A Different Goal
Mario Lemieux has earned the right to put the Olympics ahead of his regular duties
The NHL's Olympic participation would not be complete without a controversy. Mario Lemieux's disclosure last week that "my priority this year has been playing in the Olympics, and that's why I haven't played too many games, especially over the last couple of weeks" was tantamount to telling the league where to get off. All season the NHL has been firm in warning players that their obligations to the league must supersede any consideration of the Olympics—for example, commissioner Gary Bettman forbade some players to compete in preliminary-round games that conflicted with their NHL team's schedule—a value system that Lemieux, the Penguins' captain and owner, undermined, though the league says it doesn't see it that way. "Not allowing a group of players to come to this tournament is very different from one player with health issues missing games to prepare himself," says Bill Daly, an NHL executive vice president.
In fact, there's not much difference between Lemieux and other players—except that Lemieux is a luminary whom the league doesn't dare criticize and, as a team owner, one of Bettman's bosses. On Oct. 29 he underwent arthroscopic surgery to repair torn cartilage in his right hip, and since then he has played sparingly, missing 24 straight games and then competing in 12 of the Penguins' last 15 before the Olympic break. He performed ineffectually during that stretch. Lemieux missed a Feb. 10 game against the Rangers, whom the Penguins trail by seven points for the final Eastern Conference playoff spot, and watched as Pittsburgh lost 4-3.
Nonetheless, he arrived in Salt Lake City and said he was prepared to play six games in 10 days if Canada were to advance to the gold medal game this Sunday. (He was held scoreless in Canada's opening game, a 5-2 loss to Sweden.) "What can you do?" Czech Republic center and Penguins teammate Robert Lang says. "That is Mario's decision. He's the owner."
Lemieux also wears the C, a designation with as much currency among NHL foot soldiers as owner, and his prioritizing has sent his team a message that's not likely to inspire them to make a late-season playoff push. Even so, the outrage of Penguins fans who have peppered Pittsburgh talk-radio shows and newspaper loiters pages with complaints about Lemieux's Olympic decision is misplaced. Lemieux, 36, is not only the greatest player in Penguins history, but he also saved the financially strapped franchise from relocating two years ago when he bought it.
Lemieux's career is a catalog of achievement: two Stanley Cups, three MVP awards, six scoring tides and last season's spectacular return from retirement. He is, however, without an Olympic medal, and Team Canada, which he also captains, has the talent to win one in Salt Lake City. Lemieux deserves this chance. He is, as he's made abundantly clear, the rare player who is bigger than the game.
A Quick Fix For the NHL
Stalling on face-offs is an NHL tactic as time-honored as it is effective, but it could end as early as next season. Prompted by positive results during the Olympics and successful experiments in the AHL and junior hockey, NHL executive vice president Colin Campbell said the chances are good that the league will adopt the so-called hurry-up face-off.
The term is partly a misnomer. It's more of a hurry-up line change during stoppages in play. This is how it works: The visiting team has five seconds to make a line change, and then the home team has five seconds (eight in junior leagues) to send out its players. Once the referee lowers his hand after the line changes, a whistle is blown and the puck is dropped within five seconds. Instead of the delaying tactics that many teams use to rest their players, the face-off (the NHL is averaging 66 a game this season) is quickly dispatched.
There's one exception in the AHL: In the final two minutes of regulation and in OT, dawdling for strategic reasons is permissible. Since the NHL is reluctant to see a game decided because a center was slow getting to the circle for a key face-off, it would allow such maneuvering. The length of AHL games has dropped almost 13 minutes this season because of hurry-up face-offs.