Category Archives: Sport

Rags To Riches For Penguins

Aug 4, 2005 (published on www.tvnz.co.nz)
By Fred Lunjevich

From league bunnies to the hottest ticket in the NHL the Pittsburgh Penguins love the new salary capped version of the NHL. 

The club was on the brink of self destruction in the past few seasons as it slumped to the bottom of the league in terms of wins, game attendance and of course, money.

But the Penguins have a new sense of vigour under new league rules.

Winning the NHL entry draft lottery and signing talented teen Sidney Crosby has given Penguin fans a reason to go out and buy season tickets while the team is now attracting the league’s top talents.

The club’s first major signing from the free agent market was Sergei Gonchar who was formerly of the Boston Bruins.

Gonchar has been the league’s highest scoring defenceman in the past six seasons.

Players that can’t get the big money they received under the old system will likely move to clubs that are genuine contenders.

Pittsburgh, for the first time in a decade, is one of those teams.

An evening of the playing field has done wonders for struggling franchises who found it difficult to buy players on the open market.

In 1998 the Penguins filed for bankruptcy after signing former scoring champion Jaromir Jagr to a $38 million contract extension.

Owner-player and Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux stepped in and bought the struggling franchise but with a low payroll the team floundered at the bottom of the league.

He is now selling the Penguins to San Jose-based businessman William (Boots) Del Biaggio in a move that should sure up the club’s finances.

The Penguins reached the Eastern Conference finals in 2000-01 after Lemieux unexpectedly ended a 44-month retirement but has failed to reach the playoffs since. The Penguins lost 18 consecutive games and had the league’s worst record in the 2003-04 season.

But with the signing of Crosby and a league $39 million salary cap, it puts Pittsburgh back on the NHL radar as contenders.

Add to this Lemieux’s desire to return to the NHL despite turning 40 on opening night, October 5 and you have a recipe for winning.

Pittsburgh last won the Stanley Cup in 1991-92 after winning it the previous season also.

Source: ONE Sport

NHL Preview: Eastern Conference

Oct 3, 2005 (published on www.tvnz.co.nz)
By Fred Lunjevich

In the new NHL there is a new reality, and the big spending franchises won’t like it.

All 30 teams will hit the ice on Thursday in a vastly new look league that sees a $39 million salary cap spread talent.

That will mean the Colorado’s, Detroit’s Dallas’ and New Jersey’s of the world will no longer have things their way.

The Eastern Conference is shaping up to be very competitive as the weak invariably got better while the strong stayed that way.

Look out for the speedy Montreal Canadiens, Florida Panthers, and the Pittsburgh Penguins to make big strides this year.

All these teams have young talent that will be immediate forces on the ice with a healthy mix of veterans who will provide leadership off the ice.

Expect number one draft pick Sidney Crosby and Ryan Malone to put up big numbers for the Penguins considering the veteran talents of Mario Lemiuex, Zigmund Palffy, Mark Recchi and John Leclair.

Despite the additions, Pittsburgh will still find it tough elevating themselves from the depths of the league’s cellar, but will be vastly improved from two-years ago.

The Washington Capitals will struggle once again with plenty of fresh faces making NHL debuts. On the plus side, the Capitals can only get better and are fortunate to have the 2004 number one draft pick in points scoring machine Alexander Ovechkin.

Don’t expect too much from the New York Rangers. Traditionally, the Rangers have been the Yankees of the NHL – big spenders and stacked with talent. The Rangers no longer have the luxury of offering irresistible salaries to players and will suffer as a consequence.

The New York Islanders will fare much better than their inner city rivals as new players will add to an already solid lineup.

Buffalo lost their key goal scorer – Miroslav Satan in the offseason and didn’t add a lot. Buffalo is a young team but far from a dominant one.

Florida added veteran stars Gary Roberts and Joe Nieuwendyk to their cast of young forwards. With a go-go gadget arms goalie in Roberto Luongo, skilled European players Kristian Huselius, Nicklas Nagman and Olli Jokinen the Panthers may well be the surprise package in the east.

Montreal, a team that has won 26 Stanley Cups over the years, is blessed with youngsters with quick feet and skilled hands. Michael Ryder scored 68 points as a rookie in 2003-04, while newcomers Guillame Letandresse and Tomas Plekanec made good impressions in the preseason.

The Atlanta Thrashers may struggle, as the loss of the impressive Ilya Kovalchuk might be too much. With a Stanley Cup winning coach at the helm anything is possible but the Thrashers’ will rely on veterans Bobby Holika and Peter Bondra as well as the goal-scoring prowess of Marian Hossa.

The defensive minded New Jersey Devils lost two future hall of fame defensemen; Scott Stevens to retirement and Scott Niedermayer to Anaheim, but the team is still solid and is backed by the best goalie in the league in Martin Brodeur.

Without doubt, the eastern conference teams that embraced the new CBA in the best possible way are Philadelphia, Boston, the Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay Lightning, Pittsburgh and Ottawa.

The Ottawa Senators have an experienced and skilled line up that has residents of the Canadian capital talking up their cup chances.

Philadelphia made big moves signing the leagues best forward in Peter Forsberg and bolstering its defense by adding three huge defensemen. All while holding on to inspirational captain Keith Primeau and skilled forward Simon Gagne.

Boston is a solid team with a young up and coming goaltender in Andrew Raycroft. A solid defensive unit coupled with skilled forwards including 223-pound all-star centre Joe Thornton. This team has the potential of owning the Eastern Conference.

Tampa Bay is largely unchanged although the loss of Nikolai Khabibulin in goal raises a big question mark.

The big unknown in the east is the Toronto Maple Leafs. Toronto is often called the “centre of the hockey universe,” but will enter this season with an aging team that always steps up with tough hockey.

There is a strong possibility the Eastern Conference will produce the 2005/06 Stanley Cup winning team.

Source: ONE Sport

NHL Preview: Western Conference

Oct 6, 2005 (published on www.tvnz.co.nz)
By Fred Lunjevich

Rule changes, a $39 million salary cap and a busy free agent market has changed the face of the NHL.

What this means to the Western Conference is fewer cats holding on to marquee players.

The NHL’s premier teams in the last decade have largely come from the Western Conference, as Colorado, Detroit and Dallas went on cup winning sprees between themselves.

Only New Jersey in the Eastern Conference has dominated to the same degree.

How will the West fare under the new-look league? In a word – closer.

It could well be an NRL style of competition with the traditionally weak teams sneaking up on the bigger teams.

The Colorado Avalanche was probably the biggest loser in the free-agent market, losing several top players. Arguably the world’s best player, Peter Forsberg decided to move from the franchise that he had been with almost his entire career while Adam Foote was let go to free up salary cap space. The core of the team will comprise probably the league’s best centre in Joe Sakic and defenseman Rob Blake. The remainder of the team is a mix of veteran players at the twilight of their careers and a bunch of kids in their first or second seasons. How they go is anyone’s guess but don’t rule them out as being leaders in the west.

The Detroit Red Wings keep most of their core players including future hall of famers Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan. The biggest development for the Red Wings was signing its young players – Henrik Zetterberg and Pavel Datsyuk. The latter almost escaped to play in Russia. Still the team to beat in the west.

Dallas doesn’t lose much but don’t gain much either. Veterans Mike Modano, Bill Guerin and Jason Arnott provide plenty of offense and leadership but there is a question over where the rest of the scoring will come from. Young Finnish forwards Niko Kapanen and Jussi Jokinen may well be the answer. Marty Turco is an all-star goalie that has a lot to prove after Colorado knocked Dallas out of the playoff’s last time around.

San Jose avoided the temptation of throwing wads of cash around on the burgeoning free-agent market relying instead on promoting talent from within. Their young, no-name line-up was huge in the 2003-04 playoffs and there is every reason to suspect they will be genuine contenders this season. Young players such as Jonathan Cheechoo, Marcel Goc and Niko Dimitrakos have already made their mark in the NHL and are well supported by star center Patrick Marleau and Russian goaltender Evgeni Nabokov. San Jose may well emerge from the west as top dog come playoff time.

The three Canadian teams will be tough prospects, particularly the reigning Conference champion Calgary Flames. Adding solid forwards Tony Amonte and Daymond Langkow certainly helps the Flames, while the defense is still largely unchanged from last season. The inspirational Jarome Iginla – an all-star forward of the highest class, leads the Flames while Mikka Kiprusoff will tend goal. Calgary will be tough to beat.

Edmonton has strengthened their lineup but is still in a rebuilding phase. The new rules will suit the Oilers’ fast transition game, but with a young American goalie in Ty Conklin, it is unclear how far Edmonton will go.

Vancouver’s lineup hasn’t changed all that much, with only a few defensemen moving on. The Canucks’ top forward line of Todd Bertuzzi, Brendan Morrison and Markus Naslund is one of the finest in the game. Vancouvers real weakness is in goal which drastically affects their title chances.

St Louis lost before the season started when top defenseman Al McInnis retired and Chris Pronger packed his bags for Edmonton. A mixture of journeyman, St Louis may well be the biggest disappointment in the west.

The Anaheim Mighty Ducks pulled off a stunning trade by luring top New Jersey Defenseman Scott Niedermayer over to the Pacific coast. He joins his brother Rob and three of the most potent forwards in the game: the Finnish flash Teemu Selanne, Sergei Federov and Petr Sykora. Another team that could be good but you wouldn’t bet your life insurance on it.

The rest of the west will jostle for the bottom rungs of the ladder. There may be some surprises though; the Phoenix Coyotes, Nashville Predators and the Chicago Blackhawks boast a lot of young players but are a bit of a lottery. Phoenix may benefit from having the best hockey player ever – Wayne Gretzky – as their coach but there is a difference between being a top player and being a top coach.

Columbus, Los Angeles and Minnesota will struggle but at least the latter two will have fans coming to watch them lose.

On paper the cup should stay in the east this season, but there are a handful of teams in the west that may have something to say about that.

Source: ONE Sport

Same Catch-Cry, Different Sport

Aug 12, 2005 (pubished on www.tvnz.co.nz)
By Fred Lunjevich

It’s the same catch cry for ice hockey in New Zealand as it is for any other minor sport: without fans and money things go nowhere.

Unlike many other minority sports, ice hockey requires special facilities and can cost upwards of $1000 for a full playing kit.

Training ice time at Paradice Botany Downs costs $225 an hour.

Despite the challenges, the powers that be in the game are well on their way to developing some top class players with the newly formed New Zealand Ice Hockey League.

That being said, Auckland has around 450 registered players of various ages and about 250 people showed up at each game to watch last weekends round at Paradice Avondale.

NZIHL general manager Gunther Birgel says there is plenty of interest in the sport in major centres but there are only four rinks that are open year round.

Auckland has two rinks while Christchurch and Dunedin prop up the South Island. Queenstown has a rink but it closes in September.

“We would like to have more teams and can’t wait until places like Hamilton and Wellington come on board,” says Mr Birgel.

“We’re waiting for Wellington City Council to build a rink at the events centre in Newtown.

“There are a number of roller hockey players in the region who would love to play.”

In the meantime the league continues with four teams with four rounds.

The league will expand to five rounds next year and there may also be a semifinal round added.

A league of this nature was started 10 years ago but quickly fizzled out due to high travel costs. With more players in the New Zealand domestic airline market costs have come down to a level that allows teams to travel more.

The NZIHL takes over from a Nationals competition that would see Auckland, Canterbury and Southland face off over a weekend. It was apparent each year that Auckland’s dominance wasn’t helping strengthen the sport around the rest of the country and so the NZIHL was born.

“It is our goal to make stage a good competition with even teams throughout the country,” says Mr Birgel.

“One advantage Auckland has that a place like Christchurch doesn’t is that there are quite a few good import players in the Auckland area.

“There are five Canadian players in the Southern Stampede team and two of them are really carrying the team.”

Foreign players have strengthened local ice hockey in a way that All Blacks would in places where rugby was a minority sport.

Each team is permitted to have a maximum of five foreign players in any one game.

New Zealand’s national team – the Ice Blacks – moved into the second division of the international competition, which Mr Birgel says took years to achieve.

“The goal for the Ice Blacks is to get into the first division, and realistically, that’s all we can manage in this area of the world.”

New Zealand are ranked 37th in the world and will find competition tough when they host China, Mexico, North and South Korea at Paradice Botany in April next year.

Source: ONE Sport

NHL Back And Better Than Ever

Aug 1, 2005 (Published on www.tvnz.co.nz)
By Fred Lunjevich

Almost a year after the NHL player lockout put an end to the 2004/05 season, the business of professional ice hockey in North America is cranking along at an incredible rate.

A new collective bargaining agreement, rule changes, a rookie hailed as the “next one” and the largest free agent pool in NHL history are set to make this season’s league one of the most interesting in recent history.

The rich getting richer will no longer be a catch cry in the NHL as teams will now be capped to spending just under $40 million on players.

Some teams are faced with tough decisions. It is not uncommon to see teams spending over $20 million on three or four players so those teams will be hardest hit.

Teams such as Colorado, Detroit, the New York Rangers and Boston are four teams that over the years have attracted the best talent because of the ability to pay whatever they liked for players.

Key players have been the first to receive contracts and cream the big money but sacrifices will have to be made and old ties severed. Expect more deals and trades before the puck drops in October than a typical week on Wall Street.

If players can’t make the dollars they were privy to under the old free market model they’ll go where they like as opposed to where the money is.

The obvious consequence is that Canadian players, which make up the majority of the league, will play for the teams they idolised as youngsters. That’s most likely to be the Montreal Canadiens and the Toronto Maple Leafs so we could see those teams return as the forces they once were.

But money is where the restrictions end in the new NHL. A pool of talented rookies led by Canadian teenage phenomenon Sidney Crosby is brought a new excitment to the league.

Crosby’s dazzling array of skills and his ability to put the puck in the net has earned him high praise. Ice hockey’s greatest ever player – Wayne Gretzky – was called “the one” and many are calling Crosby “the next one”. How he adapts to the NHL will be interesting to watch as will his battle with Russian Alexander Ovechkin who was last year’s top draft pick.

He will be playing alongside another of the game’s greats in Mario Lemieux at the rebuilding Pittsburgh Penguins.

Expect goal scoring to improve also. Rule changes designed to open the game up were announced the day the new NHL bargaining agreement was announced. The most notable rule changes include the size reduction of goalie pads, the extension of the offensive zone by pushing the net back a few feet, and a zero tolerance approach to obstruction.

Tied games will be decided by penalty shootouts – a nightmare for goalies but a treat for the fans.

Bringing back the buzz to the NHL will not be easy but the developments so far will make for a very different, and most would say, better game.

Source: ONE Sport

Athlete Sets His Sights Far From The Farm

20/07/2004 12:00:00 AM
DESPITE toughing it out daily on the Bay of Plenty family farm, Jason Birchall puts himself through additional stress as an adventure race competitor.The 27-year-old dairy worker has competed in many adventure races over the years, including a 17th-placed finish at the last Coast to Coast.

He works on his uncle’s 400-cow dairy farm, just south of Rotorua.

Straight Furrow asked Mr Birchall how he juggled farm work and endurance training as he sets his sights on this year’s Southern Traverse.

“It’s hard trying to sort everything out for the Southern Traverse — the big factor is getting sponsorship, because the entry cost alone is $6000.

“I missed out on the event last year as it falls at a bad time through AI and mating. I have done a few other adventure races, including the Coast to Coast for the past five years.

“The top guys put in 30-40 hours of training each week; because of work I’m lucky to put in 12-20.”

The Southern Traverse is a six-day, non-stop adventure race for co-ed teams of four and is a key feature on the international adventure racing calendar.

The course covers more than 400km through some of the South Island’s most spectacular scenery.

Details are not revealed until the eve of the race. It can include mountain biking, mountain trekking, abseiling, kayaking, rafting and orienteering.

This means competitors have to be ready for anything.

“It will be full-on down in the West Coast this year. There is some hard country down there and some big hills to climb.

“The first 36 hours you have to go hard to stay with the front runners and then take quick naps of about 30 minutes if you need to.

“The race is always tough — only 12 out of 30 teams finished last year.”

As a team they carry as little as possible, although they do take race food such as sandwiches, fatty foods, powerbar products and carbo shots.

The constant stress of staying awake for long periods and the prolonged physical exertion starts to play tricks on the minds.

“When you haven’t slept for two days you can start to see things. While doing a race in New Caledonia once I thought I could see a pirate ship.

“No one else can see it, and when you flip out they have to try and calm you down.”

With all the challenges and commitment required for adventure races, you can be forgiven for wondering what drives someone go through it all.

“I like to see how far I can push myself,” Mr Birchall says.

“It will be good to get out of work for a while and go down there. With prize money on offer there is a bit more of an incentive to participate.

“If you have a passion for something go out and do it.”

The winning team will receive $30,000 out of a total prize pool of $40,000, as well as free entry to the 2005 World Adventure Racing Championships.

His main goal is to race overseas — there are around seven really big events worldwide annually.

Mr Birchall is sponsored by Eco-lab and Saucony shoes/race gear. His team is cross-sponsored by Adventure magazine, while Bike Fix Rotorua does all his bike tuning.

This year’s Southern Traverse runs from November 15-20.

Olympic Gold A Great Boost For Red Meat

31/08/2004 12:00:00 AM
OLYMPIC Gold is not easy to win, though rowers Caroline and Georgina Evers-Swindell and track cyclist Sarah Ulmer made it look easy at the recent Olympic Games in Athens.All New Zealand is proud of their achievements, but farmers can can feel even more pride knowing their meat has gone into the making of these champions.

At a time when drug taking has tainted the world’s largest sporting event, the Evers Swindells and Ulmer rely on nothing but good honest hard work and feeding themselves nutrition that only New Zealand beef can give.

Beef and Lamb Marketing Bureau general manager Rod Slater says 28-year-old Ulmer is a great advocate of red meat.

“We have been targetting professional sports people, usually women, to be sports ambassadors for the past 7-8 years,” he says.

“We have been associated with Sarah for five years now, so we have ridden with her through the highs and the lows of her career, and now the incredible high she is on now.”

Mr Slater says she is an ideal role model for promoting a healthy diet, that includes lean red meat.

“Sarah recently mentioned in a fitness magazine article that she relies on red meat for the energy side and for the iron,” Mr Slater adds.

Ulmer stunned the cycling world on August 22 by smashing the world record in the qualifying round of the 3000m individual pursuit by more than 3sec, and then eclipsing that mark in the final to lower the mark to 3min 24.537sec.

Quite an achievement considering she set a world record at the World Championships in May with a time of 3:30.604sec.

The monumental rise of the 23-year-old Evers-Swindell twins reached a crescendo on August 21, when they won gold in the double sculls.

Mr Slater says the Evers-Swindell twins have been ambassadors for six months.

“Women, particularly athletes, tend to have iron deficiencies.

“Positive spin-offs for having high-profile athletes as ambassadors is when they talk about their nutrition with the media they genuinely emphasise the role red meat plays in their diet.

“And, in the off chance they happen to win a gold medal then that’s great for us — it just so happens that two of them happened to win gold medals within 24 hours.”

Each of the sports people chosen to be sports ambassadors with the bureau must be consumers of red meat products.