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Top stories of 2004 heavy on local flavor

We should be halfway through another NHL season.

The Lightning was supposed to host Dallas today, the 36th game of the season. The second half, the stretch drive to defend the Stanley Cup, would be just around the corner.

Instead, nothing. No game today. No season so far.

The prospects look dim, so we can't live in the present or look to the future. As the year came to a close, all we could do was look back.

So here are the top five hockey stories of 2004:

5. THE SAD CASE OF MIKE DANTON: The troubled St. Louis youngster was sentenced to more than seven years in prison for hiring a hit man to kill his agent, the bizarre David Frost. Unbelievably, Frost remains Danton's adviser and arranged to have Danton serve his sentence in Canada.

4. CANADA WINS WORLD CUP: The Great White North can step away from the ledge. When the United States won the first World Cup in 1996, the Canadians, already losing their stranglehold in junior hockey, demanded an overhaul of their hockey system because they were so embarrassed.

They can rest now. The Canadians rallied to win gold at the 2002 Olympics and the 2004 World Cup. (Canada also is the favorite in this year's world juniors.) Yes, Canada, it's still your game.

3. TODD BERTUZZI'S PUNCH: Not to justify Bertuzzi's actions, but there was a lot more than just a random act of hockey violence when the Vancouver power forward laid out Colorado's Steve Moore with a sucker-punch. It went back to when Moore sidelined Vancouver star Markus Naslund with a questionable hit. In addition, Bertuzzi tried to fight Moore face to face only to watch Moore skate away.

His actions cannot be condoned, but if you truly understand hockey, you can understand what was going through his head. Unfortunately, this only added to hockey's ugly reputation. Worse, it put Moore's career in jeopardy.

3. LIGHTNING BRINGS HOME HARDWARE: Before last season, the only Lightning player to win a major NHL award was John Cullen, who overcame cancer and won the Masterton Trophy. Then Tampa Bay pulled off a near sweep. Martin St. Louis won the Hart (MVP) and Art Ross (scoring title), John Tortorella won the Jack Adams (top coach), Brad Richards won the Conn Smythe (playoff MVP) and Lady Byng (sportsmanship). For good measure, Lecavalier was MVP at the World Cup.

2. THE LOCKOUT: The NHL keeps trying to keep up with the other big three: the NFL, the NBA and major league baseball. Well, the NHL is about to do something no other North American sport has: cancel an entire season because of a labor dispute.

In most NHL outposts, the lockout would be the biggest story of the year.

Not here. Here, the top hockey story is

1. THE LIGHTNING WINS THE STANLEY CUP: We could wax all poetic about St. Louis' gutty determination, Nikolai Khabibulin's magic in goal, Lecavalier's flair for the dramatic, Richards' clutch play, Ruslan Fedotenko's timely goals. Dave Andreychuk's leadership and Tortorella's steady hand.

But really, only one simple sentence is needed to explain it all. The 2004 Stanley Cup champion: the Tampa Bay Lightning.