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Original Issue

Inside The NHL

The fans were loud, if not numerous, at Carolina's playoff debut

On April 20, two days before the Hurricanes would play their
first postseason game since migrating from Hartford in April
1997, Carolina general manager Jim Rutherford was fixing to eat
a leisurely breakfast in his Raleigh house. He poured a glass of
cranberry juice, shook some wheat flakes into a bowl and turned
to Dennis Rogers's column on the NHL in the sports section of
Raleigh's News & Observer. "We didn't care if the team moved
here from Hartford," Rogers wrote, "we don't care if they win or
lose while they're here, and we don't care when or where they'll
go if they pack up and leave."

How's that for Southern hospitality? "At first I took it
personally," says Rutherford, whose team will move 80 miles east
from its temporary home in Greensboro to more populous Raleigh
next season. "Then I told myself that even in NHL strongholds
you find a few people who don't like hockey."

In North Carolina the few have been the multitude, so it was
surprising last Thursday when the Hurricanes' 2-0 loss to the
Bruins unfolded before so many vociferous fans at the
11,059-seat Greensboro Coliseum, which has the NHL's smallest
capacity. The 10,000 or so on hand proved that at least some
Carolinians are thrilled to have the Hurricanes.

The team announced a sellout for Game 1 despite large swaths of
empty seats and the fact that 10 minutes before the opening
face-off a fan could have purchased four seats together in any
of three price ranges ($50, $40 or $30). Attendance figures in
Greensboro over the past two seasons can be defined in two ways:
disappointing and doctored. Last year Carolina said its average
attendance was 9,108; this year it was 8,188. Yet Dean Jordan,
president of the Hurricanes' parent company, Gale Force
Holdings, says ticket sales were actually up 31% this season.
Last year's numbers, he admits, "were inflated."

However many there are, Hurricanes loyalists should be crowned
the most devoted hockey fans south of Philadelphia. Some 85%
make the drive from the Raleigh area. Whether or not Carolina
thrives in the playoffs--the Hurricanes beat the Bruins 3-2 last
Saturday to even the best-of-seven first-round series at one
game apiece--last Thursday was a seminal night for the faithful.
The fans waved white hankies and erupted into sustained "Let's
go, Hurricanes!" chants. "That noise in this building gave me
tingles down my spine," Carolina center Keith Primeau said after
the game.

The cheers must have pleased Rutherford, who had presided over
four playoffless seasons for the franchise before this year. He
also may have been happy, at least momentarily, to see a big
headline in Greensboro's News & Record sports section last
Thursday proclaiming THE WAIT IS OVER. Unfortunately for
Rutherford, the story was about the start of golf season in

Brian Leetch's Free Agency

Like his Rangers teammates, defenseman Brian Leetch feels blue
for having missed the playoffs for the second consecutive season
and bluer still at the prospect of life without Wayne Gretzky.
Those disappointments, though, aren't going to stop Leetch from
having the off-season of his life. He plans to marry Mary Beth
O'Neill on June 26, and sometime between now and the end of
their honeymoon Leetch will become very rich. He and Avalanche
winger Theo Fleury are by far the most attractive players among
the 75 or so set to become unrestricted free agents on July 1.

The 31-year-old Leetch, who won the Norris Trophy in 1992 and
'97 and who earned $3.4 million last season, is one of the seven
best blueliners in the NHL, and he'll soon be the highest paid
of the lot. The Rangers' initial offer surpassed the $6 million
that the Bruins' Ray Bourque will earn next season (at this
point he's scheduled to be the NHL's highest-paid defenseman),
and Leetch will most likely seek $8 million a year over several
seasons. He may get it, because, says one Eastern Conference
coach, "the Rangers must sign him. There's nobody out there who
can replace him."

Moreover, as Kings general manager Dave Taylor says, "under free
agency you pay more than you really believe a player is worth.
In a lot of cases you don't get a return on your investment."
Taylor knows. Last summer Los Angeles gave free-agent defenseman
Steve Duchesne $15 million over four years. Duchesne performed
so ineffectively that in March, L.A. bought out his contract for
$4.25 million and traded him to the Flyers. Thus the Kings spent
upwards of $7 million for 60 games from Duchesne. Free-agent
success stories such as that of Maple Leafs goalie Curtis
Joseph, who signed a four-year, $24 million deal last July and
then went 35-24-7 as Toronto's MVP this season, have been rare.

So while Leetch and Fleury--who's also 31, durable and can carry a
team--will cash in, second-tier free agents such as Flyers winger
Mark Recchi, Sharks center Vincent Damphousse and Avalanche
winger Valeri Kamensky could find the market tighter than ever.
"In the last three summers a lot of teams have spent a lot of
money and didn't get better," says Ducks general manager Pierre
Gauthier. "Lessons were learned."

This may not be the best time for most players to be heading
into unrestricted free agency, but it's a fine time to be Brian

Playoff First-timers

Unheralded performers often shine in the postseason, but it was
nonetheless noteworthy that through Sunday's games 11 players
had scored their first career playoff goals. Only two of the
players, forward Jan Hrdina and defenseman Greg Andrusak of the
Penguins, were rookies, and the group included Blues veteran
left wing Scott Pellerin, who had failed to score in 16 playoff
games. In Game 1 against the Coyotes, Pellerin broke in alone on
an empty net, yet he held the puck cautiously until he was a few
feet from the crease. "I wanted to make sure," he said. "This is
the Stanley Cup playoffs."

COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA Even with high-decibel support, Primeau and his Carolina mates were shut out in Game 1.





Flyers and Senators
1997-98 salary: $1.2 million

After totaling just eight goals and 10 assists in 58
regular-season games, Falloon, a right wing, went pointless in
the one postseason game he played for Ottawa.


1998-99 salary: $305,000

After getting 17 goals and 23 assists and playing in all 82
regular-season games, Falloon had an assist in his first
postseason game for Edmonton.