What real hockey looks like

The Olympic hockey tournament is a golden opportunity for the NHL to make some long-overdue changes.

Topics: Olympics,

Many Americans want the Salt Lake City Olympics to be a time for U.S. athletes to take the spotlight, and give us plenty of emotional flag-raising ceremonies as medals are handed out — preferably gold ones. But sometimes the sports themselves have a way of derailing our prearranged story lines.

That could be especially true in the ice hockey competition, which in any objective terms will be the best hockey tournament ever staged. It will borrow top talent from the National Hockey League and showcase great hockey, pitting star-studded national team against star-studded national team. It will also offer the forever-underachieving NHL a chance to reinvent itself, and emulate Olympic hockey, if only it can seize the unprecedented opportunity.

One of the great disappointments of the Nagano Olympics was the way the American hockey team embarrassed all of us — both on and off the ice. The Americans’ listless performance, coupled with their subsequent trashing of their dorms, helped ensure that the U.S. television audience would see as little actual hockey from Nagano as possible, which may have been the most unfortunate development for hockey in decades.

A crucial opportunity was missed. Nagano was the first Olympics to feature large numbers of NHL players. It was the first time the league decided to suspend play to allow its players to participate in the games. The skill level was unprecedented, which was especially notable given the larger international ice surface that gives players more room to operate.

With the beginning of Olympic hockey Saturday, Americans will get a second chance to see what hockey should look like. The tournament ought to reach a large audience in the United States. Many people will watch hockey games who normally would not, and what they see will surprise many of them. Compared to NHL games, Olympic hockey places much more of an emphasis on skilled players, rather than the kind of old-fashioned grinders seen in the movie “Slap Shot,” and offers a much more exciting, visually satisfying sport than the current brand of NHL hockey.

I saw this in Nagano, only because I was working as CBS Sports’ hockey researcher. It was my job to watch as many games as possible, whether over at the Big Hat arena, or on the multiple monitors set up near my desk. I happened to be seated just behind the glass at Big Hat the night Russian Pavel Bure made the most of the large ice and exploded for five goals against Finland.

Bure shot up the right wing again and again, blowing by any Finns in his vicinity and veering in on net with enough power and grace to evoke thoughts of Michael Jordan in his prime. I covered the NHL for two seasons for the San Francisco Chronicle in the early ’90s, and Bure’s five-goal game in Nagano was the most spectacular display of hockey I have seen. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy a good fight, or a player getting slammed into the boards, or a great save, or even a fine poke-check. But nothing thrills like speed, and a game that gives players room in which to skate, and pass, will always make for better visuals than one that’s more about clutching and grabbing and slowing everything down.

The great hockey we can count on seeing in Salt Lake is sure to reignite a long-standing war that has raged for years over hockey’s future direction. The NHL faces a critical turning point, an opportunity to either cast aside years of impotent tinkering with rules changes or stay mired in old ways and doom itself to permanent second-class hockey status. To broaden its appeal, all the NHL has to do is emulate the style of hockey that will be so spectacularly on display in Salt Lake, and play its games on a larger ice surface.

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Nothing is more frustrating than watching a league announce a rules change, only to have it all amount to little or no impact on the game itself. Yet that is what has happened with the NHL in recent years under commissioner Gary Bettman. As its fans know, hockey is a great, thrilling sport, one with subtlety and style to match the American trinity of baseball, basketball and football. But in terms of salesmanship, Bettman’s alleged strength, it still has a long way to go.

The simple and decisive solution, discussed with varying degrees of seriousness for years, is clearly an idea whose time has come. It would have been unthinkable as recently as a few years back. An intense battle raged for years between hockey’s traditional constituency north of the border, which rightly fought any dilution of Canadian-style hockey, and those who would modernize the NHL by bringing in European talent and expanding to Sun Belt cities, with no hockey tradition and no appreciation of the grittier aspects of the game. (Then again, as Russian hockey legend Igor Larionov once told me, talking about the giddy crowds in San Jose, Calif., maybe it’s better to have enthusiastic, unsophisticated fans, rather than whole auditoriums full of people who think they know more than the coaches and players.)

But guess what? The modernizers won. Only six of the NHL’s 30 teams are now in Canadian cities. Nine of the league’s teams are now in California, Arizona, Texas, Florida, Georgia and North Carolina. It probably would be a good thing if fans in these warm-weather markets could be given weekend seminars filled with lectures on the Original Six, repeated screenings of “Slap Shot,” and essay tests in which extra points are given for using the name “Gord.” But that’s unlikely to happen. These fans can be pounded with music and Jumbotron sight gags shamelessly, but what will keep them coming back is exciting, fast-paced hockey, and opening up the playing surface guarantees they will see more of that.

The only real argument against expanding the NHL ice surface is that it gives European players an unfair advantage. But as it has expanded, the NHL has needed to draw on an international talent pool. Just 37 years after Ulf Sterner of Sweden became the first player trained in Europe to play in the NHL, nearly 30 percent of the league now comes from Europe. These are skill players by and large, and those skills can be showcased much more effectively with more side-to-side action, the way the game is played on larger ice.

The NHL needs to take a major step forward, even if some critics complain. The physical task of enlarging ice surfaces should present no real obstacle. Altering mind-sets might take longer. But if Bettman is looking for a true legacy, nothing could better provide it than this one major move. He could make hockey more exciting, give the sport new energy and new life, and encourage a new audience to tune in and see what it has to offer. All it would require is asking the Zamboni drivers to do just a little more work each night.

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