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|17 сентября 2006
Ozolinsh facing several hurdles // Star-Ledger Staff
BY COLIN STEPHENSON
GREENBURGH, N.Y. -- The last time Rangers defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh saw the ice at Madison Square Garden, he was booed off it by the home fans.
That may turn out to have been his last game as a Ranger -- possibly even his last game in the NHL.
Ozolinsh, a seven-time all-star who was acquired by the Rangers from the Anaheim Mighty Ducks at the trade deadline last season to help provide offense from the defense position, was left out of the lineup for Game 4 of the Rangers' first-round series with the Devils last April.
But that embarrassment -- and the Rangers' embarrassment at being swept out of the playoffs by their rivals -- wasn't the worst of it for Ozolinsh. The day after the Rangers packed their gear, Ozolinsh was arrested for driving while intoxicated. He had participated in the NHL's voluntary substance abuse program earlier in the season,
"I made a bad decision, I apologize for it," Ozolinsh said this week when asked about his relapse and arrest. "I'm really sorry about that. Right now, I'm doing everything not to make that mistake again."
It wasn't the end of the bad news for Ozolinsh.
The 34-year-old also underwent surgery to reconstruct the anterior cruciate ligament in his left knee in the off-season. He'd torn the ligament years ago but had been playing without the surgery until several injuries last season convinced him it was time to get the operation.
Ozolinsh has one more year on his contract, at $2.75 million, and he is, for all intents and purposes, untradeable in the new, salary-capped NHL. And with the injury, he couldn't be bought out, either.
So he is at training camp at the Madison Square Garden Training Center, even though it doesn't appear as if the Rangers have a roster spot available for him.
Over the summer, the Rangers brought in free agent defensemen Aaron Ward from the Stanley Cup champion Carolina Hurricanes and Karel Rachunek, who played the past two seasons in Russia.
Both will step into the team's top six defensemen, and there is also the possibility 2005 first-round pick Marc Staal will challenge for a roster spot. With holdovers Marek Malik, Darius Kasparaitis, Michal Rozsival and Fedor Tyutin ahead of him, there just doesn't seem to be any room for Ozolinsh.
"All I can do right now is work hard, prepare myself, and whenever they put me in the lineup, be ready to play, and help this team win," Ozolinsh said. "I worked really hard the whole summer on getting in shape, getting back strength in my legs, and took care of my injuries."
Ozolinsh only skated for the first time on Thursday, and coach Tom Renney said he isn't likely to be available before "mid-October, early November" at the earliest.
Asking questions about Ozolinsh prompts very careful responses from the Rangers organization. No one wants to talk about his personal issues or his status with the team. Ozolinsh, though, says the organization has been supportive of him through his tough times.
Ozolinsh isn't ready to talk about his struggles to stay sober or what led to his falling off the wagon last spring.
"Not right now," he said. "Not right now. I honestly -- I don't know how much I can or cannot say at this time. I have to talk to the league doctors and see what I can say. Right now, I'm following their advice, doing whatever they told me to do and working my program."
If Ozolinsh needs a role model, he has one nearby in Kasparaitis, who gave up drinking in 1994 and has been sober ever since.
"It's a one-day-at-a-time program," said Kasparaitis when asked about his own sobriety. "It's part of my life and, at some point in my life I decided I don't want to drink, and so far I'm following that."
Kasparaitis said he does speak with Ozolinsh about a lot of things. The two have a lot in common, after all. They are the same age (Ozolinsh turned 34 last month, Kasparaitis turns 34 next month) and both grew up playing hockey in the old Soviet Union, although neither is Russian (Ozolinsh is Latvian, Kasparaitis is Lithuanian).
But there isn't much else Kasparaitis can divulge about his teammate's personal situation.
"That's a situation that he has to work with," Kasparaitis said. "We
all understand, we all support him 100 percent. The only way I can help
is just be there for him when he needs me. That's all I can do."