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Three Periods: Zamuner reflects on '98 Olympic controversy; the case for Kunitz; Buffalo GM's big chance

Nicholas J. Cotsonika
Yahoo Sports

Nicholas J. Cotsonika’s weekly Three Periods column appears on Thursdays. This week’s topics include Rob Zamuner’s reflections on what it’s like to make Team Canada; why Chris Kunitz was a safe, smart choice for Sochi; why the Sabres are a great opportunity for new GM Tim Murray; how the Flyers have been on fire since the firing of coach Peter Laviolette; plus, notes on the Lightning, Ducks and Winter Classic world-record attempt.

FIRST PERIOD: Zamuner reflects on making Canada’s Olympic team in 1998

Rob Zamuner was on the computer. His colleagues at the NHL Players’ Association in Toronto were huddled around the television. The Canadian men’s hockey team was being announced Tuesday, and like millions of others across the country, they wanted to know: Who’s in? Who’s out?

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Rob Zamuner went from relative anonymity in Tampa Bay to a storm of Olympic controversy in 1998. (Getty)

Zamuner was at the center of the storm as a player before the 1998 Nagano Games, as the most controversial pick for Team Canada in the first Olympics to include NHL players. Now a divisional player rep for the NHLPA, he has a unique perspective on the pride and pressure of making it – and how the storm has intensified for today’s controversial picks.

“My first thought was: How many people are tweeting their comments? ” Zamuner said. “What would have caused more action on social media in Canada? What sporting event? The World Cup of soccer? Possibly. I don’t know. I don’t know what would.”

Even Canadian prime minister Stephen Harper tweeted about the selection beforehand, saying he was looking forward to it. “With so much talent to choose from,” he said, “I’m sure they’ll make us proud.” Hockey means so much to Canadian culture, and everyone comes together for the Olympics. No single sport means as much to Americans, not even football, and there is no Olympic football.

The announcement was major news 16 years ago. It was carried on national television in Canada then, too. But it came before a game in Ottawa, and Zamuner was playing that night in Tampa, and the Internet was in its infancy. Zamuner played 23:18 and scored a goal for the Tampa Bay Lightning in a 3-3 tie with the Philadelphia Flyers – remember ties? – and coach Jacques Demers approached him afterward.

“He said, ‘Congratulations,’ ” Zamuner said. “And I didn’t know what the heck he was talking about. It was a different time.”

Zamuner had played on a line with Keith Primeau and Jarome Iginla at the 1997 world championships, and Canada had won gold. He had heard his name mentioned for the 1998 Olympic team. Still, he didn’t expect to make it – and many others didn’t expect him to make it, either, especially over, say, Mark Messier.

Rosters were limited to 23 players then, two fewer than they are now. Team Canada GM Bobby Clarke wanted Zamuner largely for his defense and penalty killing, and Zamuner had nine goals by the end of the night the announcement was made, the same number Messier had. Zamuner was a 28-year-old left winger, Messier a 36-year-old centerman.

Zamuner told reporters he hoped people wouldn’t compare him to Messier. But they did, and they still do.

“It was an interesting time,” Zamuner said. “You have this exciting, mind-blowing experience of being named to the team, and there’s a lot of debate and talk – and there always will be. … It was a great moment, but it also was … I was asked daily about that until the Olympics.”

Here’s the thing about making Team Canada: It’s just the beginning. Once you’re on the team, you have to live up to it. Whatever happens stays with you forever.

[Nick Cotsonika: Canada's Olympic team is tough to build, tough to beat]

Canada did not win a medal in Nagano. After starting 4-0 – outscoring their opponents, 16-4 – the Canadians lost in the semifinals to the Czech Republic, 2-1. Dominik Hasek stoned Theo Fleury, Ray Bourque, Joe Nieuwendyk, Eric Lindros and Brendan Shanahan in the shootout. Lindros hit a post. “I don’t know if you would have had 100 guys shoot on Hasek if they would have scored that day,” Zamuner said. Then they lost the bronze medal game to Finland, 3-2.

Did Canada fail because Clarke cared too much about size and not enough about speed and skill? Because Clarke brought Zamuner instead of Messier? Because coach Marc Crawford didn’t use Wayne Gretzky in the shootout against the Czechs? Or was it because Dominik Hasek was Dominik Hasek, Finland won a squeaker and anything can happen in Olympic hockey?

“I’m sure that debate will rage on,” said Zamuner, who had a goal and eight penalty minutes in six games, skating on a line with Nieuwendyk and Fleury. “Unless Canada wins the gold, that will always be debated.”

The debate now is whether Chris Kunitz should have made the team – whether he’s good enough on his own merit, whether his chemistry with Sidney Crosby should have been enough. It is whether forwards such as Jamie Benn, Jeff Carter, Rick Nash and Patrick Marleau should have made it over forwards such as Logan Couture, Claude Giroux, James Neal, Martin St-Louis and Joe Thornton. It is over whether Dan Hamhuis should have made it over Brent Seabrook on the blue line.

It will rage on until the Olympics. It will continue during the Games, and it will never end – especially if Canada falls short. It is louder than ever before because of talk radio and social media. There are so many platforms for opinions. “I guess what’s a little different is the magnitude,” Zamuner said.

But it’s OK. The attention is good for the game. The competition and the stakes help make the Olympics what they are. Though he was devastated by the results, Zamuner is proud of how he played in Nagano, and he also remembers being a part of Team Canada as a whole, not just the hockey team – living in the village, meeting other athletes, representing his country.

“A number of countries have a legitimate chance to win,” Zamuner said. “It’s great. It makes it that much harder, and there will be debate unless they win the gold. It’s just part of the equation when you play hockey and you have the leaf on your sweater.”

SECOND PERIOD: Kunitz is a known quantity for Team Canada

Of course Crosby makes other players better and raises their scoring rates. He is the best player in the world. If he had a left winger even more talented than Kunitz at the Olympics, could they generate even more than he and Kunitz would? Possibly.

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Chris Kunitz has had success playing with NHL superstars beyond current linemate Sidney Crosby. (AP)

But there is little time to gel at the Olympics, and Kunitz is a known quantity for Team Canada. He is a safe, smart choice.

He has clicked with Crosby. He has clicked with two other Canadian teammates: Ryan Getzlaf and Corey Perry. He has clicked with other great players. If he is on the ice in Sochi, he will be on the ice with Crosby, Getzlaf, Perry or other great players – at even strength or as a net-front presence on the power play. He has proven to be, at the very least, an excellent complementary player.

Kunitz ranks fifth in the NHL in scoring with 48 points in 45 games, after ranking seventh last season with 52 in 48. Yes, that’s largely due to the Crosby effect. But Kunitz has had an effect, too.

Check out this breakdown by Jason Seidling, the Penguins’ manager of communications:

— 2006-07: Kunitz played with Andy McDonald and Teemu Selanne as the Anaheim Ducks won the Stanley Cup. Selanne scored 48 goals, his highest total since 52 in 1997-98. He put up 94 points, his highest total since 107 in ’98-99.

— 2007-08: Kunitz played with Getzlaf and Perry in Anaheim. Getzlaf’s 24 goals and 82 points were the second-highest totals of his career. Perry scored 0.41 goals per game, the third-highest total of his career.

— 2008-09: Kunitz was traded to Pittsburgh – specifically because the Penguins thought he would fit with Crosby. He played with Crosby and Bill Guerin. The Pens won the Cup.

— 2009-10: Kunitz played with Crosby, who scored a career-high 51 goals and tied Steven Stamkos for the Rocket Richard Trophy as the NHL’s goal-scoring leader.

— 2010-11: Kunitz played with Crosby and Pascal Dupuis. Crosby was headed for one of the best offensive seasons the NHL had seen in years before he suffered a concussion, with 32 goals and 66 points in half a season.

— 2011-12: Kunitz played with Evgeni Malkin and James Neal. Malkin won his first Hart Trophy as the NHL’s most valuable player. Neal had career highs in goals (40), assists (41) and points (81).

— 2012-13: Kunitz went back with Crosby and Dupuis. Crosby led the NHL in scoring with 56 points in 36 games until he suffered a broken jaw. Kunitz could have had back-to-back Hart Trophy-winning linemates if not for Crosby’s injury, and Crosby still won the Ted Lindsay Award when the players voted him the NHL’s most outstanding player. Dupuis scored 20 goals, five off his career high, in only 48 games.

— 2013-14: Kunitz has been with Crosby all season, with Dupuis as their right winger until he suffered a knee injury. Crosby leads in the NHL in scoring with 65 points – 11 more than anyone else.

Kunitz is pretty lucky, pretty good or both.

THIRD PERIOD: Murray takes over sleeping giants in the Sabres

Will Tim Murray be a great general manager for the Buffalo Sabres? No one knows. But everyone should know this: The Sabres will be a great opportunity for Murray.

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Tim Murray lands in a good spot in Buffalo's front office. (USA Today)

It is brutally hard to become a GM in the NHL – and even harder to become one for a winning team, the way Ken Holland did when he was promoted to GM by the defending Stanley Cup-champion Detroit Red Wings in 1997-98.

There are only 30 jobs. If you’re getting hired, that usually means someone got fired. And that usually means things are a mess.

The Sabres are a mess. But not all messes are the same. If you have to build from the ground up, you want to do it in a place like Buffalo. The owner, Terry Pegula, is a billionaire. He has upgraded the facilities and given his employees every resource to do their jobs, and he has been patient with his coach and GM even as the critics howled.

Pegula might not be as patient anymore. The fans lost their patience long ago. But both are passionate, and now there has been a reset. Expectations should be relatively low and realistic, and Murray should have the time to do this right.

Murray, a 20-year veteran of NHL front offices, most recently the assistant GM of the Ottawa Senators, has franchise icon Pat LaFontaine above him as president of hockey operations to handle some of the PR. He has Hall of Fame GM Craig Patrick alongside him as an advisor. He has the second half of this season to evaluate interim coach Ted Nolan and consider successors. He has pending unrestricted free agents he can sign or move before the trade deadline: Ryan Miller, Steve Ott and Matt Moulson.

Most important, the Sabres have a stockpile of young players, prospects and draft picks, thanks to former GM Darcy Regier. Murray is known as a shrewd talent evaluator. His shrewdness when it comes to trades, contracts, the salary cap, et cetera is unknown, but that’s a good start.

“The main thing is evaluating players, being able to project players, being able to understand what constitutes a good trade or an average trade or a bad trade, knowing the market,” said Murray Thursday at his introductory press conference. “I just think that just being in the field – and I believe having a pretty good eye – has set me up to get in this position right now.”

It’s an enviable position.

OVERTIME: Flyers on fire after firing of Laviolette

The Philadelphia Flyers started 0-3-0, fired coach Peter Laviolette and promoted assistant coach Craig Berube to replace him. They kept sputtering to a 4-10-1 record. It looked like it was going to be a long, long season, and it looked like GM Paul Holmgren would be the next to go.

Now look: The Flyers have gone 19-7-4 since and climbed to second in the Metropolitan Division. They have won 10 straight at Wells Fargo Center, their longest home winning streak since an 11-gamer in 2003. They have won 10 straight at home in regulation, too, their longest streak since a 14-gamer in 1985. They are 8-2-0 in their last 10 overall.

Not only do they hold a playoff spot, they have a great chance to make noise in the playoffs. This is the Metro. This is the East. Think the Penguins want to face them?

The Flyers still take too many penalties (15.9 minutes per game, worst in the NHL), but they have a good penalty kill (84.6 percent, seventh in the league). They have good goaltending. They’re playing better without the puck. Their scoring is balanced. And their captain, Claude Giroux, has found his game after a poor start. If he is motivated by being snubbed by Team Canada – and knowing his intensity, he will be – look out.

“Confidence is big, and right now we’re confident we can find a way to win games even if sometimes we’re not in the game,” said Flyers center Sean Couturier. “Our goalie makes big saves, and it just takes a little play to turn the momentum around.”

Or a little firing.

SHOOTOUT: Notes from around the NHL

— The Tampa Bay Lightning have been relying heavily on rookies. Center Tyler Johnson is among the rookie scoring leaders with 11 goals and 23 points, putting him in contention for the Calder Trophy. But some around the Bolts would argue that left winger Ondrej Palat has been even better. He has eight goals and 20 points. Both have played with right winger Martin St-Louis while superstar Steven Stamkos has been out with a broken leg.

— Another rookie that deserves far more attention: Anaheim Ducks defenseman Hampus Lindholm. He was drafted sixth overall in 2012. But he’s only 19, and he’s plus-22 – far and away the best among NHL rookies and tied for second-best in the entire league. Plus-minus is a screwy statistic, but he’s doing something right. He’s doing a lot right. “He’s a special player,” said Ducks coach Bruce Boudreau.

— The NHL sold 105,491 tickets to the Winter Classic on New Year’s Day. But cold and snow made driving and parking difficult, kept some fans from entering Michigan Stadium until the second period and caused problems with the counting procedures. Guinness World Records will count only those fans who actually attended, along with some media and officials, and it is still working on the final figure. When the world record was set at a college game at the Big House in 2010, Guinness originally certified 85,451. About a month later, it certified 104,073. It finally settled on 104,173.

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