KELLEY: Coaches get the blame too often

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Jim Kelley

AROUND THE BOARDS: Kelley's look at the NHL

Pink slip comes quick too often

This being the end of 2002, a year in which coaches were fired with alarming and sometimes amazing regularity, we pause to give thought to the words of Philadelphia coach Ken Hitchcock, he who was fired shortly after leading Dallas to the Stanley Cup, and he who watched with interest as the same thing happened to former New Jersey coach Larry Robinson and Colorado coach Bob Hartley. Hitchcock, now coach of the Philadelphia (until he's fired there), argues that coaches don't get a fair shake from their bosses, the general managers who hire and fire them, but also from their players as well. Hitchcock was particularly bothered by the firing of Hartley, the most recent Stanley Cup champion to get the ax. "With a guy like Hartley, it's like climbing Everest,¿ he said in a recent interview with the Delaware County Times. "You're the guide who gets your team to the top. So then you get them down to the bottom and they show up the next year and they want to climb Everest again. All of a sudden you're struggling in getting them up there, so they change the guide. "It's a funny business. I think that's part of the nature of the business. But what happens if you give the guide more guidance and more help? I don't know what went on there, but from a coach's perspective, if the guide was good enough to get you to the top of Mt. Everest, and then he's kind of struggling, what would happen if you just kind of sat down and worked with him? "Sit him down with coaches and management and players ... everybody getting together and saying, 'This guy's struggling, but he's a good person and a good coach, so how do we help him?'" This is hardly a novel idea. It happens all the time in the business world where a corporation will take the time and make the effort to redirect a valued employee who has produced in the past and is likely to produce again in the future once the immediate problems are resolved. But it's hardly the case in pro sports and in particular the NHL, where coaches are torched more often than kindling at a Boy Scout Jamboree. "Bob Gainey (general manager of the Dallas when Hitchcock was there) saved my (butt) three or four times before I was fired," Hitchcock added. "But when it came down to it, it was me who went in and said, 'You know what, maybe it's best that we change the coach.' So it does come down to that (eventually). "If a team isn't having success, that's one thing, but if success has been there ... why not work it out? "This guy (Hartley) was a good coach. Bob's a hell of a coach. He got them around the mountain all the time, so you wonder if there's ... what's the point? To me it's just weak when guys say the players got tired of the message. Just weak. If you had success with the guy and you did really good things how about everybody sitting in the same room and (coming together)." Well put, Ken, and it's our new year's wish for 2003.

Do the eyes have it?

Last week in this space we told you about Phoenix general manager Mike Barnett's proposal to make face shields mandatory for all players. Barnett said it in response to one of his players, , suffering a serious eye injury. The result so far: Nothing. There's a reason for that; eye shields are considered sissy by some in the game and that influence is often persuasive enough to have players ignore a valuable piece of equipment that is presumed to be every bit as necessary as a helmet. If Barnett's proposal is to come to fruition it needs to either be made mandatory by the NHL (much the same way the NHL did it for phasing in helmets a few years back) or to be endorsed by the NHL Players Association. The PA has always maintained that it is a decision best left to the individual player, but we couldn't disagree more. If the PA were to take a strong stance in favor of eye protection, it's likely the bulk of the players in the game today would immediately climb on board. The NHL would be smart to try and make this a joint venture with the PA, stressing the need for eye protection and the serious consequences for players who have ignored it and been injured in the past. This is a work-safety issue, the kind of thing that unions (and players associations) exist for. To leave it up to the individual would be like telling goalies it's OK to play without a facemask or construction workers that it's OK to enter the jobsite without a hardhat. Barnett's not wrong to bring this up. It's just that the issue needs a larger voice than one general manager concerned about the well-being of one of his players. This is an issue for the PA to get behind as it should have long ago. The PA was involved in the talks regarding seamless glass, which paid off to most everyone's benefit. The players should be leading the way on the issue of eye protection as well.

While we're on that subject

Take a look at the World Junior Championship Tournament going on right now in Canada. Every player there must wear an eye shield in order to participate. Those are the best young players in the world and they are competing at a very high level and the shield does not appear to be a deterrent to fine play. It would be relatively simple for the NHL and the NHLPA to make the shield a must-wear piece of equipment when a player moves from junior competition to the pros. It was done with helmets way back in 1979; it should be done with shields.

One final thought

There has been a lot of talk throughout the NHL that once-Detroit defenseman followed teammate down the road of blasting the NHL for perceived lenience in its handling of the so-called crackdown on obstruction and interference that the league has scaled back a bit. We're starting to find it hard to disagree, as numerous violations that were called early in the season now appear to be creeping back into the no-call zone, especially in neutral-zone play and when defensemen go back to play the puck. The league denies it, but in similar cases the league has said one thing and done another. That said, however, we note with some glee that a linesman actually dropped a puck within the stated timing rules, taking note of the fact that one player wasn't there to receive it. It happened in St. Louis in a game against Columbus. The St. Louis player was not in the faceoff circle at the allotted time and the linesman essentially handed the puck to the . Oddly enough, the forward taking the faceoff didn't quite know what to do with the gift horse and immediately drew it back and around to a St. Louis player. Still, it happened, and you can look it up. Dec. 28, 2002.
Who's he?
You may remember . He was the teenage defenseman who made the Toronto squad out of training camp. He played in two games at the start of the season before eventually being returned to his junior team in Erie in the Ontario Hockey League. There were many who felt that Colaiacovo was NHL ready even though the Leafs barely used him. He's adding credence to that argument now at the World Junior Championships in Canada where he is the tournament's early scoring leader with a goal and six assists. It's highly unusual for a defenseman to lead the scoring in the WJC as it features most of the best young scoring forwards in the game today. Colaiacovo was the 17th player taken overall at the 2001 entry draft. No matter what the outcome of the tournament, Leafs fans will be pushing for Colaiacovo to rejoin the team once the tournament is over. One could hardly blame them.
Five things you should know
1. The are not so mighty on the road. Heading into Tuesday's game with Minnesota, they have not won on the road since Dec. 6. 2. St. Louis goalie is 5-1-2 with just 15 goals allowed since he returned to the lineup Dec. 12 after a long battle with injuries. He earned player of the week honors largely because he gave up only five goals in his last four outings, all wins. 3. Despite playing his last game of the season on Dec. 6, (knee injuries) is still the ' leading goal scorer with 14, two ahead of and . Still, it's the defense and goaltending that is killing this team. They are 2-8-1-1 over their last 12 games and have not won on the road since Nov. 14 at Calgary. They have the league's worst goals-against total. Their coach is in trouble. 4. The Ottawa ¿ 22 wins are the most in the NHL, and their 49 points are tied with Vancouver and trail only Detroit's 50 for the league's best mark. Not bad for a little franchise that has built from within. The have just one loss in their last seven games, two in their last 12 and have won five of their last six on the road. Their loss at Nashville Monday was their first road loss since Dec. 4. 5. After losing 10 in a row (0-9-0-1) from Nov. 30 through Dec. 19, the Pittsburgh have finished the month with a flourish, going 4-1-0 in their last 5 games. The one loss during the recent run did come against lowly Atlanta last night, which was the ' first-ever win vs. Pittsburgh.
Watch Box
Dallas scoring star has had an assist in two of his last three games since returning to the lineup after a concussion. Buffalo winger Max Afiniogenov, out since before the start of the season with a mysterious concussion said to have been the result of being hit in the head with a puck during a pre-training camp workout in Russia, is skating again but still has light headaches. If he can get past the headaches, he could be back in the lineup in about a week or so, but it's still a big if. Toronto captain sat out the ' game against Edmonton on Saturday night because of a left shoulder injury, ending his consecutive-game streak at 269. He is listed as day-to-day beginning with Tuesday's game at Vancouver. Sundin had been scoring in alternating games dating back to Dec. 6. Columbus co-leading scorer has been pointless in his last five games and goalless in his last seven. His co-leader has not played since Dec. 23 and is questionable for Tuesday's game with Pittsburgh. Anaheim's has but one assist in the two games he has played since the death of his father on Dec. 28. Add Pittsburgh to the list of places could show up again this season. We mentioned Boston and Buffalo before, but Barrasso won two Cups with in Pittsburgh. He still lives there and the two are close.
In the next 48 hours
The put their 10-game home-unbeaten streak on the line when they host rival New Jersey on Jan. 4. That's a little beyond our 48 hour limit, but the two teams meet up the night before in New Jersey and there is still a lot of bad blood between the clubs dating back to the playoffs two seasons ago.
Detroit won the Stanley Cup and Carolina made the finals for the first time in franchise history, but we would be wrong not to recognize the accomplishments of the Vancouver in 2002. No matter what they do Tuesday night vs. Toronto, the will close out 2002 as the winningest team over the calendar year with a 48-18-8-3 record from Jan. 1 through Dec. 29. The reversal of fortune is mammoth in that the were 16-22-4-0 at the end of 2001. That was 21st in the league at that time and eight points out of playoff consideration. The root of the turnaround can be found in the last rush of the 2001-02 season, when the went 26-8-3-3 down the stretch and earned a playoff spot, losing to the eventual Stanley Cup champion in six games. It will be interesting to see if the can maintain their pace now that defenseman (fractured heel) will be lost to the team for four to six weeks. He is the glue that keeps that club together.
Jim Kelley can be reached at his e-mail address: jkelley@foxsports.com.
Tagged: Red Wings, Stars, Devils, Rangers, Senators, Flyers, Penguins, Blues, Maple Leafs, Canucks, Coyotes, Ducks, Blue Jackets, Chris Chelios, Brett Hull, Mike Modano, Petr Nedved, Mats Sundin, Ed Jovanovski, Paul Kariya, Ray Whitney, Brent Johnson

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