Winter Olympics 2002 Winter Olympics 2002


On the fly

Posted: Friday February 15, 2002 1:58 PM


WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah -- The NHL players have at long last swaggered into the Olympic Village, the last of them having arrived, their hearts aflutter, on Valentine's Day. "We've been looking forward to this for a long time," said Team Canada forward Joe Nieuwendyk Thursday night. "You lay out your clothes, you pack your suitcase and then, finally here you are. All of a sudden it's real."

Nieuwendyk, as Canada coach Pat Quinn revealed yesterday, will play alongside Michael Peca and Theo Fleury in what might be called a checking line. You can send out a couple of world-class snipers and call it a checking line when you have other combinations that look like this: Paul Kariya, Joe Sakic and Mario Lemieux; Eric Lindros, Owen Nolan and Ryan Smyth; Brendan Shanahan, Steve Yzerman and Jarome Iginla.

"We may change things as we go along," says Quinn. "We're still getting used to seeing all these guys on the ice together."

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We're trying to get used to it ourselves. Yes, we know what happened in Nagano, and we know that a collection of All-Stars doesn't necessarily the best team make. Yet it's hard to find anyone in this Olympic circus who doesn't take a glance at that Canadian talent pool and call Canada the team to beat. "They're the best team on paper, definitely," said Finnish sniper Teemu Selanne shortly before his team held an 8 p.m. practice Thursday night.

The fact that Finland was practicing at a time when the players would rather have been two-stepping to Sheryl Crow or watching Alexei Yagudin rack up his perfect 6.0s or trying to sniff out a Jell-O pin points out the giant X-factor of this hockey tournament. Each of these teams is an experiment in the making. They're scrambling for ice time just to nail down the basics. As Nieuwendyk said, "I'm not even sure if I'm the center of my line or if Peca is. We'll just be buzzing all around out there anyway."

The teams have to get used to the huge ice sheets and the hurry-up faceoffs and the absence of the red line and all the other subtleties of the Olympic game. They'll have to do their acclimating in the games themselves. Team Canada's bus was delayed 20 minutes getting to their practice rink on Thursday -- they got stuck behind a van that was being randomly searched by the ubiquitous Olympic security folk -- and that meant they had only a little more than 30 minutes of ice time. That constitutes the grand total of its practice time in advance Friday evening's game against Sweden.

No team has had much more time than that. Some of Team USA's players went straight from the airport to their Thursday practice, without even checking into the dorm at the Olympic Village. Sweden's NHLers haven't had but a single brief session to slam down the nuances of the torpedo system.

Still, even if there's a little bit of getting-to-know-you sloppiness in the first few games, we're on the verge of a serious hockey tournament. "All I know is I'm standing there next to Kariya and Lemieux and Lindros," Team Canada assistant coach Ken Hitchcock said. "That makes it hard to worry much as a coach."

All Canada has to worry about are five other medal-caliber teams. Any of six teams could win gold; any of the six could go home medal-less. Here's how it'll shake out:

Gold: The Czech Republic

They'll make it two in a row behind the world's best goalie, Dominik Hasek. The Czechs have more one-ice unity than any other team and this may well be where Jaromir Jagr breaks loose from his season-long funk.

Silver: Canada

It's not just those great lines. With a defensive corps of Chris Pronger, Rob Blake, Adam Foote, Scott Niedermayer, Al MacInnis, Eric Brewer and Ed Jovanovski, they should control their own zone.

Bronze: Russia

This team has some serious skaters ( Sergei Fedorov, Alexei Kovalev, etc.) and will carve its way across the wide ice into open spaces and scoring chances.

Sports Illustrated senior writer Kostya Kennedy is in Utah covering the Olympic hockey competition for the magazine and Check back regularly for more behind-the-scenes reports from Salt Lake City.

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