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Inside the NHL | Helene Elliott / On The Nhl

October 28, 2003|Helene Elliott

Determined to honor the memory of Dan Snyder, support Dany Heatley and grieve together, the Atlanta Thrashers rode a tide of emotion and earned at least a point in each of their first seven games, on four wins, two ties and an overtime loss.

A regulation loss to Florida on Saturday brought them to the next stage of a distinctive journey. There's no script for this, no manual offering advice on going about life and hockey without Snyder, who died Oct. 5 as the result of injuries he suffered in a car crash with Heatley at the wheel. Snyder's empty locker and the convalescing Heatley remind them of what they lost, but they can't lose sight of what's left to gain.

"We know we're going to hit the wall at some point, and we've talked about that," General Manager Don Waddell said. "We've talked a lot through this, and we're trying to be aware of it, but everybody handles things differently.

"One thing we've found out is that when you're together with the team, it's like sanctuary on the ice. We're going to go through some hard times, but if we talk about it, we'll get through it."

For that knowledge he credits Snyder's parents and siblings, whom he invited to the Thrashers' game Monday at Toronto.

"They're wonderful people," Waddell said. "The No. 1 reason we've held together has been the Snyder family and how strong they've been through this ordeal."

The team's on-ice strength was evident Monday, when it rallied for a 3-2 overtime victory at Toronto. Goalie Pasi Nurminen has solved a problem Waddell called "our Achilles' heel for 3 1/2 years." Winger Ilya Kovalchuk has scored a league-high 10 goals, and Marc Savard, Slava Kozlov and Frantisek Kaberle are making vital contributions. The glue is Coach Bob Hartley, building on the 19-15-5 record he compiled after he replaced Curt Fraser last season.

"He had a pedigree -- he had won the Stanley Cup with Colorado -- and brought us instant credibility we needed," said Jack Ferreira, the Thrashers' director of player personnel and former Mighty Duck general manager. "What he implemented worked, even though we had a lot of games and he didn't have much time to teach, and the guys liked that. What player doesn't like it when the coach says, 'We're going to make you better'? "

Ferreira was impressed with Hartley's knowledge of Atlanta's assets when he interviewed Hartley for the job, and he remains impressed.

"No one except Kovalchuk is really overachieving," Ferreira said. "Bob has everyone playing within themselves.... When we finished last year our attitude was, 'We're going to make the playoffs.' Obviously we got hit with a tragic setback, but even through all the adversity, he's got them focused."

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The Son-In-Law Also Rises

Blackhawk senior vice president Bob Pulford looked grim while he spoke on his cellphone Sunday night at the Arrowhead Pond. His expression didn't lighten when he'd finished the call and headed for his seat, but he stopped to take a reporter's inquiry.

Had he established a timetable for replacing general manager Mike Smith, whom he'd fired Friday, and had he come up with a list of candidates?

"My wife just asked me the same question," he said, indicating his cellphone. "I told her I wasn't sure what the timetable is and how fast Mr. [William] Wirtz [the club's owner] wants to do this. I'm sure he'll want to get some names, and I'll give him some names."

Sure to top the list is Dean Lombardi, the former San Jose general manager who molded a team that improved its record five consecutive seasons but was fired last March after contract disputes and injuries led to an implosion. He's intelligent, articulate and respected enough that the Flyers hired him as a scout. And he's family: His wife, Wanda, was raised by Bob and Roslyn Pulford after her parents died.

"That's a difficult question and a difficult situation to be in," said Pulford, who will excuse himself if Lombardi is interviewed. "I've made no bones about saying he's the most qualified guy out there. I'll put his name on the list and [Wirtz] can go from there. I'm sure there are other people not as closely connected with him that think that too. I can't be alone.

"I'm sure when I get back to Chicago, we'll talk. Mr. Wirtz might not want to rush. He might want to take his time and make sure he's getting the right person for the personalities we have and our city."

Smith wasn't that person, although he brought a stream of talent into what had become a sorry organization. He favored European players and made Alpo Suhonen the NHL's first European-trained head coach, then had to fire him when Suhonen failed miserably. Smith then wanted to hire Bryan Murray but was pressured to hire Brian Sutter, and they never got along.

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Big Ned a Big Pioneer

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