Will concussions keep phenom Patrik Stefan from being the No. 1
In the catalog of hockey injuries no entry is more ominous than
the concussion. Over the past five years head injuries have
ended the careers of probable Hall of Famers Dave Taylor (1994)
and Pat LaFontaine ('98); cut down promising Brett Lindros, who
played only 51 NHL games before retiring in '96; and scotched
the potential trade of Panthers center Rob Niedermayer to the
Maple Leafs last summer. Now concussions are having an impact on
the June 26 entry draft.
By far the most talented player available is 18-year-old Patrik
Stefan, a 6'1", 205-pound center from the Czech Republic who
played this season for the Long Beach (Calif.) Ice Dogs of the
International Hockey League (IHL). Yet Stefan may not be
selected first. In a game against the Houston Aeros on Nov. 27
he was belted near the crease and suffered a concussion and
spinal injury that sidelined him for three months. Then, in a
March 31 game against the Las Vegas Thunder, he accidentally
collided with Thunder center Kevin Kaminski and sustained
another, more severe concussion that ended his season.
"Stefan's a great player who could play in the NHL right away,"
says Lightning general manager Jacques Demers, whose team has
the best odds of winning the lottery for the first pick in the
draft, "but any time you're talking about concussions, you have
to be careful. It's cause for alarm."
Concussions are unlike most other injuries because measuring
their lingering effects is difficult. Most doctors believe that
each concussion makes the victim more vulnerable to incurring
another one and that the danger of lasting debilitation
increases each time the brain is slammed against the inside of
the skull. Some scouts project that Stefan, the Central Scouting
service's top-rated prospect, could slip to sixth or seventh in
the draft. "If he'd had a shoulder or knee injury, it would be
different," says Blues general manager Larry Pleau, whose son,
Steve, abandoned his college hockey career because of
postconcussion syndrome. "You can examine a knee, and a doctor
can evaluate it. That's difficult to do with a concussion. And
it's not one concussion he's had, it's two."
It may be impossible for teams to test Stefan, anyhow. He's home
in the Czech Republic and symptom-free, according to his
Edmonton-based agent, Rich Winter, and he won't come to Canada
until early June, when he'll be reevaluated by a specialist.
Winter hasn't decided whether to make that doctor's findings
public or allow teams to examine Stefan. He may bank on Stefan's
skill being so outstanding that clubs will be afraid to pass on
him despite his two concussions.
One reason that Stefan is so well regarded is that he has proved
himself in the high-level IHL, putting up 35 points in 33 games
against seasoned opponents. (The other top prospects, forwards
Pavel Brendl of the Czech Republic and Daniel and Patrik Sedin
of Sweden, have played only against less experienced players.)
In his attempt to speed his development, however, Stefan put
himself at risk. There are obvious dangers to an 18-year-old's
cutting his teeth against players who are a) far more physically
developed and b) borderline NHLers happy to make a name for
themselves by taking on a high-profile prospect. While there's
no evidence of anyone's targeting Stefan, consider that
Kaminski, 30, has appeared in 139 NHL games over seven seasons
and has thrived in the minor leagues as an enforcer.
If Stefan gets selected with the No. 1 pick it will be further
testament to his ability. Says Mighty Ducks general manager
Pierre Gauthier of Anaheim's approach to the draft: "At our
scouting meetings, when we finalize the list [of potential
draftees], I specifically ask our scouts, 'Anybody on the list
with a history of concussions?'"
Sadly, this year's list includes Stefan.
LIVING OFF PAST GLORY
In 1995 Devils goalie Martin Brodeur, then 22 and in his second
NHL season, led New Jersey to the Stanley Cup title and made a
reputation for himself as a guy you wanted in the net with the
season on the line. Since then, as Brodeur has made four
All-Star teams and put up among the best regular-season numbers
in the league, he has occupied a special place in the minds of
the hockey cognoscenti. "If you could have any goalie for the
playoffs except Dominik Hasek," one hockey insider would ask
another, "who would it be?" The answer invariably would be
When the question arises this summer, other names might come
first. Take away 1995, when he went 16-4 with a 1.67
goals-against average and .927 save percentage during the
postseason, and Brodeur is now an unseemly 18-22 in the
playoffs. This year he and the Devils were upset in the first
round for the second straight season. In this spring's
seven-game loss to the Penguins, Brodeur allowed 20 goals on 139
shots for an .856 save percentage, the worst of any full-time
playoff goalie this season.
Brodeur's postseason reputation was founded as much on his
unflappability as on his skill. Yet after losing to Pittsburgh,
he sounded as if the pressure of playing for a top-seeded team
had rattled him. "It's a lot easier when you're not expected to
win," he said, recalling that New Jersey had come into the 1995
playoffs as a fifth seed. "Maybe that's what went wrong."
For all the Devils' failure, if Brodeur had been able to bar the
door in just one match, they would still be alive. "Every team
needs its goalie to steal a playoff game or two along the way,"
says New Jersey defenseman Ken Daneyko. "If we'd made it to the
second round, Marty probably would have done that. He's still an
Maybe, but for the moment he's not as elite as he used to be.
WHERE ARE THE PITTSBURGH FANS?
On Sunday, May 2, the Penguins trailed the Devils 3-2 in a
first-round postseason series and were playing Game 6 at home in
the afternoon. Despite the well-publicized possibility that the
match could have been the last in Pittsburgh for the 32-year-old
franchise, the crowd of 15,376 fell well short of the Civic
Arena's capacity of 16,958. The turnout raised an important
question about hockey in Pittsburgh: How much do its fans care?
The Penguins have been facing an uncertain future since filing
for bankruptcy last October. They got a loan to meet this
season's payroll but are reneging on debts to a long list of
creditors, including former superstar Mario Lemieux, who retired
after the 1996-97 season and is owed some $30 million in
deferred pay. Lemieux is spearheading a group of roughly 50
investors who have filed a plan with a U.S. bankruptcy court to
purchase the franchise and keep it in Pittsburgh.
Last week the NHL notified the court that if Lemieux's plan
isn't accepted, the Penguins will be relocated or dissolved. The
league has given the court a May 31 deadline, and the pesky
Penguins, who upset the Devils in Round 1 and who through Sunday
were tied 1-1 with the Maple Leafs in a second-round series,
could be playing in Game 7 of the Eastern Conference finals on
that date--and still not be selling out.
"Given the circumstances surrounding the team, you would expect
some falloff in attendance," says Stephen Solomon, the NHL's
chief operating officer. "Pittsburgh remains a very important
hockey town, and we want the team to stay there."
The day after the Penguins defeated the Devils in Game 7, they
sold an encouraging 4,000 tickets to second-round games.
Purchases of individual-game tickets, though, are far less
indicative of a team's fan support than its season-ticket base,
and Pittsburgh's season-ticket sales have fallen precipitously
since Lemieux's retirement. From 1989-90 through 1996-97, the
Penguins averaged about 16,000 fans per game and had 12,000
season-ticket holders. During those years Pittsburgh won four
division titles and two Stanley Cup championships. Even though
the Penguins have gone an impressive 78-54-32 over the past two
seasons and employ Jaromir Jagr, the world's best and most
exciting offensive player, they have averaged about 14,900 fans
per game and have had only 8,300 season-ticket holders. On many
nights this season the Civic Arena was more than 25% empty.
The fans' swift desertion of the Penguins has been shocking.
Pittsburghers need to remember that the test of loyalty comes in
SOMETIMES HE HOLDS HIS FIRE
Is any other NHL player as considerate as Blues defenseman Al
MacInnis? He has the league's hardest slap shot (clocked at 100
mph), and courageous defenders sometimes throw themselves in
front of MacInnis when he's about to unleash a wicked blast.
MacInnis could easily brain an opponent or two as a way to make
others reluctant to get in his way, but he says, "I don't want
to live with ending someone's career."
If a defender is standing in MacInnis's way, he'll still fire a
low shot, and this year he broke a bone in a foot of two Coyotes
(forward Juha Ylonen and defenseman Gerald Diduck), inspiring
Phoenix assistant Gordie Roberts to formulate the "Al MacInnis
hat trick: a goal, an assist and a broken foot." When someone
goes down in MacInnis's shooting lane, though, as Coyotes
captain Keith Tkachuk did repeatedly in the first round of the
playoffs, MacInnis passes or skates to another shooting spot.
"We all want to play hard and win," says MacInnis, "but hitting
someone and hurting someone isn't the way to do it."
COLOR PHOTO: DON LIEBIG Playing against pro competition in the IHL, Stefan averaged more than a point per game in 1998-99.
COLOR PHOTO: JOHN IACONO
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER Despite the presence of Jagr, the game's top player, Penguins fans haven't filled the Civic Arena.
This Date in Playoff History
MAY 17, 1983 / ISLANDERS VS. OILERS
New York defeated Edmonton 4-2 to complete a final-round sweep
and win the Stanley Cup (Denis Potvin celebrating, above) for
the fourth straight time. The Wayne Gretzky-led Oilers had
roared into the finals having scored an NHL-record 424
regular-season goals--122 more than the Islanders--and having
won 11 of their first 12 postseason games. New York goalie Billy
Smith was the playoff MVP after limiting Edmonton to six goals
and holding Gretzky to no goals and four assists.