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HOCKEY NOTES

Casting call for a leading man

The largest void in the Bruins' game this morning, like all the other mornings, is leadership.

Whose team is it? Right now, it looks like a bedraggled ensemble of orphans, with no one showing enough game, gumption, or guts to jump off the bench with the idea of even influencing, never mind changing, the outcome of a game.

How sad. How uncharacteristic. So little fight.

This is what they call Bruins?

Among the many low points last week, in the midst of back-to-back Causeway Street shellackings, was what happened Tuesday night immediately following the dastardly hit ex-captain Joe Thornton put on defenseman Hal Gill.

For those who missed it: Nothing happened. Gill was dispatched to Palookaville, followed by Thornton's quick dismissal down the other runway via a game misconduct. Then the puck dropped and, well, the band played on.

Excuse me? Fine, it's not grandpa's NHL anymore. If it were, the game's long-accepted code would have called for some behemoth to jump off Boston's bench and assail Jumbo Joe with a flurry of lefts and rights. Sticks and gloves would have littered the ice in a lovely mosaic of emotion.

Instead, Thornton left under only the serenade of the referee's whistle, and the Bruins' bench responded with a collective shrug, and a few glances at the Jumbotron, before the whole bunch of 'em shuffled home following a humiliating 6-2 defeat.

True enough, today's game won't allow outlaw, eye-for-eye justice. But nothing in the rulebook prohibits stepping up intensity or ratcheting up the hitting game (if one exists in the Black and Gold game plan). Maybe someone on that Boston bench could have been so bold as to, gee, swipe a leathery palm across one of those San Jose mugs. No sirree. Shrug. Eye roll. Mr. Timekeeper, start the clock.

Coach Mike Sullivan & Co. are relying on skill and tactics to win the day. Uh, how's that working so far? From here, it looks like a quick ticket to a top five pick in the June draft, followed immediately by another multimillion-dollar marketing rollout pegged around, what, ''We Owe You One!"?

It appears time has run out on salvaging a playoff spot. However, there is always time for someone, anyone, to step up and act as if they give a hoot about what happens to the Hub's hockey team.

Veteran defenseman Nick Boynton didn't play well in his return to the lineup Thursday night. In fact, he got his doors blown off a couple of times, perhaps a function of his diabetes issues, which kept him out of Friday's practice. But Boynton has enough talent, and usually enough game and grit and attitude, to be a good place to start in the ''I give a hoot" return to respectability.

''Frankly, I feel the same now as I did my first year," said Boynton. ''If it doesn't go well for us, I feel it personally. We had Bill Guerin and Marty Lapointe here then as our leaders, but at the same time, you have this feeling that you have to help out. If it goes badly, then I go home with it, and that's the way it's been for the last four years -- no more, no less."

Boynton is among the few, be it in the Boston room or most everywhere throughout the league, who lets his anger show after a loss.

''Yeah, well, that might just mean the other guys hide it better," he said. ''I don't think anyone enjoys losing. This is one of those years, to date, that hasn't worked out for us. But I honestly believe we have the guys here who can get the job done. If I didn't, or anyone else didn't, then we wouldn't want to be here."

Boynton alone isn't going to get it done. He is not the only candidate. Ultimately, the front office may have to trade for a true leader. The two names Boynton brought up, Guerin and Lapointe, were acquired, the former via trade and the latter via free agency. One doesn't have to be born with a spoked-B to wear it on the chest, only be bold enough to defend it when the time comes; show some pride when playing for it.

Is there a true leader in the room, someone willing to seize the day, the mantle, the responsibility? Perhaps. There may be little else worth watching unfold in the second half of 2005-06, but if there is a bona fide candidate in the bunch, someone to consider as a captain for next season, then that could be worth watching. Frankly, where this mess of a franchise goes could depend on it.

Lesson in handling adversity

Mark Messier's No. 11 was hoisted Thursday night to the Madison Square Garden roof, where it fittingly took its place next to fellow Ranger alums Mike Richter (35), Eddie Giacomin (1), and Rod Gilbert (7).

Bruins defenseman Brian Leetch, a teammate of the Moose's in New York, sent along a taped message for the festivities, saying, ''Each bad game hurt even more because I didn't want to let him down."

The same night Messier's number went up, the Bruins went down, 6-0, to the Kings, one of the uglier Boston efforts on Causeway Street in years. Leetch's game, like everyone's in Black and Gold, was best committed to short-term memory loss.

Amid the postmortems, though, it was interesting and reassuring to see how the 37-year-old Leetch responded. The media horde immediately scurried over to Andrew Raycroft, to quiz the goalie on all of the night's wrongs. Leetch, his locker positioned diagonally across the room, sat quietly, arms folded, waiting for the pack to make its way to him. He then answered every question, candidly, patiently, poignantly, and with dignity -- and, above all, accurately.

Leetch's resolve and candor were nothing short of remarkable. A total class act.

Earlier in the week, Leetch said in a Globe interview that his plan is to leave the game as a Bruin. When that is, no one knows. He will assess after this season whether he wants to play another year, or more, and the Bruins likewise must decide whether they want to keep him on the payroll. He is making $4 million this season, a figure the front office likely would want to reduce if he remained.

Meanwhile, Leetch isn't pleased with his game.

''I'm very unhappy with it," he said. ''I've had opportunities, on both offense and defense, that I haven't taken advantage of, and I'm not pleased with that. It's disappointing."

Lafrate still doing a little stick work

He didn't return a phone message left for him late last week, but ex-Bruin Al ''The Planet" Iafrate reportedly was back in Boston recently, working a hockey equipment trade show. An industry source said the Planet was helping a pal push Black Beauty Hockey Sticks.

The company's logo is a skull and crossed sticks (substituting for bones, of course), in keeping with Iafrate's leather jacket and Harley image. There is no mention on the Black Beauty website of the 39-year-old Iafrate's involvement with the company, but the industry source said Albert Anthony Iafrate aids in the design and marketing of the sticks.

Play It Again Sports in Appleton, Wis., is one of the many vendors listed on Black Beauty's website. A call there Friday found the one-piece composite sticks on sale for $55, a $20 discount.

''Kinda cool looking, with nice flame graphics," said a salesperson. ''But to be honest, we haven't sold many."

Maybe what they need is a visit from the hard-shooting, bigger-than life Iafrate, ever willing to unload his 100-mile-an-hour-plus slapper. A couple of I-bombs delivered by the business end of those Black Beauties would stir up activity in the aisles, wouldn't they?

Etc.

Tender servings
Bruins goalie Tim Thomas wasn't that enamored with Finnish food in his younger years, when he played for HIFK Helsinki at the end of the '90s, but he found his appreciation for the fare over there changed. ''Maybe they got better, or I got older, or maybe I just wasn't looking in the right places before," said Thomas, who was particularly partial to a schnitzel dish while playing with Jokerit last season. ''Schnitzel is a German dish, veal in a light butter, but they cover it with an orange sauce that's hard to describe -- sort of an alfredo sauce, I guess." In his earlier stint, the pickings were slim. He survived mostly on the Finnish version of ghoulash, and mostly steered clear of the many reindeer-based dishes. ''Lots of reindeer, in brown gravy; you wouldn't know it was reindeer unless they told you," recalled Thomas. ''They'd put it over rice, over potatoes. No thanks. I stayed away from all of it."

From captain to cap number
The Lightning last week finally waived veteran captain Dave Andreychuk. ''Someone else told me it was enough," said Andreychuk, one the most prolific left wingers in the game's history. Andreychuk, 42, was on the books for $800,000 this year and $525,000 next season, an average cap hit of $662,500. Tampa can expunge the remainder of this year's pay from the cap, but because he is over age 35, Andreychuk's $662,500 will be added to the 2006-07 cap. The Bolts could trim $100,000 from that figure if Andreychuk were to report to the minors (Springfield, AHL), but general manager Jay Feaster said they will not request that Andreychuk accept the demotion.

Line changes in New Jersey
Patrik Elias, back in Devils lineup after missing virtually the entire first half of 2005-06 with hepatitis A, had at least one point (2-6--8) in each of his first four games back. Had he shown up earlier, perhaps Larry Robinson would have been spared the debilitating headaches that led him to resign as head coach. Like a number of clubs, including the Bruins, the Devils didn't fare well in the summer free agent jamboree. But rather than carry the deadwood and pray for a turnaround, GM/interim coach Lou Lamoriello has now axed the likes of Alexander Mogilny, Vladimir Malakhov, and ex-Bruin Dan McGillis -- the balance of some $9 million in salary off the cap this season.

Showing some punch
Michel Therrien, brought to Pittsburgh to replace Eddie Olczyk, and breathe some fire into a listless lineup, berated his squad after a 3-1 loss to the Oilers last week, labeling their effort ''pathetic." It only got worse in the next game when they were drilled by the hapless Blue Jackets, 6-1. Not a pretty score, but Therrien found some beauty in it, in the form of multiple fights. ''For the first time this year, that team stuck up for each other," he said, ''and that's a good start, even if we are in January."

Girard weighs the future
According to ex-NHL goalie Bob Sauve, agent for Jonathan Girard, the retired Bruins defenseman is back home in Quebec, feeling fine, but still unsure what he'll do in the future. ''He's still got some of his stuff to bring home from Boston," said Sauve, whose young client decided in late November not to continue his gallant comeback from a life-threatening car crash in the summer of '03. ''But he's doing well. He's thinking about maybe going back to school. He's working out a little, just to stay fit, but not skating. The important thing is, he feels great."

Give him a ring
Brian Leetch, despite not being included on the Team USA roster for the Olympics, remains hopeful the Yanks will ask him to go to Italy as part of the three-man emergency squad. ''I'd do it, I'd go, right up until the day the Games start," said Leetch, dismissing any thought that a bruised ego could prevent him from making the trip. ''I mean, the same reason that I'm upset that I didn't make it is kind of the same reason that I say I want to play; it's the best competition, it's full of great guys, and most of all, you're in the Olympics."

Voted off the island
Former Bruins defenseman Mike Milbury fired his coach on Long Island, Steve Stirling, then walked the plank himself. Team owner Charles Wang announced in the same news conference that Milbury will oversee a number of Wang's other sports and entertainment enterprises. Milbury and Wang made it sound as if they came to the decision mutually, but one scenario making the rounds Friday had it that Milbury was told his GM tenure was over when he informed Wang of the Stirling decision. All in all, Milbury's career was doomed June 23, 2001, the day he flipped Bill Muckalt, Zdeno Chara, and the rights to draft Jason Spezza to the Senators for the multitalented but forever underperforming Alexei Yashin. Ouch. Then, at Wang's behest, the Isles dropped a $10 million-a-year deal on Yashin. The payoff thus far: 17 postsesaon games, amounting to three first-round playoff losses. The hot name being considered as GM/coach on the Island: Brent Sutter (a.k.a. Pukey when back home among the brothers in Viking, Alberta), who has had a sensational run as coach/GM in the Western Hockey League. Don't be surprised if his brother Darryl tries to drop him behind the bench in Calgary, where Darryl is both GM and coach. For GM duties alone, the cast of potential successors includes Dean Lombardi, Rick Dudley, Steve Tambellini, Jim Nill, John Weisbrod, and Peter Chiarelli.

Kevin Paul Dupont's e-mail address is 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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