The traditional NHL rookie initiation has gone uptown in the
past decade, the 29[cent] disposable razor and $1.79 can of
Foamy having yielded to the $10,000 tab for a team dinner. While
rookies were once expected to give the shirts off their backs
and submit to a full-body shave, these days first-year men give
the shirts off their backs so veterans can uncork wines priced
as high as your mortgage payment. "I've heard about them opening
bottles so expensive it leaves the rookies in awe," says
Vancouver Canucks first-year left wing Peter Schaefer. In fact
Schaefer, one of three rookies on the Canucks who would split
the tab for their team's gustatory hazing, carried two credit
cards on a road trip last month in anticipation of the dinner.
This year's rookies are everywhere you want to be in the NHL.
They're on No. 1 power-play and penalty-killing units
(Schaefer); on the first line (Schaefer's teammate Steve
Kariya); and on the ice for 21 minutes a game (San Jose Sharks
defenseman Brad Stuart). They're at the top of the stat sheet
(center Scott Gomez of the New Jersey Devils, who through Sunday
led his team in scoring), and they're starting in goal (Martin
Biron of the Buffalo Sabres).
"I can't remember so many good rookies at one time," says
Phoenix Coyotes general manager Bobby Smith. "When we had the
20-year-old draft"--before 1979 no player younger than 20 was
eligible to be drafted--"there were more players coming in who'd
be among a team's top four defensemen and top six forwards, but
that was how long ago? This year's group has a number of guys
who will be playing a long, long time. I read the other day that
so-and-so, I forget who, was a lock for the Calder Trophy [as
the league's best rookie]. I remember thinking, Gee, at least a
half-dozen guys might be ahead of him."
There isn't an all-world player in the group, no Raymond Bourque
(a first-team All-Star as a rookie in 1979-80) or Teemu Selanne
(who tied for the NHL goal-scoring lead in 1992-93 with 76, a
rookie record), although Stuart "is going to be a stud," says
Vancouver general manager Brian Burke. Many of these players
have emerged from the strong 1998 draft--12 of the 27
first-round picks that year are now NHL regulars--but their
arrival has more to do with serendipity than breakthroughs in
player development. They're the precocious children of
opportunity, joining a booming job market that because of
expansion has added roughly 50 spots in the past two seasons and
will add about 50 more next year.
More significant, the rookies are beneficiaries of the league's
new economic climate: They come cheap. With the average payroll
around $32 million--up 430% in the past decade--cost-conscious
teams are trying to fill rosters with homegrown prospects. "Look
at Jochen Hecht," St. Louis Blues general manager Larry Pleau
says of his first-year left wing. "We had him in the minors most
of last season, and we brought him up for five playoff games and
he looked good. Not long ago we would have kept him in the
minors another half season. But like any business we have a
budget, so we're giving rookies a look. You live with kids, even
if they make mistakes. A guy making $1.2 million might get six
goals and check a little. A rookie might do better right now,
and you know he'll be better down the road than the guy making
Hecht has deceptive speed and a knack for coming up with loose
pucks, and he earns a modest $592,500. The bargain of the
first-year group is Schaefer, who on Sept. 14 signed a two-year,
$850,000 deal and through Sunday was second among rookies with
14 points and tied for the NHL lead with two shorthanded goals.
"It's not that you want the cheap rookie as much as some
veterans are pricing themselves out of the game," Burke says.
"You wouldn't necessarily mind paying $800,000 in that roster
spot instead of $400,000, but you can't get that veteran guy for
$800,000 because he wants $1.2 million. So you say, O.K., let's
see what the $400,000 guy can do. In our case, we're rebuilding.
We'd be looking at rookies anyway."
Vancouver kept a close eye on Kariya, and not merely because at
5'6" and 165 pounds he can get lost in a crowd. There are
advantages to being a hockey munchkin--he's closer to the puck,
harder to check cleanly and makes a superb Mini-me, as Kariya
did at the Canucks' Halloween party--but it can lead to verbal
abuse. As Vancouver and the New York Rangers were aligning for a
face-off on Kariya's first NHL shift on Oct. 2, New York's Theo
Fleury, who's only 5'6" himself, asked Canucks center Andrew
Cassels, "Hey, who's the midget on your line?"
"People think a player my size would be neutralized right away,"
says the 21-year-old Kariya. "One NHL scout told my coach at
Maine [Shawn Walsh] that I'd never play in this league, although
if I were 5'10" or 5'11" like my brother [Anaheim Mighty Ducks
star Paul] I'd be an excellent prospect. I never understood what
four inches has to do with hockey. Would those extra inches make
me shoot the puck harder? Would they make me think better?"
At the urging of Dave Nonis, Vancouver's director of hockey
operations and a Maine alumnus, Burke agreed to give the
undrafted Kariya a chance, signing him last April to a
three-year, $1.7 million contract. "A couple of teams might have
been interested in Steve as a novelty," Burke says. "We were
interested in him as a player." These days Kariya sleeps in his
old room in his parents' house in North Vancouver, his Wayne
Gretzky posters still on the wall.
Steve isn't as gifted as his 25-year-old brother Paul, who when
he was growing up was always jetting off to represent Canada in
some tournament while Steve didn't make it past the first round
of tryouts for the national under-17 team, but he has similar
warp speed and hockey sense. Unlike Paul, who knows how to evade
a check, Steve seems to troll for contact and possesses a Wile
E. Coyote ability to bounce up after getting creamed. "First
shift in training camp Todd [Bertuzzi, a 6'3", 235-pound center]
runs over him like a freight train," says Alexander Mogilny, who
plays right wing on the same line as Kariya. "I thought he was
dead, but he jumped up and kept playing. I didn't think much
about him at first, but you keep watching and it hits you that
he's pretty good."
Kariya's ability to back off defenders and worm his way into the
places where goal scorers go earned him the left wing spot on
Vancouver's most dynamic line. Coach Marc Crawford, however,
would have kept Kariya even if he were a fourth-line player. "One
of his great assets is how hard he works," says Crawford, whose
Canucks finished last season 23-47-12. "If we had been a
tremendously hard-working team, he wouldn't have been given the
opportunity. If we were the Dallas Stars, he wouldn't have been
given the chance, because they don't need the heightened level of
professionalism he brings or the work ethic that we desperately
There's an almost disquieting studiousness to Kariya's approach.
Near the end of a practice earlier this month, while Vancouver's
other forwards were leisurely taking turns flipping shots at a
goalie, Kariya would shoot and dash off, skating by himself in
tight figure eights, working on his puckhandling before
returning to the line and his jabbering teammates. Kariya still
has difficulty chipping the puck out of the defensive zone on
hard around-the-board passes from his defensemen, but this is a
quibble for a rookie who had 10 points and was +4 through Sunday.
Unlike Kariya, Schaefer isn't only the best player in his family
but also the best player ever from his hometown. A sign on the
main street of Yellow Grass, Saskatchewan, proclaims it HOME OF
PETER SCHAEFER. That sign is a Yellow Grass landmark, along with
the town's three churches, a gas station, a rink, a bank, a
grocery store and Bonnie's Cafe. "I was a city boy, if you can
have a city boy in a town of 500," says the 22-year-old
Schaefer, who was drafted in the third round in 1995. "I think
I'm the only one in the whole community who doesn't know how to
drive a tractor."
This should be Schaefer's second year in the league, but in his
25th game last season he sprained his left shoulder. (A player
with more than 25 NHL games in one season loses his rookie
standing.) He worked out and got stronger over the summer and
now has enough oomph on his shot to hold down the left point on
the Vancouver power play after injuries knocked out other
candidates. Schaefer is a regular on the fourth line, but his
most impressive minutes have come on specialty teams, which have
accounted for eight of his 14 points. "What sets Peter and Steve
apart is they have really good vision on the ice," Crawford
says. "Most young players who come into the league do something
well, and then they spend most of their time demonstrating that
one skill. These players grasp the overall scheme of things."
By paying attention to what's happening on the ice, Schaefer
avoided peeking into the General Motors Place stands during a
game against the Nashville Predators on Oct. 30, when his mother,
Tracy, covered in gauze from head to toe, wore a sign that read
WHOSE MUMMY? She was flanked by her sisters, Bonnie and Jackie,
in ant costumes. They each wore a sign that read WHOSE ANT?
Schaefer lives in fear that a clip of his family dressed like
that for Halloween will find its way into a team video session.
You wouldn't need to look at videotape long to figure out that
the rookie who might have the greatest long-term impact is San
Jose's Stuart. The 20-year-old, who is being schooled by veteran
partner Gary Suter, already is a presence even if he makes
occasional mistakes reading the rush. Stuart's low moment this
season came on Oct. 20 against the Detroit Red Wings when his
lazy clearing pass was intercepted and turned into a goal in the
third period. Steadfast Sharks coach Darryl Sutter left Stuart on
the ice after the gaffe, and 40 seconds later Stuart pounced on a
loose puck and rifled a slap shot past goalie Chris Osgood.
"The best thing about Stuart is that when he makes a mistake, he
usually turns around and does two or three things that only a
handful of guys in the league can do," Sutter says of the third
pick in the 1998 draft. "It tells you what kind of player he's
going to be. He has as much or more ability than any defenseman
in the league, but experience is still a huge factor."
Like the fine vintages the rookies will pay for, Stuart simply
needs aging--a reminder that life is a cabernet.
COLOR PHOTO: LOU CAPOZZOLA First impression As Islander Gino Odjick found out, Patrik Stefan, the No. 1 pick in the 1999 draft, has been a big hit in Atlanta.
COLOR PHOTO: ROBERT BECK Leading men Despite being 5'6", Kariya has the speed and guts to succeed in the NHL; Biron (opposite) has stood tall in the Sabres' net.
COLOR PHOTO: BILL WIPPERT [See caption above]
COLOR PHOTO: ROCKY WIDNER Be like Mike Observers say that David Legwand, the second player picked in the June 1998 draft, reminds them of a young Mike Modano.
"I can't remember so many good rookies at one time," says
the Coyotes' Bobby Smith.
These rookies are children of opportunity, joining a booming
market that has added roughly 50 jobs.