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Holdout may torch U.S. Olympic team

New Jersey's Bill Guerin may have picked the wrong man to mess with. And all Americans could end up paying the price.

You see, holdouts don't last long in New Jersey. They tend to disappear from the swamps when general manager Lou Lamoriello gets through with them.

Ask Stephane Richer, who was traded after a holdout. Ask Sean Burke, who held out, then was traded. Ask Claude Lemieux, who held out and found himself with a new address.

Now we come to Guerin, who is locked in a bitter contract dispute with his boss. This, however, could have more far-reaching consequences than a trade. It could alter the outcome of the 1998 Olympic hockey tournament.

Here's the deal. Lamoriello is in charge of the United States Olympic team. He selects the coaches, players, trainers, everyone. If Guerin is not playing anywhere soon, Lamoriello may leave him off the team. And considering how much Guerin contributed to the Americans' gold-medal performance in the World Cup last year, his absence could be devastating.

So the Jersey uproar even has players from other NHL teams hot under the shoulder pads.

"To have the fact that he isn't signed affect Billy's position on the Olympic team would be silly," the Rangers' Brian Leetch said. "I've never once even considered we might go to the Olympics without Guerin on the team."

Well, consider it, because it might happen.

And one question. Lamoriello says the team will be in place by Dec. 1. But why has he not named Ron Wilson, coach of the World Cup team, as the Olympic coach? Wilson never held out in Jersey.

GRAHAM JAMES CASE: Calgary's Theoren Fleury admits he was the previously unidentified person who was asleep in the back seat of a car on one occasion when then-junior coach Graham James sexually assaulted Sheldon Kennedy.

According to statements agreed to be fact in Canadian court, James once assaulted Kennedy in a car while one of Kennedy's teammates slept in the back. Fleury had denied he was the teammate.

But Fleury told the Calgary Herald: "In my eyes, it didn't happen. I never saw anything. That's all I'm saying. I never saw anything. I was asked if I was on that trip. I said, yeah, I was on that trip. I was told, this happened on the trip. I said, well, it might have happened, but I was in the car, and I never saw anything. I did not see it happen."

Fleury said he never knew James was a pedophile. In fact, Fleury, as part-owner of the Calgary Hitmen, hired James to coach the junior team several years ago.

Fleury has acknowledged he made a poor choice of words when he said the incident hadn't taken place. And he plans never to speak to James again.

STRIKING OIL: No one from the league is saying anything, but it appears Houston is a lock to get a team in the near future.

Houston Rockets owner Les Alexander has a handshake agreement to buy the Edmonton Oilers, but the team must remain in Edmonton for three years. Alexander then could move it to Houston (would it be called the Houston Oilers?), but if the Oilers make money, they will stay in Edmonton.

In the latter case, Alexander would get an expansion team for Houston and sell the Oilers, perhaps to an owner who would keep them in Edmonton.

NO CRYBABIES: Let's end this talk right now about who are the toughest athletes in the world.

Hockey players, of course, are the baddest dudes in the world. Here are two recent examples:

Last week, Buffalo bad boy Matthew Barnaby was checked from behind and slammed facefirst into the ice. He rose to his feet and skated to the bench with a shattered nose, a six-stitch gash on his head and four missing teeth.

He missed one shift!

Then, Dallas' Mike Modano, considered a glamor boy by NHL standards, tried to do a limbo under two sticks and ended up tripping over them. He, too, went facefirst into the ice. His face took 15 stitches, but he waited until the intermission to be repaired.

He didn't miss a second and eventually set up a tying goal.

GOING HOME: San Jose goalie Mike Vernon, who led the Red Wings to the Stanley Cup last season, returned to Detroit last week and lost 4-3 to his ex-teammates. Still, he hasn't forgotten the Motor City.

"It was nice to skate out there and see (the Stanley Cup banner) hanging from the rafters," Vernon said. "I had great memories here, and I had a lot of fun here. It's unfortunate the circumstances had to occur like this and I'm out of here. But it's something I think had to be done. They had to move in another direction, and for myself, I was looking to be rewarded, and at least they sent me to a club that rewarded me."

PITTSBURGH UP: Jaromir Jagr says he is close to signing a new deal with Pittsburgh. His agent, Mike Barnett, is saying the same thing. Too bad Pens GM Craig Patrick hasn't seen the memo.

"I'm glad they think (the deal is close)," Patrick said. "I hope we're as close as they think we are. We're waiting to hear from them."

Jagr is believed to be close to signing a seven-year, $49-million deal. (That's a deal Paul Kariya turned down in Anaheim). Jagr has two years left on a contract that pays him about $5-million annually.

And even though Jagr can't race up and down the ice in coach Kevin Constantine's new defensive system, he says he's as happy as he ever has been in Pittsburgh.

"I'm more in the games this year," Jagr said. "I care about the team a lot more than I used to. That's the way I feel."

PITTSBURGH DOWN: Unsigned Petr Nedved has reduced his demand to $6-million over two years. Still, the Pens refused to pay him $3-million a year.

ODDS AND ENDS: The second month of the season has just started and the Bruins have only three games remaining outside their time zone. The Ducks have 27. Colorado's Mike Ricci, who has not played this season because of shoulder surgery, could be back Saturday against St. Louis. Montreal is considering a deal that would send Valeri Bure and Martin Rucinsky to Chicago for Eric Daze. The Blackhawks have asked for goalie prospect Mathieu Garon, billed as the next Patrick Roy, but the Canadiens have said no. In an impromptu state-of-the-team address, Islanders GM Mike Milbury questioned the motivational abilities of coach Rick Bowness and the dedication of players Bryan Smolinski and Travis Green. The Isles are playing .500 hockey, something they haven't done since the 1993-94 season, and something they didn't do in Milbury's two seasons behind the bench.