Johnson can see an NHL-less Olympics

February, 12, 2010

VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- The entire U.S. women's hockey team will march in Friday's opening ceremony. Not so for the U.S. men or any other National Hockey League players on various national rosters who aren't named Jack Johnson. The NHL schedule goes through Sunday before play is suspended for the Olympics.

That's just one of many ways in which these rich and famous athletes differ from most of their counterparts here, just as the NBA players move in different circles than most summer Olympians.

There's no guarantee NHL players, who have been participating in the Winter Games since 1998, will be back four years from now. League owners would rather they didn't, while the players' union will lobby to keep their Olympic status intact in the next collective-bargaining agreement (the current agreement expires after the 2010-11 season).

If they're not back, that would be fine with U.S. women's coach Mark Johnson, who has an interesting perspective. Johnson played on the celebrated 1980 U.S. team of amateurs that beat the Russians en route to the gold medal and then spent 11 years in the NHL before pros were allowed to compete in the Olympics. His father, Bob, coached the 1976 Olympic men's team and guided the Pittsburgh Pengins to a Stanley Cup championship.

"I think the general managers would probably sleep a lot better during this two-week period and not worry about their star players getting hurt," said Johnson, who spent his most productive years with the Hartford Whalers and New Jersey Devils. "I said all along that I'd like to see it go back to what it used to be."

Johnson noted the brutal schedule facing many NHL players headed to Vancouver.

"There's games going on on the East Coast Sunday afternoon, and now they're flying in, they get one day of practice, and some are playing Tuesday at noon," he said. "Is that a good thing? Probably not. ... Next time around, [the Olympics] is in Russia, you're dealing with different time zones, you're going to shut the league down a little bit longer. I think they're going to take a hard, strong look at what's best for hockey."

U.S. defenseman Caitlin Cahow can see it both ways. She's an ardent Boston Bruins fan who reveled in being able to train with her team on the temporary rink built in Fenway Park for the New Year's Day Winter Classic.

"One thing my teammates and I are very much looking forward to is seeing Sidney Crosby and Alex Ovechkin up close and personal and feeling a connection with them," Cahow said. "I like having that togetherness feeling, walking through the [Olympic] village and recognizing that that's [Bruins goaltender] Tim Thomas and saying, 'We're Americans and we're Olympians and that's really cool because we play the same sport.' If you remove the NHL players, you remove that star quality and also some of the excellent hockey that everyone's going to be seeing here.

"That being said, it is a tough grind for them; I understand. They fly in on the 14th or 15th and turn right around and play the next morning. It's not really a team environment. There would be some more Olympic spirit and Olympic fervor to maybe be gained if it were like the 1980 team where everyone's coming out of nowhere as amateurs and forming a team as we have. Selfishly, I wish everyone could have the experience I do."

Bonnie D. Ford

ESPN Senior Writer



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