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ON THE NHL

What's Love Got to Do With This

May 27, 2003|Helene Elliott

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. — Oh, for the days of old-time hockey, when teams snarled at each other and built up a healthy hatred that gave the Stanley Cup finals an undercurrent of passion.

The days when New York Islander goalie Billy Smith claimed Wayne Gretzky should be taken by the hand and introduced to his own goaltender because he had never ventured into his defensive zone. Or when Smith renamed the Edmonton Oilers' superstar "Whine Gretzky" because he claimed Gretzky complained to the officials after the slightest contact.

The days when hostilities between the Philadelphia Flyers and Oilers boiled over during the warmups and the teams brawled before most fans had arrived at the Spectrum, drawing players back out from the locker room in their plastic shower shoes to wade into the scrums that formed all over the ice.

The days of trash talk, players going after each other beneath the stands, Barry Melrose insinuating it was dishonorable for Montreal Canadien Coach Jacques Demers to call the referee's attention to Marty McSorley's illegally curved stick and gain a power play that helped the Canadiens beat the Kings in Game 2 of the 1993 finals.

The good old days.

They're undeniably gone, along with dynasties, 8-6 playoff games, and intimate arenas that gave the local team a clear home-ice advantage.

The proof was everywhere Monday when the Mighty Ducks and the New Jersey Devils, who will begin pursuit of the Cup tonight at Continental Airlines Arena, couldn't stop saying nice things about each other during the pre-finals news conference. There were no insults hurled, no grudges dredged up from junior hockey, no veiled threats, not even a modest attempt at name-calling.

"Not yet," Devil winger Grant Marshall said, smiling. "It's not like it used to be.

"You should respect the team you're playing because they deserve to be where they are. Especially Anaheim. They beat two of the league's best teams, Detroit and Dallas, and they've earned it. If we want to succeed, we've got to battle."

He meant "battle" as in contest loose pucks and play relentless defense. Not as in left hook followed by a roundhouse right, or even a spat between Duck winger Rob Niedermayer and his older brother, Devil defenseman Scott Niedermayer, over which of them Mom liked best.

"If you get to the finals, you've played the other team so infrequently, you've got to wait for the series to really get underway to get that hate for each other," New Jersey winger Jay Pandolfo said. "In this case, we don't have much history, so there's nothing that carries over.

"Both teams have played well and deserve to be here, so there's not much you can say that isn't complimentary. Once it starts, of course, it could be a whole new ballgame."

Cross your fingers and your sticks for those sparks to be generated.

This spring of earnest defensive hockey has allowed for precious few moments of raw, unbridled emotion anywhere in the NHL. The Devils and the Ducks are skilled at limiting opponents' chances, transforming turnovers into scoring chances and scrounging for opportunistic goals, but the patience and discipline that have made them successful also have quashed most players' individuality and fire.

Add the fact the Devils and Ducks played each other only twice this season, the last time Jan. 24 at the Arrowhead Pond in Anaheim, and there's an unmistakable sense they stand at a polite distance, determined to win but unlikely to utter anything derogatory along the way.

At least until Jean-Sebastien Giguere makes 50 saves and the Devils start complaining that his pads are too big, as the Red Wings, Stars and Wild did.

"You have to respect your opponents and we definitely aren't going to take a team like the Devils lightly," Duck winger Mike Leclerc said. "I'm giving you no dirt. No ammo."

His teammates were of no greater help.

"We don't play the Devils all that often, so you don't have the built-in rivalry like we'd have with the L.A. Kings," forward Dan Bylsma said. "When we played Detroit, Dallas and Minnesota we've been respectful because they deserved it. They'd done great things. That's how we look at the Devils.

"Look at Scott Stevens and Martin Brodeur. They've lifted the Cup a couple of times, so you're fearful of what they've done, but there's no animosity.... Right now, they're the type of team we want to be. They're the team we've watched and admired what they've done. You're fearful and anxious playing quality teams like this, and it energizes you. But there's no hatred or anything like that."

Defenseman Keith Carney agreed. "The animosity and rivalry you would have against a Western Conference team aren't there," he said. "You have to be respectful because they're a really great team. It's going to be a huge challenge."

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