As preliminary round play in Salt Lake City comes to a close, many hockey fans around the world are probably wondering, “What went wrong?” Other hockey observers are probably muttering, “What didn’t?” Mostly due to complications arising from the involvement of the National Hockey League, the men’s hockey portion of the Salt Lake City is quickly becoming an embarrassment. It’s a situation where everyone involved loses, and everyone involved in the decision-making is culpable.
The idea of having NHL players in the Olympics has always raised two questions, one of philosophy and one of logistics. In other words: Should they play? And how should they play? I’m not going to tackle the thorny question of whether NHL players should be allowed in the Olympics. There are compelling arguments on both sides of the issue, and a thousand different points to consider. (What’s truly an amateur? What’s really the spirit of the Olympics? And so on.) Frankly, it’s a topic that’s been beaten to death by many wiser than I am. So let’s look at the second consideration…
When the NHL, National Hockey League Players’ Association, International Ice Hockey Federation, and International Olympic Committee decided that NHL players should be allowed to play at Salt Lake City, they created a huge logistical problem. There are many proposed solutions floating around the hockey world. Shorten the NHL season and take a longer break. Limit NHL involvement to players under 25. Simply lengthen the break. Move the preliminary round to the fall before the Olympics.
Of course, all these proposals have obvious flaws. The integrity of the NHL season is a major concern. On a financial note, NHL owners, dependent on ticket revenue, would never agree to the loss of home games. Teams have never been overly willing to release players for international play during the season–every year a teenage phenom stays in the NHL while his country’s national team toils at the World Junior championships–especially if they happen to be struggling for a playoff spot. No one wants the Stanley Cup playoffs to last until July–they’re long enough already. And it would be a crime to rob some national team players of the Olympic experience in the name of the NHL by moving the preliminary tournament to the fall.
The current setup tried to take all these considerations into account. No one liked the arrangement, but all parties involved–the NHL, NHLPA, IIHF, and IOC–agreed to it. And hockey people around the world tried to make it work. Peter Stasny, GM of Team Slovakia, basically become a travel agent in his attempt to shuttle players in to Salt Lake City for this game or that one. Various NHL teams were willing to allow their players to miss games so they could play in the preliminary round; these teams include Philadelphia (Ruslan Fedotenko, Ukraine), San Jose (Marco Sturm, Germany), Carolina (Arturs Irbe, Latvia), Colorado (David Aebischer, Switzerland). Other teams consented to tortuous travel schedules for their players: Los Angeles’s Ziggy Palffy, Ottawa’s Marian Hossa and Zdeno Chara. All the people involved–national team management, NHL management, and the players–understood the facts. These players had important commitments to the NHL teams, but the opportunity to play in the Olympics was once-in-a-lifetime and not easily dismissed.
Then things fell apart.
An unidentified, cowardly Eastern Conference team prevented Sturm from missing San Jose’s game against Carolina. Arturs Irbe was told that he could play for Latvia; a little later, the NHL told him that he could not. Ziggy Palffy was told he could play in Slovakia’s second game but not in its first. Dressed but not playing, Palffy watched his team fall behind against Germany. Then he defied his team, played eight minutes, and was consequently ordered not to play in their game against Latvia. All in all, the Slovakian shuttle system was a disaster. Meanwhile, a double standard courtesy of Gary Bettman soon became obvious. Some players could miss games; other players could not. Goalie Aebischer played; Goalie Irbe did not. Bartecko missed NHL games; Sturm and Fedotenko could not. And as preliminary round teams got eliminated, fingers began to be pointed–here, there, everywhere.
There’s just one problem with all this finger pointing. All those parties pointing fingers are partly responsible for this mess. They agreed to an arrangement that was unclear and unfair. Some nations were favored over others, and the status of NHL players for preliminary round teams was never clearly laid out. I’m not sure that any arrangement could have fairly balanced all the issues at hand. Someone was going to be unhappy. But there’s no way that any of the parties involved should have ever agreed to an arrangement that was not crystal clear on every last detail.
There’s no place for inconsistency of interpretation or any other subjectivity of that sort in sports. Sports fans abhor that type of uncertainty. We hate to lose, but even more, we hate not knowing who really lost. When the certainty of victory and defeat is taken away from us, we get upset. (See file for Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, Olympic pairs skaters from Canada.) Now we can only ask of the Olympic tournament, “What if?” Was Germany going to win its group even if Slovakia had all its stars? Could Slovakia have upset one of the six elite hockey nations if it advanced? Will the final medal standings be different because of all this? We’ll never know.
The next two weeks will bring a lot of exciting hockey to Salt Lake City. With NHL stars flying in from around North America, the six elite teams will finally begin their share of the Olympic hockey action. It will be easy to get caught up in the hoopla surrounding what is virtually an All-Star tournament at this point. But we should also remember a few other things. Ziggy Palffy standing forlornly in street clothes as he watched Team Slovakia get eliminated by Team Latvia. Arturs Irbe fuming on a bench in San Jose, when he could have been in goal for his team in the same game. Olympic hockey is a joy to watch, with and without NHLers, but we can’t let ourselves forget that we’ll never know what might have been.
By: Joy Kim