Playing his last game in Maple Leaf Gardens recently was an emotional experience for the New York Rangers' Wayne Gretzky. He remembers when he saw his first game there as a boy watching Toronto play the Oakland Seals.
"I was 6 years old," said Gretzky, who lived in nearby Brantford, Ontario. "I went to Maple Leaf Gardens my first time with my grandmother--I was very close to her. My dad dropped us off. We had two tickets, sat in the very last row of the Gardens. I got there an hour early and I sat there. I don't think I moved the whole time."
Gretzky recalled that Gary Smith was the goaltender for the Seals. Gretzky later became a teammate of Smith's at Indianapolis of the World Hockey Association.
"I often tease him," said Gretzky, "that my first game in the Gardens was when he was playing for the Oakland Seals and I could remember leaving the game asking my grandmother why this goaltender spent the whole game chasing the puck outside of the net instead of standing in front of the net trying to stop the puck."
The Maple Leafs are scheduled to play their last game in the Gardens on Feb. 13 before moving into their new Air Canada Centre on Feb. 20.
HEAD CASE?: Buffalo's Dominik Hasek is a goaltender who has his head in his work--literally.
In practice, Hasek asks his teammates to shoot at his head, just in case he has to make a stop that way in a game.
"I'm not afraid to stop the puck with my head," Hasek says. "I try to do it sometimes in practice; not every day, but once in a while. I say to my teammates, 'Shoot me in my head and I'll try to stop the puck.' So sometimes if the shot comes at my head (in a game), it's an easier save to make. Maybe (other) people think a different way, but I do it with my head."
CULLEN'S CONNECTION: John Cullen, who made a well-chronicled comeback from cancer this season, now has an award named after him.
The IHL has announced that the league's Comeback Player of the Year award will be renamed the John Cullen Award. Cullen, who missed last season with non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, came back to play in the NHL with the Tampa Bay Lightning and then in the IHL with the Cleveland Lumberjacks after getting a bone marrow transplant.
In one IHL game against the Chicago Wolves on Nov. 7, Cullen scored seven points to tie a Lumberjacks record. He played the last game of his 11-year professional career on Nov. 14 for the Lumberjacks and announced his retirement a few weeks later.
IT'S A '90s THING: When the U.S. women's team won the gold medal at the 1998 Olympics, it only underscored the startling growth of women's hockey in America in the '90s.
Since the 1990-91 season, when USA Hockey began totaling female participation, there has been a 430 percent increase in eight years. And there has been a 718 percent increase in the number of girls' and women's teams from 1990-91 to 1997-98.
The top four states for female participation in hockey are Minnesota, Massachusetts, New York and Michigan.
FEELING AT HOME: Pittsburgh's Jaromir Jagr says Europeans are being treated differently in the NHL than when he started in 1990. For the better, that is.
"When I came here, I was the first European ever to play for the Pittsburgh Penguins and everybody looked at me differently," he said recently. "I couldn't speak English, all that kind of stuff, but I think during the eight or nine years [he has been in Pittsburgh], it has changed a lot."
Jagr, from the Czech Republic, was the Penguins' top draft choice, sixth overall, in the 1990 Entry Draft. He has since been named captain of the team.
"There are so many Europeans in the league and I think the North American players and North American fans kind of started respecting the European players. It's not like it used to be when I first came here."
In winning the NHL scoring championship last season, Jagr was the only player in the league with more than 100 points. He previously won it during the lockout-shortened season of 1994-95.