FROM THE CREASE with BRUCE BERLET

bruce mug shot 1By: Bruce Berlet

NHL general managers and coaches usually worry about their players getting injured in such special events as the Olympics and World Hockey Championships, especially when they’re goalies.

Intelligent officials won’t keep players from competing for their country, though they often wish they would when those dreaded injuries occur.

Former Hartford Wolf Pack goalie Al Montoya of the New York Islanders injured his knee while playing for Team USA in the recent World Championships in Slovakia but reportedly will be ready for next season. The 26-year-old Montoya, the only Cuban-American to play in the NHL, had a 2.60 goals-against average and .871 save percentage in four games for Team USA, which reached the quarterfinals before being ousted by the defending champion Czech Republic, which got a hat trick from former New York Rangers captain Jaromir Jagr in a 4-0 victory.

Montoya, the Rangers’ first-round pick (sixth overall) in 2004, had successful surgery on a torn meniscus in his left knee and should be ready for training camp in September. The Islanders must think they’re cursed after No. 1 goalie Rick DiPietro and Kevin Poulin, called up from the AHL’s Bridgeport Sound Tigers, both sustained knee injuries last season. Poulin was injured when he caught a skate in a rut during warm-ups before a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Feb. 9. Poulin, a 20-year-old rookie subbing for DiPietro, was replaced by Mikko Koskinen, who had been brought up from the Sound Tigers because of injuries to DiPietro and Nathan Lawson, got the emergency start and made his NHL debut, stopping 21 shots in a 5-3 loss. During the game, the Islanders recalled Joel Martin, 28, who had started the season with Odessa of the Central Hockey League.

Let’s hope Montoya fully recovers quickly after finally getting a chance to play regularly in the NHL after four Islanders goalies were injured and Evgeni Nabokov refused to report after being claimed off re-entry waivers from the San Jose Sharks. Phoenix Coyotes general manager Don Maloney, who had a big part in Montoya being drafted while an assistant GM with the Rangers, traded the goalie to the Islanders on Feb. 9 for a sixth-round pick in the June draft. Montoya responded with a 9-5-5 record with a 2.39 goals-against average, .921 save percentage and one shutout in 21 games.

Prior to last season, Montoya was 3-1-0 in the NHL with the Coyotes and 96-72-7 with a 2.68 GAA and .904 save percentage in 197 AHL games with the Wolf Pack and San Antonio Rampage, the Coyotes’ top affiliate. He was traded from the Rangers to Coyotes with Marcel Hossa for Fredrik Sjostrom, David LeNeveu and Josh Gratton on Feb. 26, 2008. But he still didn’t get a steady chance in the NHL, though he was named to Team USA in the 2009 World Championships and won his only start, a 6-2 victory over France.

But Montoya’s strong play with the rejuvenated Islanders earned him a one-year, $601,000 contract for next season that he signed March 29. So being healthy for training camp is imperative for him and the Islanders.

Meanwhile, Nabokov said he will report to training camp but could be traded if DiPietro and Montoya are healthy. The Islanders claimed the Russian goalie for the bargain price of $570,000, but he wouldn’t report because he didn’t want to play for a non-playoff contending team and was suspended by the team and the NHL.

Nabokov was claimed after he had left St. Petersburg of the Kontinental Hockey League in Russia. The Sharks hadn’t re-signed him last year because of salary-cap problems, so he became an unrestricted free agent. He was considered a marquee free agent, but there was little interest shown in him, so he signed a $24 million deal with St. Petersburg. But because of “family circumstances,” his contract with St. Petersburg was terminated by mutual consent on Dec. 13.

On Jan. 20, TSN reported Nabokov would be signed by the Detroit Red Wings to fill the void left by backup goalie Chris Osgood being placed on injured reserve after surgery to repair a torn groin muscle. Joey McDonald, who was called up from the AHL’s Grand Rapids Griffins to replace Osgood, ended up starting several games when starting goalie Jimmy Howard sustained a bruised knee. Nabokov was eventually signed by the Red Wings but claimed on waivers by the Islanders on Jan. 22. Reports then surfaced that Nabokov was unhappy and refused to report. On Jan. 25, the Islanders announced they had suspended Nabokov for the remainder of the season.

The Islanders gave the 35-year-old Nabokov permission to play in the World Championships on the condition he would not contest to them tolling (extending) his contract through the 2011-12 season for his failure to report to the team. Nabokov is 293-178-29 with a 2.39 GAA, .912 save percentage and 37 shutouts in 563 NHL games and 37-36-3 with three shutouts in 78 AHL games with the Kentucky Thoroughblades. Trading Nabokov is thought to be the best alternative for Islanders general manager Garth Snow after the Stanley Cup playoffs end. Regardless, Nabovok’s decision to report to training camp is one less headache for the Islanders.

“There is no hostility to the team and the players,” Nabokov said in an interview with a Russian newspaper.

WHALE ‘SKATE TO 3,000’

Summer is the most important time of the year for a hockey team as far as sales, and Connecticut Whale officials have started their “Skate to 3,000” campaign to have 3,000 season tickets for 2011-12.

There were only 470 season ticket holders when Whalers Sports and Entertainment took over control of the business operations only 21/2 weeks before the start of last season. That reached 600 by the time the first puck was dropped Oct. 8, but WSE officials would now like to more than quadruple that number and have already surpassed that number since the Whale was eliminated from the playoffs.

Plus there’s an added bonus to joining or rejoining early.

“The people who get on board now are going to be the first in line when and if we move toward the NHL,” WSE chairman and CEO Howard Baldwin said. “Anyone who pays attention to what’s going on in hockey now can see there are going to be movement of franchises. And I can promise you that there is going to be movement in the next few years in the NFL. But this is the NHL, and we’re back on the radar … pardon the pun as far as Sonar (the Hartford Wolf Pack mascot).”

One of the major factors in trying to reach that season-ticket goal is the introduction of the Xfinity at Comcast Slapshot Cage that will tour the region with mascots Sonar and Pucky (Whale). The movable, inflatable cage will travel to various events throughout the summer and also make stops at the Comcast Theatre at 61 Savitt Way in Hartford. It also will visit corporate partners at lunch time when WSE officials will be pushing corporate sales, allowing interested parties to have the speed of their shots measured by a radar gun.

“The key is that it’s very visible and very colorful and represents us in the community,” WSE senior vice president of sales and business development Bob Ohrablo said. “We’ll be all over Central Connecticut all summer at all kinds of different events. If someone is having a block party or something else, they should let us know and we’ll show up, along with information on our upcoming season, season tickets, things like that.”

WSE also will be holding another Summer Fest in mid-August at the XL Center that will include former Whalers and current Whale players.

“It will be a one-day celebration of hockey and a good time for families to come out to a kind of carnival atmosphere,” Ohrablo said. “It also will be a great time for people to get their season tickets. We’ll have a booth set up with the seats that are available, so it’ll be a nice chance to folks to come out about a month before training camp starts.”

The date and other details of the Summer Fest will be announced in the near future.

Ohrablo said he and his staff have already started talking to sponsors and hope to have “a whole new lineup” for next season.

“We offer sponsors a lot,” he said. “We offer them the opportunity to be involved in everything we have and see the whole thing through (to the NHL). We also want to make sure that their business benefits from the sponsorship, so we customize most of our packages to their needs.”

A large part of that is the creation of the Whale Business Club, a networking group to assure the sponsors and season ticket holders talk to each other.

“We want to make sure that while they’re supporting us and our cause and our mission that they’re also generating additional incremental business for themselves,” Ohrablo said. “The easiest way to do that is for people with like interests, those that are rallying behind us, should be doing business with each other. So we’re going to do a series of events where we get everyone together with introductions and have a separate page on our website (www.ctwhale.com). Again, people supporting us need to support each other and generate business for each other.”

Anyone interested in booking the Xfinity of Comcast Slapshot Cage or becoming a season ticket holder or corporate sponsor should contact director of client services Amy Rimmer at amy@whalerssports.com. The Whale will also have a booth at the Travelers Championship June 20-26 at TPC River Highlands in Cromwell where fans can select seats at the XL Center and purchase season tickets.

GOLF TOURNAMENT TO BENEFIT WOLF PACK FAN RYAN GORDON

Congregation Beth Israel will host the Ryan C. Gordon Memorial Golf Outing on June 9 at The Traditions in Wallingford.

The Kiddush Cup was renamed five years ago after the 19-year-old Gordon, a young congregant who passed away after a courageous battle with cancer. A week before he died, Ryan requested his unused college funds be donated to three charities that he felt had benefited him throughout his lifetime. His hope was his gifts would inspire others to give.

Because of his generosity, Beth Israel, in honoring Ryan’s legacy, has donated $50,000 from the Kiddush Cup proceeds to the Cystic Fibrosis Foundation, the Ryan Gordon Endowment Fund at the Kingswood-Oxford School in West Hartford, the Yale Cancer Center’s Thoracic Oncology Program and the Ryan Gordon/Hartford Wolf Pack Community Scholars Fund at Trinity College in Hartford.

The endowment fund at Kingswood-Oxford is a financially-driven scholarship that will enable a deserving student to attend the school’s annual Team-Tobati trip to Paraguay. Team Tobati is an all-volunteer non-profit organization dedicated to working with and assisting the poor of Tobati, Paraguay.

The Yale Cancer Center’s Thoracic Oncology Program receives donations to a special tissue bank that is doing research for the early detection of thoracic cancers. The Ryan Gordon/Hartford Wolf Pack Community Foundation Scholars Fund was established to provide deserving Hartford youths with the opportunity to learn to play the game of hockey that Ryan loved so much while a fan of the Wolf Pack.

The scramble tournament has a 9 a.m. shotgun after registration, a continental breakfast and a putting contest. Fox-61 sports director Rich Coppola will emcee the 19th hole festivities that include men’s, women’s and mixed-team prizes. Entry fee is $155, and dinner only is $45. To learn more about the tournament and sponsorship opportunities or to download a brochure, go to www.bethisraelwallingford.org and follow Kiddush Cup link or contact Todd Schwartz at 203-235-4314 or Phyllis Gordon at 203-269-5094 or pgordon@snet.net.

SAMUELSSON, MCCRIMMON OUT FOR DIFFERENT REASONS

Former Wolf Pack and Rangers wing Mikael Samuelsson of the Vancouver Canucks is out indefinitely after having surgery to repair an adductor tendon and a sports hernia. The injury has nagged Samuelsson all season, and the Swede hasn’t played since aggravating it in Game 5 of the Western Conference semifinals against the Nashville Predators on May 7.

Samuelsson had been dropped to the fourth line but was still playing the point on the power play, getting one goal and two assists in 11 playoff games as the Canucks took a 2-0 lead in the conference finals against the San Jose Sharks. He was signed as a free agent in 2009 largely because of his Stanley Cup experience with the Detroit Red Wings. He was a fifth-round pick of the Sharks in 1998 and played one season in the San Jose organization before being traded to the Rangers to the Rangers with Christian Gosselin for Adam Graves on June 24, 2001. He played nearly two seasons in Hartford and New York before being traded to the Pittsburgh Penguins on Feb. 10, 2003, with Rico Fata, Joel Bouchard, Richard Linter and cash for Alexei Kovalev, Dan LaCouture, Janne Laukkanen and Mike Wilson.

Meanwhile, the Red Wings announced assistant coach Brad McCrimmon won’t be returning next season. His contract expired after the Red Wings were eliminated by the Sharks last week in their Western Conference semifinal.

McCrimmon was a Red Wings assistant for three seasons after being an assistant with the Atlanta Thrashers, Calgary Flames and Islanders. His 18-year NHL playing career began as a first-round pick (15th overall) of the Boston Bruins in 1979 and included being captain of the Stanley Cup-winning Flames in 1989 and three seasons with the Hartford Whalers from 1993 to 1996.

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