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The Best Game on Ice

By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Columnist
Sunday, February 15, 1998; Page D1

 USA Goalie Mike Richter and teammate Brett Hull
 Asked how Olympic hockey will look different from the NHL brand, USA's Brett Hull (right) said: "You'll see the game the way it was actually meant to be played."
(Gary Hershorn/Reuters)

NAGANO — Imagine watching a hockey game featuring the world's greatest professional players in which no fighting breaks out, a game in which sticks to the face and other thuggery are strictly prohibited. Imagine watching a hockey game in which there's no holding and grabbing of the most skillful players, where passing the puck is more prevalent than dumping and chasing it, and where between-the-blueline trapping is replaced by thrilling end-to-end rushes.

It's not a fantasy. You don't have to imagine it, because such a product exists. Not in the NHL, of course, but here at the Winter Olympics. This not only may prove to be the best hockey tournament ever played, but the most aesthetically appealing. If the general hockey public is lucky, this style of play will supplant the increasingly boring game they're playing in the NHL.

Replace what they're playing in the NHL with Olympic-style hockey and, yes, the league would lose a few thousand bloodthirsty zealots per city. But professional hockey, at least to my way of thinking, would immediately become much more popular with the mainstream fans the NHL has been chasing (unsuccessfully) for years while still appealing to the traditional fan.

The style, and therefore quality, of play is nearly as big an issue here as figuring out the best team in the tournament. The differences aren't subtle, they're startling. And they open your eyes to all kinds of possibilities. This very matter was high on the list of priorities at the NHL general managers' meetings in Phoenix two weeks ago.

"Anything that is really successful could have an impression," Lou Lamoriello, GM of the U.S. team and president of the New Jersey Devils, said last week. "To what extent? I don't know."

Increasingly, there are prominent hockey folks expressing the desire for the cleaner international style to push the NHL into making substantive changes. After all, cancer didn't drive Mario Lemieux to an early retirement, unnecessary thuggery did. Paul Kariya, one of the best players in the world, can't play for Canada here because of a cheap shot to the head he suffered more than two weeks ago. Former Canadiens goaltender Ken Dryden, now GM of the Toronto Maple Leafs, has been a proponent of a major overhaul, and you can add Wayne Gretzky and Brett Hull to the growing list of major stars who are tired of the way the NHL is evolving.

Asked the other day how Olympic hockey will look different from the NHL brand, Hull said: "You'll see the game the way it was actually meant to be played."

Tony Amonte, a Chicago Blackhawk and another member of the U.S. team, said he was watching tape of a possible Olympic opponent and noticed "how the ice is so big that with a great skater you can't put a stick on him. ... This trap has really taken over the game the last couple of years or so, because every team copied New Jersey [after the Devils won the Stanley Cup in 1995]. It's boring for the fans. And things they have in Olympic hockey like the no-touch icing rule, no redline, no clutching and grabbing, I'm sure the league will have to look at it."

NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, in a conversation last week, said: "It bothers me, the perception that [the NHL game] is boring. Is our game at its best? The answer is, no. But that's because the defense is [overwhelming] the offense. There's a long spectrum between 'boring' and 'at its best.' Yes, the flow of the game has to be better. We have to do everything we can to make sure our game is as good as it can be. But it's a matter of fine tuning, not a radical overhaul."

Bob Goodenow, boss of the players' union, says he believes the objective of opening up the game can be achieved by simply enforcing the rules (specifically regarding obstruction and interference) that already exist. "The rules in place," he said, "are very adequate." Perfect example: Just 1 minute 22 seconds into the U.S.-Sweden game, Sweden's Peter Forsberg was sent to the penalty box for holding Keith Tkachuk's stick in front of Sweden's net; that's a penalty called in the NHL every blue moon.

The institutional enforcement, thankfully, appears to be forthcoming. And I'd go even further. Ban fighting. Period. Fight and you're gone. For two games at least. Hit somebody with a stick, Mr. Lindros, and you're gone for 10 games minimum. The NHL will never be what it wants to be (or what it can be) until the violence is legislated out. There's no fighting in college hockey, no fighting in Europe. So why does the NHL need it? Because that's the way it's always been? Does the NHL want to be like major league baseball? Or does the league really want to increase its fan base?

Why would you allow thuggery or anything else to drive out a Lemieux or obscure the talents of, say, Colorado's Forsberg? If you can't do whatever is necessary to create an environment that will enhance rather than veil the skills of a Gretzky or a Teemu Selanne, then your priorities are completely out of whack. (Peter Bondra might want to climb on this bandwagon since his No. 1 weapon, speed, is often negated by all the rough stuff.)

Guess what happened when Canada and Sweden got into a scrum here Saturday night? Everybody refrained from dropping their gloves and sticks because they knew major, hurt-your-team penalties would be called. No bare fists were swung in a high-stakes game. If teams representing entire nations can be made to behave in a civil manner, can't the Red Wings and Avalanche?

I'm not talking about turning hockey into figure skating; you'd still have hard hitting and high-speed collisions. But with the blatant gooning removed, the hockey sparkles. Players with skills just jump off the ice at you. The passing and skating in the U.S.-Sweden and Canada-Sweden games were the stuff that had you oooohing and aaaahing for 60 minutes. Sweden's Mats Sundin, in turning U.S. goalie Mike Richter inside out, made a crossover move Tim Hardaway would have died for. No blood spilled that we know of. The early reviews are raves and more raves. We hope the NHL powers that be are listening.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post

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