With a couple of Olympic gold medals for hockey already in hand, maybe it was too much to hope that a Canadian team would make it into a Stanley Cup final. How much success can one self-effacing nation stand? Besides, the men and women who conquered Salt Lake City back in February really were Canada’s teams, whereas the Toronto Maple Leafs, while enormously popular, didn’t have unanimous national support in their bid for Lord Stanley’s silver bowl. And the edge-of-your-seat, open-ice excitement of the Olympics was the style champion over the clog-the-neutral-zone tactics that slowed the Eastern Conference playoffs to a crawl. So for fans, if it had to be one or the other—the Olympics or the NHL playoffs—gold beats silver every time.
There is still some sadness around the country that the Carolina Hurricanes, and not the Leafs, are playing Detroit in the Cup finals this week. Never mind the guy driving around Toronto the other day with “Golf Leafs Golf!” spray-painted on his rear window (how cruel is that?). The boys in blue, with their bruises, bandages and stitches, their hard-working minor-league call-ups and never-say-die grittiness, were easy to root for. And there’s this nagging fear that, economically, it’s only going to get harder
for Canadian teams to challenge for the Cup. Since 1994, the last time a franchise on this side of the border made the final, terms such as “small-market” and “exchange-rate challenged” have become as common as “good along the boards” in describing the state of Canadian hockey. Right now, the other five Canadian teams bleed red ink most of the time, so if filthy-rich Toronto can’t win, then who in Canada can?
But here’s the bigger worry for hockey fans. That men’s gold medal game, the one that more than 12 million of us watched on TV and that touched off a nationwide celebration, may be the last of its kind. The decision won’t be made until 2004, but the fact is, the NHL is seriously considering walking away from its Olympic involvement. In order to convince league governors that it’s a good idea to interrupt the regular season and send players to the 2006 Winter Games in Turin, Italy, NHL boss Gary Bettman has to show it’s good for business because it boosts the game’s popularity and revenues. That requires good TV exposure back in the United States, and that’s no certainty with the sixto nine-hour time difference and NBC’s reluctance to show anything other than figure skating in prime time.
On another level, league officials wonder if the Games are worth the trouble. They got hammered from all sides in Salt Lake City. Countries that didn’t pre-qualify for the eight-team second round of Olympic
play griped about the NHL not releasing their players in time for first-round action. And players on top-eight teams complained about not having enough time to prepare because they were released from NHL play only one day before the tournament began. The high-profile Canada-U.S. finale restored some lustre to the experience, but sources say the league is still only 50-50 on the subject of Turin. And if it says no to 2006, the NHL knows it has no hope of being welcomed back in 2010, even if Vancouver and Whistler win the bid.
If they do walk away from the Games, league governors can’t blame the so-called Olympic effect. Yes, some players came home with injuries, but league stats show there were fewer of those than after Nagano in 1998. And it’s not like players were too tired to perform for their clubs when they returned. Detroit (10), Toronto (8) and Colorado (7) sent more players to Salt Lake than any other NHL teams, and all three made it into the Stanley Cup semifinals. And there was little sign of Olympic fatigue in the rivetting Western Conference final between Detroit and Colorado.
All of this may be moot. The NHL and its players have to renegotiate the collective bargaining agreement that expires in 2004, which could precipitate a long and nasty strike or lockout. Before that cataclysm occurs, the league plans to stage an eight-team World Cup in August and September of 2004. It will be international hockey, but it’ll be on NHL-sized rinks and it strikes no great chord in European or North American players or fans. The Olympic tournament has become hockeys one true world championship, and it’d be a terrible loss if the NHL pulled the plug. G3
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