Sabres/NHL Notebook: Winnipeg more welcome as opponent than Atlanta; Ken Hitchcock back in coaching fold; Georges Laracque claims substance abuse in NHL
Thursday November 10, 2011 | By:Mike Haim, Special to Metro
There’s been an understandable buzz across the hockey world since the Atlanta Thrashers became the Winnipeg Jets this past summer.
Western New York got a taste of that buzz first-hand on Tuesday night, when the Buffalo Sabres hosted the Jets at First Niagara Center.
In years past, a game against the Thrashers on a weeknight in the early part of the season would be a hard sell. That wasn’t the case this time around, as the Jets attracted a good-size contingent of fans from southern Ontario and many locals who wanted to see the Sabres Hall of Fame induction ceremony.
While the pre-game induction of play-by-play announcer Rick Jeanneret would have brought the house down on any night, the timing of having former Jet Dale Hawerchuk inducted when Winnipeg was in town was perfect.
Hawerchuk was the first overall pick by the original Jets in 1981 and spent the first nine years of his NHL career with that team. He then was traded to Buffalo, where he logged five memorable seasons with the Sabres.
“I think everybody in Canada and around the National Hockey League are excited to see the Winnipeg Jets back,” Hawerchuk said prior to the ceremony. “They’re the two teams I spent the most time with. Those two are definitely closest to my heart.”
The game itself – a 6-5 Buffalo win which featured back-and-forth momentum shifts - resembled something similar to Sabres-Jets games played in the high-flying and higher-scoring 1980’s.
It’s unlikely that the three remaining games between the clubs this season will feature porous goaltending and spectacular plays sandwiched between general sloppiness. But those games, like the one played this week, will surely contain better memories than they would if Buffalo’s opponent was still based in Atlanta.
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The St. Louis Blues made the first coaching change of the season on Sunday, replacing Davis Payne with Ken Hitchcock.
Hitchcock was still under contract with the Columbus Blue Jackets, even though he was replaced as head coach back in February 2010. He had also been a constant presence at Nationwide Arena and on Blue Jackets’ road trips, prompting rumors that he was on the cusp of replacing Scott Arniel after the team started with two wins in its first 14 games.
The Blues, however, swooped in and hired Hitchcock to take over a team which had a 6-7 record but, more disturbingly, ranked dead last in power play effectiveness.
St. Louis was also plagued by ineffective play by goaltender Jaroslav Halak, who was just 1-6 with a .856 save percentage.
The hiring of Hitchcock in St. Louis shouldn’t be a total surprise, as Blues general manager Doug Armstrong was the assistant to G.M. Bob Gainey in Dallas when Hitchcock coached the Stars to their Stanley Cup in 1999.
Hitchcock won’t have to work miracles to get the Blues back to playoff contention. He got off to a good start, winning his first game behind the St. Louis bench as Halak posted a shutout against Chicago and Chris Stewart notched a power-play goal.
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Georges Laracque made his mark in the NHL as being one of the league’s toughest fighters, but it looks like he’ll be waging a bigger battle in the next few weeks.
In his new book, Laracque charges the league with having a lax substance abuse policy and predictable testing methods.
“Not a single player, not even me, would ever think of raising his hand to break the silence and accuse a fellow player,” Laracque wrote. “You just have to notice how some talented players will experience an efficiency loss as well as a weight loss every four years, those years being the ones the Winter Olympics are held. In the following season they make a strong comeback; they manage a mysterious return to form.”
The NHL and its Players Association have not made any statements to counter Laracque’s charges, which take up a small portion of the book.
For years, there has been a constant denial of the scope of drug use in the league. Defenders of the game refer to the small number of suspensions incurred because of drug use, while critics point out that hockey probably has as many offenders as any other sports league.
Like most issues with extreme points of view, the truth surely lies somewhere in the middle.
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