Philadelphia Flyers and Team Canada general manager Bobby Clarke is so encouraged by how refreshed the players are that he's calling for the NHL to take an extended break every year, Olympics or not. Dallas Stars coach Ken Hitchcock, whose team had the best record in the NHL through Sunday (38-13-9), believes that the break helped his older non-Olympic players heal nagging injuries.
Of course, those returning from Nagano were a bit sluggish at first. A journey that takes 24 hours and crosses 10 time zones can wear out even the fittest legs. That explains why St. Louis Blues defenseman Al MacInnis seemed to be treading ice in a game against the San Jose Sharks last week. About the only player MacInnis could keep up with was his Blues and Canada teammate Chris Pronger, who said that his body was out of whack and that he'd been waking up at 2 a.m., "rarin' to go."
There was no rarin' at any time of the night or day for Montreal Canadiens center Saku Koivu, who played with the Finns in Nagano. "I'm dead tired," Koivu said last week, "but we knew there would be an adjustment period."
It's said that adjustment periods are like autograph shows, face paint or rented furniture: They're for losers. Members of the Czech team played more minutes than anyone in Nagano and then popped over to Prague for a parade and some Pilsner before returning to the NHL. In his first game back with the Pittsburgh Penguins, a few hours after saying he wasn't dead tired but simply "dead," Czech star Jaromir Jagr scored two goals. "You listen to guys like Jagr and [Buffalo Sabres goaltender Dominik] Hasek, and they say they're ready for the next challenge, even though they won the gold," says Crawford. "Everyone moves on. They're just happier than we are about the way things went in Nagano."
Crawford insists he has not challenged his underachieving Olympians to redeem themselves in the NHL, but he probably doesn't have to. The opportunity is obvious to all the Avalanche players: You want to ease your pain? Try holding a large silver chalice over your head while skating around the ice. That is a sure cure. "I think that's how we all feel," says Deadmarsh. "Nagano definitely hurt, but I think it made us look forward to the playoffs even more."
"Maybe if we had won [at the Olympics]," says Forsberg, "we'd all be sitting around like, Well, we did it. Maybe we'd all be too happy, and we wouldn't be thinking about the rest of the season."
Forsberg won an Olympic gold with Sweden in '94 and a Stanley Cup with the Avalanche in '96, but he refuses to say which was the bigger thrill. "They're both like life and death, and they're both unbelievable pressure," he says. "They were both special." Since returning from Nagano, Colorado's Patrick Roy, who was Canada's netminder, has been asked repeatedly if he would swap one of his three Stanley Cups for an Olympic gold, and each time his answer has been the same: "No way!" He says, "The Olympics were great, and we wanted to win, but to win the Stanley Cup, you've got to win four seven-game series. It's the hardest thing to do in hockey."
The Avalanche pulled it off two years ago, its first season in Denver, but failed last season despite having earned the President's Cup, which goes to the team with the best regular-season record. Colorado lost in the Western Conference finals to the Detroit Red Wings. The team's goal now is to apply the lessons learned in the last two seasons and head into the playoffs at the top of its game. At week's end Colorado trailed only Dallas and the New Jersey Devils for the best record in the NHL, but the Avalanche seem determined to take its best shot at Lord Stanley's Cup rather than Mr. President's. Will they lie in the weeds, as Detroit did so effectively last season, swapping home ice advantage for fresh legs in the postseason? "We would like to finish in first place [overall], but we've got to use common sense," says Crawford. "We won't play Patrick all the time or send Forsberg or [star center] Joe Sakic out there every other shift. That's something you might do in the playoffs."
Sakic suffered a strained medial collateral ligament in his left knee in Nagano, and he's expected to be sidelined for four weeks, but Crawford is not worried about his captain. In fact, the coach believes Sakic might benefit from the rest. Last year Sakic and Forsberg each missed 17 games due to injury in midseason but got lots of ice time down the stretch. This season the big guns should be fresh. "Our objective is to finish as high as possible and still feel good going into the playoffs," says Roy.
The post-Olympic schedule is not kind to the Avalanche, which had nine games in a 15-day stretch immediately after the Games. Crawford has given time off to most of his Olympians. Five of them didn't even make the road trip to Phoenix, and Roy, after shutting out the Coyotes last Thursday, was told to stay away for the rest of the weekend. "We knew some guys would need rest when they got back, although we weren't sure who," says Crawford. "It turns out the two Russians needed the most rest."