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Original Issue

Inside The NHL

Now a backup, Maple Leafs goalie Felix Potvin pines for a trade

Day after day Felix (the Cat) Potvin practices as intensely as
any other Leaf. Day after day he stands at his locker and fields
questions about his unlikely role as a backup goalie. He doesn't
criticize his employers. He volunteers praise for his teammates.
Then before long, his big brown eyes turn downward, and he says
things like, "I hope I'm traded in an hour."

The departure from Toronto of the 27-year-old Potvin, a two-time
All-Star, has seemed imminent since July 15, when the Leafs
signed free-agent goalie Curtis Joseph to a four-year, $24
million contract. CuJo, 31, was coming off excellent playoff
performances in 1997 and '98 with the Oilers, and Toronto made
the move so it could use Potvin as a powerful bargaining chip: a
premier goalie for some badly needed scorers.

It had primarily been Potvin, with his butterfly style, who had
carried the Maple Leafs to the Western Conference finals in 1993
and '94, when he also became the first Toronto goalie to start
in the modern All-Star Game. But the Cat knew as soon as the
signing was announced that Joseph would be the top dog because
the Leafs considered him a better goalie. Potvin hoped to be
traded before training camp, and though Toronto held discussions
with several teams--the Panthers, the Canucks and the Islanders
most prominent among them--the Leafs' determination to maximize
their return kept a deal from being made.

When camp began last month, Potvin declined to pose for the team
photo and begged out of a team charity golf tournament. His
wife, Sabrina, and their two children remained in Quebec with
family members, and Potvin sold their primary residence, in
Toronto. During the season opener he applauded from the bench as
Joseph stopped 38 shots and the Leafs beat the Red Wings 2-1.
"The Cat's been first-class," says winger Kris King. "He knows
he'll be leaving us to be a Number 1 goalie for someone else."

For now Potvin, who through Sunday had played in one of
Toronto's four games, bides his time. After beating the Flames
7-3 last Friday, he said, "It felt good to be out there with the
guys, good to win a game for them." For them. He said it as if
he were already gone.

Esposito Fired

Two winless games into what promises to be another miserable
season for the Lightning, Phil Esposito, the franchise's
founding father, was fired as general manager. Owner Art
Williams, who bought Tampa Bay in June, said the dismissal
"breaks my heart," while others with the Lightning paid homage
to Esposito's role in bringing hockey to Tampa Bay. The firing,
though, was long overdue.

Esposito, 56, is a charismatic salesman whose exuberance as head
of the Tampa Bay Hockey Group in the early 1990s helped pave the
way for the NHL's successful expansion into the South. But even
though he had been a Hall of Fame player Esposito had no
business being a general manager. In a tenure defined by dubious
drafts, strange signings and baffling trades (for example, he
unloaded All-Star Roman Hamrlik to the Oilers for little return
last December), Esposito rendered the team rudderless and
incurred the ridicule of hockey observers for his ineptness and
thin skin.

In 1992 Esposito struck a sportswriter who had criticized Tampa
Bay, and faced assault charges until he made a public apology.
In 1995-96, the only season in which the Lightning made the
playoffs, Esposito bristled when coach Terry Crisp received most
of the credit for Tampa Bay's success.

Esposito's follies with the Lightning came as no surprise, given
his three-year stint as the Rangers' general manager in the late
1980s. Ever impetuous, he made 43 trades during his tenure in
New York, but the Rangers never got past the first round of the
playoffs in those years. In '87 he gave away two frontline
forwards, Mike Ridley and Kelly Miller, for underachieving
center Bobby Carpenter. A week before the playoffs began in '89,
Esposito fired colorful coach Michel Bergeron--Espo had dealt a
first-round draft pick to Quebec for Bergeron before the
previous season--for what Esposito deemed to be insubordination,
despite New York's 37-33-8 record. Esposito then went behind the
bench, and the Rangers lost their last two regular-season games
before being swept by the Penguins in the first round of the

In the aftermath of last week's firing, Esposito was
disheartened but hardly humbled. "This isn't fair," he said. "I
could have done more with a little more time in charge."

Esposito's time was up, and even in a league in which executives
are recycled as swiftly as soda cans, it's hard to imagine he'll
be put in charge of a franchise again.

Rink Safety

Bodychecking became safer in some corners this season when the
Canadiens, the Flames and the Islanders installed
spring-operated end boards in their arenas to help cushion
players when they are driven into the woodwork and glass. In the
newly developed CheckFlex system, the four-foot-high boards
surrounding both offensive zones are equipped with springs that
compress as much as three inches and serve as shock absorbers.
The eight-foot-high glass extensions are attached to the boards
and move with them. "It's much easier on the body," says Calgary
wing Rocky Thompson.

Calgary installed CheckFlex after Flames players complained
about the lack of give in the Saddledome's old-style boards.
Roughly half of the NHL arenas still have unyielding boards
topped by glass; other venues use boards topped with acrylic
shielding (instead of glass), which gives about an inch. Calgary
trainer Terry Kane says of CheckFlex, "This will not only help
prevent single-incident injuries but also will lessen the
cumulative effect of getting pounded into the boards all season."

COLOR PHOTO: TODD KOROL A deal for Potvin, still an elite goalie, would bring Toronto much-needed scoring help. [Felix Potvin and others in game]


Avalanche general manager

Since winning the Cup in '96, talented Colorado has twice been
K.O'd from the playoffs earlier than expected. In June, Lacroix
replaced coach Marc Crawford with Bob Hartley, who had no NHL
experience. At week's end the Avalanche was 0-4-1, the worst
start in franchise history.