The Russia-Czech Republic hockey final had so little appeal to
American viewers that it's surprising CBS didn't try to resell
the rights to the Voice of America. Of course, by then the U.S.
team, which played sloppy and selfish hockey, had left in
disgrace, although America's frat boys did pick up a medal in
the Olympic fire-extinguisher toss. In an embarrassment of
another kind, Sweden's Ulf Samuelsson was unmasked as a U.S.
citizen and run out of Japan just ahead of the Swedish team. The
favored Canadians also bowed out early. Other than that, Mr.
Bettman, how did you like the play?
"The hockey tournament was what we had predicted and hoped for,"
said Gary Bettman, the NHL commissioner. "From a pure hockey
perspective, this has been a wonderful tournament."
Indeed, to denigrate the NHL's participation in the Olympics,
because of a European sweep of the medals or because a few
boorish Americans vandalized some furniture or because Canada
was eliminated from gold medal contention by a penalty-shot
contest and not the play-until-someone-scores way it is done in
North America, is hopelessly myopic. The 17-day Olympic break
might not have produced an NHL Marketing on Ice, but it did
produce a new Miracle on Ice, a 1-0 victory by the Czechs, who,
with 11 NHLers and 11 European club players, won their first
gold medal. Petr Svoboda, the Philadelphia Flyers defenseman who
scored the winning goal at 8:08 of the third period on a 50-foot
slap shot that went through traffic and over Russian goalie
Mikhail Shtalenkov's glove, defected from his homeland to Canada
in 1984. Now he's a hero in the Czech Republic. "I didn't hear
that song for many years," Svoboda said after listening to the
Czech anthem at the medal ceremony. "I had to defect from
Czechoslovakia, to leave friends behind for five, seven years.
So my home is in my heart. I can't forget that." His story might
not get him a guest shot reading the Top 10 List, but it was
part of the rich kaleidoscope of fine hockey and high emotions
that made this a noble experiment.
Think of it another way: If the NHL hadn't shut down during its
dog days of February, there would have been no magical
performances by goalies Dominik Hasek of the Czech Republic (and
the Buffalo Sabres) and Patrick Roy of Canada (and the Colorado
Avalanche) in the semifinals, no game-ending shoot-out in which
Canada probably could have loosed all five of its shooters on
Hasek at once and still not put a puck past him. The agonizingly
tense 2-1 Czech upset might rank among the 10 best games ever
played--Hasek, Svoboda, Jaromir Jagr, Roman Hamrlik and
basically 18 guys named Libor defeating the leading hockey
nation in the world--and it was 100 times better than anything
the Sabres and the Avalanche could ever produce. Or if the
league had gone about its dreary midseason business instead of
letting its stars dress in their true home uniforms, Pavel Bure
of the Vancouver Canucks might have been playing in one of your
big four-pointers against the San Jose Sharks instead of skating
at Mach 3 and scoring five goals--three on breakaways--in a 7-4
Russian semifinal win over Finland that was more fun than a
barrel of snow monkeys. If the world had sent its scrubeenies to
the Olympics, as it did in the past, the caliber of play would
have been New Haven versus Hershey. While the semifinals were
unsurpassed for their tension and joy, even the more mundane
matches were played in a brisk 2:15 without TV timeouts, fights
or many scrums after the whistle. This was midwinter eye candy,
even if the CBS eye didn't think much of it.
Bettman plans to sit down this summer with the appropriate
alphabets--IOC, IIHF, the NHLPA--to evaluate his league's
Olympic involvement and decide if it will throw its hat into the
rings for 2002, but the NHL didn't go halfway around the world
for a dress rehearsal only to turn its back on a potentially big
payoff when the Games are played in Salt Lake City. Everything
is in motion for 2002. Last Friday, before the semifinals,
International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch
hosted a luncheon for some NHL governors in Nagano and expressed
his gratitude for borrowing their players. The NHL and NBC, the
U.S. television-rights holder for the Salt Lake City Games,
already have begun sizing up the schedule to see if more hockey
can be shoehorned into prime time. All sorts of trial balloons
were floating around Nagano last weekend, including suggestions
to scrap the shoot-out, adopt a best-two-of-three finals that
would ape hockey's World Cup, and restructure the tournament to
eliminate at least two teams before the quarterfinal matches to
prevent round-robin games from being the glorified exhibitions
they were in Nagano.
Assuming the league doesn't pull an isolationist one-eighty, two
areas must be fixed for the 2002 Games.
1) NHL players must be available to march in the opening
The Olympics are a collection of moments, and while this year's
NHL schedule made it impossible for players to get to Nagano
soon enough, Wayne Gretzky marching into the stadium with
Canada, for example, would have been a moment. Maybe it wouldn't
have quite equaled Magic Johnson appearing on the Barcelona
infield, but Gretzky, who did walk in the closing ceremonies,
still would have stuck an NHL face on these Games.
2) Send baby-sitters.
We aren't going to let a few highly publicized bad apples spoil
the experience for everybody, so we offer, as paragons of the
Olympic spirit, the Canadian players. Marc Crawford, Canada's
coach, scheduled team meetings at 9 p.m. on the eve of games,
and after the meetings broke up, many of his players would drift
into a common area for informal ice cream socials. "They have
this pretty good nut bar," Crawford explained. He was referring
to an ice cream flavor, not Team USA.
The Americans left their marks on the Olympics after bowing out
to Hasek and the Czechs 4-1 in the quarterfinals. According to
the Nagano Olympic Organizing Committee (NAOC), the marks were
about $3,000 worth. The vandalism in three apartments occupied
by U.S. players in the Olympic Village, the NAOC said, included
an eight-inch hole in a door as well as damage to one desk, two
beds (one smashed into two pieces) three fire extinguishers (one
tossed over a fifth-floor balcony) and 10 folding chairs (three
tossed over the balcony), although contrary to initial reports,
none of those chairs beat U.S. goalie Mike Richter through the
five hole. The USOC initially estimated the damage to be about
$1,000, a figure that the NHL officials agreed with. Three
thousand? One thousand? What's the difference?
USA Hockey, the USOC and the NHL all said they were
investigating the vandalism. But more reprehensible than the
rowdiness, which provided an unwanted 4 a.m. wake-up call for
some American speed skaters who were competing that day, was the
need for an investigation. The failure of the sleuthing to
quickly uncover the evildoers--Keith Tkachuk of the Phoenix
Coyotes was a primary suspect, according to a highly placed
hockey source--or of any perpetrator to own up to the vandalism
prolonged the discussion of an incident that tarred all the
American players, their country, their league, their sport. Come
now, gentlemen. You all couldn't have been chipping golf balls
on the lawn while waiting for the limo driver when this
unfortunate business occurred.
Even before the U.S.'s abrupt quarterfinal exit and Tkachuk's
memorable assessment after that match that the games were "the
biggest waste ever," the Americans were not doing themselves
proud. They skipped the U.S. women's gold medal hockey game
against Canada (three players showed up for the middle of the
match) because of a team dinner--the Canadian men attended en
masse--and while they did take in some of the sights, they
weren't exactly overrunning the curling venue. There is a gaijin
hangout in Nagano named Thirtys that offered bad pizza and a
terrific view of U.S. captain Chris Chelios and Brett Hull at 5
a.m. after the 5-2 win over Belarus on Feb. 14, the Americans'
lone victory. (The U.S. was outscored by a combined 12-4 in its
other games, against Sweden, Canada and the Czech Republic.)
Hull said the evening was an aberration. "Eight nights out of
the 10," Hull said after the loss to Canada, "I've been in bed
"A.m. or p.m.?" wondered Steve Yzerman, one of Canada's
This was no time to be an American, especially for Samuelsson.
He was kicked out of the tournament when a reporter for a
Stockholm newspaper, Svenska Dagbladet, discovered that
Samuelsson had obtained a U.S. passport three years ago, which,
under a Swedish law, obliges him to renounce his Swedish
citizenship. Samuelsson, the chippy New York Rangers defenseman,
is used to breaking the rules only on the ice, and he cried when
the International Ice Hockey Federation said he was ineligible.
Samuelsson, who arrived with what he assumed was a valid Swedish
passport--with an expiration date of Aug. 23, 1998--left Japan
flashing that same passport to officials at Tokyo's Narita
Airport. The stunned Swedes then meekly bowed out 2-1 to the
eventual bronze medalist, Finland.
"For anybody to suggest this was a good or bad thing because of
how the United States or Canada fared, if your view was that
this was all about having the U.S. win a gold medal, you didn't
believe us when we said this was going to be a dream tournament
and not a Dream Team," Bettman said. "You can't do something of
this magnitude, you can't try to make the game grow, if your
objective is to simply focus on one team winning."
Was it worth it? Well, remember the Czechs piling on Hasek after
the final horn on Sunday and ponder the euphoria that wreathed
Hasek's face when Samaranch hung a gold medal around his neck.
Then imagine the sight of 70,000 people in Prague's Wenceslas
Square watching that game on a giant screen and the throngs that
greeted the Czech players' charter flight when it landed for a
brief celebration before whisking some of them back to their
night jobs in the NHL. Tell them it wasn't worth it.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO Dominant Hasek, who reaffirmed his status as the world's best goalie, shut down Eric Lindros and the Canadians in the semis. [Dominik Hasek attempting to block shot by Eric Lindros]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO Down and out Richter allowed this soft goal against the Czechs along with 13 others in the tournament, while John LeClair and the U.S. offense fell short, with only nine goals. [Mike Richter in game; John LeClair in game]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY DAVID E. KLUTHO Making history Despite having only 11 NHL players, the Czechs won the gold for the first time, thanks to Hasek. [Dominik Hasek wearing gold medal]
SI'S ALL-OLYMPIC TEAM
Goalie: Dominik Hasek, Czech Republic
Allowed six goals in six games and had two shutouts, including
the 1-0 dandy against Russia in the final. His shoot-out saves
against Canada burnished his reputation as the world's best
Defense: Jiri Slegr, Czech Republic
Led a disciplined defense that kept most teams on the perimeter,
away from Hasek. Scored on a 45-foot slapper in semis against
Defense: Boris Mironov, Russia
Along with partner Darius Kasparaitis, handled all the best
forwards in the tournament.
Forward: Saku Koivu, Finland
Small (5'9", 175 pounds) and feisty, combined brilliantly with
linemate Teemu Selanne and then helped lift the Finns to the
bronze after Selanne was sidelined.
Forward: Pavel Bure, Russia
In one of the best individual performances in international
hockey history, scored five goals against the Finns in the semis.
Forward: Teemu Selanne, Finland
The most dynamic attacker in Nagano until he aggravated a pulled
lower stomach muscle.
The game between the Czechs and the Canadians may go down as one
of the 10 best in history.