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Savran: NHL should skip Olympics

Saturday, December 08, 2001

There has been much conversation, and consternation, over whether Mario Lemieux should keep his commitment to play for Team Canada in the upcoming Olympics. Would he best serve the Penguins by not serving the Maple Leaf?

The larger question is: Would all be better served if he didn't have a decision to make?

I think having NHL players participate in competition once reserved for amateurs, at least by our definition, is a mistake. For so many reasons, this space won't accommodate all of them.

The concept of professionals entering amateur games was spawned after the United States began losing basketball games in international competition. We were determined to send in our big brothers to beat up the bullies who were beating up our little brothers on the world's playgrounds.

So along came the Dream Team.

And it was fun to watch Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, and Magic Johnson play together. For about 20 minutes. After that, how much enjoyment did you get from watching the United States win a 110-43 nail-biter over China? Did your nerve endings tingle seeing Charles Barkley elbow some 120 pound stick from Nigeria in his xylophone ribs?

Overkill.

There's no longer a concern in hockey that our "kids" will be overwhelmed by the nasty Vladimirs from across the sea. Unlike 20 years ago, they're all playing in the NHL now.

If the Olympics were returned to its intended form, the United States would no longer face the disadvantages they once did. If the Czech Republic repeats as hockey gold medalists, it would be because they had a better program, not because their players were ersatz professionals.

And, by the way, disadvantages can be overcome.

Anyone remember 1980?

The disadvantages the Americans faced are what made the Miracle at Lake Placid the most significant sporting event of the 20th century. Ask yourself. Will you root any harder for the American team because it's Keith Tkachuk playing instead of Mike Eruzione or Dave Christian?

The world has changed dramatically in 20 years. Isn't it ironic that we boycotted the 1980 Summer Games because the Russians had invaded Afghanistan?

But what made international competition in general so intriguing back then was that there was someone to hate. Communist countries were enemies, and beating them on the battlefields of sport made a statement.

There are certainly new enemies to embrace, and the wave of nationalism gripping our country is palpable. Maybe it will add incentive and emotion to these Winter Games, but the last I checked, the Taliban isn't expected to field a hockey team in Salt Lake City.

Gary Bettman's theory, or hope, is that non-fans will become converts by watching the premier players perform on the world's largest stage. That seeing Pavel Bure or Jaromir Jagr display their wondrous skills will cause the guy in Biloxi or Pocatello to say, "Hey, I'm going to start watching NHL games!"

Not!

The next time Florida plays Washington on national TV, this guy isn't going to connect the dots.

To him, Bure is a Russian, not a Panther.

And what if the skill and grace displayed in international hockey on a larger sheet of ice does attract that guy in Mississippi? He tunes into an NHL game and sees what looks like a rugby scrum. Clutching, grabbing, and more whistles than you get from a drum major in the Rose Bowl parade.

The opposite point can be made in terms of attracting and developing fans. The NFL season will end just as the NHL goes dark. Wouldn't it be wise to attempt to grab that potential audience instead of ceding it to the Winter Games?

If there is a common denominator between football and hockey, it's speed and physical contact.

There are potentially more converts in that group than those who might be intrigued by the Olympic version of the sport.

A much better solution would be a return to the Canada Cup. Played in September, it was a great way to kick off the hockey season.

It inspired great passion and didn't mangle the schedule, which, as anyone can see, has diluted the quality of play by compressing 82 games into two fewer weeks of calendar.

No doubt, Olympic hockey will draw fans to televisions.

For two weeks.

After they douse the flame, it'll be back to normal. And normal for the NHL is not nearly good enough.


Stan Savran is the host of a sports talk show from 8 to 9 p.m. weekdays on WBGG-AM(970).

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