This star still loves New York

January 22, 1994|By Sandra McKee | Sandra McKee,Staff Writer

NEW YORK -- The New York Rangers found goaltender John Vanbiesbrouck expendable last summer. He wound up in Miami, playing for the Florida Panthers and his old Rangers coach, Roger Neilson.

Today, he is back at Madison Square Garden, the site of his first NHL game and his first victory.

He's back as an Eastern Conference All-Star. The goalie with the third-best save percentage (.903) in the league.

"I've got to be the guy with the biggest smile on my face," Vanbiesbrouck said yesterday, after practice for today's 45th annual NHL All-Star Game. "I have to say I have a welcome feeling coming back. Being in the same old locker room with Mark [Messier], Brian [Leetch] and Adam [Graves]. Sitting in my stall one last time. I shared a lot of seasons, made a lot of memories here.

"It's a special All-Star Game for me. I'm not uptight. There's no bitterness at all. It's funny how things work out."

A different game

In recent years, the NHL All-Star Games have produced a mother lode of goals. The defensemen all go forward, leaving their goaltenders at the mercy of opposing offenses.

Last season, it was worse than ever, with the Wales Conference beating the Campbell, 16-6.

"I think even we, the players, were embarrassed," said Wayne Gretzky. "What kind of game was that? They've made it winner take all now, and if it's a better game, everyone will say it is because of the money [$5,000], but I don't think that will be the reason. I think we have some pride and want to show what we can do."

Before yesterday's practice, NHL vice president Brian Burke spoke to the two teams about this game.

"He told us no one will be fined if we block a shot," said a locker room insider.

Leetch laughed.

"I don't think anyone told us we couldn't block a shot before," he said.

"No," said New Jersey defenseman Scott Stevens, one of three former Washington Capitals here -- Philadelphia Flyer Garry Galley and Pittsburgh Penguin Larry Murphy are the others. "But my first All-Star Game, I checked someone really hard, and it took me four years to get back to an All-Star Game."

Shootout test

If today's All-Star Game is tied at the end of three periods and a five-minute sudden-death overtime, a shootout will be used to break it.

The team scoring the most goals in five attempts is the winner. If the teams are still tied, they will alternate shots in a sudden-death format until a winner is decided.

Most players said they had no problem with a shootout here, but agreed with Gretzky on the larger view, "It just doesn't seem like something that would fit our game."

Added St. Louis goalie Curtis Joseph: "They'd probably have to renegotiate all the goalies contracts to make up for the added pressure. We've already got enough pressure."

Remembering the first time

Messier, the Rangers' second-leading scorer, has been voted to the All-Star Game 11 times.

As he gets older, they get more special. But, he said, none has been more memorable than the first.

"I had 25 members of my family there," he said, recalling the 1981-82 game. "It was the first All-Star Game in Washington. It was my first time and we went to the White House. We had lunch at the White House. We met the president. It was great. There were only 16 teams in the league way back then, and to make that team was something."

Gretzky on top

Not even an earthquake and a badly damaged home can interfere with Gretzky's happiness here.

This is his 14th All-Star Game, and this year, unlike last, he got here by earning it.

"Every All-Star Game is fun to play in, but this one is kind of unique, because everyone kind of thought that it was near the end for Wayne Gretzky [last year]," said the NHL's leading scorer.

Gretzky said he hasn't been home since the earthquake hit Los Angeles this week. But he learned his family was OK, when his wife called him from the phone inside their car in the driveway.

"I've been talking to friends out there, and it's just now that they are starting to break down," he said. "It's been crazy and very frustrating for a lot of them to get things done. I know my house is in bad shape. I don't know how bad. There is some structural damage, but the good news is my family is OK and my wife was good enough to call me and tell me everyone was safe."

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