NHL HAS TAINTED OLYMPIC HOCKEY

SALT LAKE CITY — The big boys parachute in today, as stealthily as a special ops maneuver. They drop from Dallas, Los Angeles, Chicago. They hit the ground running and are whisked to headquarters. They get their uniforms, their instructions, their heavy equipment.

They get one practice.

Then their games begin.

Welcome to the Olympics, NHL players. Nice of you to join us. Of course, we’ve been going for nearly a week now.

The Opening Ceremonies? Beautiful. Too bad you couldn’t march in them. Heck, you couldn’t even watch them. You were busy playing NHL games.

And the figure skating? It’s been wild. Too bad you couldn’t see it. You were busy playing NHL games.

And the medals ceremonies at night? Inspiring. Too bad you couldn’t be there. You were too busy playing NHL . . .

Well, you know.

Wednesday night, as lugers luged and skiers skied and jumpers jumped and curlers curled, you know where Canadian Olympic stars Steve Yzerman and Brendan Shanahan were? Playing Minnesota at the Xcel Energy Center. Know where Eric Lindros was? Playing the Stars in Dallas. Know where Paul Kariya was? At the Pond in Anaheim, near Disneyland.

And today, they’re here.

Instant Olympics. Just add water.

“We’re being held to an impossibly high standard,” moans Gary Bettman, the NHL commissioner, when I call to ask if this is really what the Olympic spirit is all about. “We don’t get paid to do this. They wanted the best players in the world, so the best players are there.

“And if we didn’t go, we’d have even more people complaining than there are now.”

Hmm.

Remember what Shakespeare said? Methinks he protests too much?

Shanny has the right idea

Now it’s true, the NHL feels boxed in. The Olympics, according to Bettman, want 16 days worth of hockey. “Tonnage” is what Bettman calls it. Sell tickets. Fill TV time.

But Bettman and the league don’t want to close shop for all that time. They have tickets and television of their own to worry about.

So what do they do? They create a two-tiered system in which “weaker” nations
— meaning ones that can’t count on a lot of NHL stars, such as Latvia or Germany — play each other the first week of the Winter Games. The top two advance to play against the NHL-laden big boys — like Canada, the United States, Russia, the Swedes and Czechs — whose tournament doesn’t begin until the eighth day.

“No other sport has to go for 16 days,” Bettman says. “We wanted a 12-day tournament, but they wouldn’t go for it.”

As for the ridiculous idea of NHL players zipping in today and playing tomorrow?

“Well,” Bettman says, “there are figure skaters who come in for the Opening Ceremonies, then leave and don’t come back until the second week.”

That’s true. So what? That’s the worst side of Olympians.

We shouldn’t use that to justify more.

We should use it to justify less.

Besides, at least the skaters show up for the Opening Ceremonies. I spoke to Shanahan Wednesday night as he was entering the Xcel Energy Center. It was strange. I was at the Games but he’s an Olympian — and he was in St. Paul.

“I think we all would have liked to have been there from the start,” Shanahan said. “It’s not in our hands. But I think the kind of message the NHL wants to send about the Olympics should be marching into the stadium with your countrymen.”

Right.

The fact is, if you show up a week late, race through security, grab your gear, and are immediately on the treadmill from practice to interview to game to interview, you can’t really get into the whole Olympics Dream.

Heck, you’re lucky if you get to sleep.

Forget the miracles

I called Mike Eruzione, the captain of the 1980 U.S. hockey team, and the man chosen to light the flame in Salt Lake City during the Opening Ceremonies. I asked what he thought of the NHL injection into the Olympics.

“It doesn’t make sense to me,” he said. “They come in Thursday, play Friday. It takes away from the whole team thing, playing together and working together for a while before you start.”

Not only that, Eruzione noted, but it eliminates the possibility of any more Miracles on Ice — unless Latvia somehow knocks off the Canadians.

I don’t know. I understand the NHL’s dilemma. When the NBA comes to the Summer Games, it’s during its break. The biggest problem is pulling players away from the golf course.

Hockey players have to interrupt their season, and the guys who don’t go to the Games sit idle for more than a week. And it’s true, unlike Michael Jordan, NHL players are staying in the village.

On the other hand, Bettman’s boys are getting plenty out of this. Hockey struggles to get any attention in the United States. The Olympics give the NHL an international audience, a chance to market its superstars, and perhaps boost foreign TV rights. There’s more than gold medal in them thar Olympic hills. There’s dollars.

If he wanted to, Bettman could jiggle the schedule, maybe drop the All-Star Game in Olympic years, do something that allows the players to march in with their teams and do it right, be part of the competition — not play NHL games right up to flight time.

The magic of the Olympics is the nearly three weeks you get to live with, compete with, eat with and make friends with athletes from around the world, in a peaceful village setting before a worldwide audience. It’s not about squeezing a tournament into your busy schedule.

If that means the NHL players don’t go, so what? Oh. I know. Then the awful Commies would win. Guess what? Nowadays, many of the best Russian and Czech players are already in the NHL. It might not be as lopsided as you think.

Instead, the planes land today, the doors open, and in the middle of a lovely competition, suddenly NHL superstars grab the spotlight — even as they’re grabbing their sticks.

The Olympic motto has always been, “Swifter, higher, stronger.”

Maybe the hockey competition should have its own: “Here’s your helmet, what’s your hurry?”

Contact MITCH ALBOM at 313-223-4581 or albom@freepress.com. Catch “Albom in the Afternoon” 3-6 p.m. weekdays on WJR-AM (760).

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