|Tuesday, December 4
GMs caught between playoffs and patriotism
By Terry Frei
Special to ESPN.com
Marshall Johnston was young, patriotic and excited to be among the warming glow of the Olympic flame. He so enjoyed the experience, in fact, he did it twice -- playing for Canada in the 1964 Winter Games at Innsbruck, Austria, and again at Grenoble, France, in 1968. The second time, he was 26 and about to embark on a journeyman's career as an NHL defenseman.
Why the change? Enlightenment? Yes, to a point. But it also was a reaction to the toughening of the competition, since the Soviet Union -- the Big Red Menace -- was figuring out the game, and won the gold in 1956; and the United States pulled off the upset (not a miracle) in 1960.
The Canadians were fourth at Innsbruck and third at Grenoble, and the Soviets won the gold both times. Czechoslovakia took the silver in 1968, losing to the nation that later in the year would ruthlessly suppress a rebellion in Czechoslovakia and later inspire a star winger to wear the we-won't-forget number -- 68 -- on his back in the NHL. But without necessarily pondering the long-range hockey ramifications or the state of geopolitics of the moment, Marshall Johnston enjoyed himself. He enjoyed himself, even though the only medal he took home was bronze and Canadians still were wondering if there might be a better way to do it. He enjoyed himself, even though those bloody British bobsledders won a gold medal early in the Games at Innsbruck and turned the floor above the Canadians into a two-week celebration, disrupting everyone's sleep. (Hmmmm, the way Johnston smiles when telling that story, maybe the Canadians considered it their duty to help celebrate the triumph of the Commonwealth.)
"I had the opportunity to play in the Olympics," the Ottawa Senators' general manager said on Monday. "You're hard-pressed to deny someone else the same opportunity and not be labeled a hypocrite. Obviously, the rules and the situations then were different, but this is an unfortunate situation."
"This" is the NHL's wrestling with the reality that some of its players desperately want to represent their countries at the 2002 Winter Games at Salt Lake City, emulating so many of their league contemporaries, but are being told they probably can't.
The reason? Their patriotism rages for nations that have teams in the preliminary round at Salt Lake, and begin play before the NHL shutdown in mid-February. To advance beyond the eight-team preliminary round and play against the world's top six -- Canada, the United States, the Czech Republic, Sweden, Finland and Russia -- a team probably will have to go 3-0 in the preliminary round.
It especially is an issue for players from the Slovak Republic, such as the Senators' Marian Hossa and Zdeno Chara. They are from a relatively new nation of only 6 million, yet with an inordinate representation in the NHL. Like all Slovaks, they have had to hear their countrymen occasionally labeled "Czechs," an egregious slight that triggers withering glares that can peel the bark off a tree in Bratislava, the Slovakian capital.
But they are being told that while the Olympics are a joint production between the International Ice Hockey Federation and the NHL, they might be scratches from the games -- or the Games. It is one of those issues with shades of gray, and no easy answers.
The NHL has "made" these men professionally, and they are so well-paid, it goes beyond the dreams of young players growing up in an evolving Europe. For them to spit in the face of NHL employers and say how dare they insist that NHL players stick with their teams until the Olympic break, thus earning their salaries and honoring the concepts of both team loyalty and professionalism, would be ludicrous.
"What I've said to people, whether American or Canadian, is to put yourself in the position of the Slovakians before you make any judgments," Johnston says. "And then talk to me."
The Slovak contingent in the NHL also includes the Kings' Zigmund Palffy, Washington's Peter Bondra, Buffalo's Miroslav Satan, Phoenix's Michal Handzus and St. Louis' Pavol Demitra. Buffalo was the first team to take a stand publicly, saying it wouldn't allow Satan to leave early, and Satan was noticeably distraught.
The NHL policy is that players will be expected to stick with their teams until the shutdown -- but that individual teams can make exceptions. That puts general managers, such as Johnston and Buffalo's Darcy Regier, in difficult situations, and it even involves some pragmatism. Do GMs really want to disillusion individual players by keeping them from going to Salt Lake and missing three or four NHL games? It's part of the formula of consideration, mostly with the Slovaks, but with others as well -- such as Latvia's Sandis Ozolinsh and Arturs Irbe (both of Carolina), and Switzerland's David Aebischer (of Colorado).
Phoenix general manager Mike Barnett is allowing the three Slovaks on the Coyotes roster to play for one of their country's preliminary-round games, Feb. 9 against Germany. Slovakia's games on Feb. 10 and Feb. 12 conflict with the Coyotes' schedule.
Carolina is adamant that Ozolinsh and Irbe won't be allowed to leave early, but because the Hurricanes' final game before the the break is on Feb. 10 at San Jose, the pair could get to Salt Lake in time to play in Latvia's final preliminary-round game against Germany on Feb. 12.
"I'm not sure what's going to happen," Johnston says. "From a league standpoint, this can have an impact on teams that aren't even directly involved." (In other words, if you're battling someone for a playoff spot, and that team plays the Blues while Demitra is in Salt Lake City, or the Sabres while Satan is off wearing Slovakian colors, that affects you.)
Johnston says he isn't under pressure from other general managers to toe the line -- either the red or blue.
"Uh, not at this point, I haven't had any communication about it," Johnston says. "It's an individual situation, and that's what it boils down to. I can understand ill feelings if some teams do and some teams don't."
In Denver, Avalanche general manager Pierre Lacroix says it's rather simple: Colorado won't allow Aebischer, Patrick Roy's 24-year-old backup, to leave before the shutdown to play for Switzerland, which faces France on Feb. 9, the Ukraine on Feb. 11 and Belarus on Feb. 13. (The final NHL games before the shutdown are Feb. 13.)
"We have players from almost every country involved with the Olympics," Lacroix says. "We are part of a league and we'll respect the league's decision. The league has made a decision with the IIHF on how it will work, and we're backing them."
That might seem a minor detail -- and perhaps even a bit funny -- to North Americans. An NHL backup goalie from a nation that barely even qualified for the preliminary round? Patrick Roy isn't playing, by his own choice; and his backup desperately wants to go to Salt Lake? Well, it's a huge issue in Switzerland. Aebischer's every move is chronicled in Switzerland, and especially in his hometown of Fribourg, and Lacroix's stance stopped the Swiss presses last week. Initially, Aebischer seemed taken aback, but now he seems to have adopted a position of diplomacy -- a natural position for a Swiss, of course.
"I don't know what's going on right now," Aebischer said. "For me, it's too early. I want to get my mind for the Avalanche right now. It would be huge for me to play in the Olympics, because if you play for your country, it's special. You don't know how many chances you are going to get to play in the Olympics. It might be the only one, it might be three or four. I would love to play, but what's best for the team, whatever decision they take, I will understand. No. 1 has to be this organization."
The NHL has bent over backwards to turn Olympic hockey into a showcase event, and it isn't entirely for selfish reasons. So to rip the NHL over this would be unfair and nothing short of stupid. But there should be an avenue of compromise, and it's unfair to put individual GMs -- such as Marshall Johnston -- in impossible situations.
Terry Frei of The Denver Post is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His e-mail address for feedback, signed with names and hometowns, is ChipHilton23@hotmail.com.