Ron Tugnutt of the Senators has emerged as an impenetrable goalie
In the summer of 1996, Ron Tugnutt's 225-game NHL career seemed
about to expire. After playing goal with five organizations in
five years and spending the 1995-96 season in the minors,
Tugnutt was a 28-year-old free agent with few prospects. He says
he was "about a day away from signing with some team in Sweden"
when the Senators offered him a job.
In the summer of 1998, Tugnutt was a passenger in a speedboat
that was traveling at 70 mph when it took a sharp turn and
cracked. As the boat began to capsize, Tugnutt put on a life
preserver and floated in the water until he was rescued.
Tugnutt, who watched the speedboat sink, said he was lucky to
escape with only some broken ribs.
Such experiences can give a man a sober sense of proportion,
which may explain why Tugnutt seemed wholly unimpressed that
through Sunday he was 17-7-5 for Ottawa, with an astounding
league-best 1.65 goals-against average (nearly two goals less
than his career mark coming into this season). Not even his
first All-Star Game appearance in January left any lingering
giddiness. "I feel stable," he says. "What this is all about is
that I'm finally playing with a good team."
To be sure, the Senators, who led the Eastern Conference with a
33-18-8 record, are a much better team than the defenseless
Quebec Nordiques clubs for whom Tugnutt toiled for much of his
early career. Yet Tugnutt, whose .932 save percentage so far
this season is second to the Sabres' Dominik Hasek (.935), is a
primary reason that Ottawa had allowed the fewest goals in the
conference. "Goaltending is our strength," says Senators winger
Bill Berg. "It seems like when one guy does well, the other guy
just wants to do better."
Ah, yes, the other guy. That would be Damian Rhodes, the
peroxide-blond, chaw-chewin' goalie who led Ottawa to a six-game
upset of the Devils in the first round of last year's playoffs.
Rhodes doesn't have Tugnuttian numbers (16-11-3, 2.54 GAA, .903
save percentage), but he has played well enough to keep himself
in the goaltending platoon. "You can't complain about the
system. It works," says Tugnutt.
Given that Senators coach Jacques Martin has proved
unpredictable in choosing his starting goalie for each game and
that Ottawa is the only top team without a clear No. 1
netminder, the question is: If the playoffs began tomorrow,
Coach, do you know who your starting goalie would be? "No,"
Martin says. "We'll wait and see."
The uncertainty doesn't ruffle Tugnutt, who can tell you that
things could be plenty worse.
CAUGHT IN A RUT
The fact that poor ice conditions can cause a puck to bounce or
change direction are the least of the NHL's concerns. The
Canucks' Mark Messier, the Rangers' Todd Harvey, the Senators'
Daniel Alfredsson and the Stars' Brett Hull have all suffered
leg injuries this season after getting a skate caught in a rut
in the ice.
Surfaces are typically worse in warm-weather sites and in arenas
where the ice is repeatedly covered for basketball games and
other events. "Imagine elephants stomping on the ice," says
Ducks' winger Paul Kariya of playing at Madison Square Garden
after the circus passes through each season. "That can't be good
The league monitors the surface in every city and has addressed
the issue of rough ice by limiting the length of on-ice
entertainment during intermissions; mandating the use of two
Zambonis to get the ice resurfaced quickly and allow more time
for it to harden; and permitting only six players to skate in
warmups at the start of each period, rules that have had minimal
Because each NHL rink is subject to unique day-to-day conditions,
the burden of maintaining the surface falls to individual teams.
Millionaire hockey players shouldn't be risking their health on
poor ice. Teams need to make surface conditions a priority.
WHO'S GOING TO BE THE FIRST?
This year's World All-Star Team had players from eight European
nations, none of whom were able to engage in homeland reminisces
with coach Lindy Ruff, a Warburg, Alberta, native. Ruff, the
Sabres' coach, guided the World All-Stars since his team led the
Eastern Conference at midseason. He was as good a choice as any
because for all the NHL's diversity--24% of its players hail from
Europe--no coach in the league was born across the pond; 24 are
Canadian, and three are American.
The old reasons for not giving consideration to a European
coach--the differences in playing style between Europe and North
America, as well as the language barrier--have largely
disappeared. Canadiens assistant Dave King, who coached the
Flames from 1992-93 through 1994-95 and had Prague-born Slavomir
Lener as an assistant, says, "A European coach is probably not
very long away." With that in mind we rank the men most likely
to be the first.
1. SLAVA FETISOV Deeply respected for his years with the Soviet
Red Army team in the 1970s and '80s and for his play with the
Devils and the Red Wings, the 40-year-old Fetisov has also earned
high marks this season as a New Jersey assistant. Says Detroit
general manager Ken Holland, "Slava could do it because he's so
intelligent and he's in an organization that's very good at
2. IGOR LARIONOV He's only 38 and still playing well for the Red
Wings, so coaching may be a few years off. He's highly regarded
for his hockey smarts.
3. ALPO SUHONEN A 50-year-old Finn, Suhonen has coached more
than 1,000 games in Europe and is an assistant with the Maple
Leafs. He was also coach of the IHL's Chicago Wolves for part of
1996-97 (9-5-1 in regular season) and served as a Winnipeg Jets
assistant in 1989-90 and 1992-93. "He had what it took to be [an
NHL] coach years ago," says retired defenseman Peter
Taglianetti, who played for the Jets in 1989-90.
4. LENER Now a Panthers assistant, the 44-year-old Lener is
fluent in Czech, English, German and Russian and has coached the
Czech national team. He's happy in Florida, but with more
seasoning at the side of coach Terry Murray, he says, "I might
So might the NHL.
NOT THE GUY WHO GETS $38 MILLION
Remember Letter Man, the superhero of the old children's TV show
Electric Company? Faster than a rolling O and more powerful than
a silent E, the caped alphabetician was always saving the day by
tearing a letter off his chest and transforming, say, thief into
chief. Imagine what he could do for Sergei Fedotov, a
22-year-old defenseman in the Hurricanes' system. Fedotov,
currently with the Florida Everblades in the ECHL, has played
for six teams in three years, and this season he will earn about
as much as Red Wings star forward Sergei Fedorov might spend on
an afternoon shopping spree.
Fedotov has become an expert at delivering the phrase, "No, not
Fedo-rov, Fedo-tov." Yet fans were never more confused than in
February 1998 when Carolina signed Fedorov, then a restricted
free agent, to a $38 million offer sheet (which Detroit
subsequently matched) a couple of months after Fedotov was
assigned to the Beast of New Haven, Carolina's AHL affiliate.
"We got calls and E-mails from all over," says New Haven
president Dave Gregory. "People kind of flipped out when they
saw the name."
COLOR PHOTO: J. MCISAAC/B. BENNETT STUDIOS Tugnutt's career season includes a league-leading 1.65 goals-against average.
COLOR PHOTO: DAVID E. KLUTHO It's no stretch to suggest that Larionov has the credentials to be the first European NHL coach.
BUST AND BARGAIN
G FELIX POTVIN
1998-99 salary: $2.7 million
Since being acquired from the Maple Leafs on Jan. 9, Potvin,
who's sidelined with a groin injury, had gone 1-6-1 with a .874
save percentage, hurting New York's hopes of making the playoffs.
G FRED BRATHWAITE
1998-99 salary: $300,000
Since being signed as a minor league free agent on Jan. 7,
Brathwaite had gone 7-5-7 with a .923 save percentage through
Sunday, boosting Calgary's hopes of making the playoffs.