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There were handshakes, backslaps and smiles all around when Mario Lemieux emerged from Wednesday's Board of Governors meetings as the new owner of the Pittsburgh Penguins, but those were for the cameras.

There are more than a few NHL owners who resent the fact that a former player is now in the brotherhood, especially when many of them believe it was Lemieux's record-breaking contract of a few years back that pushed the team into bankruptcy.

Still more resent that Lemieux once called the NHL a "garage league" and later retired noting that he didn't like what the game had become and that he rarely watched hockey anymore, not even on television.

One can make a good case that past owners of the Penguins were actually less deserving of ownership status than Lemieux (especially regarding financial worth), but Lemieux is the first player of note in any of the four major sports who's moved from dreaming about being an owner to actually becoming one.

O.J. Simpson and Walter Payton used to talk about it in football and Michael Jordan dabbled with the idea in basketball. Many baseball players have dreamed about it, but Lemieux actually got it done.

The odd thing is that ownership wasn't Lemieux's first choice. He would gladly have sat back and collected his millions owed, but once the club went belly up he was forced to jump into the bankruptcy fray to protect his own interests.

Lemieux got control largely because he was able to convert the money he was owed into an equity share. Over time he may get some of that money back (either through an assigned payout or a future sale with significant appreciation of the franchise's overall value).

For now, however, he's a member of the brotherhood with a seat on the Board of Governors and a say in how the league should be run. Simply put, he's one of Gary Bettman's bosses. It should make for some interesting times.

Lemieux's strategy is not a bad one considering what Disney is attempting to do with the Mighty Ducks. Reportedly the Ducks lost $9 million last season, a reason many believe Disney has put the team and its other sports property, baseball's Angels, up for sale. But the loss is not officially documented and even if the figure is accurate, the company paid $50 million for the franchise just about six years ago. Analysts differ on exactly how much the hockey franchise will sell for (because of the tie-in with baseball and questions as to whether or not Disney will keep certain marketing rights), but the estimates range from $80 to $150 million.

If that's the case, Lemieux needs only to buy, hold and barely improve the team to turn his equity share back into cash.

Minor uproar in Canada

Canada is in a national tizzy regarding the state of its hockey. A three-day summit was recently convened to bring forth opinions as to why its presence as one of the world's great hockey powers has slipped and what, if anything, can be done about it.

At the forefront of the talks was none other than the recently retired Wayne Gretzky, who noted that Canada's approach to minor hockey and player development may be seriously flawed.

"As I get older and I look back, I'm disappointed that I had to leave home so early," Gretzky said. "I didn't move to Toronto to become a better hockey player. I moved to Toronto to be a normal child."

Gretzky was reflecting upon the pressure put upon him as a phenom going through the Canadian developmental system. He said he left his hometown of Brantford, Ont., and moved to Toronto after his rights were traded at his request because of unrelenting pressure from overly competitive hockey people.

"It still happens for some kids and it's very difficult," Gretzky said.

Gretzky said a lot of changes are needed. Among his recommendations: fewer games, more practice time, a move away from teaching defensive systems and a move toward encouraging creativity. Gretzky also suggested that kids not play year round, as they do at the elite level, and that some of that down time be spent playing other sports.

"We put so much emphasis on kids staying back if they're on defense or staying on their wing if they're a winger," he said. "Maybe we can change, change the system so kids are a little more creative and imaginative."

With Gretzky setting the tone, the conference made 11 recommendations, few of which are likely to come about anytime soon.

The most notable were boosting the draft age from 18 to 19 or even 20, developing a series of master coaches programs so that elite-level players get top-flight instruction, and seeing that Canadian players get as many practice hours as they do game hours.

Boosting the draft age likely will be struck down in court the first time the NHL tries it. Even if it had National Hockey League Players Association support, a gifted young player, say the next Gretzky or Mario Lemieux, likely would sue and win under the restraint of trade laws.

Talent currency is the Euro

Why is Canada so distressed about all this?

Last season Canada had just three of its native sons among the 12 finalists for the four major awards -- the scoring championship, league MVP, best defenseman and best rookie -- and won just one of them. European-born and -trained Jaromir Jagr won the scoring title and the Hart Trophy as league MVP. American-born Chris Drury won the rookie award. Canadian Al MacInnis won the Norris as best defenseman, but it was viewed in some circles as a cumulative honor for all of his fine seasons and a disservice to Detroit's Nicklas Lidstrom, who may be the best all-around defenseman in the NHL.

The shift to European standards of excellence is not an aberration. Jagr unseated another European star, Dominik Hasek, as league MVP. A Canadian hasn't won the Hart since Mario Lemieux retired after winning in 1996. The year before that, Eric Lindros edged Hasek in a season in which many thought Hasek was the dominant player. Hasek, a Czech, has won the Vezina Trophy as the league's best goaltender five out of the last six years.

Two years ago, Canada had just two players in the top 12. There were 10 from Europe. At this year's entry draft in Boston, Europeans dominated the first round, going 1-4 before an American, Syracuse area native Tim Connolly, went fifth. It marked the first time a Canadian player was not selected within the top three picks. The first Canadian taken was not a forward or a defenseman either. He was a goaltender. In all there were 15 Europeans selected in the first round, also a record.

The feeling among many Canadian hockey people is that the developmental system is producing lots of grinders and tough guys, but not enough skilled players.

Closing Barnes' door

It was expected that the Sabres would have a fair number of holdouts at the start of training camp, what with the success the team had last season and the number of unsigned players, but it didn't have to be this difficult.

Sources have told The News that not only did Stu Barnes offer to come in under the same terms of last year's contract ($1.5 million and bonuses), but that he wanted to report to training camp even though his offer hadn't been accepted.

It's not likely the Sabres were scared off by Barnes' bonuses. They were written in when he played on a line with Jaromir Jagr and the then bankrupt Pittsburgh Penguins. The Penguins moved Barnes off Jagr's wing, according to some, because he was getting too close to some big money bonuses, but that shouldn't matter with the Sabres. Buffalo has no Jagr-like winger and its power play, at least in the regular season, is largely impotent.

More likely the Sabres were hoping to get Barnes locked into a long-term deal so as to fix their costs. Sources say when that failed to happen, the talks got quiet in a hurry.

There are no hard and fast rules about a player coming to camp without a contract, although in recent years clubs have been advising players to stay away. Insurance and the risk of injury is always an issue. Players are responsible for their own insurance up until the regular season starts, but most clubs take out additional insurance against career-threatening injuries, especially regarding star players.

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