sheet of Lightning rookies and other new faces.

Hell, my first count of hounding trips for the 2006-07 season tops 25, and that, my friends, is a wicked conservative estimate.

Colin, however, has taken far less time. After putting on his hockey equipment and slipping on the Patrice Bergeron jersey (photo, above, taken Sunday night) he received for his fifth birthday and pounding me into submission with a lengthy bout of hockey-roughhousing, he had one question: "How long before I get to see Patrice, Daddy?"

Not long, buddy, not long. October 7th, in Tampa, for the Bolts' home-opener. I've got the day off and we've had our tickets for two weeks now. Yeah, I'd say we're ready.

How about you?

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Never forget

On a more serious note, we all should remember what happened five years ago today. Our lives have changed since that terrible day and with each passing of yet another brave American soldier, the death toll mounts because of terrorism.

The family of hockey should remember, too, the passing of two of our brothers, Garnet "Ace" Bailey and Mark Bavis, who were among the 2,973 killed and 24 who remain missing on Sept. 11, 2001.

Mr. Bailey, a former NHL player, and Mr. Bavis, who starred at Boston University, worked in the Los Angeles Kings' scouting department. With training camp only days away, they were headed to the West Coast aboard United Airlines Flight 175, the hijacked airliner that struck the World Trade Center's South Tower.

Please keep them, their families and their legacies, as well as the other victims, in your thoughts today and the days ahead. And, don't be ashamed to shed tears -- you won't be alone.


Next time, Patrice, try a wrist shot

Well-placed sources deep inside Red Sox Nation tell me that Bruins star Patrice Bergeron's turn Saturday at throwing out the first pitch at Fenway Park in Boston was, shall we say, humorous.

Now, I've never studied physics or, for that matter, even mastered geometry, but even the most casual observer can tell from the pitch's initial arc (shown above) that it was going to be a little high and outside.

Well, not only did his throw sail over the catcher's head, but a source (Actually, it was the Ottawa Sun's Bruce Garrioch. Really!) tells me that it was picked up on radar inside Logan International Airport's traffic-control tower and caused a stir as it nearly grazed the International Space Station.

Looking on the bright side, though, Red Sox fans were probably ecstatic in remembering that Patrice signed a five-year deal with the Bruins and not the Olde Towne Team.

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Ten questions with Steve Nash

Here's the first-ever installment of an exclusive Hound Central feature: Ten questions with . . . .

In today's opener, we learn not just a little, but a lot about Steve Nash, 38, a very talented artist specializing in goalie mask airbrushing for EYECANDYAIR in Woodbridge, Ontario, Canada. Trust me, this guy does some amazing work.

A special thanks goes out to Stephanie Pasquariello, who does customer relations for EYECANDYAIR. She was very instrumental in making this happen.

So, here it goes:

Puckhound: Who's your favorite team?
Steve Nash: Actually, I don't really have a favourite team. I've always rooted for the underdog, but any Original Six teams do always pique my interest.

PH: Who are your favorite players?
SN: All time faves are Steve Y (forward), Borje Salming (defense) and Patrick Roy (goalie)

PH: What's the best part of hockey?
SN: Definitely, the speed of the game

PH: Your favorite memory of hockey?
SN: My fiancée, Steph, and I won a trip to watch Game 5 -- Toronto vs. Carolina in the 2002 Conference Finals. It was a 16-hour bus ride with very loud hyped-up Leafs fans! It was CuJo's last season in Toronto (Steph is a huge fan!) and we won that game 1-0 with a Darcy Tucker goal. We even sat 12th row, centre ice. It made it well worth the trek.

PH: Do you, or did you ever, play hockey?
SN: I haven't for over a year and a half due to a fairly serious injury and then I really got into my art hardcore, so I've pretty much retired! I started playing goalie when I was 5 or 6 on the frozen lakes of Northern Ontario, coached by my dad. I played right from squirt to AAA, then graduated to men's league and the odd rent-a-goalie stint.

PH: What got you started in your job?
SN: I have always had an interest in art my whole life. I started drawing at a very young age -- mostly pencil or charcoal (examples
here and here) but I never imagined that I would end up making a living with my art.

I was in the hunt to purchase a new goalie mask and wanted something other than a plain black or white one, but the factory paint jobs were just not my style. So I decided to get a used mask and try painting my own design. It was a green beastly monster and actually turned out not too bad for being completely painted by hand. I got a lot of attention with that mask and other goalies started approaching me, so I decided to try my hand at airbrushing.

My very first design was a Toronto Felix Potvin (like many other artists Im sure!). Like any of the art I had done in the past, I had no intention of even charging the guy for it, but he insisted on paying for it.

I also had a lot of support from a good friend of mine, Rod Laforme, who opened the right doors for me to get a few retail connections, such as the store he was working at then,
Goalie Heaven, and the store he currently manages, The Goalie Crease. It has snowballed from there over the years and most of my business now comes from word of mouth.

PH: How long is the turnaround in making a mask?
SN: Sometimes the concept takes a while; that all depends on the customer. Some people have no idea what they want on their mask -- they just know they want my art, sometimes these particular projects take months to finalize.

If a goalie has a good idea of what they want or just allows me the freedom to run with my creativity, then from prep to clearcoat even the most intricate and detailed projects only take about 3-4 days at most.

PH: Who has your favorite NHL mask?
SN: My all-time favourite old school mask was worn by
Mike Palmateer. It was his Toronto mask . . . the design is a classic! Modern day, I have to be completely biased and say Tim Thomas of Boston Bruins. He is wearing a Sportmask Mage (not a traditional goalie mask) and the new "Beware of Bear" mask I just painted for him for the 06/07 season is killer!

PH: What's the favorite mask you've painted?
SN: This is a hard one, because there are a few masks I really love. But I have to say overall it would be the
Atomic Metallica Mask. I've always been a huge fan of Metallica and the customer entrusted me with complete and total freedom of this design. It is going to be hard to top this mask off in my books.

A close second would be my
Jimi Hendrix Tribute Purple Haze. As you can see I really enjoy rendering portrait and tribute themed goalie masks.

PH: Who's taking home Lord Stanley's Cup this season?
SN: That is a very tough question! With the new NHL, it really is a crap shoot. There were some excellent teams last season -- Carolina, Buffalo, Nashville. Although I'm not a fan of the team, I'd have to say Buffalo impressed me the most with their speed and agility, awesome coach with Lindy Ruff and a great rookie goalie with Ryan Miller. So, Buffalo it is.

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What's this? 1.1

In another attempt to have some fun with this blog (and, let's be honest here, generate some feedback), this is the opening installment of a weekly feature called "What's this?"

Do you know exactly what is shown in the picture at left? To some folks, especially those living below the Mason-Dixon Line, this one should be easy.

Future ones, I promise, will be much harder. Good luck!


In early returns

Yeah, yeah, yeah. I know Evgeni Malkin, left, finally signed with the Pittsburgh, only adding to the stockpile of young talent the Penguins possess in Sidney Crosby.

Do you want to know what's even more important? More important than hockey, you ask? Well, yes, it is. Other than a mild case of heartburn from a slice of ill-tempered pepperoni pizza, I survived my first primary election night in a newsroom in more than six years.

I've made the move, all 150 feet of it, back to news after spending the past seven-plus months working in the sports department at Florida's biggest and best newspaper. Sure, I'll miss working with some of the people, and having access to more information than most sports fans, but I'll like getting home much earlier most nights, not early mornings.

Even better, I can remain a fan and cheer as loud as I damn want for any damn team at any damn time that I want to. Except for the Maple Leafs and Yankees, that is. I could never do that. Nope, never.


Who's the best young defenseman?

Of all the positions within a hockey team, common sense dictates that playing defense takes the most amount of time to master. That's why defenseman, who tend to be the game's more intelligent players and, every so often, redefine the position like Bobby Orr, right, can also take the longest to blossom.

To me, a solid defenseman is a true multi-tasker.

From a defensive standpoint, he must help clear the crease, block shots while not screening his goalie, be an intimidating physical presence who's willing to drop his mitts and, through a lethal combination of speed and a mile-wide mean streak, convince opposing forwards that any dump-and-chase play is futile.

Playing offense, too, is expected. Making crisp outlet passes is a given. So, too, are joining a rush without abandoning his defensive responsibilities and using an array of shots that either cause a rebound, be easily tipped or rip into the net.

Oh, yeah, they need to stay healthy, too. All season long.

That's not to say, though, that there aren't some younger players, defined as less than 25 years old at the time of this writing, who have stepped up in today's game and have mastered their on-ice crafts. There are so many, in my opinion, that my final five should generate healthy debate over some omissions, named and unnamed.

Again, in classic countdown fashion, here are my top five young defensemen in the NHL:

No. 5: Brent Seabrook, Chicago Blackhawks, 21 years old (4.20.85)
Everything I've read about this kid praises his poise and mentions his leadership abilities, something that will come in handy in the Windy City. His plus-5 was first among Chicago defenseman and second overall on the team. Uses his brain more than brawn. While others, including Phoenix's Keith Ballard and Los Angeles' Tim Gleason made this the hardest choice, this kid puts together a better total package at a younger age.

No. 4: Andrej Meszaros, Ottawa Senators, 20 years old (10.13.85)
Let's see, where do I begin. A plus-34 (good for second on the Senators), 128 hits and 124 blocked shots. That's not including his 39 points (10 goals, 29 assists), something easily lost within the offensive numbers put up by such talented teammates as Daniel Alfredsson and Dany Heatley. A repeat of last season's unbelievable performance this upcoming season means a giant leap up the rankings next year.

No. 3: Dan Hamhuis, Nashville Predators, 23 years old (12.23.82)
In just his second season, he averaged more than 22 minutes a game, scored 38 points (7g-31a), was second on the team with a plus-11 (a 23-point difference from his rookie year) and, most telling, was a plus-5 in takeaways/giveaways. A very smart player who isn't afraid to bang or sacrifice his body to block a shot. Older teammates Kimmo Timonen and Marek Zidlicky may have more name recognition, but not for long. This kid is a real sleeper.

No. 2: Dion Phaneuf, Calgary Flames, 21 years old (4.10.85)
Compared to all-world bruiser and future Hall of Famer Scott Stevens, this heavy hitter (203) lived up to the hype. Not only led all rookie defenseman in scoring with 20 goals, 29 assists for 49 points (a surprising offensive output to most, myself included), but was third among the Flames for assists and scoring. If Calder voters looked at the big picture, including what a player means, and not just brings, to his team, that contest would've been a little closer. I can't wait either to watch Phaneuf play against Washington's Alexander Ovechkin or Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby. We know they have the skill, but do they have the heart?

No. 1: Jay Bouwmeester, Florida Panthers, 23 years old (9.27.83)
With three full seasons now under his belt, the league will soon learn that there's still one gem left in South Florida. The former third-overall pick of the 2002 draft uses his intelligence, defensive awareness (plus-1 while playing for inept Panthers) and deceptive offensive skills (5g-41a-46) to warrant big minutes (25:29) every night. It's a shame Jay-Bo, as he's known, isn't surrounded by better talent or playing in a bigger market.



Addicted to hockey?

A few years back, good ole boy Jeff Foxworthy struck it rich by poking fun at his own kind with his now-famous "You might be a redneck if . . ." skit. Now, the way I figure, if some geeky, chicken-gizzard hillbilly twang angel can hit the big time, why can't I?

I know I'm fat, but I'm not geeky. I can't stand chicken gizzards, either. I may have been raised in the sticks, but I've spent far too much time in the big city. I love my drawl and, Lord knows, I'm far from an angel.

That's why, as I continue to count down the hours to when the hockey season is finally upon us, I'm offering to you, my dear friends who share this beautiful affliction, a handful of ways to know that you, too, just might be obsessed with hockey.

So, here it goes: You might be addicted to hockey, if:

~ You know the words to OLN's (soon to be known as Versus) "We Believe in Hockey" commercial.

~ You consider naming your first-born son Patrick Roy, Robert Orr or Daniel Gare (fill in your last name here).

~ More than five vacation and personal days are used to attend training camp or open practices.

~ You have more hockey sweaters in your closet, in alphabetical order, than you do button-down dress shirts.

~ You would recognize the seventh defenseman for not only the New York Islanders, but the backup goalie for the Bossier-Shreveport Mudbugs as well if you saw either of them walking down a street.

~ You rent a pickup, drive 120 miles round-trip and spend $150 for two well-used, but lighted display cases so you can show off less than 10 percent of your 1000-plus autographed puck collection.

~ You're willing to change your days off from work to accommodate your season-ticket package.

~ You buy anything from the Springfield Falcons.

~ You stay up till the wee hours of the morning (defined as any time after 3:01 a.m.) writing a dumbass hockey-related list like this.

~ You give the Ottawa Sun's rumor-monger Bruce Garrioch the benefit of a doubt just so you can check out the paper's SUNshine Girls.

~ You challenge a Georgia Bulldogs football fan to a little one-on-one game of shinny at the nearest rink because the idiot doesn't believe hockey is the world's greatest sport.

~ And, finally, or at least for now (I'm sure I'll think of more), if you fantasize about your wife/girlfriend wearing nothing more than a hockey garter and a pair of Bauer Supreme One90s, you just might be addicted to hockey.



Thirteen days and counting

Do you know what I like most about September? It's easy. The hockey season begins with training camps. By Jesus, let's drop some pucks.