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By DAMIAN CRISTODERO, Times Staff Writer

© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2003

Mutual admiration society

What will Lightning coach John Tortorella remember most about Bucs coach Jon Gruden dropping the ceremonial first puck before Tampa Bay's game against the Capitals? As Gruden left the ice Monday at the St. Pete Times Forum, he smacked a Lightning player on the shoulder and spat words of encouragement. Tortorella declined to divulge, but the scene confirmed for him what Gruden brought to the Bucs.

"That was the closest you can come to a coach and a staff willing their players to a championship," Tortorella said. "Players win and lose games, but I think they take their lead from the attitude of the coach. I'm a big Tony Dungy fan, but Jon Gruden brought an emotion, excitement and intensity I think the team needed to get over the top."

Gruden, attending his second Lightning game and first as Bucs coach, said he sees similarities between the clubs. "For professional sports teams that have a young nucleus of players who are building, and some key players, it all starts at the top. You have to have some leadership on the ice or on the field, and an inspiring staff. I was really impressed with John and the group of guys I met. I know it's just a matter of time before they all start coming together."

Is Mario done?

Mario Lemieux has said repeatedly he wants to play another year or two. But the Penguins superstar wavered a bit recently. "I'm going to play the last 27 games, hopefully make a run for the playoffs, and then I'll sit down with my wife and all my close friends and talk about it and make a decision from there."

Five Questions With Caps right wing Peter Bondra.

Q : You have the most goals (40) and points (53) of any player against the Lightning. Why the success?

A: I don't think there's a secret, especially if you look at the stats lately. This is a different team we're playing now than five or six years ago. That team is for real.

Q : How has your perception of the team changed?

A: Obviously you had a better chance to win than now. I will never say there are any easy games; you always had to be ready. But now they're playing so well.

Q : Can the Tampa Bay area be a hockey town?

A: It's hockey when you come to the rink, but around you it doesn't feel like hockey. I grew up (in the Czech Republic) where the winter is strong and everybody plays hockey. When you come down here, you see the palm trees. It's not really hockey.

Q : So the weather is the problem?

A: If you go to Canada, it's hockey. It's cold when you go to the rink. But I like going to Tampa. You get a change of weather for a day or two. Sometimes it's too hot in the rink when you play, but you adjust to the game.

Q : You have a house in Palm Coast near St. Augustine. What do you like to do?

A: I come down with my family, and we go to Disney.

Around the league

The Senators held an outdoor practice on the frozen Rideau Canal that runs through Ottawa. "It brought back a lot of memories," goalie Patrick Lalime said. "It makes you realize the game is about fun." ... The latest Jarome Iginla trade rumor has he and goalie Roman Turek going to the Rangers for goalie Dan Blackburn. ... Red Wings captain Steve Yzerman, who had August knee surgery, may be ready to play this week. ... For those who remember the big, bad Bruins, this from Boston tough guy P.J. Stock has to be a real buzz kill: "No one is scared of the Boston Bruins. We don't hit as a team in general. We're not a physical team in general." ... Since signing a $1.25-million contract to solve the Thrashers' goaltending woes, Byron Dafoe is 5-11-1, has a 4.36 goals-against average and is on the bench with a strained groin.


"I'm embarrassed. I might be the most confused person in North America, and maybe the world right now." -- Sharks coach Ron Wilson after his preseason title contenders sank to 13th in the West.

-- Compiled by Times staff writer Damian Cristodero from personal interviews and information from other news organizations.

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