Was It Worth It?
Despite the loutish behavior of the U.S., the expulsion of a
Swedish player and the favorites' early ouster, the answer is,
Yes, this was a dream of an Olympic tournament
by Michael Farber
Posted: Wed February 25, 1998
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.
Hasek, who reaffirmed his status as the world's best goalie, shut down Eric Lindros and the Canadians in the semis.
DAVID E. KLUTHO
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
playedHasek, Svoboda, Jaromir Jagr, Roman Hamrlik and
basically 18 guys named Libor defeating the leading hockey
nation in the worldand 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 goalsthree on breakawaysin 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.
Richter allowed this soft goal against the Czechs along with 13 others in the tournament.
DAVID E. KLUTHO
Bettman plans to sit down this summer with the appropriate
alphabetsIOC, IIHF, the NHLPAto 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.
Issue date: March 2, 1998