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Lightning checks out Olympic star LeBlanc

Goalie Ray LeBlanc looks good in Team USA's red, white and blue, but how about Tampa Bay Lightning's black, white and blue?

LeBlanc could be blocking shots in the Florida Suncoast Dome via the expansion draft. He likely will be on the Chicago Blackhawks' unprotected list the Lightning and Ottawa Senators will receive in May.

Hmm. An Olympic hero like LeBlanc on the Lightning wouldn't be a bad public relations move. But Jim Craig, the goalie for the United States' gold-medal team at the 1980 Olympic Games, played just 30 lackluster games in the NHL.

The Lightning brass harps that it will build a team around good goaltending. While the expansion draft will be terrible for drafting quality forwards and defensemen, the Lightning and Senators may be able to pick up a good goalie, and Tampa Bay plans to give LeBlanc a good look.

"Maybe he's a late bloomer," said Lighting director of hockey operations Tony Esposito, an NHL Hall of Fame goaltender. "I've seen Ray play two or three times (in the International Hockey League). He seemed to get the job done. But he's a smaller person, and that's a disadvantage at the NHL level."

Each NHL team is allowed to protect two goalies, and the Blackhawks surely will protect All-Star Ed Belfour. The Blackhawks' other protected goalie likely will be either Jimmy Waite, 22, or Dominik Hasek, 27, both with NHL experience.

LeBlanc, 27, has wandered around the minor leagues for seven years. He signed with Chicago as a free agent in 1989 and has yet to make it to hockey's big show.

Except to his relatives and friends in Largo, he was an unknown in this area until he stepped on the ice in Meribel, France. With one shutout, he went from a no-name to the man who could lead the Team USA to "Miracle on Ice II."

Friendly skies? Defenseman Ken Hammond and the rest of the San Jose Sharks now understand why CBS football analyst John Madden no longer flies the friendly skies.

The Sharks were on a commercial flight to Winnipeg when a heavy fog forced the pilot to abort one landing at the last moment because he missed the runway. On the second try, the pilot found the runway, but the plane slammed down so hard that a few ceiling panels fell.

"I thought for a second there we might be holding at 11 wins for a long time," Hammond said.

Money talks: One man who doesn't mind shelling out more money for contracts this season is Vancouver vice chairman Arthur Griffiths. The usually terrible Canucks are winning, and it may be no coincidence that the players' salaries increased 42 percent from last season, from $5,892,000 to $8,341,000.

"You have to pay the price," Griffiths said.

Street Lightning: Here's the dilemma: How do you get children in the Tampa Bay area excited about hockey when the only ice rink many have ever seen in person was at the Clearwater Mall?

Lightning executive Gerry Helper said a good way is to organize street hockey leagues. Instead of on ice, the game is played anywhere, from empty parking lots to indoor gyms. Instead of skates, participants play in sneakers.

Okay, Helper admits it isn't his idea. He's "borrowing" it from the San Jose Sharks, the 1991-92 expansion team that had to introduce the sport to many Northern Californians.

"We wanted to generate interest in hockey, and the idea just hit me one day when I was at lunch at a community center," said Alysse Soll, the Sharks' director of community development. "The kids were playing organized baseball and basketball. Why not street hockey?"

Now, more than 7,500 youths from 30 community centers are participating in Sharks & Parks. Soll said there are 50 other community centers and schools on a waiting list to participate. She said it is possible that 15,000 kids will be participating by this fall.

It has cost about $30,000 to start the program, a small expenditure for the exposure, Soll said.

The name game: Sparky, Thor, Striker, Bolt, Flash and Boomer. Those are some of the entries submitted to name the "Lightning Bug," the mascot of the Lightning. The deadline for entering the contest is March 19.

The contest is for youths age 18 and under. Contest forms can be picked up at Sports Unlimited or the Lighting office on East Kennedy Boulevard in Tampa.

The winner, who will be announced April 14, receives two season tickets for the Lightning's inaugural 1992-93 season.