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

More Related Stories

Featured Slide Shows

  • Share on Twitter
  • Share on Facebook
  • 1 of 11
  • Close
  • Fullscreen
  • Thumbnails

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Beautiful Darkness by Fabien Vehlmann & Kerascoët
    Kerascoët's lovely, delicate pen-and-watercolor art -- all intricate botanicals, big eyes and flowing hair -- gives this fairy story a deceptively pretty finish. You find out quickly, however, that these are the heartless and heedless fairies of folk legend, not the sentimental sprites beloved by the Victorians and Disney fans. A host of tiny hominid creatures must learn to survive in the forest after fleeing their former home -- a little girl who lies dead in the woods. The main character, Aurora, tries to organize the group into a community, but most of her cohort is too capricious, lazy and selfish to participate for long. There's no real moral to this story, which is refreshing in itself, beyond the perpetual lessons that life is hard and you have to be careful whom you trust. Never has ugly truth been given a prettier face.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Climate Changed: A Personal Journey Through the Science by Philippe Squarzoni
    Squarzoni is a French cartoonist who makes nonfiction graphic novels about contemporary issues and politics. While finishing up a book about France under Jacques Chirac, he realized that when it came to environmental policy, he didn't know what he was talking about. "Climate Changed" is the result of his efforts to understand what has been happening to the planet, a striking combination of memoir and data that ruminates on a notoriously elusive, difficult and even imponderable subject. Panels of talking heads dispensing information (or Squarzoni discussing the issues with his partner) are juxtaposed with detailed and meticulous yet lyrical scenes from the author's childhood, the countryside where he takes a holiday and a visit to New York. He uses his own unreachable past as a way to grasp the imminent transformation of the Earth. The result is both enlightening and unexpectedly moving.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Here by Richard McGuire
    A six-page version of this innovative work by a regular contributor to the New Yorker first appeared in RAW magazine 25 years ago. Each two-page spread depicts a single place, sometimes occupied by a corner of a room, over the course of 4 billion years. The oldest image is a blur of pink and purple gases; others depict hazmat-suited explorers from 300 years in the future. Inset images show the changing decor and inhabitants of the house throughout its existence: family photos, quarrels, kids in Halloween costumes, a woman reading a book, a cat walking across the floor. The cumulative effect is serene and ravishing, an intimation of the immensity of time and the wonder embodied in the humblest things.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Kill My Mother by Jules Feiffer
    The legendary Pulitzer Prize-winning cartoonist delivers his debut graphic novel at 85, a deliriously over-the-top blend of classic movie noir and melodrama that roams from chiaroscuro Bay City to Hollywood to a USO gig in the Pacific theater of World War II. There's a burnt-out drunk of a private eye, but the story is soon commandeered by a multigenerational collection of ferocious women, including a mysterious chanteuse who never speaks, a radio comedy writer who makes a childhood friend the butt of a hit series and a ruthless dame intent on making her whiny coward of a husband into a star. There are disguises, musical numbers and plenty of gunfights, but the drawing is the main attraction. Nobody convey's bodies in motion more thrillingly than Feiffer, whether they're dancing, running or duking it out. The kid has promise.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Motherless Oven by Rob Davis
    This is a weird one, but in the nervy surreal way that word-playful novels like "A Clockwork Orange" or "Ulysses" are weird. The main character, a teenage schoolboy named Scarper Lee, lives in a world where it rains knives and people make their own parents, contraptions that can be anything from a tiny figurine stashable in a pocket to biomorphic boiler-like entities that seem to have escaped from Dr. Seuss' nightmares. Their homes are crammed with gadgets they call gods and instead of TV they watch a hulu-hoop-size wheel of repeating images that changes with the day of the week. They also know their own "death day," and Scarper's is coming up fast. Maybe that's why he runs off with the new girl at school, a real troublemaker, and the obscurely dysfunctional Castro, whose mother is a cageful of talking parakeets. A solid towline of teenage angst holds this manically inventive vision together, and proves that some graphic novels can rival the text-only kind at their own game.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    NOBROW 9: It's Oh So Quiet
    For each issue, the anthology magazine put out by this adventurous U.K.-based publisher of independent graphic design, illustration and comics gives 45 artists a four-color palette and a theme. In the ninth issue, the theme is silence, and the results are magnificent and full of surprises. The comics, each told in images only, range from atmospheric to trippy to jokey to melancholy to epic to creepy. But the two-page illustrations are even more powerful, even if it's not always easy to see how they pertain to the overall concept of silence. Well, except perhaps for the fact that so many of them left me utterly dumbstruck with visual delight.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Over Easy by Mimi Pond
    When Pond was a broke art student in the 1970s, she took a job at a neighborhood breakfast spot in Oakland, a place with good food, splendid coffee and an endlessly entertaining crew of short-order cooks, waitresses, dishwashers and regular customers. This graphic memoir, influenced by the work of Pond's friend, Alison Bechdel, captures the funky ethos of the time, when hippies, punks and disco aficionados mingled in a Bay Area at the height of its eccentricity. The staff of the Imperial Cafe were forever swapping wisecracks and hopping in and out of each other's beds, which makes them more or less like every restaurant team in history. There's an intoxicating esprit de corps to a well-run everyday joint like the Imperial Cafe, and never has the delight in being part of it been more winningly portrayed.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    The Shadow Hero by Gene Luen Yang and Sonny Liew
    You don't have to be a superhero fan to be utterly charmed by Yang and Liew's revival of a little-known character created in the 1940s by the cartoonist Chu Hing. This version of the Green Turtle, however, is rich in characterization, comedy and luscious period detail from the Chinatown of "San Incendio" (a ringer for San Francisco). Hank, son of a mild-mannered grocer, would like to follow in his father's footsteps, but his restless mother (the book's best character and drawn with masterful nuance by Liew) has other ideas after her thrilling encounter with a superhero. Yang's story effortlessly folds pathos into humor without stooping to either slapstick or cheap "darkness." This is that rare tribute that far surpasses the thing it celebrates.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Shoplifter by Michael Cho
    Corinna Park, former English major, works, unhappily, in a Toronto advertising agency. When the dissatisfaction of the past five years begins to oppress her, she lets off steam by pilfering magazines from a local convenience store. Cho's moody character study is as much about city life as it is about Corinna. He depicts her falling asleep in front of the TV in her condo, brooding on the subway, roaming the crowded streets after a budding romance goes awry. Like a great short story, this is a simple tale of a young woman figuring out how to get her life back, but if feels as if it contains so much of contemporary existence -- its comforts, its loneliness, its self-deceptions -- suspended in wintery amber.

    Ten spectacular graphic novels from 2014

    Through the Woods by Emily Carroll
    This collection of archetypal horror, fairy and ghost stories, all about young girls, comes lushly decked in Carroll's inky black, snowy white and blood-scarlet art. A young bride hears her predecessor's bones singing from under the floorboards, two friends make the mistake of pretending to summon the spirits of the dead, a family of orphaned siblings disappears one by one into the winter nights. Carroll's color-saturated images can be jagged, ornate and gruesome, but she also knows how to chill with absence, shadows and a single staring eye. Literary readers who cherish the work of Kelly Link or the late Angela Carter's collection, "The Bloody Chamber," will adore the violent beauty on these pages.

  • Recent Slide Shows



Comment Preview

Your name will appear as username ( settings | log out )

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href=""> <b> <em> <strong> <i> <blockquote>