Thursday brings the countdown clock for the Winter Olympics to 100 days, a milepost of distinction for organizers here who are proud of their concrete accomplishments.
Venues are up and most of them are running or about to be. Most of the road work has been completed. The new airport just outside Tokyo is in full operation, and the high-speed train that will carry the world from Tokyo to Nagano (an industrial city approximating Hamilton without the glitz) is running on time and has reduced what used to be a three-hour trip to a formerly remote region in central Japan to 90 minutes. The train still isn't running at maximum speed.
Preparations for hockey and the arrival of the National Hockey League are proceeding at a similar pace.
Big Hat, the main venue for ice hockey, is already hosting preliminary events. The building, designed to accommodate 10,000 spectators, has been scaled back to seat about 8,000 (earning the nickname "Little Hat" in the process), but the ice is to Olympic size and certification. NHL players who've moved into the spacious dressing rooms in new venues throughout North America will likely be shocked by the small, almost Spartan, facilities here, but organizers are quick to point out that the building has 12 such rooms which should allow teams to keep their clothing and equipment in their assigned space rather than hauling it in and out every game. The Olympic tradition has long been that players carry their own bags to and from the game site. That's not only an inconvenience, it makes it difficult to get things dry.
Hauling bags had a certain charm when an 18-year-old Mike Ramsey would shoulder his own gear and head uphill from the facility in Lake Placid every day. It tends to lose charm if you're, say, Patrick Roy and have become used to having equipment managers and a traveling entourage that can include a strength and conditioning coach, a massage therapist, a personal trainer and a goaltending consultant.
Especially if your underwear is still wet, your skate boots are frozen and your pads are holding five to 10 pounds of water that isn't about to evaporate.
Big Hat will become a civic exhibition hall when the Olympics are over (Japan league hockey is centered in and around Tokyo), but it is a made-for-TV arena now. There are almost as many camera locations as seats.
The huge benches could determine the outcome of a play. The top of the bench starts in the neutral zone, but ends just above the hash marks in the defending zone faceoff circle. It's possible that a player on a breakaway from the red line could see the player he's beaten head to the bench in time for a defenseman to jump over the boards at the far end and be in position to intercept him.
The issue is under discussion by members of the International Ice Hockey Federation, who admit that bench areas have a minimum but not a maximum length.
Things are a bit more primitive at Aqua Wing, the secondary hockey venue. As the name implies, the venue was designed as a swimming facility, which it will be after The Games.
That presented some unusual problems to hockey officials, who had to build a temporary floor for the ice surface. The first ice will be made this week, with organizers holding their breath regarding whether it will be affected by the deep space under the floor and an unusual roof and sidewall configuration designed to let light in.
There's a temporary scoreboard hanging from the steel girders high above the floor. That has made for a great many nervous jokes in that the roof is designed to roll back into itself, creating an amphitheater effect in nice weather. The wrong button touched at the wrong time could see hockey being played outdoors while a multisided scoreboard lies in Jumbletron fashion at the bottom of a pool that thinks it's an ice rink.
Burned to a Crisp
The season isn't a month old and already the coaching fires are being lit. Terry Crisp's job at Tampa Bay is on the line. Sources there said team CEO Steve Oto admitted he's looking at the situation and that a change could be in the offing.
"The coaching is one issue; it is one of the areas of concern we have -- coaching and the players," Oto said. "We're keeping all of the options open at this point and in a day or two days, hopefully we will come to some sort of decision."
The day or two is likely needed to find a replacement. The heat's coming because of an 0-6-1 winless streak, including Tuesday's 7-1 thumping at the hands of the Philadelphia Flyers and former Lightning members Chris Gratton (player) and Wayne Cashman (assistant coach who left after feuding with Crisp).
Rick Paterson, an assistant who replaced Cashman, was believed to have the inside track to the head job, but the Lightning also is looking at outside options that could include John Muckler or Ted Nolan. In fact, reports Friday night on ESPN and the Madison Square Garden network indicated that Nolan had moved to the head of Tampa's wish list and could get the job at any moment.
If Crisp survives, it will be because of money. He still has about $1.1 million left on his monster deal of three seasons ago and the cash-strapped franchise would be reluctant to eat it.
Tampa was outscored, 25-6, through the seven-game winless span and several players are said to have quit on Crisp, something upper management is aware of.
It's a little less intense in Toronto, but certainly not good.
After a particularly difficult practice following a bad team performance, angry defenseman Mathieu Schneider told the Toronto Sun the whip-cracking workout must have been ordered by upper management and the brass should lay off coach Mike Murphy. Murphy and club president Ken Dryden had to go through two days of denials of front office interference.
Murphy is already walking on egg shells because of the team's lackluster record plus the fact Dryden didn't hire him. Murphy is also nervous about Toronto's three-headed management team and believes ambitious associate Mike Smith won't need much provocation to push for his dismissal.
Kovalev is clueless
The always mystifying Alexei Kovalev of the New York Rangers cross-checked Gary Roberts in the back well after Carolina scored in the first period of a recent game. Considering Roberts is attempting to come back from surgery for a broken neck, it seemed like a real cheap shot. Kovalev said he didn't know about Roberts' problems. The league reviewed the incident but did not suspend Kovalev.
Kovalev has never lived up to his promise and is rumored to be on the trade block.
Coach Colin Campbell has benched him numerous times and there is talk the Rangers will ship him to Vancouver for former Sabre Alexander Mogilny.
Kovalev seemingly would welcome a trade, hinting that most of his problems were with Campbell.
"Sometimes I am just so confused," he said. "Sometimes I come back (to the bench), and I don't know what to do next. Every time you do something wrong, it's like you're by yourself. I have no idea why I was on the bench. It didn't mean that I didn't want to play -- I tried hard. I try to do everything right, and it just doesn't happen."
New York has long had an interest in Mogilny, but it intensified after the Rangers secured Pat LaFontaine, his center when the two were with the Sabres.
Sizing up trade talk
Chicago, Carolina and Calgary are looking to deal.
The names that crop up most often in Chicago are Eric Daze and Ethan Moreau.
Montreal is said to be in the mix now, looking to inject size -- either player would provide it -- into its lineup. The Canadiens have forwards and goaltender Jocelyn Thibault to spare as they have veteran Andy Moog with the club and promising prospect Jose Theodore in the minors.
Chicago is looking at its goaltending situation because No. 1 Jeff Hackett's long-term ankle injury does not seem to be responding to treatment.
'Canes general manager Jim Rutherford is known to have talked to "five or six" teams.
"We're off to a poor start (1-7-2 in first 10)," Rutherford said. "Certainly, you have to take a look at things."
Rutherford confirmed that he's been in contact with several teams, including Chicago, which could end up being the new home for Carolina goalie Sean Burke.
The Hurricanes could gamble on Daze, who's off to a disappointing start but scored 22 goals last season, or center Jeff Shantz. Even inconsistent center Alexei Zhamnov could fill the 'Canes' need for a playmaker.
There is speculation that the Blackhawks have targeted Hurricanes forward Geoff Sanderson, but Carolina is reluctant to part with its most talented player.