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FISCHLER: Sather takes gamble on Trottier

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"Are you kidding?" That was the reaction of unrestricted free agent-to-be Bobby Holik when I told him that Bryan Trottier will become the 30th head coach in Rangers history. It also has been the response of many Rangers fans to the news that the erstwhile Islanders hero would soon be the five-star general on the Blueshirts' bench. Their stunned response is loaded with skepticism, not merely because of Trottier's Nassau heritage but also his limited head-coaching experience; one year in the minors. Then again, "Are you kidding?" was the same response I had 27 years ago when 19-year-old Bryan showed up in an Islanders uniform, and the peach-faced rookie made a bid for a big-league job straight out of junior hockey. Was he putting us on? Guess what? Trots fooled experts like me and became an overnight star, balance-wheel of the Isles' offense and a cornerstone of the four-Stanley Cup dynasty. Experts who know coaches better than I do agree, once again, Bryan will fool the cynics as he has in the past. "Trots is an excellent choice," Ken Hitchcock told me without hesitation. The newly appointed Philadelphia Flyers head coach and former bench boss with the 1999 Stanley Cup-winning Dallas Stars, Hitchcock backed his view with a key word — respect. "Bryan will be able to command some of those Rangers who may not have responded as well before," Hitchcock said. "What he's done for Colorado tells me he's ready to handle the big job in New York. I'm happy for him because he's paid his dues." Hitchcock is not in the minority. Other hockey people with whom I've spoken also are enthusiastically endorsing the choice. One of them is a former Islanders executive who helped scout Trottier as a junior and who has followed him closely ever since. "It's a good move," Detroit Red Wings senior vice-president Jimmy Devellano told me. "I don't see how Glen Sather can be criticized for it." Devellano pointed out it was pivotal for Sather to make a "sexy choice" in terms of the local sporting competition. "Considering the New York market," Devellano explained, "it was very important to get a name like Trots. Plus, he's won six Stanley Cups as a player and one as an assistant coach. You can't forget that. But I'll say this, it's a gutsy move on the part of Sather." Make no mistake, this is THE gamble of Sather's career as a hockey executive, either in Edmonton or, more recently, running the Rangers' high command. For Slats to select an ex-Islander to coach the Rangers — and one who has had only one year as a head coach. Wow. But those credentials fade quickly in the minds of the Blueshirts' faithful who are interested in one and only one thing: winning. And if there is one word synonymous with Trottier, it is winning. That's why Columbus Blue Jackets' president/general manager Doug MacLean nearly hired him for the expansion team last year, albeit signing Dave King after intense evaluation. "Bryan is real solid," MacLean told me. "You pull out his resume and you see why — Hart Trophy, Smythe Trophy, all the Cups — it's hard not to be impressed." He was a winner as a player on Long Island and a winner in Pittsburgh. When Hitchcock talks about Bryan "paying his dues," he's referring to the years from 1994 to 1997 when he was the Pittsburgh Penguins' assistant coach. Not to mention his four years behind the Colorado Avalanche bench, which included the seven-game Stanley Cup victory over New Jersey last spring which ended the Devils' hope for a second consecutive championship. "I'm really happy for Bryan," added Hitchcock. "He deserves the job." I am, too, since I've known Trots for almost three decades and watched him battle through personal turmoil and then establish himself as a credible head coaching candidate. Which prompts the big question: How ably will he handle the Rangers' cult of millionaires which includes the likes of Pavel Bure, Eric Lindros, Mark Messier and Brian Leetch? Hitchcock doesn't think it will be a problem, nor do I. The sexiness of Trottier as a head coach also could be a persuasive factor in luring unrestricted free agents, beginning July 1, when the likes of Holik, Darius Kasparaitis and Bill Guerin become available. Right now, questions still have to be answered. "One of them," Holik told me, "is what is his philosophy on how the game should be played? Nobody really knows." What those close to Trottier do know is that he is super-motivated to beat his alma mater in Nassau. Rangers fans should not be concerned about Bryan's warmth for the Islanders, despite the fact that his No. 19 was officially retired last season. "He has no love for the Islanders organization," a source close to Trottier told me. "None whatsoever. In fact, the only one on the Rangers who might dislike the Isles more than Trots is Glen Sather." Bryan's animosity is rooted in several incidents. At one time, the retired Trottier was hired by the Isles in a so-called promotional capacity, but the job seemed more demeaning to him than career-enhancing. Another persistent source of discord centered around the issue of officially retiring Trottier's No. 19 with appropriate ceremonies at Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum. Year after year went by with the club conflicting with the superstar over how the banner raising should be handled. One of Trottier's former advisors told me the hassle over the delayed banner-raising infuriated the Isles' icon, and he also wasn't pleased that teammates such as Mike Bossy, Denis Potvin and Bob Nystrom had their banners raised with no fuss while his dispute lingered on. "Bryan is so anxious to stick it to the Islanders," an NHL official told me, "he would have taken the Rangers' job for $200,000! This is a huge grudge." It could be made even bigger when Trottier picks his assistants. Another ex-Islander who would love to work for the Rangers — and stick it to Mike Milbury — is Lorne Henning, who had been released by the Isles after taking the interim job when Butch Goring was fired in March 2001. "Lorne would be tickled to work with Trots," a close friend of Henning told me. Another possibility — not thoroughly out of the question — would be Goring. Whomever it is, the Islanders-Rangers rivalry promises to reach white-hot proportions once the season starts. But that's only a fraction of the Trottier-Rangers equation. Most important, Bryan has the smarts, the respect and has suffered enough to know what it takes to steer the Blueshirts back to respectability. In his lifetime, Bryan has proven the adage that says "affliction is a good man's shining time." That being the case, with Trottier coaching the Rangers, that shining time has come again on Seventh Avenue. And if you don't believe me, just look at Trots' record. Known as "The Hockey Maven" in both local and national circles, Stan Fischler is one of the most outspoken authorities on the game of hockey. Fischler can be seen offering NHL analysis on "MSG SportsDesk" and on Fox Sports Net's "Regional Sports Report -- New York Edition." Fischler also provides studio interviews and pre- and post-game features and reports for both the Islanders and Devils on FSN. His columns appear regularly on MSGNetwork.com.
Tagged: Bruins, Red Wings, Devils, Islanders, Rangers, Flyers, Penguins, Avalanche, Blues, Panthers, Blue Jackets, Bill Guerin, Bobby Holik

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