Thursday, February 5, 1997
NHL players chase the gold

The Cincinnati Enquirer

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AP coverage
They are shutting down their season for 16 days, and bunking their best players in 12x12 rooms. They will travel halfway around the world to compete while all but their most insomniac fans are asleep.

To give their game an Olympic lift, the National Hockey League and its players have accepted some hardships. Accepted? Maybe ''Welcomed'' is a better word. The sport that comes in to the cold has always been proud of its lack of pretense. Hockey's hope is through humility, it will be exalted.

''We have a general belief that NHL hockey over the years has been underexposed and, as a result, underappreciated,'' said NHL Vice President Steve Solomon. ''With more and more awareness of this product, we think we're going to build on our fan base.''

To that end, the NHL will field not one Dream Team in Nagano, but six. Besides the favored U.S. and Canadian teams, the Olympic teams of the Czech Republic, Finland, Russia and Sweden will be comprised primarily of moonlighting professionals. If it lacks the marketing brilliance of the National Basketball Association, the NHL is much better equipped to provide compelling international competition.

Instead of the dreary dunking exhibitions that resulted from matching NBA heroes against international hero-worshippers, the Olympic hockey tournament promises to be as competitive as the Stanley Cup.

Wayne Gretzky and Eric Lindros - the best player in history and the best player at present - could be on the same line for Team Canada, with the resourceful Patrick Roy in goal. Peter Forsberg, the NHL's leading scorer, will skate for Sweden. Jaromir Jagr, he of the $48 million contract, will check for the Czechs.

''Hockey can grow from this kind of format,'' said U.S. center Pat LaFontaine. ''You're going to see everybody at their best, competition at the highest level.''

That's the idea, anyway. Whether All-Star teams can function cohesively after only a few days of practice, however, is highly speculative. Presumably, the talent level of the NHL players will compensate for some of the confusion. Probably, there will be more shootouts than shutouts.

''The Olympic tournament uses a bigger ice surface - an extra 20 feet,'' Solomon said. ''There's more room for maneuver, and it's a little more difficult to catch an opponent to give them a body check.''

Theoretically, the larger rinks should favor the European finesse game as opposed to the more muscular version played in North America. Keith Tkachuk's theory, though, is that it is irrelevant. ''These are the best players in the world,'' the U.S. left winger said. ''I think they can adapt to it.''

If they do, it should be the best advertisement hockey has had since the Miracle of Lake Placid. Though the inclusion of NHL players precludes an Olympic upset of 1980 proportions, it should serve to stoke the television ratings, even on tape delay.

This was Solomon's selling point when he first floated the notion of the NHL in the Olympics while working for ABC before the Winter Games of 1988. The success of the NBA's Dream Team in Barcelona, Solomon's move into NHL management, and hockey's enduring place as the No. 4 major sport got the ball, err, puck rolling.

''We said this is a marvelous worldwide exposure opportunity,'' Solomon said. ''We would have an event which would not have one dominant country competing, but six teams made up of NHL players going back to their national teams - any one of which could come back with the gold medal.''

The most obvious drawback was the dates. In order to conform to the Nagano schedule, the NHL had to convince the International Olympic Committee to agree to a scaled-down tournament. Then, the owners had to agree among themselves to close up shop in mid-season.

When those hurdles were cleared, another obstacle remained. The Canadian federation, motivated by the traditions and competitive advantages of its junior programs, initially resisted the NHL deal. Chairman Frank Lento spoke of being pushed around by the Europeans, a speech which may have served to unite his opposition.

''It wasn't a particularly passionate speech,'' Lento told the New York Times. ''. . .In Czechoslovakia, in the United States, and in Russia, hockey is a part of life. But in Canada, it is life. We wanted to be a player at all times. We're over it now.''

That's the hockey way. You fight and it's over. You learn to make do with less.

The new NHL wants more. Olympic hockey is its best shot.

OLYMPIC COVERAGE from Associated Press