When the Pittsburgh Penguins fired coach Kevin Constantine last week, his peers around the NHL cringed. Constantine thrived under duress, leading a team unable to retain stars such as Ron Francis while going through bankruptcy, potential relocation, and a sale. Under Constantine, the Penguins reached the playoffs two straight seasons, including a huge upset of New Jersey last spring. He posted a 86-68-35 record, but superstar Jaromir Jagr rebuffed his system.

Constantine was a coach of the year candidate in both of his full seasons in Pittsburgh, but never quite won over General Manager Craig Patrick. New owner Mario Lemieux groused that he wouldn't pay to watch a team play Constantine's system before buying the club (Lemieux was conspicuously absent from the news conference announcing Constantine's firing and subsequent hiring of Herb Brooks). Patrick maintained he looked at the team's record Tuesday night and surmised they would miss the playoffs and needed an immediate change, but few general managers believed a move would be made that hastily just 25 games into a season.

Brooks, 62, who coached Team USA to a shocking gold medal in the 1980 Olympics, has strong ties to Patrick. But he's also an old-school coach, and because he has been out of the league for more than six years, many wonder if the game has passed him by. He had trouble relating to players in the 1980s and was viewed as an eccentric. Brooks talked openly about not "suffocating" players at his initial news conference, something many viewed as a slap in the face to Constantine. And despite Jagr's complaints, he still had the freedom to lead the NHL in points both seasons under Constantine--the only player in the league to score 100 points both seasons.

Brooks insists on playing an open offensive style, but teams rarely win 6-5 and 5-4 games anymore; that kind of hockey went out of the league when Brooks did. With a less-than-stellar defense, it will be interesting to see if Pittsburgh can win with run-and-gun hockey. As for the players, none rushed to share in the blame for their mediocre start despite a lackluster effort.

"You never want to see anyone fired, especially around Christmas time, but something had to be done," forward Matthew Barnaby said. "Management felt we weren't playing as well as our expectations and we have a great team here and we're below .500 and things had to be done."

Look for Constantine, a Minnesota native, to be named the coach of the expansion Minnesota Wild.

A Non-Issue

The league's board of governors voted overwhelmingly against conference-only play at their meeting last week, but sources say Commissioner Gary Bettman had a lot to do with it. Several teams, including Calgary, Carolina and the New York teams, had talked publicly about the merits of playing games solely within the conference, and sources say Bettman lashed out at those teams last week for discussing the matter before it had been tabled for discussion at a league meeting.

Bettman was clearly not in support of the measure, and many general managers were adamantly against it as well. When the commissioner went around the room asking each team where it stood, Calgary asked him to rephrase his question in a more neutral way. Bettman refused. The topic was not discussed and after the meeting Bettman declared it a "non-issue."

That said, it's probably for the best. Lower travel costs and more divisional games don't seem like enough to compensate for what would basically become a two-league sport, with western fans unable to see eastern stars, and vice versa. The Capitals' coaching staff was not immediately opposed to conference-only play; GM George McPhee was undecided on the issue and said he would defer to more senior general managers.

"We're one league," said Detroit senior vice president Jimmy Devellano, who has been in the NHL since the days of the Original Six. "We're not the way baseball was invented, with two leagues. . . . Those teams in New York, they could get to most of their road games by bicycle after dinner. The Rangers would be playing the Islanders and New Jersey all the time. Meanwhile we're going to ask Vancouver to play Dallas eight times a year. It's not fair. And I have a very hard time with the fact that the Detroit Red Wings are located within 300 miles of Toronto, Buffalo and Pittsburgh, and we'd never play them. It's nuts. It just doesn't add up."

New Life in Detroit

When defenseman Chris Chelios hit the wall in the playoffs last season along with his Red Wings, some in the organization worried that trading top prospect Anders Eriksson and a first-round pick to Chicago to acquire the 37-year-old would blow up in their face. But with his ice time held to 26 minutes a night and with a new defensive partner--free agent acquisition Steve Duchesne--Chelios leads the NHL with a plus-26 rating. Chicago defenseman Bryan McCabe--part of a big draft day swap with Vancouver--is minus-19, worst in the NHL. . . .

Calgary's Cory Stillman and New York Ranger Tim Taylor (a former Capital) are tied for the NHL lead with two overtime goals each. . . . At age 39, Russian legend Igor Larionov, compared to Wayne Gretzky in his prime, still isn't done. He has 23 points in 30 games for the Red Wings and sources say he will sign a two-year contract extension sometime in the next few months. . . .

Just a hunch, but don't be surprised if the NHL maintains playing four-on-four in overtime, but discards awarding a point for an overtime loss. . . . The Rangers are playing better hockey, but should they miss the playoffs with a $60 million payroll, keep in mind they don't have a first- or third-round draft pick next June.