June 1, 2000
Two Ways to View the New Sather Era
By JOE LAPOINTE
EAST RUTHERFORD , N.J. -- From the front door of the Devils' home
rink, a hockey fan can look east and see the skyline of Manhattan, so
near and yet so far. With National Hockey League headquarters and
major news media outlets located among those tall buildings, the
Stanley Cup finals -- featuring a local team -- ought to be a big
And they are important -- in Dallas, the home of the visiting team,
and in many other cities across North America and even Europe. But
the last round of the tournament is not so special in the Devils'
backyard, not really. Just as the Empire State Building defines the
skyline, New York's hockey consciousness is dominated by the Rangers,
even when they lose and miss the playoffs for three consecutive
seasons under wasteful and self-deluded management.
With the Devils holding a 1-0 lead going into Game 2 of the finals
tonight at the Meadowlands, the attention of most local hockey fans
will instead be on Madison Square Garden. There, Glen Sather, the
former president and general manager of the Edmonton Oilers, is
expected to be introduced as the new chief executive of the Rangers.
This Ranger business is a hockey story so compelling that even the
basketball buffs who dominate sports-talk radio might mention it
between gusts of wind about the Knicks.
So before returning to the Devils-Stars and other topics, let us
consider the positive and negative spins around the hiring of Sather,
through the prism of the recent history of the Edmonton-New York
POSITIVE SPIN The hiring of Sather will be like Neil Smith's
acquisition of Mark Messier from the Oilers in 1991. Back then,
skeptics said Messier's best years were behind him, that he was
coming to New York only for fame and money and that the Rangers were
foolishly trying to buy a trophy. In fact, Messier's leadership
skills reached new heights as a Ranger.
His era at the Garden featured some of the most successful and
interesting teams in franchise history. At age 56, with five
championships on his rÃ©sumÃ©, Sather will seize the New York
in the Messier manner and re-invigorate a franchise that is crucial
to the league's success. Sather is still smart, bold and crafty and
now he has the money with which to use those tools. Within five
years, Sather's Rangers will be playing in the finals and commanding
the attention of even casual fans and news media.
NEGATIVE SPIN The hiring of Sather will be like Neil Smith's
acquisition of Wayne Gretzky, the former Oiler, in 1996. Back then,
boosters insisted Gretzky still had great things to offer, that he
was coming to New York not for money and self-gratification but for
another chance to play for a champion. In fact, Gretzky's seasons in
New York were anticlimactic for him and mostly dismal for the team.
The Gretzky era at the Garden featured some of the worst and least-
spirited teams in franchise history and so will the Sather era. At
age 56, Sather has five championships on his rÃ©sumÃ©, but none
1990. His arrogant bluster has disguised a decade of poor drafting,
mediocre trading and excuse-making to rival Neil Smith's. His era at
the Garden will resemble Gretzky's in terms of false hype and dashed
hope. In five years, after wasting millions of dollars on him, the
Garden will seek Sather's replacement as both the Rangers and the
N.H.L. struggle for recognition in their own backyard.
So there. As for the finals, let us assume Dallas will provide a
better show than it did in a 7-3 defeat Tuesday night. Goalie Ed
Belfour, claiming cold symptoms and after-effects of medication, is
experienced enough to bounce back. Derian Hatcher, the big captain
and defenseman who left the game with a knee injury, said he is
almost certain to return. Some of their veterans know how to relax.
After practice today, they headed for the Yankee game.
As the players bustled around the arena for practice and news
conferences, the nearby airports were filled with hockey talent,
young and not-so-young. The top teenage prospects were arriving for a
luncheon yesterday to introduce them and promote the draft in late
June in Calgary. Some hockey officials here for the series made a day
trip to Montreal for the funeral of Maurice Richard, the great
Canadien whose death has prompted a moment of deep reflection within
the hockey community.
Dallas General Manager Bob Gainey, like Richard a former Montreal
captain, attended the funeral and said the streets around the
cathedral were lined with people who "wanted to be a part of it" and
to show "a sincere and moving response."
"It had both the sadness of a passing and the joy of celebration,"
Gainey said of the ceremony. Ron MacLean, a commentator for "Hockey
Night in Canada," made the trip with Don Cherry, his colleague.
MacLean said it was moving to see players like Gordie Howe in
attendance and Jean BÃ©liveau as a pallbearer.
By evening, all had returned. The new day would bring hopeful kids on
display and current stars on ice at night. A news conference at a
rink across the river would promise a better, brighter future. Even
in this big-time basketball market, hockey seems alive, if one only
cares to seek it