HNIC could hit playoff jackpot

LANCE HORNBY -- Toronto Sun

, Last Updated: 9:55 AM ET

Hockey Night In Canada has gone from having no playoff ticket in last year's lockout to a shot at winning a ratings lottery.

Six Canadian teams are still alive as of today, four have a decent chance and at least two should play well into May.

Although chances are remote of the Ottawa Senators, Montreal Canadiens, Maple Leafs, Calgary Flames, Vancouver Canucks and Edmonton Oilers all making the playoffs, HNIC executive producer Joel Darling must have a game plan.

"More than anything, it's a question of logistics," Darling said of getting personnel for broadcast teams assembled for East and West time zones. "We've got Bob Cole and Jim Hughson for play-by-play, plus Don Wittman and Mark Lee, then Harry (Neale) and Greg (Millen) as analysts. If necessary, we'll be using other people.

"We could still have four or five Canadian-flavoured series. Or they could wind up knocking one or each other out (such as Toronto/Montreal and Edmonton/Vancouver this week, allowing Atlanta or San Jose in). We're doing everything the fans are right now, watching the games and sweating it out."

Without trying to sound like a Leafs homer, Darling admits the presence of Toronto is a guaranteed first-round ratings grabber from coast to coast. But if this becomes the first spring since 1998 without the Leafs on the tube, there are plenty of candidates to be Canada's team.

"No Leafs would help a team such as Ottawa, a relatively new franchise, gain an audience across the country," Darling said. "You saw how well the ratings reflected Calgary going four rounds (in 2004). There has been talk all year that Calgary and Ottawa could meet in the final."

An all-Canadian Cup hasn't been staged since the Flames beat the Canadiens in 1989.

"Could it happen?" Darling wondered aloud. "That's why we love hockey. We had nothing last year because of the lockout and now we remember why this time is so exciting with teams on the bubble, either falling out or going ahead."

PHOENIX PLAYERS IN THE PINK

Those pink sticks that many NHLers used last weekend to highlight the fight against cancer had even more significance for the Phoenix Coyotes.

It was coach Wayne Gretzky's idea, hatched in tandem with a friend in the equipment business, the day of his mother Phyllis' funeral on Dec. 19. Seven Coyotes went pink in Sunday's 3-2 win over the Chicago Blackhawks, including Mike Comrie, whose mom, Theresa, died of breast cancer when he was 10.

"It's always nice to score, but today was a little more special," said Comrie, who put his mother's initials on the special stick. "It was a hard time for me. She was an outstanding mother. I am very fortunate to give back using a stick like that. Every time I looked down at it, you know the reason you're using it."

SCREEN SHOT PAYS OFF

By the time David Miller finished filming the climactic scene of Canada Russia '72, he felt like he'd been through the same life-altering eight game experience as Paul Henderson.

"We shot that part 30-plus times, including slow motion," said Miller, a young actor from Miramichi, N.B., who plays Henderson in the coming CBC two-part special. "I almost broke down. You're so exhausted after doing it so many times. But when you finally do it the right way and the guys were all huddled around you, I really got caught up in it.

"I killed two birds with one stone; Be in a movie and be a Canadian hockey superstar. The day we began shooting, I was up before anyone and out alone on a fresh sheet of ice wearing the Canada jersey."

The 63-year-old Henderson still gets people thanking him for the goal. He accepted an invitation from four-year-old grandson Alton to read The Greatest Goal , a kids' book about the summit series, for Alton's kindergarten class in Oakville last month.

"When you asked them 'who scored the goal?' Alton said 'it's grampy!, it's grampy!' " Henderson said with a laugh. "I love that aspect (of the fame)."

JACQUES TALK

Minnesota Wild coach Jacques Lemaire clearly is in a bad mood about missing the playoffs. When Willie Mitchell played his first game back in Minnesota -- after being traded to the Dallas Stars in a dispute over next year's salary -- Lemaire insists he won't miss the veteran defenceman.

"He feels he could get $3.5 million US, good for him," Lemaire said. "I won't lose sleep because we lose a player. If he wants to go for the money, go. The earth is still going to turn."

When Brian Rolston took one of those new penalties for shooting a puck over the glass, for what became a costly five-on-three, Lemaire snapped "is that a stupid rule or not? It's unbelievable. My Lord."

Finally, Lemaire dumped on NCAA hockey, leaving a Wisconsin-Minnesota game in the second period at Xcel Energy Center to beat the traffic home.

"You don't want my opinion," he told a reporter. "It has been a year and half I didn't come to a game. Maybe next time it'll be two years."


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