The nightmare in Nagano is still disturbing their sleep, but
there is good news in Denver: A week after returning to the
U.S., none of the Avalanche Olympians had run a skate blade
across their wrists. No one in the Colorado locker room was
suffering cruel and unusual ribbing from teammates, because no
one dared fire the first barb. Ten members of the Avalanche
organization returned from the Olympic competition in Japan, and
only three brought home medals.
"It's still hard to believe, isn't it?" says center Peter
Forsberg, who played for Sweden. "It's been kind of quiet around
here because no one can jab anyone. What are you going to say,
'We finished fifth and you only finished sixth?'"
Nine Colorado players and coach Marc Crawford traveled about
6,000 miles to the Winter Games, where they defied all odds:
They represented six teams in the tournament, including the
three favorites--Canada, the U.S. and Sweden--and returned
without a single gold medal. Do you believe in debacles?
Compared to this performance, the U.S. victory at Lake Placid in
1980 was about as stunning as seeing William Ginsburg on a
Sunday-morning TV show.
You think you're tired of hearing about the Winter Olympics? You
ought to spend time with the Avalanche. Colorado, one of the
most talented clubs in the NHL, was supposed to hold a joyous
team reunion on the medal stand in Nagano; instead, the Av Nots
staggered home with just two silvers and a bronze. "It's hard to
say who is the most disappointed," says Forsberg. "Most of us
feel pretty bad."
March 9, 1998
They have good reason. The Canadian team, including three
Colorado players and Crawford, lost to the Czech Republic in a
semifinal shootout and then mailed in the bronze medal game
against Finland. Adam Deadmarsh was the lone Avalanche
representative on a U.S. team that made Grammy crasher O.D.B.
look like a gracious runner-up. Deadmarsh, at least, was smart
enough to sneak off to a hotel with his girlfriend on the night
some unnamed U.S. players trashed rooms in the Olympic Village
and embarrassed their country.
The Russian team, which included Colorado wing Valeri Kamensky
and defenseman Alexei Gusarov, took silver, but it had been the
favorite in the gold medal game against the Czechs, who had just
11 NHL players. (The U.S. and the Canadian teams were
exclusively NHL players.) Forsberg and the Swedes were surprised
by Finland in the quarterfinals. Defenseman Uwe Krupp, the
Avalanche's lone representative on the German team, flew halfway
around the world and arrived in Japan just in time to get
eliminated from the tournament.
Of the Colorado players who competed in Nagano, only forward
Jari Kurri wasn't forced to eat a side of crow with his sushi.
The well-traveled veteran and his Finnish teammates unexpectedly
won the bronze, though Kurri has refrained from telling any of
his Colorado teammates just how great the view was from the
medal stand. "We're not ribbing each other too much," says
Kurri. "I know how the guys from Canada and the U.S. feel. The
expectations were so high, and everyone is really disappointed.
I'm not giving anyone a hard time. These are my teammates, and I
don't want to stir the pot."
"I'm not over it yet," says Crawford. "But it hasn't ruined my
life. I'm moving on. We knew that whatever happened over there
we had to put behind us as soon as we got back." Indeed,
Crawford's club was quick to shake off its Nagano hangover. Last
week, before any of the Olympians had returned to a normal sleep
schedule--"At first I was waking up at 3 a.m.; now I can't get
to sleep till 3 a.m.," says Forsberg--the Avalanche beat the
Phoenix Coyotes twice in two nights, extending its winning
streak to five games. (The run was snapped last Saturday by a
4-0 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.) The Avalanche, which led
the Pacific Division by 14 points at week's end, is one of five
teams with a reasonable shot at winning the Stanley Cup. It may
turn out that the Olympics won't put Colorado at a disadvantage
physically and, in the long run, might even help the club
Obviously, the players who stayed home and watched the Games on
TV were well rested after the 17-day break, but even those who
participated in the Olympics will bring more energy to the ice
in the next few weeks than they did at the same time last year.
The depth of the Olympic squads, and the early elimination of
some, meant far less ice time for NHL stars than they normally
get in February.
"This is usually when a team shows signs of wear," says
Washington Capitals coach Ron Wilson, who guided the U.S. team.
"But this year teams have had a chance to lick their wounds and
revitalize. And the players who were over there will be fine
with a little sleep."
Philadelphia Flyers and Team Canada general manager Bobby Clarke
is so encouraged by how refreshed the players are that he's
calling for the NHL to take an extended break every year,
Olympics or not. Dallas Stars coach Ken Hitchcock, whose team
had the best record in the NHL through Sunday (38-13-9),
believes that the break helped his older non-Olympic players
heal nagging injuries.
Of course, those returning from Nagano were a bit sluggish at
first. A journey that takes 24 hours and crosses 10 time zones
can wear out even the fittest legs. That explains why St. Louis
Blues defenseman Al MacInnis seemed to be treading ice in a game
against the San Jose Sharks last week. About the only player
MacInnis could keep up with was his Blues and Canada teammate
Chris Pronger, who said that his body was out of whack and that
he'd been waking up at 2 a.m., "rarin' to go."
There was no rarin' at any time of the night or day for Montreal
Canadiens center Saku Koivu, who played with the Finns in
Nagano. "I'm dead tired," Koivu said last week, "but we knew
there would be an adjustment period."
It's said that adjustment periods are like autograph shows, face
paint or rented furniture: They're for losers. Members of the
Czech team played more minutes than anyone in Nagano and then
popped over to Prague for a parade and some Pilsner before
returning to the NHL. In his first game back with the Pittsburgh
Penguins, a few hours after saying he wasn't dead tired but
simply "dead," Czech star Jaromir Jagr scored two goals. "You
listen to guys like Jagr and [Buffalo Sabres goaltender Dominik]
Hasek, and they say they're ready for the next challenge, even
though they won the gold," says Crawford. "Everyone moves on.
They're just happier than we are about the way things went in
Crawford insists he has not challenged his underachieving
Olympians to redeem themselves in the NHL, but he probably
doesn't have to. The opportunity is obvious to all the Avalanche
players: You want to ease your pain? Try holding a large silver
chalice over your head while skating around the ice. That is a
sure cure. "I think that's how we all feel," says Deadmarsh.
"Nagano definitely hurt, but I think it made us look forward to
the playoffs even more."
"Maybe if we had won [at the Olympics]," says Forsberg, "we'd
all be sitting around like, Well, we did it. Maybe we'd all be
too happy, and we wouldn't be thinking about the rest of the
Forsberg won an Olympic gold with Sweden in '94 and a Stanley
Cup with the Avalanche in '96, but he refuses to say which was
the bigger thrill. "They're both like life and death, and
they're both unbelievable pressure," he says. "They were both
special." Since returning from Nagano, Colorado's Patrick Roy,
who was Canada's netminder, has been asked repeatedly if he
would swap one of his three Stanley Cups for an Olympic gold,
and each time his answer has been the same: "No way!" He says,
"The Olympics were great, and we wanted to win, but to win the
Stanley Cup, you've got to win four seven-game series. It's the
hardest thing to do in hockey."
The Avalanche pulled it off two years ago, its first season in
Denver, but failed last season despite having earned the
President's Cup, which goes to the team with the best
regular-season record. Colorado lost in the Western Conference
finals to the Detroit Red Wings. The team's goal now is to apply
the lessons learned in the last two seasons and head into the
playoffs at the top of its game. At week's end Colorado trailed
only Dallas and the New Jersey Devils for the best record in the
NHL, but the Avalanche seem determined to take its best shot at
Lord Stanley's Cup rather than Mr. President's. Will they lie in
the weeds, as Detroit did so effectively last season, swapping
home ice advantage for fresh legs in the postseason? "We would
like to finish in first place [overall], but we've got to use
common sense," says Crawford. "We won't play Patrick all the
time or send Forsberg or [star center] Joe Sakic out there every
other shift. That's something you might do in the playoffs."
Sakic suffered a strained medial collateral ligament in his left
knee in Nagano, and he's expected to be sidelined for four
weeks, but Crawford is not worried about his captain. In fact,
the coach believes Sakic might benefit from the rest. Last year
Sakic and Forsberg each missed 17 games due to injury in
midseason but got lots of ice time down the stretch. This season
the big guns should be fresh. "Our objective is to finish as
high as possible and still feel good going into the playoffs,"
The post-Olympic schedule is not kind to the Avalanche, which
had nine games in a 15-day stretch immediately after the Games.
Crawford has given time off to most of his Olympians. Five of
them didn't even make the road trip to Phoenix, and Roy, after
shutting out the Coyotes last Thursday, was told to stay away
for the rest of the weekend. "We knew some guys would need rest
when they got back, although we weren't sure who," says
Crawford. "It turns out the two Russians needed the most rest."
Crawford says his team is more physical this year than last year
because of the addition of forward Jeff Odgers, a tough guy who
will give the Avalanche a boost when the action turns nasty in
the postseason. The Avalanche also hopes to benefit from the
return of Keith Jones, a power forward who finally made it back
to the lineup last week after off-season knee surgery. Sakic and
Jones are expected to play together, and Colorado is hoping that
Jones hits his stride just as the captain returns.
"We've got all the ingredients to be good in the playoffs--we're
mentally tough, we're strong defensively, we've got good special
teams and good goaltending," says Crawford. "But we've got to be
more consistent at both ends of the ice. We can't afford the
long lapses that we were guilty of last year." For those who
can't remember that far back, there are always last month's
lapses in Nagano. Can't afford too many of those, either.
Winning the Cup won't be easy for the Avalanche, but let's face
it: It's not nearly as far-fetched as losing at the Olympics.
Only forward Jari Kurri wasn't forced to eat a side order of
crow with his sushi.
You want to ease the pain? Try holding a silver chalice over