SPOTLIGHT: JAMES DOLAN SPEAKS

Bruce BerletBY: Bruce Berlet

New York Rangers owner James Dolan made a rare, spontaneous visit to the Madison Square Garden media room after his team’s 3-0 victory over the Nashville Panthers on Tuesday night.

Dolan, the CEO of MSG, praised Rangers president and general manager Glen Sather for building a team from within with youth and good drafting that is close to winning its first Stanley Cup since 1994. Dolan didn’t mention Connecticut Whale coach Ken Gernander and assistants J.J. Daigneault and Pat Boller, but coach John Tortorella has often praised their work as the Rangers (29-11-4) have moved to the top of the NHL’s overall standings with 62 points in 44 games.

“I’m very proud of the organization,” Dolan said in his first chat with the media that covers the Rangers since the 2005-06 season. “I’m particularly proud of Mr. Sather because all the way back to 2004, when things weren’t going so well and we had a lot of free agents in here and we decided to basically redo the strategy, Glen and I made a pact. I actually gave him something, which I won’t reveal what it is. I said you can’t give it back, but I gave him something to seal the pact. I said, ‘You can’t give it back to me until we win the Stanley Cup.’ And I think I’m pretty close to getting that thing back.”

Tortorella said he was “shocked” to see Dolan in his postgame interview and jokingly responded to his boss’ comments about his team being close to a title despite the season being barely half over.

“Right now up to this point we’ve done a pretty good job,” Tortorella said after Dolan left the room. “We just have to go about our business. I’ve got an owner up here talking about a Stanley Cup. That’s a bunch of BS. We need to take one day at a time.”

Dolan was effusive in his praise for Sather since the NHL lockout after the 2003-04 season.

“For me, it’s all about the system he built,” said Dolan, who visited the Rangers’ locker room with Sather before heading to the media room. “Of course it’s great coaching, but it’s about the farm system, the scouting system, the development and going with kids and sticking with that philosophy even when, at times, it didn’t look so good. So I’m very proud of him and very proud of the organization.”

Gernander, Daigneault and Boller have been instrumental in helping develop many of the Rangers’ young players, including captain Ryan Callahan, All-Stars Marc Staal and Dan Girardi, Brandon Dubinsky, Artem Anisimov, Michael Sauer, Ryan McDonagh, Michael Del Zotto and this season’s call-ups, rookie Carl Hagelin, Stu Bickel, and veterans Andre Deveaux, Kris Newbury and John Mitchell, who has scored in the Rangers’ last two games.

Hagelin, called up with Mitchell on Nov. 24, earned more kudos from Tortorella after the win over the Predators.

“I put him on lines, and he ignites lines with his speed,” the coach said. “It’s just a dog and a bone mentality as far as chasing down the pucks. He played really good the other night on a different line with (Brian) Boyle. I bounce him all over the place. I thought all the lines contributed tonight. Step (Derek Stepan’s) line, for the majority of the night, played really well.”

During the Tuesday morning skate, Sauer and fellow defenseman Steve Eminger joined their teammates for the first time since being injured. They took part in all aspects of the skate, which as usual didn’t have any hitting or contact drills.

“I hadn’t picked up a stick and played with the boys for a while,” said a smiling Sauer, who sustained a concussion when he hit his head on the boards after a collision with All-Star defenseman Dion Phaneuf in a game against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Dec. 5. “When you are healthy that is something that you can take for granted, but getting out there again, snapping the puck around, scoring a few goals, making good passes, it’s just fun. Hockey is just an amazing game, and it’s certainly better than being on the (stationary) bike. I am just happy that I’ve been able to progress back on to the ice.”

Sauer, who battled several different injuries in his three seasons with the Wolf Pack, said he had done a few stops and starts in his recovery but has felt better the week to 10 days. Despite the headaches, nausea and blurred vision that he has suffered, he had no ill feelings towards Phaneuf.

“It’s part of the game and I understand that, it was just a hit, that’s all,” said Sauer, who will miss his 20th game Thursday night against the visiting Pittsburgh Penguins. “(Phaneuf) is a good player, and it was what it was.”

Sauer said he has received a lot of support from his brother Kurt, a defenseman with the Phoenix Coyotes who has been sidelined all season because of a concussion. He also said his return will be monitored by the team’s training staff on a day-to-day basis depending on how his head and body react to increased activity.

Eminger, who separated his right shoulder in Phoenix on Dec. 17, said he is on schedule with his progress and recovery. He has been working out in the gym for more than two weeks to strengthen the shoulder while also keeping up his cardio. Like Sauer, Eminger skated Monday for the first time since being hurt as a test before receiving the OK to skate with his teammates.

“I want to get back into the lineup, but in this situation, I want to be 100 percent with my hitting, battling, taking checks, so I am willing to wait as long as possible to make sure I am ready to play my game,” said Eminger, who was expected to be out 8-to-10 weeks and will miss his 14th game Thursday night. “I don’t want to be 90 percent ready and be shying away from hits because then I feel useless to the team.”

Though he admitted feeling “frustrated” to be out of the lineup, Eminger also said he was buoyed by the fact his legs and conditioning feel so good after not skating for a month. Defenseman Jeff Woywitka, who initially sustained a bruised left foot in the same game that Eminger was injured and later aggravated it in practice, is close to returning. … Left wing Chris Kreider, the Rangers’ first-round pick (19th overall) in 2009 and considered one of the top prospects in the world, scored the winning goal shorthanded at 4:02 of the third period as Boston College beat Northeastern 2-1 before 29,601 in an outdoor game at Fenway Park last Saturday. It was the second shorthanded goal for Kreider and sixth for the Eagles this season. Senior goalie Chris Venti made 14 saves in his first collegiate start after making his first appearance of the season the previous night in the final 30:02 of a 4-0 loss at Massachusetts. Kreider, a junior, leads the Eagles (14-8-1, 10-5-1 in Hockey East) in goals (14) and points (25) entering games Friday night and Saturday afternoon at league foe Maine.

WHALE START LONG HOMESTAND FRIDAY NIGHT

After playing at Portland on Wednesday night, the Whale opens a five-game homestand Friday night against the Atlantic Division-leading St. John’s IceCaps (22-10-5-1), the new affiliate of the new Winnipeg Jets. The IceCaps, who have sold out their first 20 home games, will be starting a six-game road trip through New England. They have won the first three meetings with the Whale – 6-3 in Hartford on Nov. 4 and 8-4 and 4-3 at home on Nov. 12 and 13 – but the Whale is 5-0-0-2 at home since a 5-3 loss to the Hershey Bears on Dec. 9.

The game will mark the return of Deveaux from a three-game suspension for two boarding incidents in losses to the Springfield Falcons on Jan. 7 and 8. Deveaux, the Whale’s third-leading scorer (11 goals, 14 assists), earlier served a three-game suspension while with the Rangers for an illegal check to the head of Tomas Fleischmann in a 2-1 loss to the Florida Panthers on Nov. 23. He rejoined the Whale on Dec. 1 and became a major force, especially net-front on the power play, where he has a team-high nine goals, which is tied for second in the league, two behind Graham Mink of Hershey.

A run of Whale giveaways starts with Wade Redden Bobblehead Night, sponsored by Click It or Ticket, on Saturday, when there will be a doubleheader as the Whale hosts the Atlantic Division-leading Norfolk Admirals at 7 p.m. after a Canadian Women’s Hockey League game between the first-place Boston Blades and Team Alberta at 3 p.m. in the “International Women’s Hockey Challenge Presented by Aetna.”

The Admirals (23-13-1-2) beat the Whale 3-1 and 4-2 in Norfolk last Friday and Saturday nights. They’re led by All-Star center Trevor Smith (16 goals, 28 assists), who was called up by the Tampa Bay Lightning on Monday, left wing Cory Conacher (22, 21), the AHL’s top rookie scorer, defenseman Mark Barberio (4, 31), right wing Carter Ashton (15, 13) and center Tyler Johnson (13, 10). Dustin Tokarski (16-9-0, 2.39 goals-against average, .904 save percentage, two shutouts) won both games against the Whale last weekend, and Jaroslav Janus (7-5-2, 3.04, .893) is his backup.

The Blades (14-2-0) rallied from a two-goal deficit to a 3-2 shootout victory over Montreal (12-3-1) last Saturday at the International Skating Center in Simsbury as Kelli Stack and fellow Olympian Kacey Bellamy, who scored the Blades’ first goal shorthanded, converted in the shootout after Branford native and Olympian Caitlin Cahow set up Whitney Naslund’s tying goal with 2:27 left in the second period. Olympian Molly Schaus made 34 saves in regulation and overtime and stopped two Stars shootout tries. A day later, Bellamy scored twice, Stack had four assists, Cahow chipped in two assists and Schaus made 34 saves as the Blades beat Montreal 6-2 to take over first place from the Stars, whose roster includes Olympian Julie Chu of Fairfield. Stack leads the Blades with 12 goals and eight assists, followed by Erika Lawler (5, 14) and Gigi Marvin (6, 10). Schaus is 10-2-0 with a 2.15 GAA and .902 save percentage. Blades players will sign autographs after the game Saturday against Team Alberta (3-4-0).

Other Whale giveaways include Trading Cards Set II of All-Star rookie right wing Jonathan Audy-Marchessault, Cam Talbot, Kelsey Tessier, Ryan Bourque, Jordan Owens and a historic tribute to New York Rangers captain and former Hartford Wolf Pack All-Star right wing Ryan Callahan, sponsored by Webster Bank, on Jan. 27 (Wilkes-Barre/Scranton) and Trading Cards Set III of Redden, Newbury, Hagelin, All-Star wing Mats Zuccarello and Chad Johnson, sponsored by Supercuts, on Jan. 28 (Springfield), when selected players will sign autographs on the cards after the game. … The Whale’s annual Tip-A-Player Dinner and Sports Carnival, presented by Aetna, is Sunday from 4 to 7 p.m. at the XL Center. Whale players will serve dinner for the benefit of Gaylord Specialty Healthcare in Wallingford, and other activities will include autographs and photos, locker room tours and a silent auction. Adult tickets are $30, and tickets for children 12 and under are $20. To purchase tickets, visit a table outside Section 101 at Whale games or call 860-728-3366 or 203-248-2881.  More information is available at http://tipaplayerevent.charityhappenings.org/… College students can get discounted tickets to weekday Whale games with the “Ditch the Dorms” deal. For Monday through Friday games, students who show a valid student ID at the Public Power Ticket office at the XL Center can get $2 off upper-level tickets and $5 off lower-level seats. … Fan balloting for the AHL All-Star starters runs through Monday at noon at www.theahl.com and facebook.com/theahl. By completing the official ballot, fans also will be entered to win a grand prize of a team-signed All-Star jersey. Five more winners will receive two tickets to the All-Star skills competition Jan. 29 and All-Star Game Jan. 30 in Atlantic City, N.J.

BYERS SUSPENDED THREE GAMES

Former Wolf Pack left wing and captain Dane Byers was suspended three games without pay for delivering an illegal check to the head of San Jose Sharks forward Andrew Desjardins in the Columbus Blue Jackets’ 2-1 loss last Saturday night. At 3:01 of the second period, Byers, on recall from the Springfield Falcons, checked Desjardins as he was carrying the puck out of the San Jose zone. While making the check, Byers’ shoulder made contact with Desjardins’ head, injuring Desjardins, who did not return to the game. Byers was assessed a match penalty as well as a fighting major for an altercation with Brad Winchester that occurred as a result of the check. Under terms of the collective bargaining agreement, and based on his average annual salary, Byers will forfeit $8,918.91, which goes the Players’ Emergency Assistance Fund. … Charlotte Checkers defenseman Bobby Sanguinetti, the Rangers’ first-round pick (21st overall) in 2006 who played two seasons with the Wolf Pack before being traded to the Carolina Hurricanes on June 26, 2010, was named winner of the reGen Muscle Recovery Beverage/AHL Performance of the Month Award for December. After being sidelined for 10 games with a broken foot, Sanguinetti recovered and recorded five assists in seven games in December to help the Checkers hold on to first place in the Midwest Division. Even with the injury affecting his season, Sanguinetti is first in scoring among Charlotte defensemen and fifth overall with 17 points and ranks third among all Checker skaters in assists (16).

ALFREDSSON, CHARA NAMED NHL ALL-STAR CAPTAINS

Former Ottawa Senators teammates Daniel Alfredsson and Zdeno Chara were named captains for the NHL All-Star weekend on Wednesday.

Alfredsson, a wing and captain of the Senators, and Chara, a defenseman and captain of the Stanley Cup champion Bruins, will take turns picking their All-Star teams at the NHL All-Star Player Fantasy Draft on Jan. 26. The teams will participate in the skills competition Jan. 28 and the All-Star Game on Jan. 29. Alfredsson and Chara were teammates for four seasons in Ottawa (2001-02 to 2005-06) when they made the playoffs every year, won two Northeast Division titles and advanced to the 2003 Eastern Conference finals.

Girardi, goalie Henrik Lundqvist and right wing Marian Gaborik will represent the Rangers on the ice. Tortorella and San Jose coach Todd McLellan will coach one team because the Rangers and Sharks led the Eastern and Western Conference as of Jan. 8. Bruins coach Claude Julien and his staff, which includes former Hartford Whalers players Doug Houda and Doug Jarvis, will coach the other team because Boston won the Stanley Cup in June.

The Bruins will be honored at the White House by President Barack Obama on Monday for their seven-game finals win over the Vancouver Canucks. Continuing his tradition of recognizing sports teams for their work off the ice, President Obama will highlight the Boston Bruins Foundation, which has raised and donated more than $7 million to various charitable organizations in the six New England states. The Bruins play the Washington Capitals at the Verizon Center on Tuesday night.

ANNIVERSARY OF WHA ALL-STAR GAME IN HARTFORD

Let’s take a final moment to remember that Wednesday is the 35th anniversary of the New England Whalers hosting the 1977 World Hockey Association All-Star Game at the Hartford Civic Center. The Whalers were represented by defensemen Gordie Roberts and Thommy Abrahamsson, filling in for captain Rick Ley, and forwards George Lyle, Ralph Backstrom and Mike Rogers, subbing for future Hall of Famer Dave Keon. Lyle scored an “All-Whalers goal” on a rebound past Joe Daley after Rogers won a faceoff to the left point to Abrahamsson as the East beat the West, 4-2.

A little more than nine years later, the Hartford Whalers hosted the NHL All-Star Game on Feb. 4, 1986. Whalers center and future Hall of Famer Ron Francis was injured and unable to play, so he was replaced by left wing Sylvain Turgeon. Former Whalers defenseman and future Hall of Famer Mark Howe of the Philadelphia Flyers, future Whalers left wing Brian Propp of the Flyers and future Hall of Fame defenseman Ray Bourque of the Bruins, father of Whale rookie left wing Ryan Bourque, also were on the Wales Conference team, whose honorary captain was former Whalers right wing and Hall of Famer Gordie Howe and was introduced by Whalers play-by-play man and future Hall of Famer Chuck Kaiton, who still works for the Carolina Hurricanes. The Wales Conference beat the Campbell Conference 4-3 on Bryan Trottier’s overtime goal off an assist from New York Islanders teammate and fellow future Hall of Famer Mike Bossy. Propp scored twice, and a guy named Wayne Gretzky of the Edmonton Oilers had one of the Campbell Conference goals.

Oh those good ole Whalers days.

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