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Devils Fire Coach Robbie Ftorek

March 24, 2000 GMT

EAST RUTHERFORD, N.J. (AP) _ With a late-season slump fueling fears of yet another playoff disaster, the New Jersey Devils on Thursday fired coach Robbie Ftorek, who led the team to the best record in the Eastern Conference with eight games left in the season.

Larry Robinson, the assistant seen as the heir apparent since rejoining the coaching staff this season, was given the job of turning things around before the playoffs are set to start in just under three weeks.

The Devils were favored to win the Stanley Cup for a second time since 1995 until a recent slide that saw them lose 10 of 16 games, the most recent an embarrassing 5-0 setback at home on Tuesday night.

The Devils return to action Friday night at the New York Islanders.

``We were not playing to our capabilities, in my mind,″ general manager Lou Lamoriello said in a conference call. ``I did not see this changing,″ he added, referring to a lack of ``ice discipline.″

``I did not think we would come out of this slump ... and go forward.″

New Jersey has had one of the top regular-season records in the NHL the past three years, but it has been embarrassed in the playoffs, losing in the first round the last two years.

Ftorek, who took over the team after Jacques Lemaire resigned in May 1998, wasn’t immediately available for comment. Robinson said he took the job reluctantly.

``The only thing I said before all of this was in no way did I want to come here lurking to be the next head coach,″ Robinson said. ``My heart is still with Robbie. I have the utmost admiration and respect for him. Robbie will be with us in mind and spirit.

``I want to get back on a winning track. Hockey should be fun and it hasn’t been fun lately because we haven’t been successful. In order to have fun, you have to win.″

For Lamoriello and Devils owner John McMullen, winning is everything this year.

McMullen announced last week that he was selling the team for $175 million to an affiliate of YankeeNets, the entertainment and sports partnership that features George Steinbrenner, who has fired his share of managers and coaches as boss of the New York Yankees.

The sale will be finalized after the hockey season.

``The new owners did not have anything to do with this decision,″ Lamoriello said, although they were informed of it.

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``You don’t see that happening to a team in first place in any sport. It’s a little awkward,″ goalie Martin Brodeur said. ``It’s unfortunate someone had to take the heat for what was happening. Whether it was needed or not, we’ll find out in a couple of months.″

Ftorek, 48, compiled a 88-49-19 (.625) record, playing a more wide-open game than Lemaire’s teams, which employed the defensive neutral zone trap.

Ftorek’s relationship with some members of the team was strained this season because he benched players at times when they had friends and family in town or didn’t discuss why they were not playing.

Forward Bobby Holik said there was ``a lack of discipline on and off the ice.″

``He (Robbie) prepared as well as any coach but for some reason he wasn’t getting through to us of late,″ defenseman Ken Danyko said. ``Certainly it’s not his fault. It’s a combination of all of us.″

Robinson, 48, is seen more as a player’s coach. He was a key member of Lemaire’s staff when the Devils won the Cup in 1995. He became the coach of the Los Angeles Kings the following season and held the job until being fired after last season with a 122-161-45 record.

Lamoriello said he told Ftorek of the decision earlier Thursday, and ``he was a gentleman, the way he would always be.″

Ftorek is free to remain with the organization in another capacity, Lamoriello added, although he said the two didn’t immediately discuss what that would be.

Lamoriello refused to discuss how Robinson’s contract might change with his new job.

Despite trades that brought highly regarded defenseman Vladimir Malakhov and one-time 76-goal scorer Alexander Mogilny to New Jersey in recent weeks, the Devils have posted a 5-10-1 record since Feb. 19.

Earlier this season, Ftorek was suspended for one game and fined $10,000 by the NHL for throwing part of the team’s bench onto the ice during a 3-1 loss to Detroit.

Robinson played on six Stanley Cup championship teams with Montreal and was a 10-time NHL All-Star. His 20 playoff seasons are tied with Gordie Howe for the most in NHL history. He was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 1995.

Ftorek had many of the Devils’ players during three seasons as coach at Albany, New Jersey’s top minor league team. He also had previous NHL head coaching experience, in a little less than two seasons with the Kings in 1987-88 and 1988-89, posting a 65-56-11 record.

Ftorek was the AHL’s coach of the year in 1994-95 and 1995-96. He led Albany to the Calder Cup in 1994-95.

He was one of the first good American players in the NHL. Ftorek played for the 1972 U.S. Olympic team before beginning a 13-year career in the now-defunct WHA and then in the NHL with Detroit, Quebec and the New York Rangers.

The native of Needham, Mass., had 77 goals and 150 assists in the NHL. He was the MVP of the WHA in 1977 when he had 46 goals and 71 assists for the Phoenix Roadrunners. He also led the league in assists in 1978-79 with 77.