Home Is Not Where Recchi's Heart
It never should have come to this. Montreal right wing Mark
Recchi, who was a surprising omission when the Canadian Olympic
team was announced in December, was at home in Pittsburgh on
Sunday, on standby as the first man to go to Nagano should any
of Canada's forwards be unable to play. The speedy wing was
dejected. "It's disappointing, but it's done," says Recchi, who,
with 25 goals, is the only one of the NHL's top 15 goal scorers
not in Nagano. "There's nothing I want to do more than play."
Recchi is unaccustomed to having to sit and watch mid-winter
hockey games. Since missing a match on March 31, 1991, with an
injured right knee, the 5'10", 185-pound Recchi has played in
517 straight regular-season NHL games. Flyers center Rod
Brind'Amour (376) is the only other NHL player with a streak of
more than 300 games. "The way [Recchi] plays it's amazing he's
out there every night," says Islanders winger Mike Hough. "He
finishes checks, he battles off the face-off, he goes into the
corners. He does things you don't usually see star players do."
With an explosive snap shot that is particularly dangerous
because he shoots lefthanded and plays the right side, Recchi
has scored 310 goals in nine-plus seasons. He also plays a
strong defensive game and throws his diminutive body into any
fray he finds. Although his run almost ended this season because
of bruised ribs that hurt every time he took a breath, Recchi
has maintained his streak through an assortment of muscle tears
and broken bones. Before the Oct. 15 game against the Penguins,
Recchi got laser treatment and iced his side, all so he could
spend the evening on a checking line opposite Jaromir Jagr.
Recchi's craving for ice time hasn't waned since he was Jagr's
teammate in Pittsburgh in the early 1990s. In those days Recchi
was sometimes on the bench during power plays, and coaches would
hear him impatiently shuffling his skates. He was traded to
Philadelphia in '91-92, and after a three-year stint with the
Flyers that included a 53-goal season in '92-93, he was dealt to
Montreal. With the Canadiens, Recchi gets plenty of ice
time--he's on the first power-play unit and kills penalties too.
At 30, Recchi is playing the best hockey of his life, and as his
linemate Shayne Corson, now in Nagano, says, "He competes as
fiercely as anyone." If he doesn't end up going to Japan, the
ironman will be missed in Canada's push for gold.
THE NAME OF THE GAME IS POLITICS
Plenty of other NHL stars failed to make the Olympic cut,
including nine who lead their teams in scoring and one whose
exclusion from Team Canada has irate countrymen wearing T-shirts
that read: MY CANADA INCLUDES MESSIER. Besides Recchi, the best
of the Naganots is Avalanche defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh.
One of the top offensive defensemen in the world, Ozolinsh was
named a first-team All-Star after last season. Of the 12 players
who made either the first or second team, only Ozolinsh and the
retired Mario Lemieux are not in Japan. "By the next Olympics
I'll be almost 30," Ozolinsh said recently. "It sucks."
Ozolinsh's boyhood dream of playing in the Olympics was
shattered last summer in the Latvian capital of Riga, where he
was raised. In the Olympic qualifying tournament for Baltic
nations, the Ozolinsh-led Latvians had won back-to-back games
over Estonia and Lithuania by a combined score of 42-1 and were
favored to beat Belarus to clinch a berth in Nagano. Instead,
the visiting Belarussians won 4-1 and earned the Olympic berth.
While Ozolinsh's misfortune is rooted in the breakup of the
Soviet Union, which created the need for a Baltic tournament,
other NHL players missed the trip to Nagano because they were
victims of petty politics. The Canucks' Mark Messier deserved to
be on the Canadian team, but his country's selection committee
believed he would not easily accept a more limited role than he
was accustomed to. Also, several Russians, including Red Wings
center Igor Larionov, declined invitations to the Olympics
because of displeasure with that country's hockey federation. "I
regret that decision," says Larionov, a two-time Olympian. "I
know the excitement of the Olympics."
PROSPECTING FOR CANADIAN GOLD
Nine Olympic teams include NHL players on their rosters, but
that doesn't mean the competition for the gold medal is wide
open. When we asked the league's 26 general managers which team
they thought would win in Nagano, 17 picked Canada, five chose
the U.S. and four refused to answer. Only one other team, the
Czech Republic, received even passing mention, and that was
because, said one G.M. who selected Canada, goaltender "Dominik
Hasek is capable of winning it by himself."
Superior goaltending accounted for Canada's landslide. Several
respondents pointed out that the top Canadian goalies, Martin
Brodeur and Patrick Roy, are having better seasons than their
U.S. counterparts, Mike Richter and John Vanbiesbrouck. Canada
was also chosen because of its incentive to overcome a past
failure--its runner-up finish to the U.S. in the 1996 World Cup,
the last time NHL players competed in national colors. Many
respondents felt the Canadians would be highly motivated because
they want to "prove that hockey is their game and they're the
best at it." Said one G.M., "Canada will win because it has to.
Second place doesn't count."
COLOR PHOTO: DAMIAN STROHMEYER GOAL TO GO The durable Recchi (8) could still be summoned to Nagano. [Mark Recchi in game]
COLOR PHOTO: B. BENNETT/B. BENNETT STUDIOS [Owen Nolan]
COLOR PHOTO: V.J. LOVERO [Teemu Selanne]
BUST AND BARGAIN
RW OWEN NOLAN
1997-98 salary: $2.7 million
Eight goals in 55 games is embarrassing for the first pick in
the '90 draft. He has Olympian talent, but he's not on the
RW TEEMU SELANNE
1997-98 salary: $3.4 million
Dazzling game-breaker has NHL-best 41 goals at Olympic break. He
is the obvious choice to be Finnish team captain.