Third time in Olympics would be a charm for NHL

WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah -- From Victoria to St. John's, and on farms and in hamlets in between, a nation virtually came to a halt Sunday. It was as if a government official in Ottawa had hit the "PAUSE" button -- for the entire nation.

To the south, we couldn't say the same thing, of course. The Olympic gold-medal game was not a monumental event in Truth or Consequences, N.M., or Mobile, Ala., or Marshall, Texas. Yet the Canada-United States matchup in the Olympic championship game, which produced the Canadians' 5-2 victory and the end of a 50-year-old gold-medal drought, was a significant step in the continuing National Hockey League quest to expand its sea-to-shining-sea horizons and profile in the United States.

We're not naïve: We know this Salt Lake title game is exactly what the NHL had in mind and was dreaming of, long ago, even when it agreed to shut down for 17 days in 1998 and turn the Olympic competition into an intramural NHL all-star tournament. Nagano was going to be a dry run and, barring disaster, the league was going to hope to use the 2002 Games' presence on North American soil to its marketing advantage.

If the USA was in the championship game, wonderful. Think of the possibilities! Chris Chelios, or Herb Brooks, or Brett Hull and Adam Deadmarsh (add them together, and the total is one American), on "Today" with Katie Couric grilling them about penalty-killing and their feelings on the morning after the championship game! David Letterman (and maybe his mother, too) having Mike Richter and Brian Leetch on the show in the next few days, having them pull their medals out from under the desk and direct trash talk at Canadian bandleader Paul Schaffer!

If Canadians joined the Americans, great.

That NHL wish was so transparent, if in some ways eminently justifiable in terms of a business fantasy, that it wasn't completely paranoid for Europeans -- including Russia coach Slava Fetisov -- to notice it and wonder if the all-North American final was a self-fulfilling prophecy. With all due respect to Fetisov, whose defiance of the Soviet powers in the final days of the USSR makes what we often bill as "courage" (e.g., coming back from drug treatment or a knee injury) seem ridiculous, the Russian athletic icon went too far. Bill McCreary, who worked both the USA-Russia semifinal and the gold-medal game, is the best referee in the NHL, and to even hint that he would make his calls with continental unity as his motivation is unfair and absurd.

Did the league hope for a USA vs. Canada final?

Of course.

Did it pull strings, enlisting Madame Le Gougne, the North American referees and the international cast of linesmen in a fix?

Of course not.

Besides, even if the gold-medal game had come down to a rematch of the 1998 final -- the Czech Republic vs. Russia -- or another pairing of European teams, the NHL's shutdown and schedule manipulation would have been worth all the hassles. The compressed schedule. The in-season shutdown. The resentment and anger, among players and nations, caused by the league's embarrassing, insensitive, insulting and unconscionable mishandling of the preliminary-round issue. The predictable "blame-the-ref" reactions, which almost always is lame in the NHL, but takes on geopolitical components during the Olympic tournament. And even the realization that some of the international game's rules are conducive to a better show than the NHL norm. (Absolutely, the elite talent pool in the Olympics makes comparisons unfair and difficult, but tough.)

The league immediately should start planning for the 2006 Games in Turin, Italy, for taking its game to Europe, which in part would be a gesture of acknowledgement to its European constituency, and also continue the intriguing tracking of the evolution of NHL talent every quadrennial. But the NHL should fine-tune its approach.

"I don't know what the future is going to hold," said NHL commissioner Gary Bettman. "We are going to have to look at the impact on the season. On balance, if it is good for the game, good for the players and good for the fans, then it is going to have to be seriously considered."

After the gold-medal game, Canada (and Toronto Maple Leafs) coach Pat Quinn said he had become more of a proponent for continued NHL involvement "after having been here ... I know there's hardships throughout the league, and I know there's some ownerships that see it as a disruption.

"But to me, it's nearly all our guys, our NHL guys, going to play, so it's a hybrid. It's the possibility of the greatest excitement, which we've experienced in these Games here, with the upsets and the ups and downs. It was a marvelous thing, and I hope our league continues to provide the players for this type of event."

This shouldn't be an issue in the NHL's decision, but if the NHL doesn't go back to the Olympics in four years, in Europe, then Europeans will have even more reason to wonder if NHL never cared about using the NHL Olympic experience to showcase its international talent pool and interest; but was preoccupied only with North American jingoism. The NHL should learn from the mistakes of Nagano and, especially, Salt Lake City, and do it right the next time.

That essentially continues to be the stance taken by Brooks, and a stance he re-emphasized after the gold-medal game. Do it right, or not at all.

"It's a great show when you have the NHL in there," Brooks said. "It's a great business decision for the NHL to have the professionals in there. You can't refute that. I'd just like to see a little more commitment from the National Hockey League, in terms of preparation time."

Brooks is right.

The NHL should shut down for three weeks, or even as long as 25 days. Bag the 2006 All-Star Game, which wouldn't be as much of a problem as the league wants you to believe if the plans are made far enough in advance. (It is a boondoggle and rub-the-elbows trade show for sponsors, but if they know it won't happen in 2006, nobody will lose sleep over it. And the financial hit the league would take would be worth it in the long run.)

Give the teams a couple of days to practice, not just one day to land, get their Olympic badges, trade for San Marino ski team pins, check into the Village, step on the ice and reintroduce themselves.

If the preliminary round starts before the shutdown, dictate that NHL teams MUST allow players from those nations to head to Turin early. No ifs, ands or buts. The heck-no, they-can't-go policy this time would have been defensible -- if it had applied with some coherence and consistency, and spelled out clearly and decisively far in advance. The way it played out, the NHL has some bridges to repair in Europe -- most notably among its Slovak and Latvian players and fans. Maybe the league doesn't care about that, but given its international marketing push, and even because it's the right thing to do, it should.

"Especially for us Europeans, it's not so easy to understand the culture you have over here," International Ice Hockey Federation president Rene Fasel said of his dealings with the NHL. "Here, it's all about business, and we have more interest in sport. That's the way it is, and we have to accept it. We try to find different compromises."

The IIHF is nominally in charge of the Olympic tournament as an international sport governing body. But it signed a contract with the NHL and the league's players association.

"There will be a lot of questions about 2006, not only the question about how many players will play in the first round," Fasel said. "We signed this contract in 1996 in Budapest, and we were more or less on the same contract for this tournament. A contract is (as) good as the two people signing the contract ... The relationship with the NHL and the (NHLPA) is not easy, I must tell the truth. But they were very fair to us.

"We have to come back to the format to give everybody a fair chance. Everybody has to have a fair chance, and maybe some teams did not have this fair chance (like) the top six teams had. We will work on that."

The league will run a World Cup in 2004, and it seems uncertain whether it will decide to shut down for a third time and participate at the 2006 Games.

"I hope the players will help me a lot, especially European players, pushing very hard to go to Turin," Fasel said. "There is nothing like the Olympics. Nothing. I mean, people here for the first time are amazed. This is a lifetime experience."

As the league ponders this, the only reasonable alternative would be to have the IIHF not hold the Junior World Championships in that Olympic season, and make that the Olympic tournament. Turning the Olympic tournament into something similar to soccer in the Summer Games, an under-23 competition, perhaps, does showcase the young talent in the sport. But it would tip over the same Pandora's Puck Bucket involved in the preliminary-round mess: Do NHL teams allow their young players to go to Turin and miss NHL games? If they did, even if there were limits on the number of players each NHL team could "lose," it would make the league's stance in the 2002 preliminary round even more of a disgrace.

That should only be the fallback.

This was worth the NHL's time and trouble. And the league should do it again. But better.

Terry Frei of The Denver Post is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His email address for feedback signed with names and hometowns is ChipHilton23@hotmail.com.