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Kontos still striving for NHL dream

After every Blackhawks broadcast, Chicago radio station WLUP names a player of the game. And that player is always a Blackhawk.

But not Wednesday night.

The award went to Tampa Bay Lightning left wing Chris Kontos, who scored four goals in the expansion team's stunning 7-3 upset of the former Stanley Cup finalist Blackhawks at Expo Hall.

Yes, Chris Kontos, the 28-year-old whose best regular-season goal production in the National Hockey League is eight.

Did Darryl Sutter, a former Blackhawk player and now the team's coach, think Kontos was capable of a four-goal game?

"I don't know, I've never seen him play," Sutter said.

Kontos was a first-round draft pick (selected 15th overall by the New York Rangers) in the 1982 entry draft.

Ten years later, Kontos has yet to play an entire season in the NHL. His career high is 44 games, which he played during his rookie season.

On a July afternoon this summer, the 6-foot-1, 195-pounder leaned along the railing at a Toronto ice rink watching little boys whiz around on skates.

Just like many of those little boys, Kontos one time had big dreams of being a star in the NHL

He started on the right track. His well-developed skills (especially his hand-eye coordination) and play-making ability made him a first-rounder.

But his dream of being a star died a little bit each time Kontos was demoted to the minors.

"I was used to being the best player everywhere I played," he said. "The first demotion, when I was with New York, really hurt me. I didn't handle it well."

It was the first of several demotions.

Kontos has been on a roller-coaster ride for the past decade. He has played for 10 teams at all different levels _ the NHL, minors, Finland and the Canadian National Team.

"I'm kind of hurt that I haven't been able to be in the NHL for 10 solid years," he said. "But on the other breath, I look at it as, "Well, it's all a learning experience.' I'm using everything I've learned _ all the negatives _ and drawing positives from them. Sounds a little corny, but that's actually what happened."

Kontos showed flashes of the offensive brilliance that made him a first-rounder in 1989. He scored nine goals in 11 playoff games for the Los Angeles Kings, including a team-series record eight goals against Edmonton in the Smythe Division semifinals.

But the next season he played only 11 games for the Kings. He spent the majority of his time playing for New Haven in the American Hockey League.

Why?

"I will not comment about that past," Kontos said emphatically.

Lightning general manager Phil Esposito said, "Like everything in life, politics plays a part."

Tony Esposito, the Lightning's director of hockey operations, said he asked around to try to find out why Kontos never has completed a full season in the NHL.

"I couldn't find anybody to say a bad thing about him," Tony Esposito said. "Usually the knock on guys like that is they run around too much, or they drink too much or they are selfish or troublemakers. But none of that came up about Chris.

"So we didn't think it was that much of a risk to sign him."

Lightning coach Terry Crisp coached Kontos last season as an assistant with the Canadian National Team. Kontos played 25 games, posting 10 goals and 10 assists, but he did not make the final cut for the Winter Olympics.

"It was tough to cut him," Crisp said.

But that rejection fueled Kontos' inner desire to return to the NHL.

"I'm going to make the (Lightning)," Kontos said that July day at the ice rink.

"I've never seen him more determined," said Joanne, Kontos' wife of four years.

"Usually players take a break after the season. But Chris hasn't stopped."

Phil Esposito said he signed Kontos expecting him to play for the Lightning's farm team, the Atlanta Knights of the International Hockey League. He figured Kontos would make a good "fill-in player," one that could come up and play a few games when others were injured.

"But we couldn't send him down," Phil Esposito said. "He had too good a (training) camp. He and Stan Drulia (a tryout) downright beat Michel Mongeau and Steve Tuttle out of jobs."

At a preseason game at the Florida State Fairground's Expo Hall, there was a sign that read: "The Chris Kontos fan club."

"My family and friends have always been pulling for me," Kontos said.

"My wife has cried a lot. It's been very frustrating. But my wife and my friends have really believed in me and I think they are more excited for me than I am."

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