News - The Buzek blues

And no, Jerry West is not coming to town

Jerry West is not replacing Pete Babcock. West and Babcock did not meet in L.A. And you should have known this story had no legs the minute you heard it was coming from Peter Vescey. If there is one thing certain about the NBA, it is that Vescey is never right. I'm not saying he fabricates his scoops, although a great many other people do; I'm just saying his facts do not exist.

Furthermore, if West — or John Wooden or Red Auerbach, for that matter — were to express an interest in offering personnel advice after viewing the Hawks from courtside instead of via DirecTV, or interested in calling the shots, Babcock would be delighted.

What with the sudden emphasis on high school sports in the local daily, there hasn't been room for a beginning-to-end recitation of the Thrashers' Petr Buzek saga. In the spirit of public service, then, I offer the following synopsis:

Buzek's quest for health insurance is no different from yours and mine, and has nothing whatsoever to do with his contract with the Thrashers.

A little background. In May, 1995, a few days before the NHL Entry Draft in which Buzek was expected to be a high pick, the young Czech was in a serious automobile accident; he crashed into a tree. He was 18. In addition to sustaining a concussion, his injuries were severe enough that today he has a plate and 10 screws in his left leg, a plate and seven screws in his right ankle, two screws in his right knee and two screws in left wrist. Nevertheless, he appeared at the draft in a wheelchair, was selected by Dallas in third round, and played in the IHL before begin selected by the Thrashers in the 1999 NHL Expansion Draft.

In the Thrashers' inaugural season, Buzek became the franchise's first All-Star selection by default. There had to be a representative from every NHL team, and Andruw Brunette was playing the best of all the Thrashers at the time. But the spot open was for a defenseman on the World (as opposed to North American) squad. So Buzek got to go.

Prior to last season, Buzek signed a three-year contract extension. Because of his injuries, and especially because of the concussion, he bought an insurance policy on his own. Terms of the policy are that it expires once he has played 20 NHL games. The assumption being that if he were able to do so, he would, in fact, be healthy.

Well, wouldn't you know it, Buzek played in only five games before suffering a neck strain after being shoved against the boards in Washington on October 11 last year. He missed 76 games from October 17 until April 1 with concussion-like symptoms. Any kind of exercise made him dizzy, never mind skating. Playing a game? Out of the question.

Buzek finally began skating again this summer and although somewhat out of condition, due to the competitive layoff, had played nine games for the Thrashers so far this season. Concussions did not prevent him from deducing that five games played in 2000-2001 and nine so far in 2001-2002 added up to 14 games. Once he played six more games, Buzek's insurance policy would expire.

Unable to buy another policy because concussions are now a pre-existing condition, Buzek approached Thrashers GM Don Waddell about extending his contract five additional years to give him financial security. Since his current contract runs through next year and he had played in only 14 games in a year and a half, Waddell told him politely that he was not going to extend the contract. (The phrase "when pigs fly" was not uttered, although Waddell would have been well within his rights to do so.)

Rebuffed, Buzek requested a trade. Waddell said he makes deals based only on what's best for the Thrashers. (Who, exactly, does Buzek think is going to want a player with limited professional experience and history — except for injuries — who either can't or won't play?)

And so it transpired that on Saturday, November 24, three hours before a game in Ottawa, Buzek told coach Curt Fraser that the psychological strain of his uncertain financial future made it impossible for him to play.

The Thrashers were down to six defensemen, about to play a Senators team with an 11-game winning streak going, and here was Buzek saying, basically, that he wasn't in the mood. Fraser went nuts. Told Buzek to get the blankity-blank out of his face.

Buzek, a nice kid but a European athlete with no sense of the real world, was perplexed. He was also suspended without pay. Eventually, the Thrashers allowed him to skate and use the weight room at the practice rink, so long as the team was not using the facilities.

Waddell finally met with Buzek last Thursday — the two had not spoken and Waddell said, "I'd like to hear from him the whole background of how it happened. I've heard it from his agent but I'd like to hear it all from him."

Saturday, Waddell lifted Buzek's suspension, on the condition that he drop the grievance filed by the NHLPA. (A mid-January date had been set by the arbitrator for a hearing.) Buzek has been sent to the team's Chicago affiliate for conditioning.

Is there a way the Thrashers could help Buzek out? Sure. They could make him one of the five top-paid players on the team, and then he'd automatically be covered by a league policy. Guess what? That's not going to happen.

Will Buzek play again for the Thrashers? That's up to him. He has to want it, and he has to convince his former teammates of that.

Oh, that game in Ottawa? The Thrashers won. The last thing they need is a player who won't hang in there and play hard.??

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