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ANOTHER MEDICAL OPINION MAKES IT OBVIOUS LAFONTAINE WAS DUMPED

Add Dr. Matthew Fink to the list of prominent neurological specialists who have cleared Pat LaFontaine to resume playing hockey.

Fink is chairman and chief executive officer of Beth Israel Hospital in New York and, until last month, had spent 20 years as chairman of the neurology department.

Why is this important?

Well for one thing, Fink's determination that LaFontaine was clear to resume his NHL career backs up the work of Dr. James Kelly of the Brian Rehabilitation Institute in Chicago and Dr. C. Warren Olanow, chairman of neurology at the Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York.

That trio, the medical Neurological Connection line, certainly appears to overshadow the Buffalo Sabres' list of unnamed doctors and unreleased medical opinions. Couple that with club documents dating to the winter of 1996 that show a healthy LaFontaine absent from the team budget for the final two years of his contract and it's painfully obvious that sending LaFontaine out of town was nothing more than the most horrendous salary dump in franchise history.

In fact, were it not for Buffalo's contention that LaFontaine is not medically fit to resume his career, it would be fair to ask NHL commissioner Gary Bettman to veto the trade. In the past, the league has stepped in when it appears a team is "selling" high-salaried players. Though the Sabres stick to their medical argument, the Fink-Kelly-Olanow opinions create a body of evidence that tilts strongly toward that being exactly what the Sabres did.

Fink's evaluation is also important on two other fronts.

In clearing LaFontaine to play, the final pieces of the insurance puzzle fell into place for the Rangers and those pieces so minimize New York's risk that a failed LaFontaine return would cost little more than the value of Brad May's contract.

Sources here told The News that should LaFontaine fail in his attempt to resume his NHL career and the reason is traced back to his medical history, the most the Rangers will be responsible for is $1.756 million of his remaining $9.6 million salary. The Rangers have the remainder of the liability burden covered by insurance.

Fink's final confirmation also clears the way for LaFontaine to play for Team USA in the Olympics providing New Jersey general manager Lou Lamoriello, the Team USA GM, would want to add him to the squad.

Lamoriello had planned to name a team early in September to avoid a season-long speculation process with the media, the players and the teams. But he's held off, reportedly because of the number of quality unsigned players who have yet to report to their respective teams.

The thinking is that unsigned players named to Team USA would have an additional bargaining chip because of their elevated status. That may be true and is certainly the case with one of Lamoriello's own unsigned Devils, Bill Guerin. But the delay certainly benefits LaFontaine.

His speed and play-making ability would be invaluable in world competition played on Olympic-sized ice. Sources have told The News that LaFontaine's agent, Don Meehan, is preparing to send a summation of LaFontaine's medical evidence to Lamoriello in hopes of persuading him to keep a roster spot open.

Pressure off Pat in New York

It's no secret that New York Rangers coach Colin Campbell would have liked to see the Rangers go for Sabres' free-agent center Michael Peca (and there's still a chance the Rangers might), but Campbell welcomed LaFontaine to New York this week.

"I told him he didn't have to be No. 1 here or even No. 2 (in terms of the New York star structure)," Campbell said. "When you think about it, he doesn't even have to be No. 3 or No. 4. All he has to do is look out for himself and play hockey. The rest will take care of itself."

There's a school of thought in the NHL that LaFontaine carried too much of a burden in being the No. 1 player, the No. 1 community-relations man and the No. 1 selling point for both the New York Islanders and the Sabres.

In allowing LaFontaine to ease into the New York scene, Campbell is hoping to keep the pressure off LaFontaine and allow him to get his game back without having to explain his every mood and every-day condition to the media and the fans.

LaFontaine seemed to relish that. "It's certainly different here," he said, noting that much of the attention directed toward the Rangers still centers on Wayne Gretzky, the absence of Mark Messier, new captain Brian Leetch and goaltender Mike Richter. ~ Rangers glad mates stay

What pleased most of the Rangers about LaFontaine's arrival was that the team didn't lose any rostered players. New York is still in shock over the loss of Mark Messier as a free-agent signee with Vancouver and the fear inside the locker room was management would have to give up a rostered player to fill the Messier gap.

"It (LaFontaine's arrival) doesn't disrupt us at all, but to lose people would really disrupt us," Campbell said. "There is a problem in the room to lose people that have been here, to have to give up something you don't want to give up. The only disruption (with LaFontaine) is the cameras and the media involved, and that seems to be part and parcel of the way things go on here. Our guys are pretty stable, they've seen this come and go, and our dressing room is pretty good at handling that."

Most of the thinking in New York is that LaFontaine's biggest test will come when the Rangers play the New Jersey Devils and the Philadelphia Flyers, two hard-hitting Atlantic Division rivals.

Where are Ndur, Klimentiev?

Correct me if I'm misinformed, but wasn't one of the stated reasons defenseman Garry Galley was no longer needed in Buffalo was because the Sabres had defensemen Rumun Ndur and Sergei Klimentiev ready? Neither player had even a cup-of-coffee look in the NHL last season and neither survived training camp this year despite the fact the Sabres knew they would open the season without Galley and unsigned free agent Alexei Zhitnik.

You would think one of the two might have been kept around to at least get some NHL development time while Zhitnik remains out. But the Sabres instead opted to deal for Pittsburgh's Jason Woolley, hardly a boost to the career fortunes of Ndur and Klimentiev.

Oh well, at least there are some draft picks coming for LaFontaine.

Philly promotes Prospal

If the Flyers need to include forward Rod Brind'Amour in any deal to upgrade their goaltending or defense, rookie center Vinny Prospal is making the thought a lot more palatable.

New coach Wayne Cashman has determined that Prospal is his best play-making center and has installed him on a second line with newly acquired winger Chris Gratton and the oft-disappointing Pat Falloon. In the team's season debut, that line accounted for two of the three goals.

That's forced Brind'Amour into a third-line center spot with the checkers. He's not happy. "I'd have to swallow my tongue a little bit to not create a disruption," Brind'Amour said recently, "because, obviously, I wouldn't be too happy about it. I told him (Cashman) I think I'm better at center, but I didn't think it would turn out that I'd be at center on a checking line and not getting in on power plays."

Ta ta, big guy.

Phoenix burns over salaries

Phoenix general manager Bobby Smith is doing a fast burn over New York general manager Neil Smith's costly attempt to land Colorado's Joe Sakic during the early free-agent wars this past summer.

"I definitely think it was an extremely irresponsible thing to do and not a very smart thing to do," Bobby said. "They didn't get the player and they inflated salaries by who knows how many millions over the next few years."

Bobby is in a difficult contract renegotiation with star forward Keith Tkachuk. Tkachuk ended his brief holdout last week, but only after the Coyotes agreed to work on restructuring his pact for next season.

Said Bobby Smith: "In this league, there's no way you can rip up everybody's contract every time a new standard is set by some of these contracts."

The question is, Bobby: since when?

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