Posted: Wednesday February 15, 2006 4:15PM; Updated: Wednesday February 15, 2006 5:58PM
For many American-based teams, the chariness is understandable. The Olympics fall during what amounts to their Christmas season: post-Super Bowl, pre-March Madness, a fallow time on the sporting calendar when hockey is as easy a sell as it ever is going to be. To stay dark at money time, NHL owners want tangible benefits, something that rings the cash registers and not merely stirs the fans and the soul. The upside of the five-ringed experience escapes the men in the bottom-line set, especially those, like Ottawa's, who envision a Cup in their near future.
Philadelphia Flyers owner Ed Snider was in high dudgeon because Peter Forsberg, battling a wonky groin himself, elected to represent Sweden rather than stay in the U.S. and rest more. (Forsberg, who missed Sweden's opening win over Kazakhstan on Wednesday, was expected to skip at least the first two matches.) Forsberg is the cornerstone of the Flyers' playoff hopes, and any aggravation of the injury -- think New York Rangers goalie Mike Richter in Salt Lake City, perhaps Hasek now -- means another early summer in Philadelphia. Other teams had been more circumspect in their desires for some of their stars to take a two-week hiatus instead of undertaking what is a breathless Olympic experience.
For those teams, patriotism should not be the last refuge of a scoundrel but of a high-salaried employee.
There is precedent for the Olympics derailing a Cup contender. Although the Detroit Red Wings, crawling with Olympians in 2002, were not unduly affected by a post-Games hangover when they won the 2002 Cup, the Wings didn't have to travel farther than Salt Lake City. Given the transoceanic travel, the sad tale of the 1998 Colorado Avalanche is a more intriguing case study. The Avalanche, who led all NHL teams in number of Olympic participants that year, returned from Nagano an empty husk. Colorado played desultory hockey going into the playoffs, then grabbed a 3-1 series lead against Edmonton, which had finished 15 points behind in the Western Conference. But the Avalanche then dropped three, the last two by shutouts, including a 4-0 loss in Game 7 at home that was less a defeat than a cry for help. The Avalanche simply had had enough hard hockey for that season.
Of course, there were only six games in Nagano and Salt Lake. In Turin, there are an additional two.
"Two more games makes it tough," said Team Canada goalie Martin Brodeur, whose father, Denis, played for bronze-medalist Canada in the last Winter Games in Italy, at Cortina d'Ampezzo in 1956. "More games for guys to go through, risk of injuries, there's a lot of lows to play these games compared to the highs. I love the Olympics, I think it has its place with professional athletes. So whatever is going to make this a better tournament, I'm all for it."
Although the NHL is sending its players to the Olympics through the 2010 Games in Vancouver, that level of commitment has to change. The league can't continue to straddle the fence. If Bettman still believes the Olympics provide a global platform that ultimately will make the game grow, he simply has to tell his owners to release players for the Games with a smile. If not, the NHL, in the next CBA, should extricate itself from the Olympic commitment, a move likely to rile the Players Association. Despite some prominent no-shows such as Finland's Miikka Kiprusoff and Russia's Sergei Fedorov, the fact is most players are willing to put themselves through the bizarre schedule just for the honor. As Team USA goalie John Grahame said, "This is a tournament of adrenaline."
"You grow up playing in tournaments where you play five games in three days," said Canada right wing Shane Doan. "It's almost like going back to peewee hockey again."
To make the Olympic hockey tournament mature, the NHL must give it a break. A decent break. Canada captain Joe Sakic thinks an earlier start to training camp and a September start to the season would allow the Olympics -- and the regular season -- to feel less hurried. "Certainly it would be nice to have more days," said teammate Vincent Lecavalier, who plays for Cup-champion Tampa Bay. "I know we get back [from Turin] on a Monday night and we play Tuesday. Some guys get home and play back-to-back [games]. They were talking about it yesterday."
But after winning the golden ticket with its last CBA -- controlled labor costs -- the NHL should suck it up and shorten the season every quadrennial to make the tournament better and less risky. Cut four games. Maybe six. The 82-game schedule is not sacrosanct. When it tried to push the game in non-NHL cities, the league went to 84-game schedules in 1992-93 and 1993-94. Now it needs to scale back.
The NHL can finesse the Vancouver Olympics by ending the schedule the Saturday afternoon prior to the Olympic tournament, but it surely won't have that luxury in Austria or South Korea or whatever non-North American site lands the 2014 Games. Either the NHL should do it right then, or not at all.