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Tragedy resonates with league's frequent fliers

Lindy Ruff has thought about the possibility numerous times. He has spent more than a quarter century in the National Hockey League as a player, assistant coach and head coach. On Tuesday, he will celebrate his 49th birthday, so he has spent more than half his life in professional hockey.

Heaven knows how many miles he has flown over the years. A million, perhaps, or considerably more? At times, he catches himself worrying about the math eventually taking over, whether one of his flights will turn tragic without warning.

"You think about the number of times you fly," Ruff said. "It affects my kids. It affects a lot of things. It's tough. You got to get by it."

Marshall University lost its football team in a plane crash in 1970. Oklahoma State had a similar tragedy involving its basketball team in 2001. So many teams in so many sports are traveling to so many places these days that you can't help but wonder if we're going to wake up one day with 29 teams in the NHL rather than 30.

Continental Flight 3407 was a reminder how quickly tragedy can strike. You can't find an NHL player who doesn't have at least one harrowing tale about rough landings and bumpy rides that scared the daylights out of him.

"The odds are that it probably will happen someday, somewhere along the line, to some sports team again," Ruff said. "It's something you don't want to think about, but have I? Yeah. I have thought about it. When your kids look at you when you come home after flying all the time, it makes it tough. You try to separate now. It's going to be a while before you can push that out of your mind."

Years ago, when team charters often were small propeller planes rather than the luxury suites players are accustomed to today, fear was the norm. Former Sabres center Don Luce rattled off a few stories Friday, one in which the stewardess begged the pilot not to take off and another when they departed during the Blizzard of '77 with only 13 players.

"[Gilbert] Perreault was one of the worst," Luce said. "He was a white-knuckler. He would almost squeeze that armrest until it popped. A lot of guys were extremely afraid of flying. I don't care what you say, when you're nervous like that, it affects your system. You get scared, and you still have to go through with it. It's a tough thing to do."

"I remember one time, we were coming home from Boston, and it was a nasty storm," ex-Sabre Danny Gare said. "The plane must have dropped 1,000 feet. You could see the lightning outside your window. Guys were getting sick and throwing up. I'll never forget that flight. It was one of the scariest things I ever went through. It was crazy that we were put in those situations."

Alexander Mogilny spent years trying to overcome his fear of flying. Ruff mentioned how Mike Ramsey had a difficult time. Mike Robitaille recalled holding hands with former assistant coach John Tortorella on a few flights. Rick Dudley had a fear of flying. Jim Lorentz was anxious for years. Years later, trepidation is still common.

"We always joke around on flights when we have rough landings -- like, 'What if?' " said Penguins defenseman Brooks Orpik, whose parents live near the crash scene. "There's nothing you can do, though. I've probably been nervous only twice in the five years I've been here. You're probably safer up there than on the ground. There are a lot of bad drivers."

Quebec City and Winnipeg were notorious for being difficult places to land because of the high winds and extreme cold. With so many teams in Canada and the northern United States, planes often had difficulties. One memorable flight into Niagara Falls Airport in 1998-99 had the plane descending to 500 feet, inexplicably climbing to a few thousand feet and spending a half-hour circling the airport.

The reason: A snowplow was stuck on the landing strip. And if a snowplow is stuck, what are the conditions on the ground? And if the ground isn't clear, well . . .

"You try not to think about it because you have to do it all the time," Sharks winger Mike Grier said. "I think it's in the back of everybody's mind. As many times as you're flying and as many hours as you're up in the air, something could go wrong. You can really put yourself into a panic if you consciously think about it."

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Great Scott

Devils goalie Scott Clemmensen, crease-sitting while Martin Brodeur recovers from a nasty elbow injury, is certain to get a hefty pay hike and could land his first No. 1 job in the NHL next season. The Devils have a 30-15-1 record without Brodeur and lead the Atlantic Division.

Clemmensen has led the way with a 24-11-1 record with a 2.23 goals-against average and a .922 save percentage. The most work he had in one season before this season was 13 games while mopping up for Brodeur in 2005-06. The 31-year-old, pocketing $500,000 this year, is set to become an unrestricted free agent July 1.

"I don't think my play demands I play when he comes back," Clemmensen told the Newark Star-Ledger. "It's a situation where he's one of the best goalies in the world, if not the best, and it's been his team for a very long time. I'm not going to argue with anything either way."

Brodeur began practicing last week and was nearing a full recovery after playing just 10 games before the injury. He's was looking toward his first full practice and hoped to travel with the Devils to Florida and Tampa Bay this week. He's been getting peppered with shots from whatever teammates he can find.

"I can't ask for a full practice," Brodeur said. "The team has to do what it has to do. But this is more work than a full practice. Six guys shooting nonstop for 40 minutes. If I get that many shots in a game, we'll be in trouble."

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Kovalev out of sight

The Canadiens locked the doors for more than 30 minutes and supposedly cleared the air after their 6-2 loss to Calgary last week. Evidently, it wasn't cleared enough. Their response was a 7-2 loss to Edmonton in the next game, leading to speculation a roster shake-up was in order.

Alex Kovalev blamed their problems on off-ice distractions, such as the 100th anniversary of Habs hockey, and hints that the pressure of winning was too great. Forget the fact that he has all but disappeared after being voted into the NHL All-Star Game by fans before winning the MVP.

"The 100-year celebration, there have been a lot of questions about it, guys get fed up [with] that," he said. "It looks like it had a quick jump at the start of the season and now, I don't know, guys get tired hearing of it all the time, I have no idea."

Kovalev is without a goal in nine straight games, has two in his last 16 and was minus-11 in his last 13. Captain Saku Koivu has two goals in a 21-game stretch. Tomas Plekanec has five goals in 31 games, and two power-play goals all season. Carey Price has a 2-7 record with a 4.06 GAA and .861 save percentage in 10 games.

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Too close for comfort

Remember the good ole days in Memorial Auditorium, when players were within arm's length of the fans on their way to the dressing room?

An incident in which Tortorella decked a mouthy attorney in the stands comes to mind.

Edmonton has a similar setup, and Oilers defenseman Sheldon Souray is among several players who are looking for separation from fans. Coach Craig MacTavish is often the target of verbal abuse from people who have grown tired of watching a poor team.

"They should change that," Souray said. "I'm not saying we don't deserve criticism, but you [media] guys are going to give it to us enough. Getting it from people drinking double Jack and Cokes all night isn't right."

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Quotable

Sabres center Adam Mair after the Senators beat them in two straight games: "They're the cockiest last-place team in the league."

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Around the boards

*Leafs GM Brian Burke all but punched Nik Antropov's ticket out of town last week when he said he wouldn't re-sign the big center. Antropov, making $2.15 million, had 17 goals, 39 points and was minus-15. "I don't see any reason to put a new contract offer on the table here," Burke told AM 640. "I don't think Nik's play has merited that discussion."

*Red Wings owner Mike Ilitch made a classy move when he sent 2008 championship rings to living members who won the Stanley Cup before 1997. Back in the day, they won the trophy but didn't receive rings. "You'd have to be a weightlifter to wear this thing," said Alex Delvecchio, a three-time winner in the 1950s.

*Former Senators coach John Paddock, now with AHL Philadelphia, on Ottawa GM Bryan Murray: "I now think he's next in line [to be fired]. We were 14 games over .500 when I was fired. They're seven under now. Somebody needs to take responsibility for that."

*Wild rookie Colton Gillies, whose locker stall is adjacent to that of grouchy veteran Owen Nolan: "I've learned a lot from him, and we seem very similar. Give me a couple more years. I'll get a little grumpier."

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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