The term "old warhorse" applies to the Colorado Avalanche's Adam Foote in only the most flattering context.
Foote, at the age of 38, is in his first year as captain of the NHL's most surprising team, one that few gave any chance of qualifying for the playoffs let alone challenging for the league's overall points lead. In a year when future Hall Of Famer Joe Sakic retired and last year's co-scoring leader Ryan Smyth was traded for salary-cap reasons, it didn't seem likely or even possible that Colorado would contend for anything except the first overall choice in the 2010 entry draft.
And yet, here is the Avalanche, humming along at a 10-1-2 clip behind Craig Anderson's extraordinary goaltending and contributions from all the young prospects in the organization, giddily embracing NHL life. Who knew it would be this easy?
Foote, the last remaining link to the franchise's days in Quebec City, remains both a physical presence and a fierce competitor - old school right down to the lines on his face and the scars on his body.
Foote's teammate, Darcy Tucker, was lost to a concussion last week on a hit from behind by the Carolina Hurricanes' Tuomo Ruutu. A few days later, the Florida Panthers' David Booth was concussed by a hit to the head delivered by the Philadelphia Flyers' Mike Richards. The Edmonton Oilers' Sheldon Souray still isn't playing, after he received a concussion, thanks to a hit from the Calgary Flames' Jarome Iginla early in the season.
Iginla, like Richards, escaped official sanction from the NHL for the hit. In fact, the NHL's only reaction to the incident came after Oilers' coach Pat Quinn complained - too loudly in the league's view - about the dangerous circumstances of the contact and how it would have been handled in a bygone era. For his burst of candour, Quinn received a $10,000 (all currency U.S.) fine. That'll teach him for speaking his mind.
In an NHL season that lasts 1,230 games and where body contact is an everyday fact of life, there will always be a percentage of questionable hits and unfortunate injuries. That fact of NHL life is unlikely ever to change. The question isn't necessarily how to eliminate injuries completely. It is how to meaningfully reduce the ones that stem from reckless play.
Or, as the question was put to Foote the other day, even if there are no easy answers to the ongoing issue of dealing head shots that result in concussions, logically, there must be answers.
To Foote, a good starting point would be an NHL justice system with a little more teeth than it currently demonstrates.
"There's more disrespect for the opponent than there ever was - and they just have to be harsher on the suspensions," said Foote in an interview. "If guys (such as Ruutu) are going to miss two games or three games, that's not enough. I worry now because of the speed, strength and size of the guys. Every year, they get bigger and stronger. If they keep hitting each other with more disrespect - from behind, when the guy is two feet from the board - someone's going to get seriously hurt and somebody's gotta be responsible for that.
"I just don't think it's going in the right direction. They've gotta clamp down on it, I think."
In drawing on an 18-year career perspective - not to mention the 1,437 penalty minutes he piled up in 1,040 career games prior to this year - Foote stressed that a push along the boards with two players engaged in a puck battle is perfectly OK with him. It is the long runs from across the ice, when one player takes a bead on another with malice aforethought, that he finds more disturbing.
Foote's voice joined a growing chorus of NHL players, former and current, trying to change a deeply engrained culture. The NHL general managers' meeting, normally held during the preseason in Chicago, will this year convene in Toronto in the second week of November, on the day after the Hockey Hall Of Fame induction ceremonies. The issue of head shots - and introducing a penalty specifically to address them - will be on the agenda again, not for the first time and not for the last.
A year ago, when the NHL Players' Association was run by Paul Kelly, the organization conducted a poll among his constituents asking what should be done to provide greater protection for players on the ice. The majority recommended more stringent penalties for head-hunting.
In the past year or so, former Flyers centre Keith Primeau - whose career was ended by multiple concussions - has also become a vocal proponent of stiffer penalties for hits to the head.
The more hawkish general managers - including Maple Leafs GM Brian Burke - oppose any change that could diminish contact in the game. A common argument they advance is that in the heat of a battle, a player will turn into contact, or otherwise leave himself in a vulnerable position, a split second before a hit is delivered. How does a league regulate that without fundamentally altering the physical nature of the game?
Foote believes the answer is simple: NHL players learn, over time, to follow orders. In the same way they learned to adjust to the crackdown on obstruction, they would change their behaviour patterns if the threat of a lengthy suspension was there to curb their enthusiasm for head-hunting.
"It's like anything else," explained Foote. "If a coach takes your ice time away, you do what he says. To me, it's a very simple solution."
AVALANCHE RISING: Last year, it took 91 points to qualify for the playoffs in the Western Conference. After amassing 22 points already in just their first 13 games, Colorado needs only to average one point per game the rest of the way to qualify for the playoffs. The Avalanche are the first team since the 1995-96 Winnipeg Jets to play two 18-year-olds, centres Matt Duchene and Ryan O'Reilly, their first and second picks in last June's entry draft. At the moment, Duchene is living with Foote's family in Denver, in an attempt to ease his transition to the NHL.
Foote broke in under similar circumstances with the 1991-92 Quebec Nordiques, just one year before they turned the corner and qualified for the playoffs.
"We were just playing and having fun," said Foote. "We started at the bottom of the barrel. Very similar I guess."
Is that why the team is so successful? That they're so young, at this stage, they're just enjoying the ride and finding ways to win, even in games where they've been outplayed.
"I don't know - maybe," answered Foote. "They're playing with a lot of confidence right now. I guess the start helps. They fit right in; all our young guys are mature and responsible and now, it's showing on the ice.
"I'd say most of it's our goaltending for sure. Then I think we have depth. Our young centre men want the puck. If you look at all the good teams, up the middle, if they want the puck and they can do something with it, it helps. That's a big part of it too."
As for Duchene, he's been warned that teenagers often hit the wall in the NHL once the season hits the dog days in January and beyond. Is forewarned forearmed?
"You just got to take care of yourself - eat right, sleep lots, just make sure you're doing what you need to do and get stronger," he answered. "I'm trying to do the best I can."
PLAYER OF THE MONTH: It is hard to imagine anyone other than goaltender Craig Anderson, the Avalanche's key free-agent acquisition, earning player-of-the-month honours for October, given that he's leading the league in wins (with 10) and is just a shade behind Ryan Miller of the Buffalo Sabres in goals-against average and save percentage.
In the dressing room before last Wednesday's game against Calgary, Anderson - who needed 10 years to get the opportunity to play as a No. 1 goalie - was asked if ever thought about packing it in somewhere along the way. His answer: a blunt no.
"My first year of pro I had a real tough go of it but it seemed to get better every year," answered Anderson. "When you get better every year and you feel good about yourself, that's when things start to take off. I took a couple of steps backwards to take a few leaps forward. Sometimes, you need to be humbled a little. Sometimes, you need to get knocked down a little for you to realize your mistakes and what you can work on.
"If you have so much success right away, sometimes you don't work on the stuff you need to work on and your career is not as long as you'd like it to be. For me, it was a slow start, but I was able to learn a lot by going down and getting knocked down, it makes me better today."
The turning point for Anderson came in January of 2006, when he was handed back and forth among the Chicago Blackhawks, the Boston Bruins and the St. Louis Blues in a 15-day period. In the end, he landed back with the Blackhawks, who subsequently traded him to the Florida Panthers that summer. Finally, in his third season with the Panthers, he played a respectable number of NHL games (31) and began to attract some notice within the league.
"That year, I went through waivers, my last 15 games were right there with anybody's in the league. Right then and there, I knew I could play. Getting sent down the next year, after I got traded to Florida, it was like, 'alright, let's get back to work. Let's show them that I'm too good for this league and get myself back up'."
AROUND THE RINKS: The Edmonton Oilers' Andrew Cogliano may be having a hard time finding the back of the net of late (only two goals in his first 13 games), but he hasn't lost his sense of humour. For the Oilers' annual Hallowe'en party, Cogliano came dressed as Dany Heatley in an old Ottawa Senators' sweater. Get it? Cogliano was one of three Oilers' players who were to be traded to the Ottawa Senators for Heatley until the latter nixed the deal … The Penguins' Jordan Staal, long capable of playing as a top-six forward, will line up as the team's No. 2 centre in the wake of a nagging shoulder injury that will knock Evgeni Malkin, last year's leading scorer, out of the lineup for two to three weeks. The decision ends Malkin's run of 254 consecutive games played. He hadn't miss any action since the first four games of his rookie season after he'd injured his shoulder in an exhibition game collision with John LeClair … Is the Tampa Bay Lightning's Steve Stamkos pushing his way into Canadian Olympic team contention? Stamkos has nine goals already this season; it took him until Feb. 17 last year to reach that number … The Atlanta Thrashers' respectable start will get a test now that leading scorer Ilya Kovalchuk could miss up to four weeks with a broken bone in his right foot. In theory, the Thrashers have the horses to pick up the scoring slack in Slava Kozlov, Todd White and Nik Antropov, who combined for 76 goals last season but had zero among them through the first eight games of the season, or until White broke through in Thursday night's 4-3 loss to the Washington Capitals … Good news for the St. Louis Blues, who got defenceman Eric Brewer back in the lineup for Thursday's date against the Phoenix Coyotes - his first action since Dec. 11 of last year. In the interim, Brewer, the former Oilers' rearguard that was traded to St. Louis for Chris Pronger, underwent two back surgeries and at one point feared that he might never play again … In the hopes that lightning will strike twice for them, the Los Angeles Kings picked up defenceman Randy Jones on re-entry waivers from the Philadelphia Flyers. Last year, the Kings received a big payoff when they grabbed Kyle Quincey off waivers from Detroit; got a lot of mileage out of him; and eventually flipped him to Colorado in the Ryan Smyth trade. Philadelphia made Jones available for the usual salary-cap reasons - $3.25-million was too much to pay for a defenceman dropped down the depth chart after they picked up Pronger from Anaheim … Luca Sbisa, who went the other way in the Pronger deal, was sent to Lethbridge of the Western Hockey League. Sbisa played 39 games as an 18-year-old last season … That one-year contract signed by Kyle Calder with the Ducks will pay him $500,000 if he cracks the NHL lineup but is worth only $105,000 for now while he is in ECHL Bakersfield getting in shape. Calder attended Ducks camp this year on a tryout basis after playing the last two years for the Kings, but was cut after training camp. Presumably, the Ducks' dismal 3-6-1 start had something to do with their second thoughts.