Don't expect miracles in Vancouver

By Marc A. Thiessen
Friday, February 12, 2010

The other day, my eight-year-old son Max scored a goal in his mite hockey game, raised his stick, and ran down the ice on his tip-toes in a goal celebration that seemed oddly familiar. Afterward, I asked what he was doing. "The Eruzione," he answered. As in Mike Eruzione, captain of the 1980 Olympic hockey team, who did the same move after his game-winning goal against the Soviet Union 30 years ago this month. Max was born a decade after the Soviet Union collapsed, and more than two decades after the "Miracle on Ice" at Lake Placid. But he remembers those Olympic hockey games as if he'd been there himself.

If Team USA defeats Russia in the Vancouver Olympics, Max and I will be cheering -- but I doubt a generation of children yet-to-be born will be celebrating the victory decades from now. The Miracle on Ice is considered one of the greatest moments in U.S. sports history not just because of the cold war backdrop, but because a bunch of college kids took on the greatest hockey team in the world and won. If the American squad had been made up of NHL players, it's unlikely that they would have inspired a blockbuster movie, or that we'd be marking the anniversary of their win.

Something has been lost since the U.S. started sending professional athletes to the Olympics -- first with the basketball "dream team" in 1992, which crushed the competition on the way to the gold, and then with hockey in 1998. Now, National Hockey League executives are reportedly debating whether to continue their Olympic commitment beyond the Vancouver Games. For the sake of hockey fans and for the sake of the NHL, the answer should be no.

Once every four years, fans should have a chance to see the rising stars of their sport. Unlike college basketball and football, which can be found on network or cable television, college and junior hockey are hard to follow. In Vancouver, Sidney Crosby (playing for Canada) and Alex Ovechkin (playing for Russia) are certain to put on great performances. But the Olympics should be the place where hockey fans get to see the next Sidney Crosby and the next Alex Ovechkin show their stuff.

Handing the Olympics back to the amateurs also would be better for the NHL. Next week, the league will be sending more than 140 players to Vancouver, which means NHL teams are risking approximately $1.64 billion worth of talent out there on the Olympic ice. They're also risking their Stanley Cup hopes. In 2006, the Ottawa Senators led the Eastern Conference going into the Olympic break, but their star goaltender was injured at the Turin Games and, as a result, the Senators were eliminated early in the playoffs. This year, the Washington Capitals lead the Eastern Conference, with a franchise-record winning streak in their pockets. How will Caps fans feel about the Olympics if Ovechkin suffers an injury that ruins the team's best shot at the Stanley Cup in years? No other professional sport takes such risks. Would the New Orleans Saints have allowed star quarterback Drew Brees to play in bruising international competition just weeks before the Super Bowl? Of course not. Yet that is effectively what NHL teams are being asked to do.

For these and other reasons, press reports indicate that the NHL is reconsidering whether to send its players to the 2014 Games in Sochi, Russia. The question is not just whether it's a good idea, but who should decide whether it's good idea. One solution that has been suggested would be to put it to a vote of the team general managers. This could be a mistake. Most general managers oppose Olympic participation. But as we know in Washington, special interests can turn votes around. And no doubt hockey's special interests -- the NHL's top players -- will lobby hard in favor of Sochi (especially those, like Ovechkin, who want to play before Russian fans). In the end, the GMs will likely vote to placate their superstars. Which means NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman needs to make the tough call and announce that Vancouver will be the last Olympics with NHL players.

It's understandable that players want to go for the gold, especially those on Team USA who, like my son, grew up inspired by the Miracle on Ice. After his 1980 Olympic victory, Eruzione had multiple offers to play in the NHL, but he turned them all down and hung up his skates. He explained that nothing he could achieve as a professional would compare with the experience of the winning Olympic gold. Do the players competing in Vancouver feel the same way? Would any of them trade a Stanley Cup for the Olympic Gold? Of course not. And that's probably the best reason of all to give the Olympics back to the college kids, like those who beat the mighty USSR.

The writer is the author of Courting Disaster and will be writing a weekly column for The Post.

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