Winter Olympics 2002 Winter Olympics 2002


Greatest show on ice

Olympic hockey shines above all

Posted: Wednesday February 20, 2002 3:57 PM

SALT LAKE CITY -- The worst part about watching the men's hockey tournament at the Olympics is the hangover, the knowledge that in about two weeks we'll flip on the third period of that thriller between Tampa Bay and Anaheim and it will just about take a crane to keep our eyes open. That six-week window between the end of the Salt Lake Games and the start of the NHL playoffs is looming larger and larger every minute. The hockey here in Salt Lake City is the best in the world, bar none, since the advent of ice. (This probably even predates the advent of Don Cherry.) The skill level and intensity are incredibly high. If not for the absurdity of shootouts, Olympic hockey would be better in just about every sense. And, no, we aren't riding on an anti-fighting horse. Consider the following:

No TV timeouts. The NHL allows for four commercial breaks in each period. The good news is that it gives players on the first and second lines time to rest, so the coaches have the option of using their better players for more minutes during the game. Unfortunately, that benefit is negated by what we will simply call the Tie Domi factor. Coaches who have that option still insist on playing guys who lead with their elbows after we return from the commercial break. And there is no more menacing momentum-buster than the "word from our sponsor."

Wide ice. We'll lump two ideas into one here: the additional 15 feet on the international rinks and the absence of a two-line offsides infraction. Opening up the game frees the defense, which allows for more creativity, which makes for ... better hockey. We're not talking 12-8 shootouts from the old Edmonton days. That wasn't much fun, either, because guys like Paul Coffey took coffee breaks whenever he had to skate back to his own end.

Watch the Swedes play here and see how hard they skate in both directions. Watch how they cover each other's backs as they play the angles, fill defensive holes and execute touch passes that spring streaking forwards into unoccupied spaces. Try doing this on NHL surfaces, where the ice is on Swiss cheese and the bottleneck is as cluttered as the 5 p.m. clog at the tunnel. Olympic hockey is a game of flow and precision. Count the number of play stoppages caused by icing and offsides during an NHL game and compare the minimal number to those in Salt Lake. Don't expect NHL teams to widen their ice surfaces. That would mean fewer seats and fewer paying customers.

Personal pride. Forget all the talk about the chumminess of playing a few all-star-type contests against NHL teammates; players care a lot about these games, and the gold-medal hero, whoever he happens to be, will go down in hockey lore as famously as anyone who has ever scored a Stanley Cup-winning goal.

There is also what we'll call a healthy North American-European animosity building up. Canadian players who were embarrassed in their opening game against Sweden are wondering openly why the Swedes play so hard against them but less consistently for their NHL teams. Perhaps it is because they are still trying to overcome the North American parochialism that says Swedes disappear in games that matter; perhaps it is because they have a superior system they are smart enough to implement as a unit for the international game. For all his sound decisions in picking a strong, balanced lineup, there is grumbling that Team Canada executive director Wayne Gretzky, the man sweating through four collars for every faceoff, is overseeing a coaching staff that doesn't understand this type of game. Gretzky's reputation as an athletic icon is secure, but surely no sports executive is under greater pressure to win.

As for pressure, somebody should apply some to the NHL and NHLPA before the start of the next Olympics. Word is that both organizations are wavering on committing to the 2006 Games in Turin. Labor and management each see participation in the Games as a bargaining chip against the other, and both feel it is an imposition to stop the season and go across the Atlantic for two weeks. Guys, your game is global. This is the best your product will ever be. Has there been a better NHL game this season than the showdowns between the United States and Russia or between the Czech Republic and Canada?

Ponder that as we head into Wednesday's quarterfinal games, keeping in mind that the contests we've seen so far have merely been classification games to determine seedings. In other words, they've meant virtually nothing. Read: Something this good is about to get better.

Sports Illustrated staff writer Brian Cazeneuve is in Utah covering the Olympics for the magazine and Check back regularly for more behind-the-scenes reports from Salt Lake City.

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