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In The CreaseIn The Crease Western Conference Notebook: Klesla has talent to be a Calder kid

Sunday, October 07, 2001

Compiled by Dejan Kovacevic

Before anyone begins engraving Ilya Kovalchuk's name on the Calder Trophy, the Blue Jackets hope that Rostislav Klesla, their candidate for rookie of the year, gets a fair look.

It's tough to miss him.

He is 6-2, 198, skates with grace and can fire the puck through a wall. The No. 4 overall pick in the 2000 NHL Entry Draft, he is being given a big role on the Columbus blue line. Right away, too.

"He could have played for us last year, too, even though he was 18," General Manager Doug MacLean said at Mellon Arena this week. "But I didn't know what kind of team we'd have, so I sent him back to juniors. It worked out all right."

That's beyond argument. Klesla was MVP at the World Junior Championships, guiding the Czech Republic to the gold medal, then drawing headlines for his comment that his country's players were smarter than their opponents.

"That's just the kind of kid he is," MacLean said. "Very confident."

Klesla got his rookie season off to a sizzling start Thursday. His slap shot from the blue line beat Blues goaltender Brent Johnson with 2:44 left in regulation to give the Blue Jackets an unlikely 3-3 tie.

Go figure: The small-budget Flames got five preseason goals from their 2001 first-round draft pick, then failed to sign him. He will play for Kelowna of the WHL and can't return until the junior season is finished. Chuck Kobasew, a teammate of Brooks Orpik on Boston College's NCAA champions last season, spurned a three-year offer worth $3 million. Of greatest concern to the Flames, Kobasew can re-enter the draft if he is not signed by next June.

Brad Werenka, whose career in Calgary has been on hold for months because of concussions, finally is showing modest signs of recovery. The Flames believe he will be able to return to the ice, but they aren't projecting when.

If the Stars complain less about Coach Ken Hitchcock this season, it will be because there is less of Hitchcock to complain about. Inspired by the extra time he had this summer because of Dallas' second-round exit from the playoffs, he went through a rigid series of workouts and shed 50 pounds to drop his weight to 240. Fifteen years ago, he weighed 480.

For years, fans in Chicago filled the rink, regardless of the quality of their Blackhawks. No more. Fed up with a franchise that made few moves to improve this summer despite having missed the Stanley Cup playoffs the past four years, the season-ticket base has dwindled to less than 5,000, one of the lowest in the league.

Perhaps as part of an attempt to show supporters they're serious, the Blackhawks are keeping only their best players on the big-league roster, regardless of contract. Most glaring example: Valeri Zelepukin, who has two years and $2.4 million left on his deal, is earning that money with Norfolk of the AHL.

The Predators' Mike Dunham, the lone goaltender so far tabbed to represent the United States in Salt Lake City, told The Tennessean the team's mission will take on a higher profile given the tragedies of Sept. 11: "I think, once the Olympics roll around, you're going to see a lot more patriotism. ... Just like in 1980, people are looking for things to rally around. If we as a hockey team, or a figure skater or a speed skater, can give the country something to be proud of and to put full force into cheering, it's going to make everybody feel good."

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