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IVAN THE TERRIBLE ENDS THE EUROCOACH EXPERIMENT

Johnny Gottselig was the first European-born coach in the National Hockey League.

What, you never heard of Johnny Gottselig? Well, get with it. He was born in Russia, raised in Winnipeg and was hired by the Chicago Blackhawks toward the end of World War II.

Gottselig had a 62-105-20 record before he was fired in 1948 after four difficult seasons. Some 52 years later, the second and third European-born head coaches, Alpo Suhonen and Ivan Hlinka, landed in the NHL. It could be another half-century before we see the fourth.

Suhonen lasted less than a season. He took medical leave for the last seven games, but the Blackhawks fired him after Chicago suffered through another terrible season last year. Hlinka lasted one season and four games before the Pittsburgh Penguins issued him a one-way ticket to the Czech Republic.

Suhonen and Hlinka might be able to coach, but they can't coach in the NHL. They've been raised with a philosophy that calls for a friendlier, prettier style of hockey than we know on this side of the pond. They attempted to coach in a league in which toughness often overcomes talent, and they flopped.

Obviously, the experiment didn't work. In fact, it won't work unless the league becomes predominantly European, something North Americans would never allow.

"It's hard to say," Minnesota Wild General Manager Doug Risebrough said. "It's two separate cases and circumstances, but it's hard to come over from Europe and coach because it really is a different game here. So much of what we do is matching lines, scouting other teams. Over there, it's more about going with your game plan and just rolling your players out there."

Suhonen's free-wheeling approach was effective for him in the Finnish and Swiss leagues, but the Blackhawks didn't have nearly enough skill. Hlinka didn't install any system and rarely used his fourth line until about two weeks before the playoffs last season. Ivan the Terrible Coach was hired because the Pens thought he could get his message through to the Europeans in Pittsburgh -- and pacify Jaromir Jagr -- but the fact is he didn't get through to anybody, especially Jagr.

"He's the man who makes the decisions, at least back home, and he lets his assistant coaches do the job on the ice," said Thrashers defenseman Jiri Slegr, who played for Hlinka last season. "But the NHL is different. You need to communicate, maybe stand in the dressing room, tell players what you're looking for and what you want. I think that's what the Penguins were expecting from him and it didn't happen."

Both dismissals were felt throughout Europe. Of course, Suhonen didn't help the Euro cause when he wrote a book published in Finland on his experience behind the bench last season. "The Chicago Diaries: A Season of My Heart" outlines how the Blackhawks made it difficult for him to succeed. He also complains about the Blackhawks' "pathetic loyalty" and betrayal.

Hlinka's firing could be more damning for prospective Eurocoaches. He guided the Czechs to Olympic gold in 1998, but the Penguins' players ignored him and listened to assistant Rick Kehoe, his replacement. Ivan the Terrible Coach played mostly three lines until owner-center Mario Lemieux basically ordered him to start giving the fourth line more ice time last season.

Hlinka's decision to disregard the Pens' request to take formal English lessons sealed his fate and, presumably, that of many other Euros after him. After all, why would a team hire a coach who can't speak English when there are so many good coaches who can?

Will new Fab Four last?

I'm not one for studying the standings this early in the season, but Friday's installment showed four teams who didn't come close to making the playoffs last season -- the Islanders, Canadiens, Flames and Wild -- with a combined 18-2-4 with two overtime losses. They had outscored their opponents, 81-39.

The four teams that battled in the conference finals -- the Devils, Penguins, Blues and Avalanche -- were a combined 7-11-3 with one overtime loss. They had been outscored, 74-58.

For parity's sake, what's going on?

Well, the Islanders added Alexei Yashin, Michael Peca and Chris Osgood. The Canadiens were riding the 1-2 goaltending combination of Jose Theodore and Jeff Hackett. Blues' misfit Roman Turek was stopping everything in Calgary. Minnesota stopped crowding its own net and found the opposite one.

At least the Fab Four are making it interesting, for now. My hunch is the Isles will be the only one remaining come playoff time.

Mr. Wilson becoming a menace

Yes, that was former Sabres softie Mike Wilson using his 6-foot-6, 230-pound body last week for something other than the all-warmup squad and the team picture.

Wilson leveled tough forward Vaclav Varada into the boards last Sunday in the Sabres' 4-1 win over Wilson's Penguins. He also was in the middle of a scrum with Rob Ray. And let's not forget the Wilsonator captain-crunching Peca two weeks ago.

"That's the way I gotta play," Wilson said. "I have to use my size. That's what I did earlier in my career."

Like when? Junior?

The Sabres' biggest beef about Wilson, other than his poor work habits and chronic tardiness, was his unwillingness to bury people with his size. Wilson was a nice guy, maybe too friendly. Perhaps his wakeup call came when the Panthers gave up on him last season, allowing him to become a free agent. Maybe he's finally maturing into the player the Sabres wanted when he was here.

"Where was it before? I don't know. Somewhere in the corner of my brain," Wilson said. "I know I play better when I'm hitting guys, and I'm getting big hits early."

Grosek waives goodbye

Now that we're on the subject of former Sabres underachievers, the Rangers placed kooky winger Michal Grosek on waivers last week. Word is he landed on the front page of the New York Post holding a sign that read: "Go Isles Go."

Actually, the Rangers became tired of Grosek's inconsistency, a problem that has plagued him throughout his career with Winnipeg, Buffalo and -- for about 23 seconds -- Chicago. He's been dispatched to AHL Hartford.

"Obviously, this doesn't work here," Grosek said.

When it comes to hockey, if you can't make it in New York, you can't make it anywhere. The Sabres are the only team that can save this man from himself. Buffalo could have claimed him off waivers, something it considered before the playoffs last year. It passed.

Roenick doesn't horse around

Imagine how stacked the Red Wings would be had they signed center Jeremy Roenick in the offseason. For one, they might not have made such a strong push for Dominik Hasek.

Roenick went out for dinner with Red Wings GM Ken Holland two days before the free-agent signing period opened. JR talked things over with his wife in a Detroit hotel room and was minutes from becoming a Red Wing when the Flyers reached him on his cell phone. The Flyers offered Roenick the five-year deal worth $37.5 million, essentially the same package on the table from the Red Wings, and gave him a half-hour to decide. He chose Philly.

Why the Flyers? Because his wife owns horses and wanted to live near good horse farms. Apparently, Philly's suburbs were better horse-wise.

"I felt bad," Roenick said. "Ken Holland was more than gracious with me. But sometimes decisions have to be made -- and made quickly."

Having lost Roenick, the Red Wings pursued and obtained Hasek. Or Hasek pursued and obtained the Red Wings.

Quotable

Dallas winger Rob DiMaio on replacing Brett Hull on a line with center Mike Modano and Jere Lehtinen: "I'm on the right side . . . and that's probably the only comparison you can make."

Around the boards

The transit system in Atlanta was shut down briefly last Sunday when authorities discovered a suspicious looking package. It turned out that the package contained a Ray Ferraro bobblehead, which was left over from the previous night. "They must have heard it talking," the outspoken Ferraro cracked. . . . Longtime Rochester Amerk Scott Nichol has turned up in Calgary. He earned a spot with the Flames in training camp and scored his first NHL goal against none other than Dominik Hasek. . . . The Stars went into the weekend 51-0-4-3 in games in which they led after two periods. . . . From the accounting department: Edmonton's Tom Poti finally settled on a one-year contract worth $925,000. But wait, the prorated contract is worth $855,000, or $5,000 more than he made last year. . . . The Flyers were about to end their 0-12-2 slump in Detroit on Thursday before the Wings scored twice in the final 40 seconds to win the game. . . . The online auction the Sabres and Rangers held using autographed sweaters worn Oct. 7 raised $215,000 for the Twin Towers Fund. Mark Messier's jersey took the high bid at just more than $20,000. . . . The Dallas Stars are holding a charity softball game today at the Ballpark in Arlington to benefit the New York City firefighters. . . . Steve Heinze suited up for the Kings for his 600th career game only a few hours after his wife, Lori, delivered their first child, a boy, last Tuesday. . . . Carolina is looking for a defenseman. Columbus might be willing to unload Jean-Luc Grand-Pierre. The Panthers are dangling Lance Pitlick, but there hasn't been much interest in his $2 million salary. . . . Quick, name the team with the most European players on its opening-day roster. The Thrashers win with 13, counting German-born rookie Dany Heatley, who moved to Calgary when he was 4. The Penguins had 12. . . . The Flyers, worried that their players could be targets for anthrax attacks, are having staff and public-relations interns screen fan mail using rubber gloves in an isolated room.
e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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