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Madden: Canada prevents hockey's progress

Saturday, February 23, 2002

The Olympic hockey tournament has undoubtedly been the game at its best, a lengthy advertisement for the sport's skill, speed and artistry. Unfortunately, new fans who have been turned onto hockey by the Olympics will get turned back off as soon as they watch the plodding version the NHL plays.

The quality of Olympic hockey is heightened only partially because of the talent level. The international rules and rink dimensions used in Olympic competition also play a big part. Players can pass all the way to the opposition blue line from behind their net. They have 1.500 extra square feet of rink to work with. The 15-second faceoff rule and automatic icing speed up the game dramatically.

Every one of these nuances contributes to a better, faster game. Each could easily be adopted by the NHL. Making the ice surfaces 15 feet wider might seem cost prohibitive because of the necessary rink and seating reconfigurations -- a few rows of quality seating would be lost -- but a superior, more exciting version of hockey could make back any money spent or sacrificed many times over.

While the NHL might have a cheesy New York lawyer as a front man, it's still run by Canada. By the old-boy network that has controlled professional hockey.

Canada doesn't want a faster, more exciting version of the NHL. Canada wants a game that is (gag) uniquely Canadian, a game where grit means as much as skill (and where grit means more than skill once the Canadian referees put the whistle away in the third period). Canada wants an NHL where Canadians can continue to make up 52 percent of the players.

If NHL hockey were played with the style and pace of Olympic hockey, a lot of Canadians who collect NHL paychecks would wind up digging ditches. If skill ever becomes paramount in the NHL, teams won't get third-liners from Red Deer, Alberta, or Brampton, Ontario. Canadian hacks will give way to skaters and shooters from Plzen, Czech Republic, or Ornskoldsvik, Sweden.

As for NHL stars, well, some of them wouldn't be stars anymore. A player like Owen Nolan would be considered mediocre if he played the Olympic way. A player like Robert Lang would easily surpass him in the NHL's hierarchy of status, and he'd make more money, too.

Team Canada, thanks to a Belarussian upset of Sweden, is dangerously close to winning Olympic gold despite playing very mediocre hockey. My respect for Mario Lemieux aside, Canada's winning the gold would be a tragedy for hockey. It would once again validate everything that's wrong about the Canadian vision.

NHL hockey never has had a higher skill level than in the 1980s. That's because the'80s were a rare period of Canadian introspection created by the discovery that the Soviets played the game better. Different, yes, but definitely better. So, for a while, the Canadians experimented with adopting European techniques, and NHL hockey improved -- even before Soviet bloc players arrived in the NHL.

But now Canada has come full circle, with Theo Fleury running Czech goalie Dominik Hasek as often as possible in round-robin Olympic play. I keep wondering when Bobby Clarke is going to skate onto the ice in a Team Canada sweater and break the ankle of the other team's best player.

If Canada wins, it will be despite doing almost everything wrong.

Wayne Gretzky was one of the game's best players, but he's hardly qualified to be general manager of a national team. Head coach Pat Quinn has never won anything, except maybe a Ted Kennedy look-alike contest. Patrick Roy is the best goalie, but Gretzky insulted Roy by not naming him among the first group of selections for Team Canada, so Roy opted to not play. Joe Thornton, perhaps the NHL's best all-around forward, sits at home while old fogy Joe Nieuwendyk collects his lifetime achievement award by plodding up and down the ice at Salt Lake City.

Hockey, unfortunately, is a copycat business. So if Canada wins, get ready to see the NHL usher in a grand new era of mucking and grinding, of dumping and chasing, of endless, meaningless cycling.

I'm surprised some European millionaires haven't gotten together to form a top-flight hockey league across the pond. A lot of European players would probably love to go home and play hockey the right way if the money was even close. I know I'd watch it every chance I got.

I've watched the Olympic hockey tournament with mixed emotions. My admiration for Lemieux is fairly well documented, and I don't blame him a bit for making the Olympics his priority this season. His financial and emotional stake in the Penguins aside, preferring Olympic hockey over NHL hockey is like picking the Mona Lisa over a first-grader's finger painting.

A gold medal would be a deserved exclamation point on Lemieux's career. I'll be happy for Mario if he gets it. But I can't root for it to happen. I just can't.

Lemieux might be the man who saved hockey in Pittsburgh.

But he's playing for the country that keeps the game in the dark ages.

Mark Madden is the host of a talk show from 3 to 7 p.m. weekdays on WEAE-AM (1250).

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