Wednesday, July 26, 2006

The importance of a goalie coach

In 2003, Jean-Sebastien Giguere had many Calgary Flames fans asking themselves – why did the organization let him go? The Mighty Ducks of Anaheim goaltender caught the league’s attention – enough to have been named National Hockey League Player of the Week ending December 15, 2002, edging out Vancouver Canuck scoring sensation, Markus Naslund.

Giguere was a key factor in Anaheim’s legitimate hunt for a playoff spot – something his team hadn’t seen since 1999. On December 15, 2003, with a 5-0 win over Pittsburgh, Giguere inked the Ducks into the record book as the first NHL club to post three consecutive shutouts since the Colorado Avalanche in November 2001. Registering four shutouts in six games, Giguere helped advance his team to second place in the Pacific Division.

If Giguere’s success had Flames fans scratching their heads, perhaps it was because Calgary gave up on the young goaltender too early. Giguere admitted he was much older and wiser in Anaheim, but there was one thing he had in California that he never had in Calgary: a goaltending coach.

"The organization in Calgary always gave me a chance. They let me play a few games, but I don’t think I was ready. I was still very young. When you’re 22 and trying to step in as a goalie, it’s really hard. In Anaheim, I was a bit older and had more experience. My game was better. I worked a lot with a goalie coach, so when I really got a chance, I was more ready."

How important is a goaltending coach to the development of a young netminder? Just ask 2001-02 Hart Trophy winner, Jose Theodore.

“Sometimes you have the talent to play but sometimes you have to polish your game a little bit so you can do it on a consistent basis. The only way to do that is by working hard and having a guy like I had in Roland Melanson, who had been my goalie coach since I’d been in Montreal. When I was 20, 21, I was sent back to the minors and the team didn’t give up on me. Rollie was coming into the minors, helping me. Talent is one thing, character is the other but you have to put everything together. And that’s just by having someone who can teach you. Another guy, like Jeff Hackett, was also a big factor for my development. I learned a lot from him, just watching him play, the way he practices, prepares for a game. Then when I had the chance to become the number one goalie when he got hurt, I was ready for that challenge. When you have a guy like Rollie or Jeff to help you out, although you’re only maybe 25 years old, you can play like you’re 30 years old because you have more experience by working with different guys.”

Aside from hiring a full-time goaltending coach, if the two young goaltenders set any example, it’s for clubs not to give up on their young players too quickly. Development takes time and happens at an individual pace. At age 21 and 22, you can’t force a player to develop at a faster pace. However, one only needs to look around the NHL to see which teams have lost their patience.

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Inspired by a horse

When you ask someone who their childhood sports hero was, you'll likely hear answers like Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Cassius Clay, Magic Johnson, or Pele. But when you read the following paragraphs, you'll understand why it was a horse that inspired me. It was a horse that showed me I could be anything I wanted to be. It was a horse that taught me perseverence, to forge ahead against all odds, and to tune out the negative voices. This horse was not just any ordinary horse. It was Canonero II.

Sometimes stories are so good; they just have to be true.

Canonero II was bred by Edward B. Benjamin in Kentucky, in 1969. Being born with a crooked right foreleg deemed that this young bay colt would have no future in thoroughbred racing. He was actually said to be named after Latin American street musicians. Given away, he was put up for auction shortly afterwards.

Edgar Caibett had no idea what the future might hold when he purchased this sad little yearling for $1,200 at the 1969 Keeneland September yearling sale (a fall sale for racehorses with a pedigree and/or conformation not up to the required standards of most summer-sale yearlings). But he shipped the colt to his native Venezuela, and then gave the colt away as a wedding gift to his son-in-law.

His racing career began as a two year old. Canonero II started to earn an undistinguished record in racing and traveled all over the western hemisphere to participate in numerous cheaper races. It was joked that he had logged enough air time to qualify as a pilot.

Sent to the United States, in 1971, to be trained by unorthodox methods by a little known trainer (Juan Arias), Canonero II was entered into the Triple Crown.

At first, the Triple Crown representative thought it was a joke to see this name on the ballot. The horse was so lightly regarded in the race that he was regulated to the mutual field. For betting purposes, it’s a single grouping that the track handicapper uses as a catchall for several horses thought to have little chance of winning.

Canonero II’s only escorts to the Derby from Venezuela were the teenage son of his owner Pedro Baptista and crates of ducks and chickens. His first flight was missed due to a fire in the plane’s engine, and the second flight had mechanical problems. Upon his arrival in Miami, it was discovered they forgot his customs papers. He spent four days in quarantine. After his release, the van he was transported in broke down. The entire episode of travel caused the horse to lose 80 pounds.

From the 18th spot in a 20-horse field, the young colt took the world by surprise and won the race by 3 ¾ length in what was perhaps the biggest upset in horse racing history.

When TV commentators tried to interview trainer Juan Arias and jockey Gustavo Avila after the Kentucky Derby, they quickly learned they would need a translator. However, one was never sought as Canonero II wasn’t considered high enough to warrant the effort.

Canonero II, the unlikely hero of the Kentucky Derby, set a new track record for time in winning the Preakness Stakes.

Now taken seriously and drawing a cult following, particularly from the Latino community, Canonero II was stricken with a foot infection several days before the Belmont Stakes. He did manage to take the lead but clearly struggled and finished fourth, narrowly missing a win of the anticipated Triple Crown. He still managed to win the Eclipse Award for three-year-old colts.

Canonero II was sold to Hall of Fame trainer Buddy Hirsch. He raced his best race of his career in the Stymie Handicap at Belmont Park in 1972, defeating champion Riva Ridge.

Near the end of 1972, Canonero II was retired to stud. He died nine years later in 1981.

Ted Hellard Profile

Originally published in Calgary Living, Luxury Lifestyle magazine Summer 2005

New ownership, new management, new players – new everything. The new Web site: says it all.

This is a great storied franchise. Five Grey Cups and six-time runners up, the Calgary Stampeders will celebrate its 60th year of operations this September. However, its recent history is fraught with abysmal discord.

The team finished 4-14 at the bottom of the Canadian Football League in 2004. Under owner Michael Feterik, the club fielded a revolving door on three head coaches, three general managers, three presidents, and posted a 15-39 record.

Enter Ted Hellard. His company, Critical Mass, grew from nothing and most certainly, that’s what the new ownership group is working with here. For a reported purchase price starting at $6.5 million, Hellard, John Forzani, Doug Mitchell, Matt Brister, Robert Peters, Bob Viccars, David Sapunjis, plus five anonymous members have become the CS Partnership, the operating company for the Calgary Stampeders.

The decision was made on a golf course with John Forzani and Doug Mitchell. “We initially tried to purchase the club in 2003,” says Hellard. However, the group didn’t like where the team was headed when Matt Dunigan replaced Jim Barker as head coach. They backed off.

After the 2004 season, Hellard discussed taking over the helm with his family and the expected media scrutiny that came with it. Then he made his move.

The mess was bigger than the new owners could have anticipated. Their hands were full at making the club more functional from every standpoint. “I was surprised at the lack of traditional business principals implied within the organization. The business has been run like this for some time.”

While half the battle was trying to get a handle on the balance sheet, the new President/CEO and his executive members didn’t waste any time in restructuring. In cleaning out the old regime, Matt Dunnigan was punted as head coach and Ron Rooke balked at a downgrade from president to a marketing role.

Hellard brought over some of his best talent from Critical Mass and reinserted some welcome and familiar faces. Stan Schwartz was hired as a consultant to Hellard; Jim Barker was general manager, in charge of player personnel; Tom Higgins was the new head coach and vice president of football operations; Steve Buratto returned as offensive coordinator, but that’s not all.

Thanks to the signing of former Saskatchewan Roughrider Henry Burris and Darnell Kennedy from Ottawa, the Kevin Feterik quarterback controversy officially ended. Their jobs were made easier with the signing of former Montreal Alouettes receiver Jeremaine Copeland, who caught for 2,911 yards in past two seasons.

There were added ticket sales and shiny new jerseys. Former Stampeder Basil Bark took over the Stamps Store and expanded the merchandise to include opposition items. New partnerships were developed: an eight-year deal with Pepsi, Calgary Flames Food and Beverage Group, Avison Young Commercial Real Estate, and potential naming rights deal for the stadium.

But perhaps the most anticipated partnership was the minority ownership of the Calgary Flames Limited Partnership. “We’ve been in contact with the Flames since we pursued the Stampeders,” says Hellard. “The Flames bring us experience we didn’t have. We think we can learn and leverage from that. It’s really on the business side where this relationship will have the biggest and strongest impact.”

Buying the club wasn’t an investment for fruitful gains. There was no logical investment of dollars and potential return. It’s about re-establishing a fabric of Calgary’s community – bringing pride back into Calgary’s football team.

As for the man at the helm, Hellard enjoys the challenge. But how long will he stay in this 15-hour a day volunteer position? “I’ll stop when I’m not having fun.”

Remembering hockey's dynamic duo: Colleen and Gordie Howe

They were known as the first couple of hockey. I spoke with them when he was 60 and she was 64. Even at that age, if you thought that meant it was time to hang up the skates, you’re wrong. Retirement for the Howes meant freedom to pursue an avalanche of projects. Colleen and Gordie had only begun to tap into their goals.

In the book of who’s who in the hockey world, Gordie Howe is at the top of the list. Gordie was known for his aggressive style and earned the name “Mr. Elbows” when he took ownership of the National Hockey League’s corners and boards for 32 seasons. After 25 years as a Detroit Red Wing, he retired until an opportunity to play with his sons brought him back to the arena two years later, where he suited up for seven more seasons with the Houston Aeros and the New England Whalers of the World Hockey Association. He retired for good at the age of 52.

His accomplishments in hockey include 1071 goals and 2589 career points in 2421 games, plus numerous titles and awards. His most cherished moment was completing the family circle.

“Your first game’s always a great thrill, your first All-Star and Stanley Cup appearances too, but when I played with Mark and Marty the first time in Houston, I was so excited the night before that I ended up in traction with back muscle spasms!”

In Howe’s playing days with Detroit, it wasn’t easy to make a living in sports.

“We didn’t get paid enough money to relax in any one way so in the summer, I’d get a job. You could basically make the same in an ordinary job as you did with the club.”

Times have obviously changed. However, the Howes' need to work extra jobs helped paved the transition to retirement.

Colleen Howe was the constant businesswoman. Her introduction to hockey was through Gordie, and she contributed to his career by doing the things he didn’t like. She was soon negotiating player contracts for her husband and sons, Mark and Marty. She also founded and managed America’s first Junior A hockey team, the Detroit Junior Red Wings, in addition to many other notable business ventures that included running for Congress. While she loved the game of hockey, her reputation as a power maker invited criticism from hockey’s male population.

“Sometimes I’m perceived as this lecherous person who has Gordie hog-tied somewhere, and I’m pointing my finger in his face and telling him what to do. I soon discovered to do things quietly rather than make some kind of a big show. When I spotted an opportunity, I would plant the seed with someone who would think it was their idea and make it happen. Ultimately, it would help us.”

Since Gordie’s professional playing career ended, the Howes had been involved with many charity events and fundraisers. Power Play International Inc. is the umbrella for many of their business interests. Colleen as president was the idea person who developed and oversaw projects, while vice-president, Gordie, looked after the public relations aspect.

The Howe Foundation was created as a non-profit organization to raise money for charities and groups that help improve the quality of life for children. Proceeds from the sale of their book, "and…Howe!" were directed to this cause.

The Howes made over 100 annual appearances for speaking engagements, book signings, and fundraisers. In order to maintain their hectic schedule, health and fitness played active roles.

“I still play hockey and golf, though I’m not any good at it anymore because of age and ability,” admitted Gordie at the time of the interview. “When we played golf in Grand Rapids, the conditions were cold and wet, but then you stop and think about the people we were playing for – they can’t even get up on their feet.”

Colleen’s daily pace would have been hard for most people to keep up to. If she got the chance, she liked to jog or walk, and she stood while she worked. Her advice to others was to think about what you want to do with your life and how you might want to achieve it.

“If you get out of balance, you will lose touch with the many important things in your life that make a difference,” said Colleen.

That meant paying attention to family. She considered herself fortunate that they produced four great kids (Mark, Marty, Murray, and Cathy).

“Two things in life you really don’t get schooling at are how to keep a marriage together and how to raise children. I think we’ve made a good team and the trophies in our house are our four children.”

Sadly, after 49 years of marriage, Colleen Howe was diagnosed with Pick's Disease, which causes a deepening dementia to which there is no cure and even no medication that helps.

Monday, July 03, 2006

On the bubble

There are few NHL players ranked as legitimate superstars. The rest spend their entire careers fighting for their jobs. There’s always someone waiting in the wings to take their place.

Player agent Brent Breeze explains why most play out their careers in the minor leagues.

“There are perhaps one or two kids that are ready to jump into the NHL at 18. Ninety-nine percent are going back to their junior team or down to the minors to work their way through the system. If you’re a center drafted by an NHL team with three top centers and two up and comers, it’s going to be very difficult for you to get your shot. You could be a goal scorer throughout your entire junior career, but when you get to the NHL, they may turn you into a checker. If you don’t want to do it, you’re out of there. They’ll just bring in the next guy. It’s all a numbers game.”

Dwayne Roloson remembers his experience. “It was my first training camp. The Calgary Flames had Trevor Kidd and that was about it. They sent me down, and I was really frustrated. We just came back from a road trip and bang! You’re in the airport with a ticket to Saint John. It’s like something blew up inside you. You’re walking on something, and it just dropped out from underneath you. You’ve got to bite the bit and go, go, go, and do what you’ve got to do every day to get back up.

“Being sent up and down is like an emotional roller coaster. Usually when you get sent down, you kind of lose a step. You have to step back and try to see what’s going on and get your mind back into where you were before. A lot of times, it’s hard to do. Even when you get called up, it’s like, ‘Well, am I coming up or coming up for a game and going back down?’ That’s probably one of the toughest parts of the game. You basically have to deal with it on your own.”

In 15 seasons as a professional player, Dallas Eakins played 120 regular season games plus five playoff games for eight NHL teams. He played for nine American Hockey League and two International Hockey League teams. When you look at his statistics, you can estimate Eakins has moved at least 25 times during the course of his professional career.

“I’ve been doing this role my whole career. At the beginning, I expected to go to the minors. How you feel about it depends on where you’re drafted and what you’re agent is telling you. I knew I wasn’t good enough to go up. I was just happy to have a job. Now when I come in, I’m relaxed. The guys are younger and give me more respect than they would if I was younger. On the ice, I’ve been in the game long enough that I’m not uncomfortable. For the 23 and 24 year olds, it’s a different story. As a player, what your agent and the media say about you can build up your ego. You have to know who you are. You always want more playing time, but you have to understand your role as a player. You have to be so disciplined.”

Dallas Eakins knows how hard you have to work to stay in the NHL. “It’s a privilege to play in this league. You can never forget that and should have it in the back of your mind. When a player is sent down to the minors from the NHL, it will either ignite him to play hard or he’ll go in the tank. A good coach will pull him out of that. You need to appreciate what you have. When I feel bad, I just look in the paper. Someone else is always having a worse day.”

Debbie Elicksen

On the training table

You’re a receiver running a post pattern. As you cut towards the middle – boom! Your knee makes an unforgettable crunching sound as it pops and turns to Jell-O. It’s a torn ACL, and you’re done for the season.

Injuries are synonymous with professional sports, especially football. Players who are deemed unfit to play can be placed on the injured list for 30 days up to nine games. The Canadian Football League doesn’t track injury time-lost, so it’s difficult to pinpoint the direct impact injuries have on a team, other than from an individual player’s missed contribution.

Professional athletes are lucky to have access to immediate medical attention and therapy. A competent and understanding trainer makes the recovery process less stressful. “We’ve got the best training staff in the whole country,” admits Calgary Stampeder defensive lineman Sheldon Napastuk, who suffered a rotator cuff sprain in 2005. “(Pat Clayton) knows exactly how long an injury should take to get back. An injury is always stressful because a lot of questions pop up. How serious is this going to be?”

While you know you’re getting the best care, being injured also creates angst about job security.

Stampeder receiver Mike Juhasz missed the bulk of 2005’s training camp due to a hamstring nerve. Although he is a seasoned CFL veteran, being injured still makes for an anxious situation.

“If I was a rookie, I would have probably been sent packing. Everything felt fine, but then when I tried to run, (the hamstring) just grabbed on me and stopped me from going. You feel like the guys are watching you. They’re seeing me jog and walk fine – no limp or anything like that.”

Juhasz admits he was one of those guys. “It’s tough watching guys thinking, why is this guy sitting out? They’re probably thinking I’m weak. It’s something you have to deal with, battle through, and hopefully come back stronger and prove to everyone that it was a legitimate injury.”

When you’re injured, you’re on the outside looking in. You don’t really feel like part of the team. You’ll look in the paper and see a player listed with a certain injury, but it really doesn’t describe the severity of that injury or what it does to a player’s psyche. It can be anything from a tweak to a tear.

When a player is out for any length of time, only the trainer really knows the situation. Juhasz adds, “People start questioning your toughness. That’s the hard part to deal with. Every injury is different. Every body heals differently. You never know when you’re body is one day going to click and say, you’re better and ready to go.”

As a player, you want to rehab fully, so when you come back you’re completely healthy. But it’s also psychological. You need to cut, but you don’t know how hard you can go. That’s where the player feels pressure – to come back early. If he comes back too soon, he can get injured again, this time, more severely. You’ll see players become part of a vicious cycle, where they are deemed injured all the time. Ultimately, a player knows that recurring injuries can affect his career.

Defensive back Lawrence Deck, who suffered a bruised bone in his knee, explains, “It’s the hardest thing: standing on the sidelines. You want to play all the time.

“There’s a saying that you don’t make the team in the tub. If you’re hurt, you’re probably not going to make the team. You can’t show what you can do. As a veteran player, they’ve seen what you can do, although there are a lot of young guys out there taking your reps who want your job.”

A recovering Deck, who entered his fifth CFL season in 2005, fourth with the Stampeders, was relegated to the practice roster after being released from the main squad on June 13 – roughly three weeks into the camp.

National Football League versus Canadian Football League

Die-hard Canadian Football League fans will disagree. In fact, they will adamantly declare the opposite is true.

When comparing the CFL with the National Football League, some might say the NFL is bigger, better, and more professional. It’s a perception that has plagued the CFL from the perspective of both the avid football fan and those who could take or leave the sport.

But what of it? Is it true? Players who experienced both leagues set the record straight.

All-American high school player, Ken-Yon Rambo, who received the Paul Warfield Award as Ohio State’s top receiver, signed two NFL contracts with the Dallas Cowboys and New York Jets. He sees the CFL and the NFL as similar in that they are both professional football leagues. “You have the same amount of athletes, the same talent,” says the first-year CFLer. “There are different coverages, but I don’t see the NFL as being faster or quicker than the CFL.”

Canadian offensive lineman Taylor Robertson, who played college in Central Florida and played for the Philadelphia Eagles witnessed some differences but doesn’t believe one league is better than the other. “They are two totally different games. I wouldn’t say the NFL is more competitive. It’s still pro football. We’re still playing for our career and our lives in the CFL.”

Echo Jeff Pilon, a Canadian player who spent time with Syracuse University, the New York Jets, and New York/New Jersey in the XFL. “You can ask any guy in the room. We (CFL) have as much talent as they do. They practice their asses off. We practice our asses off. It’s two different games.”

Where you do experience differences is in how teams prepare. The NFL is certainly a full-time job with 10-hour days, while in Canada many players tend to have another career on the side.

The scheduling differs. NFL games are traditionally held on the weekend, while CFL games start out mid-week, adding the challenge of quick turnaround games, then steer towards the weekend after Labor Day.

Robertson adds, “In the U.S., you get players from all around the country. In Canada, you get them from all over North America: Quebec, Ontario, Florida, California, Texas. When I was in the NFL, I was the only Canadian. I think it’s more culturally mixed in Canada. It brings guys a lot closer together. Everyone meets everyone for the first time – different cultures are learning to live together.”

In the CFL, stadium capacity ranges from 25,000 to 60,000. In the NFL, it’s upwards from 80,000. Because there are greater overall revenues, the stadiums are valued at more money and the players are paid more.

For a player, they see the same hype in the stands. Coming out of the tunnel for 30,000 is the same as coming out for 114,000. Players tend to zone out distractions once they hit the field anyway. The only time a crowd might make a difference is when you can’t hear the snap count. Game day is game day, regardless of league and it is approached the same from a football standpoint.

There is no doubt that football is bigger in the U.S. “They’re born and raised in football,” observes Pilon. “You go down to Pennsylvania and Texas, high schools have 30,000 season ticket holders. When I was in high school, you were lucky to have 100 people out for a championship game. It’s ingrained. You’re bred to love a certain team, to play for a certain high school. Here, you play whatever you want to play. The commitment to developing our youth isn’t there. From the time you can walk in the U.S., it’s a business. It’s big money. It’s also getting to that level. Some will sell their soul to get there.”

But in reality, the difference between the CFL and NFL is mainly off-field. CFL players have the same talent and the same drive. In the end, it’s still pro football.

Debbie Elicksen


It’s a world nobody ever sees, not the coaches, not even the players.

The clubhouse attendant is perhaps the hardest working job in baseball. He’s at the ballpark from at least 7:00 AM until 3:00 AM. The visiting clubbie’s job is particularly unique.

After receiving the team’s itinerary, the clubbie goes to the airport to pick them up. Upon arrival, he assigns each player a locker, unpacks their bags, goes shopping to prepare for their meals. That’s only the beginning. He cleans their shoes, straightens their locker, does and hangs their laundry, cleans the sinks, shower stalls, and urinals. He’s on call if the parent club calls a player up or sends them down, then packs the player’s personals and takes it to the hotel.

Greg Grimaldo is the Visitors’ Clubhouse Attendant for the Colorado Springs Sky Sox. “You feed them, give them sandwiches, chips, juice, fruit, vegetables, whatever they want before batting practice.” When the players come in from batting practice, Grimaldo starts washing clothes, cleans up the clubhouse, and prepares for the post-game meal. A typical day includes 100 pounds of laundry. Grimaldo always carries a spare. “I have two washers plus a third I keep hidden in case one breaks down.”

For a couple hours throughout the game, he cooks for 30 players and four umpires on a barbecued grill. “When they come in, you get out of their way and let them eat and hope you have enough food. The worst thing in the world is to hear a player say, ‘I didn’t get anything to eat.’

Grimaldo will have shopped for the four game series prior to the team’s arrival. He might serve tacos or burritos the first day, chicken breasts and thighs with mashed potatoes, gravy, and biscuits the next. If it’s a double-header, he’ll fix a morning meal, which may include French toast, pancakes, scrambled eggs, and sausage; in between games: hamburgers or hot dogs; then spaghetti for the post-game meal.

Each player pays the clubbie individually on the last day of the series. At the start of the season, teams will ask around to see what they plan to collect. Grimaldo says it’s $14 a day. “That buys your pop, shaving cream, soap, shampoo, and food. The clubs don’t give you anything for the visiting teams. Not a thing. If you cut it right, you can minimize the expenses down to $120 a day. You have to use everything – owe people favors – whatever you can do to save money is what you have to do.”

Some teams do pay better. The clubbie may charge $55 for four days. The player pays either $60/$65 or $55.

“I can remember years ago, putting out some baseballs for players to autograph. Everybody autographed them but one. I walked up to the player and said, ‘How come you don’t sign the baseballs?’ He said, ‘You no pay, I no sign.’ I say, ‘You no sign, you no eat.’ He signed. There are more good guys in the clubhouse than bad, but it only takes one rotten apple to ruin the whole four-day sequence.”

Being a clubhouse attendant is one of those jobs you learn from experience. Grimaldo’s best advice is to let the new guys learn on their own. “The hardest thing about this job is learning what not to do and do. You can’t take care of every individual player. One will say they want chewing tobacco, go get it for me. Another wants hamburger. As soon as you make a trip for one person, somebody else wants something else. I just tell them we make one trip only. Otherwise, they’ll have to wait for the next day. The new guy will have to learn on his own. You can tell him, but he won’t believe you. When he makes a mistake, it will cost him. When you spend money and the player don’t pay you back, that’s the hard way.”

Debbie Elicksen

What went wrong with the Calgary Flames 2005-06 season?

Calgary Flames: What went wrong?

First let's talk about what went right: first place in the Northwest Division, a formidable defense, strong physical game, Hart and Vezina candidate Miikka Kiprusoff, Calder Trophy candidate Dion Phaneuf, every home game sold out. There were enough positive attributes that would make any NHL team salivate.

The bottom line is teams hate to play the Calgary Flames. Nashville's Tomas Vokoun saw 32 shots from the Flames on their March 7th meeting. "But it felt like 50. You have to battle hard to see the puck. That's what good teams do. They make it hard on you. It's a totally tough team to play against."

However, the season's downside carried straight through to the playoffs: if Kiprusoff wasn't the first star in any given contest, chances are the team put a notch in the "L" column. "It's tough to rely on a goaltender in this day and age," adds Mike Modano. "It's a lot to ask."

Relying on Kiprusoff would have been okay if the team could score at the other end. Their top scorer Jarome Iginla didn't even factor in the league's top 30, although defenseman Dion Phaneuf finished sixth in individual rookie scoring. The team was 2-8 in shootout finishes. While the team had the least goals against in the league, only Chicago and St. Louis had fewer goals for. That really shows how much Kiprusoff meant to the team, especially in such a tight, close conference.

There is no question, expectations were high. Having lost game seven of the Stanley Cup final in 2003-04, there was only one way to improve. The loss of scoring punch in Martin Gelinas and Craig Conroy was painfully obvious, as Tony Amonte never really materialized into a factor, and Shean Donovan's stick sat silent.

Anaheim played the Calgary Flames at their own game -- pound for pound, save by save. "I think that we ran out of gas," admits Sutter. "I think that their big strong wingers wore our team out." Jarome Iginla adds that the Ducks were more desperate. "We had opportunities to take advantage. We didn't, and they were very good." Phaneuf played the series with a broken bone in his foot, Nilson was out for the season, D-men Warrener, Leopold, Marchment, and Hamrlik all took turns on the training table.

Going forward, the core part of the team (such as Iginla, Phaneuf, Kiprusoff, Regehr) won't be touched. "If you put them up to the teams that are still playing, we have a great core," says Sutter. "It's a great one to build around."

Perhaps the man with the best perspective is the one that has been here the longest: Jarome Iginla. "A few years back, we were long gone at this time. We're going to need more offense. Part of that is confidence. Some of our very young players are going to be older and have more confidence next season." That said, look to the Flames as a formidable foe in 2006-07.

Debbie Elicksen