A Different Goal
Mario Lemieux has earned the right to put the Olympics ahead of
his regular duties
The NHL's Olympic participation would not be complete without a
controversy. Mario Lemieux's disclosure last week that "my
priority this year has been playing in the Olympics, and that's
why I haven't played too many games, especially over the last
couple of weeks" was tantamount to telling the league where to
get off. All season the NHL has been firm in warning players
that their obligations to the league must supersede any
consideration of the Olympics--for example, commissioner Gary
Bettman forbade some players to compete in preliminary-round
games that conflicted with their NHL team's schedule--a value
system that Lemieux, the Penguins' captain and owner,
undermined, though the league says it doesn't see it that way.
"Not allowing a group of players to come to this tournament is
very different from one player with health issues missing games
to prepare himself," says Bill Daly, an NHL executive vice
In fact, there's not much difference between Lemieux and other
players--except that Lemieux is a luminary whom the league
doesn't dare criticize and, as a team owner, one of Bettman's
bosses. On Oct. 29 he underwent arthroscopic surgery to repair
torn cartilage in his right hip, and since then he has played
sparingly, missing 24 straight games and then competing in 12 of
the Penguins' last 15 before the Olympic break. He performed
ineffectually during that stretch. Lemieux missed a Feb. 10 game
against the Rangers, whom the Penguins trail by seven points for
the final Eastern Conference playoff spot, and watched as
Pittsburgh lost 4-3.
Nonetheless, he arrived in Salt Lake City and said he was
prepared to play six games in 10 days if Canada were to advance
to the gold medal game this Sunday. (He was held scoreless in
Canada's opening game, a 5-2 loss to Sweden.) "What can you do?"
Czech Republic center and Penguins teammate Robert Lang says.
"That is Mario's decision. He's the owner."
Lemieux also wears the C, a designation with as much currency
among NHL foot soldiers as owner, and his prioritizing has sent
his team a message that's not likely to inspire them to make a
late-season playoff push. Even so, the outrage of Penguins fans
who have peppered Pittsburgh talk-radio shows and newspaper
letters pages with complaints about Lemieux's Olympic decision is
misplaced. Lemieux, 36, is not only the greatest player in
Penguins history, but he also saved the financially strapped
franchise from relocating two years ago when he bought it.
Lemieux's career is a catalog of achievement: two Stanley Cups,
three MVP awards, six scoring titles and last season's
spectacular return from retirement. He is, however, without an
Olympic medal, and Team Canada, which he also captains, has the
talent to win one in Salt Lake City. Lemieux deserves this
chance. He is, as he's made abundantly clear, the rare player who
is bigger than the game.
A Quick Fix For the NHL
Stalling on face-offs is an NHL tactic as time-honored as it is
effective, but it could end as early as next season. Prompted by
positive results during the Olympics and successful experiments
in the AHL and junior hockey, NHL executive vice president Colin
Campbell said the chances are good that the league will adopt the
so-called hurry-up face-off.
The term is partly a misnomer. It's more of a hurry-up line
change during stoppages in play. This is how it works: The
visiting team has five seconds to make a line change, and then
the home team has five seconds (eight in junior leagues) to send
out its players. Once the referee lowers his hand after the line
changes, a whistle is blown and the puck is dropped within five
seconds. Instead of the delaying tactics that many teams use to
rest their players, the face-off (the NHL is averaging 66 a game
this season) is quickly dispatched.
There's one exception in the AHL: In the final two minutes of
regulation and in OT, dawdling for strategic reasons is
permissible. Since the NHL is reluctant to see a game decided
because a center was slow getting to the circle for a key
face-off, it would allow such maneuvering. The length of AHL
games has dropped almost 13 minutes this season because of
NHL players have adapted well to the hurry-up in Salt Lake City,
although Steve Yzerman of Team Canada and the Red Wings thinks
it's silly, and Olympic teammate Michael Peca (Islanders) worries
that defensive-zone draws are too important to be rushed. But
Sweden's Magnus Arvedson (Senators) says the hurry-up face-off
would enhance NHL play. "It's tough on the body because the tempo
is faster," Arvedson says, "but once we got used to it, it would
make for a better game."
The hurry-up draw limits time for television replays, but given a
positive dry run in the Olympics this is a quick fix that should
be implemented. --Michael Farber
Olympic Ice Doctor
Maintaining a Perfect Surface
Dan Craig's title at the Olympic hockey tournament is chief of
competition operations, but, he says, "I like it when guys call
me Dr. Ice." Between almost every period, Craig shuffles out in
street shoes and fires tiny laser beams onto the ice with a
handheld infrared thermometer. "The ice has to be at 21 or 22
degrees," he says.
Craig works in a similar capacity for the NHL, but the Olympics
are especially challenging because he has to maintain good
conditions through as many as three games a day at one venue.
The arriving and departing crowds cause enough air movement and
temperature fluctuation to give an ice guy fits, which is why
Craig also carries a device that tells him the temperature of
the concrete beneath the ice (that's where the cooling pipes
are) and another that gauges the temperature in remote areas of
an arena. For instance, he likes to keep the E Center, where the
majority of games are being played, at 62[degrees] when empty
and at 67[degrees] when filled to its 10,100-seat capacity.
During matches, Craig stands at the Zamboni entrance and appears
to stare humorlessly at the ice. "Actually, I'm watching the
puck," he says. "I notice every time it skips or takes an odd
bounce. I watch a completely different game from most people."
Should the NHL use a shootout, instead of overtime, to settle
NO "Overtime is a better reflection of a team's character and
depth. I'd rather have a game decided by a club grinding it out,
not by someone making a fancy shot."
YES "I'd love it. It would be exciting for fans and for players.
We'd be standing up on the bench. Not in the playoffs, but why
not have more fun in the regular season?"
THE VERDICT: Fans would get a big kick out of it, but a shootout
is too gimmicky. We'll side with Nolan. --K.K.