Discipline when team and league differ

ON THE NHL

March 29, 1994|By SANDRA McKEE

OK, there are a million ways to look at the deplorable behavior involving Hartford Whalers captain Pat Verbeek, star rookie Chris Pronger, Geoffrey Sanderson, Marc Potvin, Mark Janssens, Todd Harkins and two assistant coaches last week in Buffalo.

For those who missed it, the Whalers were arrested after being involved in a barroom brawl at 3 a.m. Thursday when they refused to leave after last call.

The players pleaded guilty to trespassing and were sentenced to 20 hours of community service after prosecutors agreed to drop other charges, which included disorderly conduct and obstructing justice. Assistant coach Kevin McCarthy was charged with trespassing and faces a court hearing.

Immediately after the incident, team owner Richard Gordon handed out suspensions, ranging from the rest of the season for Pronger, 19, to one game for the rest of the players. They would have sat out Friday's game against the Sabres in Buffalo. But NHL commissioner Gary Bettman rescinded the suspensions pending the outcome of a league investigation.

League vice president Arthur Pincus said yesterday that the investigation has been completed but the outcome will not be announced until later this week at the earliest.

In stepping in, Bettman took one view. He cited "a question of competitive issues." Translation: Who would want to watch Buffalo beat up an undermanned Whalers team, the second-worst team in the Eastern Conference? And, how fair would it be to Boston, Montreal, Pittsburgh, New Jersey and New York, which are fighting for playoff positions, if the Sabres -- who are also in the fight -- were given a walk-over?

No doubt, the players union also complained. Coaches don't have a union, so the two assistants -- McCarthy and Paul Gillis, who was on the scene but not arrested -- are suspended indefinitely.

But what about the right of an owner to discipline his team? What about management's reasonable expectations for the grown men in its employ, who are being paid millions, to demonstrate some decorum and common sense? Verbeek is the team captain. What kind of leadership is he providing?

In the end, the owner of a professional sports team ought to be able to trust his players to go out for a night on the town and be able to get back to their hotel without having to take a detour to the police station for brawling.

The penalties Gordon issued were neither extreme nor unjust. Bettman should have stayed out of it.

Portland soars

The Portland Pirates (formerly the Baltimore Skipjacks) are tied for first in the Northern Division after wins over the Adirondack Red Wings, 5-3, and the Rochester Americans, 6-1.

Forward Jeff Nelson became the first Pirate to top the 100-point mark Sunday. And goalie Olie Kolzig, who was in net for both decisions, earned American Hockey League Player of the Week honors.

Kolzig stopped a team-record 50 shots by the Red Wings and 32 by the Americans. He has won five of six games since returning from the Washington Capitals and lowered his goals-against average to 3.22.

Adopting a lottery

Attempting to avoid the kind of accusations directed at Ottawa last season, when it was suggested the Senators tried to lose games in order to get the No. 1 pick in the annual entry draft, the NHL has adopted a modified version of the NBA lottery.

As in the NBA, the 10 teams with the worst records will draw for drafting positions. But, unlike the NBA, there are two modifiers. The best of the worst can draft no higher than sixth, and the worst team can draft no lower than second.

"The draft drawing protects the integrity of the entry draft and the regular season," said Bettman. "It also continues to ensure the teams with the poorest records get the best selections."

The procedure goes into effect in June 1995. The 1994 draft was decided by a coin flip last June. The first-year Florida Panthers are assured the first pick, and the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim will draft second.

Protectionist policy

When Washington defenseman Joe Reekie came to the defense of center Joe Juneau when he was being roughed up in Detroit last Friday, it surprised Juneau, who had just arrived from Boston.

"It was something we didn't have in Boston," Juneau said. "No one came to anyone's defense there, not even in New Jersey, when Claude Lemieux came after Cam [Neely], who can't defend himself. It seems like guys stick up for each other here."

Reekie also was surprised.

"Joe actually thanked me," said Reekie, still showing disbelief. "Players like Joe shouldn't have to worry about that kind of stuff. And guys on other teams should know they can't take liberties on guys like him."

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