Hockey has its own westward expansion

Colorado. San Jose. Dallas. Phoenix. Anaheim.

If you asked Gordie Howe if he would have envisioned hockey in these cities in the year 2000, he would have probably told you to put your hockey stick where the sun doesn't shine. However, with stingy owners and heavy tax problems in Canada, and a increasing interest in the United States, these are the cities that have enjoyed a great deal of success now that they are part of the National Hockey League.

Four of the above-mentioned teams are members of the Pacific Division in the Western Conference (Colorado is stuck in the middle of the Northwest Division) and have created quite a stir this season - they all have at least 10 points and are separated by only four points from top to bottom.

The San Jose Sharks came into the league nine years ago and have made their mark in the hockey community. Although the Stanley Cup has not made its way to San Jose as of yet, don't be surprised to see the Sharks make a real run this year.

Coach Darryl Sutter has been able to mesh this team with young and old and has the goaltending tandem of Steve Shields and Mike Vernon to keep them in games. San Jose has developed a fantastic fan base and has sold their merchandise by the millions since their inception in 1991. San Jose leads the Western Conference in points with 14.

The other expansion team, the Anaheim Mighty Ducks, have two of the biggest superstars in the world on their team with Paul Kariya and Teemu Selanne. They both scored more than 100 points last season on their way to the playoffs, but unlike the Sharks do not have the depth to contend at the present time.

What the Ducks do provide hockey fans with is pure excitement. Watching Kariya and Selanne play on a nightly basis would fill any arena and keep the fans interested even if they are nothing but a mediocre team. Ducks fans have to pray that neither one of their stars go down, or their season will be over faster than you can say flambe.

Dallas, Phoenix, and Colorado all moved from other cities, and Colorado and Dallas have both won a Stanley Cup. Denver, after losing the Colorado Rockies two decades ago, have given an already-crazy sports town another event to wear their Birkenstocks to. I had the pleasure of living in Colorado for a period of time, and when the Avalanche won the Stanley Cup, all the grief that the state of Colorado had taken up until that point about the Broncos and their hapless showings in their four Super Bowl appearances seemingly disappeared.

The state was given its first major sports championship and brought hockey prominence back to Colorado. Since then, the Avalanche have done nothing but win their division every year and lose to the eventual Stanley Cup champions two out of the last three years. Bringing Patrick Roy from Montreal was the single most brilliant move that Colorado sports fans have seen since some guy named Elway refused to play in Baltimore.

And there's Dallas. The Stars moved South from Minnesota some time ago and took a while, but they finally brought Texas a hockey championship. Sounds funny, doesn't it? Holdovers Mike Modano and Derian Hatcher stuck it out long enough to be able to enjoy their successes with Ed Belfour and longtime Western Hockey League coach Ken Hitchcock.

I guarantee that if the people of Texas were asked which sport - hockey or baseball - would bring them their next championship, most of them would have spit their Copenhagen at you if hockey was mentioned.

The NHL has expanded West and brought its fans with them. Never in the days of the Original Six would places like San Jose or Dallas be considered for hockey and its future.

Look for Ottawa and possibly Edmonton to come to the United States in the near future because of money problems. With the continued growth of Las Vegas, that city is a perfect fit for the NHL.

n The free agent market has shrunk by two players, as Dmitri Khristich and Joe Juneau have found new homes. Khristich, who was denied his arbitration ruling by Boston GM Harry Sinden, was signed by Toronto. I hope that this move catapults Toronto and leaves Boston in the dust.

Losing one of your own to a division rival is a big mistake in any sport, but it may be magnified in hockey because of the intensity that a player brings against his former team. Patrick Roy is 5-1-1 against the Canadiens since he demanded to be traded after his coach left him in to be embarassed in an 11-1 loss to the Red Wings in 1996.

Joe Juneau has found himself in the Northeast Division as well with the Ottawa Senators. Juneau, who may still have spark in his game if he is surrounded by the right players, signed a multi-year deal and hopes to erase the loss of holdout Alexei Yashin.

n Take a look at the standings after the first month and not one team stands out. Dig a little deeper, and it is obvious too see that the Detroit Red Wings are far superior to any other team in the NHL.

Wednesday's victory over the Colorado Avalanche proved that Detroit can come back as well as hold off a powerful team such as Colorado with great goaltending and disciplined play. Colorado had an early 2-0 lead, but Detroit came back to win convincingly by the score of 5-3.

This team is motivated by last year's loss to Colorado in the playoffs and is showing that in their 7-1-1 start. Goaltender Chris Osgood has not been beaten as the Wings have disposed of everyone but Dallas. Look for the Red Wings to continue to dominate the Western Conference.

Trevor Smith is the Nevada Appeal hockey columnist.


Use the comment form below to begin a discussion about this content.

Sign in to comment