Sun, Nov 07, 2004 - Page 22 News List

Blackhawk flies to London

AP , LONDONAP, TORONTO

Rangers forward Jaromir Jagr, who now plays in the Czech National Hockey League, celebrates after a win in a match played in Kladno, Czechoslovakia on Friday.

PHOTO: EPA

Almost two months into the NHL lockout, one-third of the players have drifted to Europe to play in hockey countries like Sweden and the Czech Republic.

But Chicago Blackhawks center Scott Nichol and Florida Panthers defenseman Eric Cairns have ended up in a hockey backwater -- Britain.

"It's not what I'm used to," Nichol said Friday at London's tiny Lee Valley Ice Centre.

The cramped, one-story metal building is the kind of place where slapshots sound like shotgun blasts; where the London Racers hockey team practices immediately after a local morning figure skating class.

"But we all started out in arenas this size back in Canada," Nichol said.

The two play their first game with the Racers on Saturday in Belfast, Northern Ireland, known as the hockey hotbed of Britain. Nichol knows he's a long way from his hockey-mad home of Calgary.

"The NHL is the best 700 players in the world," he said. "So, it's hard to compare it to this. But I just need to play and I knew there were some good Brits and Canadians over here. It's about competing and playing, which is better than just staying home and practicing."

Cairns, who arrived in London early Friday morning, has come to the Racers for the same reason. After signing an offseason deal that moved him from the New York Islanders to the Panthers, Cairns was "getting bored" waiting for the lockout to end.

"I was kind of going crazy sitting at home in Ontario," he said. "And I was driving my family and friends crazy being bored out of my mind."

At his first practice Friday, the 1.97m, 105kg Cairns towered over his new teammates during 3-on-2 drills. Fortunately, there was little contact for a player who ran up 189 penalty minutes last season, the most of any NHL defenseman.

"Our team's practices this past week have been faster, harder, crisper," Racers player-manager Dennis Maxwell said. "Having these guys in practice with their experience has all the guys excited. I think their eyes are a little wider open now."

Nichol and Cairns have their own reasons for playing in Britain's seven-team Elite League.

"My older brother lives in London and the language barrier isn't difficult like it would be in, let's say, Germany or Sweden," Nichol said.

He also has two young sons who, along with Nichol's wife, will be coming to join him in London in a few weeks. Cairns came to meet up with Maxwell, an old buddy from Ontario.

"I played against him back home and was his roommate in the minor leagues," Cairns said. "We've always been pretty good friends, so I thought I'd give him a call and see if he had any opportunities."

Maxwell is thrilled, of course.

"These guys are probably the two biggest marquee signings in this league in a while," he said.

NHL MVP Martin St. Louis of Stanley Cup champion Tampa Bay signed with a Swiss club Lausanne on Friday, one day after teammate Vincent Lecavalier joined a Russian team. Since the lockout began, nearly 250 NHL players have joined European teams, about one-third of the league.

St. Louis signed with Lausanne of the Swiss league for the rest of the season although his contract allows him to return to the Lightning if the NHL lockout ends. He is to arrive in Switzerland with his family next week and plans to play his first game on Nov. 20 against HC Lugano.

The forward won the Hart (MVP) and Art Ross (points leader) trophies last season after recording 38 goals and 56 points in 82 games. He added 24 points (9 goals, 15 assists) in 23 games to lead the Lightning to their first Stanley Cup championship.

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