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 Dominik Hasek-led Czechs beat Russia, take hockey gold.
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In These Games, the NHL's Style Is No Fun

By Jennifer Frey
Washington Post Columnist
Monday, February 23, 1998; Page C8



frey

NAGANO — The NHL's Olympic experiment has come to an end and it wasn't exactly a public relations bonanza.

And it's too bad, because it was great hockey. Czech goalie Dominik Hasek is a bona fide star. His Czech Republic team was a lovable underdog, its 1-0 gold medal victory over Russia not just a sports statement, but a political one in the hearts of many watchers back in Prague. And the Finns played their hearts out in their 3-2 upset of the Canadians. It was great watching them get bronze medals draped around their necks.

Not that anyone paid much attention.

In North America — where the NHL sells its product — this Olympic hockey tournament will be remembered for failure, not success. The enduring images will be of Wayne Gretzky crying, the Canadian team putting in a half-hearted effort to lose the bronze medal, and, of course, the ugly Americans, who not only failed to beat anyone save Belarus, but couldn't leave town without a few players trashing the place.

There were a lot of losers in this venture.

CBS lost because it banked its coverage on a U.S.-Canada final, or at least a final with one of those teams involved, and instead got the Czech Republic against Russia. The network stuck with its plan to air the game live — in the middle of the night on the East Coast.

Canada lost because national pride was at stake in this tournament, and if anyone had a "Dream Team," the Canadians did. For decades, they have been consoling themselves over their lack of an Olympic gold medal (they last won a hockey gold in 1952) by claiming that they were at an unfair disadvantage. All their good players, they pointed out, were in the NHL. Now, they have to face the truth: European hockey is on the rise, and its about time players had more respect for the oft-maligned European style of play.

The United States lost because some of its players gave the impression that they didn't care about being here. The fans got mad at them, fellow American athletes in other sports resented their attitudes and behavior, and their opponents ridiculed them. (Did you see the quotes from the Canadians after they lost in the semifinals? The Canadians couldn't wait to point out that they were going to handle their loss with dignity. Ask them about a slap shot in the second period, and they'd answer: "Well, I think we're going to deal with this disappointment with good sportsmanship.")

Could the whole thing have been any worse for the Americans? The U.S. women's team made the front page of newspapers for a performance that moved almost everyone in the building to tears — including some hardened male reporters who never cover women's sports. Ron Wilson's guys made the front page of USA Today for breaking chairs and trashing their rooms.

It's almost impossible to gauge how damaging these Olympics have been for the image of U.S. hockey players and, unfortunately, NHL players as a whole. When the U.S. and Canadian teams arrived here, much was made about the fact that — unlike the NBA "Dream Team," which stayed in four-star hotels and had little contact with the other Olympic athletes — the hockey players were going to stay in the athletes' village and experience these Games just like everyone else.

For that reason, and a host of others, they came in riding a wave of good publicity and I, for one, thought it was justified. Having covered both the NHL and major league baseball, and having spent more than a fair share of time around NBA and NFL teams, I am one of many sportswriters who consider the NHLers to be the best athletes in the business to deal with on a daily basis. Most of them are polite, friendly and accessible to fans and media alike.

Now, I cringe when I hear Chris Witty, who won two medals in speedskating here, refer to them as "spoiled professional athletes." I shudder when Jennifer Rodriguez, another American speedskater, says that the hockey players made her "entire country look bad." And that luger Gordy Sheer views them as just another group of multi-million-dollar athletes who think they can buy their way out of any situation.

Unfortunately, I can't disagree. The U.S. hockey team arrived here arrogantly believing it could still play North American hockey on the larger ice surface, didn't practice hard enough — didn't practice at all one day — and didn't take its early opponents as seriously as it should have. And it left here with Keith Tkachuk declaring the whole experience "a waste of time." If I were Witty or Rodriguez or Sheer I would be incensed by that comment.

I know there are many members of the U.S. hockey team who had nothing to do with the destruction of property in the athletes' village and that there are some players on that team who actually did care about being at the Olympics. But they are not the ones the world is going to remember. And, sadly, outside of Europe — which had its faster, cleaner, less clutch-and-grab style vindicated at these Olympics — not many people are going to remember the NHL stars who came here and gave everything they could to their countries.

So I say this: Thank you, Hasek and Jaromir Jagr and Pavel Bure and Teemu Selanne and Sergei Gonchar and all the non-North American NHL players who helped make hockey exciting at these Olympics. And I'm sorry you're going back to a league that, through no fault of your own, is now wearing a nasty black eye.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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