Milan Lucic's NHL career is up and running, the gash on the back of his right hand as proof. Early in the second period of Friday night's 4-1 loss in Dallas, the Bruins left winger locked horns with Brad Winchester, a 6-foot-5-inch heavyweight, and fired off a flurry of initial punches before receiving back a few himself.
"We were down, 2-0, and we wanted to get some energy and momentum," said the strapping 19-year-old, who was supposed to be back with his junior team, the Vancouver Giants, by now. "So I figured, 'Why not do it?' Try to help us get in the flow of things . . . seemed like a good time."
The gash opened up as a consequence of landing a heavy right hand to Winchester's helmet early in the bout. From a tactical standpoint, probably not very smart, but rookies are supposed to be eager and energetic. Thus far, those traits have served him well, and if he can sustain them, and keep improving, he could stick around longer than what is now at least a nine-game tryout.
Coach Claude Julien was impressed by Lucic's tenacity, as well as that of Shawn Thornton, a fellow newcomer who engaged in a battle of his own with Todd Fedoruk. In fact, the Thornton-Fedoruk bout was the precursor to the Lucic-Winchester match, which came all of one second after Thornton and Fedoruk were ushered to the box. Two fights, one second apart.
Bruins fans, who spent all of last season wondering whether the fight game had been banned in Boston, had to have tears in their eyes.
"Yeah, they went out and responded," said an admiring Julien. "And the message there was, 'You're not going to walk all over us.' I think you can put that on the positive side of things for tonight."
Lucic will have to be more than an eager pugilist to stick with the varsity. But nothing catches a coach's eye like a willing, hungry kid. He is slow afoot, and that will have to improve considerably if he's ever going to be an impact player.
The dreamers think he could be a Cam Neely one day, but the reality is that his skating ability right now is on par with that of a young Terry O'Reilly. Things turned out OK for the awkward-skating kid who wore No. 24, but not without a ton of work. The good news is that Lucic seems to have that O'Reilly-like work ethic and burning desire to improve, and he also has that O'Reilly quick-trigger mentality when it comes to dropping gloves. He has had that for a very long time.
"My older brother and I used to have some pretty mean bouts," said Lucic. "And lots of 'em."
Jovan, 20, is Lucic's older brother. Reached Friday afternoon by telephone, Jovan was hard at work on the docks in Vancouver. He has been a longshoreman for three years, and Friday he was in the middle of "wheat training" under a foreman's eye as he perfected the art of loading grain onto ships.
"Those fights were pretty even, at least at first," said Jovan, who is 6-3, 224 pounds, nearly a mirror image of his baby brother on the Bruins. "I'd win a few. Then he'd win a few. Right now, he'd take me down pretty easily, I think. We're around the same size, but he's a little wider, eh?
"But the two of us got it going. We'd put on the boxing gloves when we were younger, go out in the backyard and punch away. We'd wrestle, too, and keep track of who won the belt every time - that was a big deal."
Jovan spent Friday night at the home of Nem Okula, a close pal of the two brothers, watching Milan's debut. In all, Lucic played 11 shifts, logging 6:53 in ice time. He wasn't on the ice for any of the Stars' four goals. He had the fight with Winchester. He earned the praise of his coach.
"I thought he did well," said Julien. "We are spending a lot of time, teaching him the little things that are important, and he responds well to that, understands what we want and goes out and does it. I liked his game tonight. I think he should be happy with his game."
The Bruins remain a team desperate for that one anchor player, the difference maker, who can step in and take control of a game, be it with a big goal, or a body check, or a fight. It would be premature and unfair to drop that expectation on Lucic's door, especially after the lessons learned in watching the likes of Joe Thornton and Sergei Samsonov fizzle out under the weight and want of the spoke-B.
Nonetheless, there is naive and engaging confidence in Lucic, an anything-is-possible air about him that will be wonderful to watch in these weeks and months ahead. Skillwise, he does not project as a star, a bit short on hands and heavy of legs. But he could be that rare kid for whom will wins out over skill.
No sweating sweater issue
For every action, there is a reaction, and for Reebok, that bit of Newtonian wisdom has turned its much-anticipated rollout of new NHL uniforms into a, uh, slippery slope.
The Reebok uniforms, also known as the Rbk EDGE Uniform System, include lightweight sweaters (that's a good thing) that don't absorb sweat (that should be a good thing). Trouble is, hard work leads to sweat, and with no sweater to soak it up, the water runs into trouble - pooling and puddling into players' gloves and skate boots.
Across the league, L'Affaire Sweat'n' Sweater turned into a hot topic during training camp.
"You have to keep shaking your arms so the sweat doesn't run right down into your gloves," said Bruins defenseman Andrew Alberts, giving his long arms an animated shake following a recent practice in Wilmington. "It is kind of a weird problem to have for something that was supposed to be so good. The stuff is lighter, though, and hey, you play with what they give you, right?"
Tim Thomas has a simple remedy to keep the sweat from filling up his goalie boots. He simply tucks his socks on the outside of his skates.
"That way it just runs out over the boot - not a problem," he said. "My gloves fill up faster, though, and instead of having them dried out after two periods, now I've got to dry them after each period. Not a big deal."
Rugged winger Shawn Thornton confirmed that his boots are filling up faster, but has decided, "I'll just live with it - what else can you do?"
The only other remedy, said a dressing room visitor, might be to not break a sweat.
"True," said the resident tough guy. "But I don't think that's going to keep me in the lineup."
This Bruins fan had to cash out
Challenged to keep season ticket-holders from deserting the building after one lockout and back-to-back playoff DNQs, the Bruins this summer crafted a "Stick With Us" campaign, dropping full-sized hockey sticks on the doorsteps of some longtime ticket-holders who had not renewed their subscriptions.
Patrick Walker, struggling with the decision whether to keep his four balcony seats, at a cost of approximately $8,000 per year, returned to his Westwood home one day to find the stick on his doorstep. The attached note offered him the chance to bring the stick to a team function, where Cam Neely would autograph it.
"Not a bad approach, really," said Walker, who first bought the season tickets 19 years ago, in the old Garden. "I appreciated the effort. But with 1- and 2-year-old girls, the autograph really didn't interest me. The stick's leaning in a corner off the kitchen."
Ultimately, Walker, 45, opted not to renew his seats. Too many nights last year, he said, he ended up tossing the four tickets in the wastebasket. There were times, he said, when friends or clients felt insulted that he made an extra effort to have them go. Some gifts keep on giving. But this was a gift he couldn't give.
"They tried to get me back, and they were very nice about it with the stick and everything," said Walker, a sales and account manager for a local IT services company. "I felt some remorse in not renewing, but at the same time, I can't eat $3,000 a year in tickets because no one wants to use them.
"I held them so long, and I have such great memories of the '80s and '90s when playoff hockey here was so good. I was willing to eat a lot of tickets just because playoff hockey was so good, but finally I had to say, you know, that's enough."
Rocky times in Chicago
Somewhat of a surprise Thursday when Peter Wirtz, a key Blackhawks operative for 20 years, stepped down as the club's executive vice president in the wake of the recent death of his father, team president Bill Wirtz. Peter left the show to his brother, Rocky Wirtz, now the faded franchise's chairman. Rocky, promised Peter, will "instill new and fresh leadership into the organization." Chicago, Boston's sister city in hockey pain and misery, truly needs that lift. Word around the United Center, though, is that Peter, not Rocky, had a better chance of finding the easy-touch progressive button on his desk. Some 2,500 mourners, including the wild-haired Don King, made it to the Skokie, Ill., funeral home to pay last respects to Wirtz, who died Sept. 26 at 77.
A fistful of entertainment
Anaheim and Los Angeles opened up the NHL season last weekend in London, and fans in the faded empire, catching their first glimpses of top-notch North American hockey, hooted and hollered their loudest and longest when . . . players dropped gloves and traded punches. Imagine that! The Brits are just like us. Who knew? LA's Scott Thornton threw down with George Parros, and the crowd erupted with the predictable groan when the two locked-up heavies hit the ice with a thud.
Lost and found
Happy ending to a frightening episode in West Palm Beach, where Emma Francis, 77, wife of hockey legend Emile Francis, went missing after dropping off "The Cat" Sunday for a flight out of Palm Beach International Airport. Emile called police late Sunday after being unable to contact his wife for hours after he landed in New Jersey. Emma was gone, without a trace. Finally, on Tuesday, a maid at a Best Western near PBI recognized Emma when entering to clean a room. Emma, according to sources, became confused upon driving out of the airport, and checked into the hotel as a safe harbor. The maid recognized her from pictures used in media reports.
Show hits home with him
Bruins defenseman Aaron Ward, in town less than a year, is a devotee of ABC's smash hit, "Boston Legal." "Cannot get enough of it," said Ward. "Love Denny Crane . . . and that guy [Jerry Espenson] who keeps his arms straight down and hops around when he's excited." Ward especially likes the camera shots from all around the Hub of Hockey. "I'm on a mission," said Ward. "One of these days, I'm going to find their [law] office."
Too much information
Count Bruins captain Zdeno Chara among those who prefer a simplified approach to coaching. Too many messengers often complicate the process. "I swear to God, when I was with the Islanders, one year they had five coaches behind the bench," said Big Z, reflecting on the late '90s when the Isles bench had Mike Milbury and Bill Stewart as the lead coaches. "Every time you came back to the bench - and I mean every shift - you had a guy talking to you. It got to the point that you couldn't think for yourself. It was crazy."
Some of the simplest things have a way of going awry these days on Causeway Street. Take, for instance, the regular-season schedule that the Bruins have hanging as a mural near the Garden's West entrance. Terrific idea. Passersby can scan it for desirable dates. But the devil is in the details. The second home game, Oct. 20, has the Rangers in town. Should be a good take. Start time? According to the schedule on the wall, puck drop is . . . 10:00. Could that be 10 a.m. or 10 p.m.? Truth is, it's a 7 p.m. start.
Veteran defenseman Brent Sopel, 30, who finished up last season with the Canucks, showed up as a training camp invitee with the Red Wings. All was going well until the Blackhawks walked in with a one-year offer at $1.5 million. Goodbye, Hockeytown, and hello, Windy City. "I felt like I was 18, 19, or 20 all over again," said Sopel to the Chicago Sun-Times. "But I'm thankful to Detroit for letting me come there. They made a couple of offers, but for me and my family . . ." . . . The Blue Jackets decided to keep promising youngsters Kris Russell (D) and Jared Boll (F) - picks Nos. 67 and 101 in the 2005 draft - and coach Ken Hitchcock said, "When we told them, they finally started to breathe." . . . Nice bit of old-time hockey hatred brewing between Andy Murray's St. Louis Blues and Jacques Lemaire's Minnesota Wild. During the final days of preseason play, Murray was upset that Lemaire trotted out his No. 1 power-play unit with a 7-0 Wild victory all but in the books. Adding to Murray's ire was the sight of Minny tough guy Derek Boogaard slashing the skilled Doug Weight on the wrist. "Some of their guys need to be on alert," warned Murray. Wild GM Doug Risebrough was unmoved, saying, "Andy Murray likes to be heard - but one person that doesn't listen to Andy Murray is me." Murray had better watch it. The 6-foot-7-inch Boogaard is a tough customer, and in a pinch, he could bring his sister into the fray. Krysten Boogaard, 6 feet 5 inches, will be a freshman with this season's Kansas Jayhawks basketball team . . . Gotta have a little bit of 33/45/78 rhythm in your soul to appreciate a line from Buffalo News scribe Tim Graham. On a day when the Sabres announced that Jochen Hecht would be their first of monthly rotating captains, and that Harry Neale would replace ex-Bruin Jim Lorentz in the broadcast booth, Graham wrote, "The Sabres announced a captain and a Neale."
Kevin Paul Dupont can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org; material from personal interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.