NHL PLAYERS IN DREAMLAND, UNLIKE SPITEFUL NBA BRETHREN

NAGANO, Japan — I have this nightmare every now and then. I close my eyes, and I am back in Barcelona, watching Charles Barkley tell a packed audience that the NBA had arrived, so the rest of the world “should just take their ass-whipping and go home.”

I wake up in a cold sweat.

Like a switch thrown by Dr. Frankenstein, the original Dream Team spawned a monster too large to subdue. Letting multimillionaire basketball stars into the Olympics was like letting Imelda Marcos into the Athlete’s Foot.

For two weeks, the NBA elite came out of their ivory tower just long enough to crush some Third World country, then hurry back to the hotel for Spectravision. Covering them was like covering El Nino, if El Nino had an agent.

How much better then to open my eyes Tuesday afternoon to see not one Dream Team, but two — American and Canadian — filling the room with names like Gretzky, Hull, Lindros, all of them world-famous, all of them rich, and all of them acting — and here’s a shocker for you — as if they were happy to be here.

Can Dream Teams do that?

Well, these can. Here were the NHL’s brightest stars, milling about for an hour like normal folk, talking, joking, not about whipping the world’s hind end, but of their first meals at the Olympic Village, of sharing bathrooms, of looking forward to mingling with bobsledders and skiers.

Millionaires acting like Olympians? Now that’s a dream.

“I’ve always wanted to see a downhill race,” said Brett Hull, the U.S. forward.

“I want to get tickets to the Michelle Kwan-Tara Lipinski thing,” said Canada’s Brendan Shanahan.

“Personally,” added America’s bruising defenseman Kevin Hatcher, “I’d like to try luge. I’m used to banging into walls.”

When I first heard the NBA was sending its stars to the 1992 Olympics, I dreaded the outcome; and I was right. It was a disaster of ego, chauvinism, money, bickering and showboating. By the end, even Americans were rooting against them.

When I first heard the NHL was sending its pros to these 1998 Olympics, I did not dread it. I thought about the sport and I said, “Hmm, that could work.”

Now I’m betting it will.

No golf; no attitudes

Here is the difference between the NBA and the NHL. Hockey players are still on this planet. Money has not separated them from humanity. And success is not measured in aloof attitude.

Consider this: At the Barcelona Olympics, the basketball dreamers arrived by private plane, had a police escort, stayed in their own exclusive, luxury hotel with full-time security and private chefs. Between competitions, they helicoptered to other countries to play golf.

The NHL players entered Nagano by train, got their room assignments at the Olympic Village, then claimed their beds, six to a suite, two bathrooms, no favorites.

There will be no golf.

“We’re the same as every other athlete here,” said Eric Lindros, the Canadian captain. “We’re here to win our competition and experience the Games.”

Experience the Games? That immediately leaps them over most of the NBA pioneers. The original Dream Team — which included Michael Jordan, Patrick Ewing and Larry Bird — was about as interested in the Olympic experience as they were in herpes.

Oh, Barkley would walk around the streets of Barcelona — at night, usually late at night — perhaps figuring that joking with the common folk would make up for his elbowing Angolans and telling fans to shut up.

But the rest of that Dream Team saw as much of the Olympics as a war hostage. Here was their “to-do” list: 1) Order room service. 2) Watch CNN. 3) Slaughter opponent. 4) Get back to America.

Even as officials draped the gold medals around their necks, the Dreamers had a plane running on the tarmac. I’m not kidding. I’m surprised a few of them didn’t say, “That’s all right, chief, I’ll take mine to go.”

No such problem with the NHL stars. They will not be racing off the stage. From Wayne Gretzky to Nick Lidstrom, these are guys who see this fortnight as a chance at something they thought had passed them by, like getting another crack at your senior prom.

“A lot of us figured our Olympic chances were done,” said America’s Brian Leetch. “This is a great opportunity.”

You notice there was no mention of room service.

The Games come first

Now, in fairness to the original Dream Team, navigating a Summer Olympics is tougher than a winter one. The crowds are bigger, the fans more prevalent. And Michael, Larry and Magic Johnson were bigger rock stars in Barcelona than Gretzky, Hull and Patrick Roy will be here in Japan.

Also, the NBA Dream Team was a dozen stars. The NHL has 124 players here, spread out over the U.S., Canadian, Russian, Swedish, Finnish and German teams, among others. It’s harder for the spotlight to capture all of them at once.

But it’s more than numbers. It’s approach. From Gretzky saying, “Not a single guy on the team didn’t want to stay in the village,” to Mike Modano saying,
“I’ve thought about the Olympics since the Miracle on Ice in 1980” — what’s different about the hockey Dreamers can be summed up in a single sentence: They think the Olympics are bigger than them, not the other way around.

“When you see guys like Gretzky giving up a chance to go to Hawaii for a few weeks in order to play hockey, you know it’s important,” Shanahan said. How important? Shanahan’s roommate is Joe Sakic, from the arch-rival Colorado Avalanche. And for the sake of Canadian honor, they have promised a truce.

“So you won’t put a horse’s head in his bed?” Shanahan was asked.

“I didn’t say that,” he said, grinning.

In some ways, the NHL guys are lucky. Figure skating is still the big sell of these Games, so they won’t be expected to carry the whole Olympic show. In fact, many of their contests will be played not in prime time but at around 2 a.m. Detroit time.

“That’s OK,” Hull said, “we’ll just give people a reason to stay up.”

There’s already plenty of reasons. For one, adding the NHL has made the Olympic competition fierce, whereas adding the NBA made the competition nonexistent. Throw in the fact that the NHL guys are not arguing over the logos on their uniforms, and you’re way ahead of where we were when we tried this experiment six years ago in Barcelona.

“Why aren’t you staying in the Olympic Village?” someone asked Barkley in that first Dream Team press conference.

“It’s a little unfair to expect us to stay in the village,” he said. “We got God on our team and we should stay where God wants us to stay. Right, Michael?”

Funny. Hockey fans would tell you God is playing for Canada. He’s that Gretzky guy over there, in the village, waiting for his turn at the bathroom.

To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.

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