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THE STICKWORK that marred last weekend's home-and-home series between the Hartford Whalers and Boston Bruins looks tame compared to the verbal whacks being handed out by the rival general managers this week.

Hartford General Manager Eddie Johnston immediately called for a 10-game suspension for Bruins winger Cam Neely after an altercation in which Neely worked over Whalers forward Randy Ladouceur.

The incident was one in a series that included Boston's John Carter high-sticking Ulf Samuelsson, Dave Poulin high-sticking Ron Francis and Chris Nilan high-sticking Pat Verbeek. Carter and Poulin got major penalties, Nilan a minor.

Francis got a broken nose. Johnston sent tapes of each incident to NHL Executive Vice President Brian O'Neill asking for suspensions.

Johnston's action prompted Bruins GM Harry Sinden to say: "I got a somewhat bush-league feeling about Hartford this weekend. What I saw out of Hartford was a real low class operation. . . . Any (Boston) success brings out the worst in people. They have to do what they can to try and get rid of the second-class citizen image."

Sinden's remarks prompted the following response form Johnston: "Oh yes. The great Harry Sinden has spoken. Does he run the league now? Tell him to look into the mirror. He doesn't have to look as far as Hartford to find bush-league."

Eventually, the coaches got into the act. During the game, Boston's Mike Milbury tried to get over the glass that separates the benches in Boston Garden, prompting the following remarks from Johnston and Whalers head coach Rick Ley:

"I wanted to go down and punch him right in the mouth," said Johnston. "If I were coaching I would have gone right after him."

Said Ley: "If Milbury wants to come after me, I'll be happy to oblige him anytime. The sooner the better."

As always, each side blamed the other for the incidents. The Bruins claimed Hartford's Todd Krygier ran goaltender Andy Moog, but the Whalers claim Ray Bourque pushed Krygier into Moog.

And they say class shows.

Hamilton bid growing

Things are getting interesting regarding Hamilton's bid for an NHL expansion franchise.

Tim Horton Donuts recently came out with a pledge for financial backing, upward of 92 percent. With that in hand, Hamilton organizers came up with pledges for 10,000 season tickets (each with a $100 deposit) and pledges for rentals on 15 luxury boxes (each with a $1,000 deposit). No one took it seriously at first, but there are growing rumblings that the price of an expansion team is going to drop well below the stated $50 million tag.

That being the case, a Hamilton bid looks more serious. The expansion committee meets in Florida this week and is expected to recommend one or two sites.

As much as the league wants the south and west, it appears those areas are not all that interested.

Florida likely will get one team, perhaps in Tampa or St. Petersburg, but Houston pulled its application back claiming the time simply wasn't right. It would be embarrassing for the league if, after entertaining 10 applications, they can't find takers in the U.S.

According to one league insider, the league could drop the price to $30 million and claim that newcomers will pay an additional $20 million when (and if) a major television agreement comes to pass.

Insiders maintain there is no support for another Canadian team among the majority of U.S. owners.

Sather after Ruuttu?

Edmonton General Manager Glen Sather acknowledged he's seeking an offensive-minded center, and Christian Ruuttu's name has been rumored. Ruuttu laughed at the trade prospect, but it's been known the Oilers are interested in his skating and playmaking abilities.

Other players mentioned included Washington's Mike Ridley and injured Minnesota center Dave Gagner.

Rival GM likes Sabres

For all the fretting and hand-wringing about the slow-starting Sabres, there doesn't seem to be much concern about the organization when viewed from afar.

One general manager said during the recent three-game eastern swing that the Sabres might be a team with too much talent. "They seem to be having a problem finding roles and ice time for all the talent they have," he said. "That's not a bad situation to be in, though. It's always easier to deal talented players, especially if you're just looking to fill roles."

The GM also said it's better to have the players on hand when people come looking to you rather than having to go out and try to get rival GMs to fill your needs.

Lindros lottery unlikely

The support for an NBA-type lottery among the five non-playoff teams for the rights to coming junior sensation Eric Lindros is gaining support among members of the media, but has not been embraced behind the NHL's closed doors.

A proposal by the New York Rangers for a lottery-type dispersal of the No. 1 pick died in a recent governor's meeting. Some insiders blame the Rangers for that, saying the proposal was so poorly drafted that it didn't warrant attention, but others argue that in a league with an unbalanced schedule and interconference play, a lottery just doesn't make sense.

Clubs can point to Buffalo's 1985-86 season when the team had 80 points, but finished last in the Adams Division and missed the playoffs as a case against a lottery. That total would have put the Sabres in the playoffs in any other division and among the leaders in the then-woeful Norris Division. Detroit finished last overall that season with 40 points and drafted first overall.

Putting an 80-point team on the same footing with a 40-point team is a poor way of equalizing the talent flow. Still, the league is concerned by the growing wave of speculation that certain teams might scuttle the season in hopes of obtaining Lindros.

Not that Detroit or Buffalo got anything with their picks the traditional way. The Red Wings that summer drafted Joe Murphy (now with Edmonton) first overall. Buffalo took Shawn Anderson.

All in all, 1986 was a poor year all around. The top five were: Murphy, Jimmy Carson, Neil Brady and Anderson. Only Carson has had significant success in the NHL, and he's struggling to maintain it.

Bruins to deal Markwart

The Boston Bruins haven't made any comment regarding the situation, but former first-round pick Nevin Markwart expects to be traded. The oft-injured Markwart recently was assigned to Maine in the American Hockey League, but is still with Boston due to injury.

Chicago defenseman Trent Yawney also expects to be dealt. Yawney is bitter regarding his treatment by coach Mike Keenan. "Maybe it will work out somewhere else for me, if it doesn't work out here," Yawney said. "Deep down I know I'm a damn good player. I like to think I'm the future on defense for this team, but if the coaches don't want me . . . Why am I sitting? You're guess is as good as mine."

Around the league

Calgary's all-star defenseman Al MacInnis is struggling. After scoring eight goals in his first 12 games, the former Conn Smythe Trophy winner has just one goal in his last 14 (prior to Saturday night) and that was kicked in by Philadelphia goaltender Pete Peeters . . . Pittsburgh center Mario Lemieux underwent another battery of tests this week on his ailing back and his rehab date has been scheduled for Dec. 19. That's the day Lemieux is expected to start getting into game shape. There's no set date for his return to the lineup . . . Trade rumors revolving around Pittsburgh right winger Rob Brown are circulating again. This time, Brown is being shopped to Hartford. Brown was a star on Lemieux's line, but has been in and out of coach Bob Johnson's doghouse ever since Johnson arrived this season . . . The Quebec Nordiques are questioning the night life of a few of their players and are making plans to sequester the team in a local hotel the night before home games.

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