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 ceremonies.
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.