SUN Hockey Pool

Hot air in Windy City

TERRY KOSHAN -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:29 AM ET

The Chicago Blackhawks have their problems but apparently not enough that they can't be swept under the carpet by a visit from the National Hockey League commissioner.

Gary Bettman dropped into the Windy City on Wednesday and blew some hot air regarding the Blackhawks' fortunes. Bettman looked on as the Blackhawks and Columbus Blue Jackets played before a United Center crowd that was announced as 10,130, but was closer to 5,000.

"I've been in buildings over the last 12 years or 13 years where I've seen attendance figures in that vicinity or lower, and it comes back," Bettman told reporters. "I think Chicago has always been a hockey market with a strong and deep tradition. Market is sometimes an issue, but it's not the case here. Chicago is a great market, always has been and will be. And the building is sometimes an issue, but that's not the case here either.

"So I think this is just going to be a question of getting back on track ... in a cap system everybody has the ability to be competitive."

Back to reality for a minute. The 'Hawks aren't taken seriously by many in the NHL any more and will finish out of the playoffs for the seventh time in eight seasons. They made splashes in free agency last summer, but might finish last overall in the 30-team league.

The NHL has taken great pains to point out attendance has increased league-wide this season, but that does not apply at the cavernous United Center, where capacity for hockey is 20,500. The 'Hawks had an average of 13,464 in 33 home games. Only the New York Islanders had a lower average, but Chicago's 65.7% capacity rate was worst in the NHL. Chicago had the fewest percentage of seats filled in 2003-04 and 2003-02 as well. In 2003-04, the capacity rate was lower by one point than it is now.

Bettman also said "there's no more passionate owner in sports than Bill Wirtz and the Wirtz family."

Perhaps, in a Harold Ballard sort of way.

STORM ON THE HORIZON

When the 2005-06 schedule was released last summer, the present stretch the Maple Leafs are in might not have appeared that bad, since all teams have to endure long periods away from home. But who would have figured their lone home game in this eight-game stint -- tomorrow against the Carolina Hurricanes -- would have had the potential to be so deadly?

The Hurricanes have their sights on the Presidents' Trophy. Everywhere the Leafs look, they will have to worry about one Hurricane or another.

Carolina has eight players with 50 or more points, a statistic no other NHL team can boast.

"It makes it tough to stop a team when you can't focus on one line," Carolina coach Peter Laviolette said. "One of our biggest strengths is that maybe one guy can't score every night, but somebody can score every night."

Relative newcomer Doug Weight has been impressed.

"We're a deep team, and we have a lot of belief in how we play," Weight said. "We have a lot of selflessness on this team. We're all trying to have great shifts, and whoever puts the puck in the net, that's great."

BUDAJ A BELIEVER

Colorado Avalanche rookie goalie Peter Budaj was a popular player when he tended net for the OHL's St. Michael's Majors, and in more ways than one.

Budaj, who played three seasons for St. Mike's, told the Denver Post it's a daily challenge to stick to his religious beliefs. Let's just say the straight and narrow is not always a strict path followed by many pro athletes.

"My parents brought me up with Jesus Christ as my saviour," Budaj said.

"I grew up as a Christian, and I try to live a Christian life. Many people think that being a Christian is not good, because you cannot do some stuff that other people can. I do a lot of things I am not happy with, but I try to do the best I can."

EARLY JUMP ON POST-SEASON

The idea that rivalries become more intense with more games between certain clubs is fine, but the NHL's strange schedule this season will have some teams thinking the playoffs already have started.

The Edmonton Oilers, for example, have three games this week, all involving the Vancouver Canucks. They play host to the Canucks tomorrow before back-to-back games in Vancouver on Thursday and Saturday.

From April 3-7, the Hurricanes have three games, all against the Washington Capitals. That set is sandwiched by a pair of 'Canes road games -- both in Atlanta.

The most bizarre sequence involves the Capitals. On Saturday, they are in Carolina. Their next game afterward is in Carolina on March 29. They then play in Montreal and Ottawa before the three-game set with the 'Canes. How does five games in seven against one team make sense? Oh well, anything as long as the Leafs don't play the Detroit Red Wings.


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