The NHL has always been content to skim European talent for itself but has otherwise taken a condescending view of international hockey—the Olympics and the world championships. At least until commissioner Gary Bettman packed for Norway.
Bettman is a button-down guy, but in Lillehammer he was into his 501's. He wore jeans and sweatshirts to games. He asked everyone to call him Gary. He schmoozed with the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF), meeting with its president, Gunther Sabetzki, and had two audiences with International Olympic Committee president Juan Antonio Samaranch. Bettman's favorite topic: high-powered Olympic swapping. His Lindros, Hull, Selanne and Fedorov for the Games' hockey tournament.
Under the proposed deal, the NHL would shut down for eight or nine days in 1998 to allow 75 to 100 players to join their countries' Olympic team in Nagano, Japan, if the IIHF and IOC agreed to make their current 12-team tournament a two-tiered, 18-team event. The Bettman plan would have 12 teams—your Norways, Austrias and Frances—meet in the first week. Then two survivors from that preliminary round would join six seeded teams—from Canada, Russia, the U.S., etc.—which would airlift in NHL players for the final week. Voilà! For the NHL, the Olympics would provide an extended All-Star break and some much-needed, high-profile publicity. For the Olympics, the NHL players would add some prestige to what has become a watered-down event marked by lackluster play and the absence of a Goliath for all those Davids to shoot at.
So we can dream...not of one Dream Team in Nagano, but six. Brian Leetch and Chris Chelios on defense for the U.S. Patrick Roy in the nets for Canada. The Russian line of Sergei Fedorov, Alexander Mogilny, Pavel Bure. Flying Finns. Startling Swedes. Checking Czechs. Dreams in Technicolor.
For all the cachet such a tournament would engender, there is also a catch for the NHL. If the IIHF reworks the Olympic format, the NHL would have to reciprocate by making better players available for such international tournaments as the world championships, which are held every April. That competition coincides with the beginning of the Stanley Cup playoffs, leaving many of the league's best players otherwise committed. Given that scenario, however, NHL teams that had been eliminated might be asked to supply better talent for the world championships. The NHL would also have to send the Stanley Cup winner to an international competition every few years. Still, even as these stipulations were being batted around, Bettman liked what he heard. The NHL and IIHF will get back to Samaranch by midsummer with a formal proposal for bigger, better Olympic hockey.
Bettman and the NHL, however, aren't dealing from strength in this swap. The IOC adores baubles like Dream Teams, but the glory and guts of the Winter Games are figure skating and Alpine skiing. The hockey sideshow bulks up the Games, which doesn't really have enough events to fill a 16-day program. That's why the IOC insists on 16 days of hockey. But hockey doesn't help the IOC where it counts the most—in the pocketbook. "I don't believe adding NHL players would increase sponsorship or the TV revenues coming to the Games," says Richard Pound, an IOC vice-president from Canada.
And CBS, which will broadcast the 1998 Olympics, doesn't think hockey Dream Teams will necessarily boost ratings. "People say they want it, but if the U.S. Dream Team didn't do well, there probably wouldn't be much of a response," says Sandy Grossman, who directs CBS's hockey coverage in Lillehammer. "Olympic fans watch Olympic hockey, but that doesn't mean they'll watch the NHL."
Of course, if you dress young men in USA Olympic gear, some Americans will stay indoors and watch them do anything. Unfortunately, they saw almost nothing in the preliminary hockey games in Lillehammer. The tournament began as a festival of offsides, icing and shaky goaltending, leavened only by the spirited U.S.-Sweden game, which the Swedes won 6-4, and Finland's masterly 5-0 win over Russia.
Dream Teams in Nagano would certainly improve matters, even if they didn't evoke the hoops madness of Barcelona, where players submitted to terrible beatings from the Dream Team in exchange for five-by-seven snapshots of themselves with Magic and Michael. That was the first time. That was basketball. That was the Summer Games.
"I'd like to find a solution," Renè Fasel, an IIHF member from Switzerland, told Canadian Press. "I look at my son. He's wearing a Chicago Bulls jacket, and I'm president of the Swiss Ice Hockey Federation. Why? Because of the Dream Team and all that stuff. Now nobody's interested in this [Olympic] tournament."
After years of being the global village idiot, the NHL wants to turn into a good international hockey citizen. The IOC should let it. At the Olympics, there are no more amateurs. Just amateurish hockey tournaments.