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Penguins Notebook: MRI might produce, in best case, unlucky news for Straka

Tuesday, September 10, 2002

By Dave Molinari, Post-Gazette Sports Writer

If Martin Straka's recent run of luck holds, the Magnetic Resonance Imaging examination of his injured back today will go one of two ways: Either the machinery will short-circuit and give him a major electrical jolt, or he'll receive a career-threatening dose of, well, magnetism.

Far-fetched? Perhaps, but when a guy has had his tibia shattered by an opponent's innocuous shove, an orbital bone fractured by a teammate's stick and his backbone realigned by a rampaging weight machine -- all in less than nine months -- it's risky to rule out anything.

"It's really hard to describe the way things have gone for him," Penguins Coach Rick Kehoe said yesterday. "I don't know if it's bad luck or just circumstances where those things happen."

Given the way things have gone for Straka, it should surprise no one that even his best-case scenario today isn't terribly attractive: The finest news he can get is that he will need several months of rest, rehabilitation and conditioning before he can resume playing.

The worst is that his injury -- a compressed vertebra and torn ligament he got in a workout in the Czech Republic in July -- will require surgery that would force him to sit out the season.

While there were numerous reports about the circumstances surrounding Straka's injury, many bore scant resemblance to reality.

Fact is, only the guys who were there at the time -- Straka, teammate Milan Kraft and a mutual friend -- know precisely what happened.

"I've heard some of the stories," Kraft said, "and I couldn't believe them."

The workout, Kraft said, placed an emphasis on exercises to increase leg strength, and had been proceeding normally.

"We were doing the squat, our third or fourth exercise that day," he said. "We were supposed to do eight squats with 300 pounds. Marty did two, and then, on the third one, he went down and was on the way back [to an erect position] when the machine moved and he couldn't hook the bar up."

That sent the bar, which was supporting 300 pounds, slamming off Straka's back. Kraft was immediately alarmed -- "We thought it could have been worse than it is now" -- but the prognosis improved almost immediately.

"They took him to the hospital, and [doctors there] thought he just stretched his back really bad," Kraft said.

"That's what I thought, too. I thought he would just be in the hospital for a few days, then he'd go home and we could work out together again."

Straka didn't share that optimism, though, and his concerns proved to be well-founded: X-rays detected the damage to his back and sparked the series of examinations and tests that will culminate today.

The final verdict on Straka's injury will come today; the process of filling the void it creates in the Penguins' lineup -- whether that hole exists for a few months or an entire season -- will take a lot longer.

"I can't really say that someone's going to fill his spot," Kehoe said. "We're going to have to wait and see who steps up."

Lemieux: Practice only

Center Mario Lemieux began preparing for the season weeks ago, but he might not be in game shape anytime soon. Not if that requires competing in games, anyway.

Kehoe said Lemieux likely will not participate in the Penguins' training camp tournament, which begins Sunday, and that he will take part in exhibition games only if he chooses to play.

"With Mario, it's a matter of him just getting himself ready for the start of the season," Kehoe said. "We're not worried about him going out in training camp and having to put on a show. It's a matter of him getting himself to the point that, when the season starts, he's ready to go."

Barring a setback, there's every reason to believe Lemieux will be in uniform when the Penguins face the Toronto Maple Leafs in the opener Oct. 10 at Mellon Arena. The real question is how often he will dress for the games that follow.

"If he played 70," Kehoe said, "I think everybody would be happy."

And more than a little surprised, considering that, because of various injuries and ailments, Lemieux has appeared in as many as 70 only twice since 1989.

High intensity

Sixty-six players are expected to report for the formal opening of camp Thursday.

Many are not a threat to work in the NHL this winter -- some might be pursuing a career in fast-food preparation before the month is out -- but management seems convinced the competition for jobs with the Penguins will be more intense than it has been in years.

"There are jobs available," Kehoe said. "Whereas, in previous years, we've maybe only had two or three spots open. Now, there might be more than that. We haven't really been in this situation in quite a few years. Just because you were here last year doesn't mean you're going to make the team and be here this year. You have to earn it."

That could translate to a few sleepless nights for some players and perhaps a few for the guys responsible for deciding which 23 players will be around for the opener. Not that anyone in the front office is complaining about that.

"That's always good, when you have to make that decision," Kehoe said. "Even though they're hard decisions, they're good decisions because that means there's going to be a lot of competition, and that's what we want. That makes you a better hockey team."

Daigle's edge

One player who can expect a particularly long look from the front office is forward Alexandre Daigle, 27. His speed and skill level persuaded the Ottawa Senators to invest the first choice in the 1993 NHL Entry Draft in him, but Daigle never produced to expectations and walked away from the game a few years ago.

Now, his passion for the game apparently rekindled, he is back and appears to be a viable contender for a job on one of the top two lines.

"He always had good speed, and got to the loose pucks," Kehoe said. "He hasn't played in a couple of years, but he should be hungry and eager to play. Maybe sometimes what happens to guys along the way is that they lose that desire, lose that little edge that made them good players. Hopefully, he's got that back."

Tip-ins

Kehoe and General Manager Craig Patrick will attend an NHL briefing on new rules today in Toronto. All changes, including hurry-up faceoffs, are expected to be addressed, but the emphasis will be on the league's purported intention to enforce obstruction-related rules. ... About two dozen players took part in an informal scrimmage at Southpointe yesterday morning before heading off for the team's annual golf outing. ... Kehoe said he will begin installing his new system of play, which was developed during the off-season, after the first significant roster cut-down, which is expected on or around Sept. 22. ... NHL salaries continue to increase, but the Penguins have taken steps to hold down preseason travel costs. They will bus, not fly, to at least some of their exhibition games. ... Kehoe stopped short of saying this camp would be more grueling than some the Penguins have had in recent years, but allowed that "it will be a little more of a grind, at times, for some of the players."


Dave Molinari can be reached at 412-263-1144.

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