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Lemaire ducks Devils' night with Dave

The New Jersey Devils' celebration in the Meadowlands parking lot wasn't exactly on par with their cross-river rivals' ticker-tape parade down Wall Street last year.

But at least the "We get no respect" Devils weren't snubbed by Dave.

Like the New York Rangers, the Devils were invited to appear on The Late Show with David Letterman after winning the Stanley Cup.

Dave drank coffee from the world's biggest champagne glass and mispronounced only one player's name, that of Stephane Richer (ree-SHAY), which Letterman pronounced RICH-er.

Dave didn't have the chance to mispronounce Jacques Lemaire's French-Canadian name. The coach didn't attend.

"What am I going to say to him?" asked Lemaire, who likes the limelight about as much as the Red Wings like the neutral-zone trap. "Who needs to see my face? My wife sees my face. That's enough."

But Lemaire, in private ways, finally is enjoying his first Cup as a coach.

"You know, even though the season was so up and down, that was more fun for me than the playoffs," he said. "When we were doing so well during the season, I could enjoy it. But in the playoffs, I couldn't. I always had to think and prepare for the next game or the next series. "

"And the players were that way, too. That's why now they're so excited."

They're free: On July 4, hockey's free agents are on the prowl. And for those teams willing to pay the price, some big-name players are available.

Perhaps the hottest commodity is Devils goalie Martin Brodeur. He is joined on the free-agent list by teammate Scott Niedermayer, Winnipeg's Teemu Selanne and Keith Tkachuk, Edmonton's Shayne Corson, Calgary's Theoren Fleury, Vancouver's Trevor Linden, St. Louis' Curtis Joseph and Edmonton's Bill Ranford.

But most of the free agents are Group II (restricted). The price of signing them can be as high as five first-round draft picks. And that's if the player's team doesn't decide to match another team's offer.

"I don't see putting an offer in for a player when the team has the right to match," Islanders general manager Don Maloney said. "I'd rather make a deal. And if anyone makes an offer to any of our players, I'll match it. You have to."

Back in the NHL: Chris Kontos, who scored four goals in the Lightning's inaugural game in 1992, has signed with the Florida Panthers.

The Panthers signed Kontos and plan to have him play for their former minor-league affiliate in Cincinnati.

The Lightning expected Kontos to play for Atlanta in 1992, but he surprised the brass. He stayed with the Lightning and produced 27 goals and 24 assists in 66 games. But he and the team couldn't come to terms on a new contact.

Kontos shopped himself around, but couldn't hook on with a new NHL team. So he played for the Canadian National Team and won a gold medal in the 1994 Olympics.

Last year he played for AIK Skelleftea of the Northern First Division in Sweden. Kontos said he had "a nice offer" to go back, then the Panthers called. Kontos said he always felt he might get another chance. "I've seen strange things happen."

"I am the Lizard King": The East Coast Hockey League's four new teams must have had a contest to see who could pick the wackiest nickname. There's the Mobile Mysticks, the Louisville RiverFrogs, the Louisiana IceGators and my favorite, the Jacksonville Lizard Kings.

"Yes, the name Lizard King was derived from the movie, The Doors," Jacksonville account executive Pete Smith said. "You know, the part where Jim Morrison says, "I am the Lizard King. I can do anything.' '

Stalemate in Washington: The Capitals and defenseman Brendan Witt, the team's first-round pick (11th overall) in 1993, are $4.4-million apart after two years. Witt has dropped his demand from $8.6-million to $8-million for four years. The Caps are offering $3.6-million.

Witt was slated two years ago to make the team. But before the first game, in Edmonton, Witt disappeared from the team hotel and went back to play junior hockey. Last year he worked in a bar. He even turned down the Canadian National Team.

If Witt isn't signed by Friday, he goes back into the draft and will be subject to the rookie salary cap of less than $1-million a year. General manager David Poile has said he won't trade Witt. And Poile said if Witt does go back in the draft, and he's available at No. 17, he might pick him again.

_ Information from other news organizations was used in compiling this report.

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