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Hockey notes

Now Sacco will try to move mountains

By Kevin Paul Dupont
Globe Staff / June 7, 2009
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Joe Sacco is on the move again, which is not only a testament to his desire to stay in hockey, but also a reflection of his family genes. When he hung up the skates six years ago, after 738 NHL games, Sacco eventually headed to Woburn, where he joined his father's business, Sacco Specialized Moving.

"I took about a year off after hockey," Sacco recalled Friday, some 24 hours after being named the coach of the Colorado Avalanche. "And then I was slowly diving into that business, working in the office. I was enjoying it, but then I got a call . . ."

And thus began Sacco's warp-speed ascent to directing an NHL bench. Craig Billington, the former Bruins goalie, was at the other end of that call. A key member of the Avalanche front office, Billington wanted to know if Sacco, the former Boston University standout, would be interested in joining the AHL's Lowell Lock Monsters as an assistant coach.

"I'd had this strong passion to get back in the game somewhere, maybe coaching or scouting, something," recalled Sacco, speaking from Toronto, where his 13-year-old son, Joe, was set to play in a weekend hockey tournament. "Toward the end of my career, I began to pay closer attention to the coaching aspect of the game. Or, hey, maybe I was just listening to my coaches a little more after all those years."

The season in Lowell turned into another year as an assistant in Albany, which is where the Hurricanes and Avalanche shared their AHL franchise. The following season, when the Avalanche decided to run their own AHL affiliate in Cleveland, Sacco was promoted to head coach.

Two years later, only days after Patrick Roy turned down an opportunity to coach the Avalanche, the 40-year-old Sacco was named to direct the bench as part of the franchise's massive overhaul that included the firing of head coach Tony Granato. After four seasons in the minors, only two as the top bench boss, Sacco now has charge of a bench that will see considerable change after the franchise's 2008-09 belly-flop.

"I considered myself a support player, a journeyman," said the Medford-raised Sacco, framing part of the message he'll preach on his new job. "I certainly wasn't in the NHL for my goal scoring [a total of 94], that's for sure. It's no secret.

"I wasn't overly skilled. But I worked hard, and you can overcome a lot in this game if you are committed. I told the [AHL] kids that a lot, that you can carve out a niche, work hard, stay professional, and you can stay in this game a long time.

"Look at me. I was a third- or fourth-line guy, a defensive forward, I killed penalties, played hard, showed up and competed. By doing that, I was able to scratch, claw, and survive for 13 years in the NHL.

"There are important roles to fill on every team in the NHL. If you can come to terms with that, find what works for you, you can do it a very long time."

Sacco will be back in Denver tomorrow for meetings with the front office, reviewing existing talent and projecting how the parts will fit together for 2009-10. Ex-Avalanche defenseman Sylvain Lefebvre, his assistant for two years in Cleveland, will join him behind the bench. A second assistant must be added.

As for the net, the most important position on any hockey team, ex-Bruin Andrew Raycroft will be an unrestricted free agent July 1, and Peter Budaj is a restricted free agent. The Avalanche could use both a franchise defenseman and a No. 1 goaltender. The acquisition of one or both no doubt would make Sacco's transition back to the big time a lot easier.

Other than that, one of Sacco's longtime acquaintances suggested, all he really has to do is employ all the lessons espoused by BU coach Jack Parker during Sacco's Terrier days.

"Oh, absolutely," chuckled Sacco, who starred for three seasons, 1987-90 on Commonwealth Avenue prior to turning pro with the Toronto organization. "Jack was certainly a good influence on a lot of us."

Parker also tutored David Sacco, Joe's younger brother, who remains in the front office of Sacco Specialized Moving. For now, older brother Joe keeps on trucking.

"I wasn't expecting this job," said Joe. "I figured Patrick was going to be in Denver and I'd be back with my family in Westlake [Ohio] for at least another year in the AHL. And that wouldn't have been so bad, because that's a great organization - great owners, great fans, we loved it there.

"But, like playing, you have to be flexible when you choose coaching, and timing's got a lot to do with it. Make the most of your chances, right? And I know this is one great opportunity."

Olympic participation doesn't get ringing endorsement

Commissioner Gary Bettman provided a state-of-the-NHL synopsis last weekend, just hours before Game 1 of the Stanley Cup finals, and he didn't tamp down rumors that the 2010 Games in Vancouver very well could be the end of the league's Olympic involvement.

"I think the time element between Sochi [Russia, site of the 2014 Games] and the East Coast of North America is eight hours," noted the commish. "So if you do the math, there won't be any games on in Sochi in prime time in North America. I think it will run anywhere from 4 a.m. to 2 in the afternoon that games would be on. That is something that we'll have to consider."

Bruins owner Jeremy Jacobs, speaking as a club owner and not in his role as the league's chairman of the board, said in this space weeks ago that he doesn't see the virtue in shutting down the league for the better part of two weeks to allow the game's best and brightest to ship off to Olympus. He said he doesn't believe the exercise, which began with the 1998 Games in Nagano, has provided the league with the kind of worldwide marketing bump that was envisioned.

Meanwhile, the players and their union continue to believe it's both fun and critical for them to participate in the Games. No better way, they say, to stamp the NHL shield on the world map.

Where is it headed? No doubt it will be a key issue again when the sides convene in two or three years - well ahead of puck drop in Sochi - to hammer out a new collective bargaining agreement. The players will remain steadfast in their desire to go. Chances are, the owners will capitulate.

"When we were in Salt Lake City [2002], and I know when we're in Vancouver - terrific," said Bettman. "We're in North America. North American time zones, prime time TV. When we're in Japan and Italy [2006], not so good."

Etc.

Talking heads
NHL general managers met in Pittsburgh last week and couldn't come to a consensus on a Players Association-led initiative in which legal hits delivered to the head would be penalized. "The key there is 'legal' hits," said one GM, stressing that the public might errantly interpret a lack of action on the matter. "There are rules in place for illegal hits. But the issue here was a legal hit, such as leaning into a guy with a shoulder." The rules were left the same, but as the GM noted, progress is being made in the overall governance of such hits. The GMs left the meeting feeling that referee crews and the NHL office (via supplemental discipline) will pay much closer attention to all smacks to the head. The NHLPA will press on, according to its director, Paul Kelly. "Not the end of the dialogue," he promised.

Credit him with an assist
Prior to Game 3 of the finals, while lined up to get into Mellon Arena, Penguins season ticket-holder Florence Winne had her ticket snatched out of her hands. As the thief took off on foot, Winne screamed, prompting another face in the crowd to bolt after the culprit. In short order, the good guy prevailed, chasing down the bad guy and returning the ticket to a very thankful Winne. The good guy: John Guerin, brother of ex-BC Eagle, ex-Bruin, and now Penguin Bill Guerin. By week's end, the 32-year-old Guerin was back in Wilbraham. The former high school track star figures his days running sprints and jumping the 110 high hurdles (his prep school gold-medal event in 1995) helped him take a bite out of crime. "I haven't run in a while," said Guerin, who these days is director of solar development for EOS, a company in Hancock. "But I didn't have any trouble catching him." According to Guerin, the culprit wore a Penguins sweater with the name "Obama" across the back (you can't make this up). As he was chased through the crowd, with Guerin in pursuit, along with police and arena security, the suspect stripped off apparel and tossed the ticket. The man, in his 20s, was taken into custody. Guerin, who next year will marry Kristina Sampson, also of Wilbraham, figures he is living a charmed life. "I've got a new job at EOS," mused the former St. Anselm's rugby player, "I've got a new fiancée, and my brother's playing for the Stanley Cup. What's better than that?"

Diamond facets
NHL officials in Detroit last weekend for the start of the finals would not confirm the Jan. 1 Winter Classic game at Fenway Park. However, a source inside Fenway Park during the NHL's recent visit to study the property, noted that league reps staked out a mock rink similar to the layout used this year at Wrigley Field. Based on that template, the rink would be centered just behind second base with nets placed in the direction of the foul lines. A couple of sources have said to expect a different wrinkle or two at this Classic, which has raised suspicions around town that at least two of the Beanpot competitors could lace 'em up for a game in the old ballyard. The Wrigley Wrink had public skating, too, which would work well at Fenway, provided it did not interfere with offseason ballpark renovations.

Going camping
The Bruins already have determined that Joe Colborne, their top pick (No. 16 overall) in last year's draft, will return to the University of Denver for his sophomore year. However, the 6-foot-5-inch Jumbo Joe Jr. will be here in July for the club's development camp. Colborne went 10-21 -31 in 40 games as a frosh. According to GM Peter Chiarelli, Russian defenseman Yuri Alexandrov (No. 37, 2006) also has been invited to the Wilmington-based camp. The Red Sox are home that week, so it's a good bet you'll see a bunch of the Wanna-B's in the Fenway stands.

With honors
Ken Hodge, a key contributor to the Bruins' 1970 and '72 Stanley Cup teams and a two-time 100-point scorer, will be honored in this year's "Tradition" ceremonies at the Garden June 24. The ever-smiling Hodgie will be presented by the classy Milt Schmidt, GM/architect of those Cup teams. Good guy coaches Jack Parker (BU) and Jerry York (BC) will be presented by Channel 5's Mike Lynch. Tickets: $150 and $250 to benefit The Sports Museum.

Blast from the past
Guy Lafleur scored only 78 goals in his first three years, compared with Phil Kessel's 66. Beginning in Year 4, though, Lafleur went on a six-year tear during which he piled up 327, an average of about 54 per season, en route to his career total of 560. Lafleur was fast, too, and one of his greatest tools was his quick, light, and deadly slapper off the wing - a shot that has all but faded into extinction because goalies are too bulked up and too skilled to be beaten regularly by long, clear shots.

Trade talk
A report late in the week out of Pittsburgh had the Bruins shopping veteran winger Marco Sturm, who would have to waive his no-trade clause. Label this one "possible." Provided the acquiring club didn't want to ship money Boston's way, the move would trim $3.5 million off Boston's cap each of the next two seasons.

Loose pucks
Word around St. Paul, where they hope to shed their Trappist Wonk ways, is that ex-Bruin Craig MacTavish is among those being considered as coach by new GM Chuck Fletcher . . . Fletcher, who toiled in the Panthers' front office for the better part of 10 years, could have been a top candidate for the Sunrise job now that GM Jacques Martin has taken charge of the Habs bench. Among the names in the mix now for Panthers GM: Randy Sexton, Neil Smith, ex-Bruins assistant GM Jeff Gorton, and perhaps Jay Feaster. Gorton deserved a better shot in the Hub, especially after gaining such public praise from Charlie Jacobs, who said repeatedly he wanted to keep Gorton with the franchise . . . GMs also spent time last week discussing the new-age easy-break sticks, which are so fragile that they can shatter when a player receives a pass. "Cost is part of it," said Chiarelli. "But a lot of the discussion focused on the integrity-of-the-game issue. We see a lot of sticks breaking at critical times in the game." Not to mention, upward of 100 defensemen and easily the same number of forwards rarely even think of shooting to score a goal. The backliners in particular, if they carried real lumber, might be, shall we say, more persuasive defending their net . . . No word out of Causeway Street on a new deal for Chiarelli, about to enter the final (fourth) year of his contract. Look for the former Harvard captain to finalize a deal prior to July 1, possibly prior to the June 26-27 draft . . . On a conference call last week for the David Krejci signing, the operator, when taking a question from your faithful puck chronicler, announced me as being from "the Boston College" rather than the Globe. Tough moment for an old Terrier. Three days of heavy meds snapped me right back.

Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at dupont@globe.com; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.

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