The puck starts here

As Jamie and David take over the world, the hockey spotlight turns from the dominant U.S. women to the "Dream Team" men's tournament.

Topics: Olympics, Winter Olympics,

Olympic events come so fast and furious, and the coverage bounces around so willy-nilly, from Salt Lake to Park City to Ogden, NBC to CNBC to MSNBC, that after a few days of it the mind becomes addled. It all whirls together into a flying sit spin of confusion. But if you bear down, concentrate, stay in the moment, stay within yourself, you can, like the great athletes on display over this fortnight, pull off the performance of a lifetime and keep the whole thing straight in your mind.

And I think I’ve done that. So I feel confident in pronouncing that the signature event of the Salt Lake City Olympics to date came on Thursday, Valentine’s Day, when those star-crossed lovers, those scorned Canadian skaters, those darlings in defeat — Jamie Sale and David Pelletier — cloned a cat.

Wait, let me check my notes.

Let’s see. The day started with women’s hockey. The United States beat China 12-1, a final score that didn’t reflect how one-sided the game was. The U.S. outshot the Chinese 71-10. Try to imagine a baseball team getting 35 hits in a game and you’ll have an idea of how ridiculous that stat is.

MSNBC’s announcers mentioned that China’s problem is there just aren’t enough hockey players in the country to create a good program. There are 1.2 billion people in China. I have to think someone could do a better job of recruiting. I mean, I understand hockey’s not exactly the national game, but with 1.2 billion people walking around you ought to be able to find a couple of hundred who are pretty good at anything, just by accident.

The problem with women’s hockey is that, like figure skating, there’s no checking. I don’t know why this is, but I have to assume it’s because of some sort of sexist notion that girls are too dainty to be hitting each other. This idea is belied by the fact that Sale, skating with her head down like Eric Lindros, took a wicked center-ice check from the much larger Anton Sikharulidze Monday night, then went out and skated beautifully, even spitting out teeth in time to the music at one point. Also, there’s no checking in women’s hockey like there’s no checking in basketball: There’s plenty of contact. The officials just seem to decide randomly what’s legal and what’s a foul, or in this case a penalty.

The women pucksters and their fans should rise up and overthrow this paternalistic and insulting rule. It’s a shame they haven’t already because women’s hockey is a great game, closer to its male counterpart, even without the checking, than women’s basketball is to men’s. The women don’t move with the same speed as the men, of course, but the basic game is the same, which isn’t quite true with hoops.

Women’s hockey is at a stage of development where it’s still possible to see wildly inferior players and teams competing at the highest levels because there aren’t enough top players to go around. It’s only a matter of time before that’s not true anymore, and not necessarily a long time. I covered women’s college basketball in the mid-’80s, and there were players on the end of the bench of even major conference teams who could barely dribble and shoot. By the mid-’90s the worst player on any major college team was still a very good player. Here’s hoping that by the 2010 Olympics, women’s hockey will be at that level — and they’ll be leveling each other with good, legal checks.

Just as the Americans were finishing off their drubbing of China, Jamie Sale and David Pelletier told a House Energy and Commerce subcommittee that they’d warned Enron CEO Kenneth Lay in August about the problems that would eventually drive the energy giant into bankruptcy.

Despite her ability to finish her checks, Sale won’t be suiting up for Canada when the men’s hockey “Dream Team Tournament” gets underway Friday. What’s been going on so far is an opening round, in which eight teams played a round robin to determine which two would move on. Belarus and Germany were the surprise winners. They join the U.S., Canada, Russia, Finland, Sweden and the Czech Republic.

This is the round of the tournament that’s important enough for the NHL to stop play for 12 days. The league played on through the first round, forcing NHL stars on first-round teams to make crazed cross-country dashes to try to get to their countries’ games in between their NHL teams’ games, which took priority. Now, the NHL players have shown up en masse, thus the Dream Team business.

NBC daytime host Jim Lampley practically came out of his shoes, he was so excited Thursday at the prospect of the Dream Team round starting. He was giddy. I thought he was going to lick the face of hockey analyst Bill Clement, who was a rugged center for the Philadelphia Flyers’ Stanley Cup-winning “Broad Street Bullies” teams in the mid-’70s and who wanted nothing more, I kid you not, than to talk about curling! It seems he used to play it on Wednesday afternoons during his minor league rookie year in Quebec City, and he fell in love with it. “There’s a lot to it,” he said to a panting Lampley, who kept trying to bring the subject back to hockey. “It’s a great, great sport.”

I’m telling you, curling is the growth sport of the millennium. You spend a few minutes with it and you’re hooked. NBC and its hench-networks are showing plenty of curling, which is good, but they’re concentrating way too much on the mediocre American teams, which are both 2-3. Can we see the Canadians and the Germans please? Both sexes. And also the Norwegian men and the Swiss women, who we did get to see beat the Americans Thursday.

Anyway, Lampley said, “This is what we’ve all been waiting for,” meaning the second round of men’s hockey. “The excitement level rising to fever pitch.” Why? Because the best players in the world are going to be here, the stars of the NHL, who make up all or most of the rosters of the big six teams that had a bye in the first round.

But wait a minute. There are as many as 15 games all over North America on any night with nothing but NHL players. They’re called NHL games. And guess what? They mostly suck.

The NHL is in a bad period these days, an era dominated by trapping defenses. It’s not uncommon to turn on an NHL game, then wake up three hours later to find out the final score was 1-0 or 2-1, and not 1-0 in a nail-biting, tense action kind of way, but 1-0 in a 13 shots on goal kind of way.

Now, Olympic hockey, with its wider rink, its legal two-line pass, its rules against fighting — which, despite the 11 o’clock news’s fondness for it, is boring and disruptive to the flow of a game — is a vastly superior product to NHL hockey, and the Dream Team Tournament, with the league’s offensive stars able to play a more wide-open style, could very well be a smashing thing. After all, a first-round game between Slovakia and Latvia, both of which were eliminated, was one of the most entertaining tilts I’ve seen in years.

But I’m still reserving judgment. The Dream Team Tournament hype seems like — well, like hype. I’ll be pleasantly surprised if it lives up to its billing.

Thursday ended with the men’s figure skating free skate, in which Russian Alexei Yagudin won the gold, beating out fellow Russian and arch rival Yevgeny Plushenko, who settled for the silver after performing in a costume from the touring company of “The Pirates of the Good Ship Lollipop.” Twenty-one-year-old American Timothy Goebel was the surprise bronze winner, which pleased the home fans, and, alas, there were no judging scandals. Everything seemed to be on the up and up. It was unbelievable.

Actually, it wasn’t unbelievable. But NBC commentator Scott Hamilton called it “unbelievable.” He calls everything “unbelievable.” Over the last few nights he’s pronounced pretty much every move by every skater, not to mention entire routines, crowd reactions, skaters’ life stories, Jim McKay, the judging snafu and, heck, the whole atmosphere of the Olympics “unbelievable.”

Hamilton apparently has a major problem perceiving reality. He moves through life in a constant state of disbelief. This can be treated, I suspect, with medication and therapy. Or someone at NBC could just tell the guy to quit overhyping everything. It saps what little drama the horrible sport of figure skating has to claim that everything we’re watching is “unbelievable.”

And so as the curtain came down on another day of the Salt Lake City Olympics, we heard one last time from Jamie Sale and David Pelletier, who vowed that their campaign-finance reform bill would be on President Bush’s desk within the month.


King Kaufman is a senior writer for Salon. You can e-mail him at king at salon dot com. Facebook / Twitter / Tumblr

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