SBJ/February 18 - 24, 2002/Salt Lake 2002

NHL's Olympic experiment rides on U.S. results

The U.S. Olympic hockey team may be playing for more than a gold medal in Salt Lake City. Its finish may indirectly determine whether the NHL ever participates in the Olympics again.

After a messy week in which players from smaller hockey-playing countries groaned because they could not participate in the preliminary round of the Olympic tournament, while the NHLPA and the press both took shots at the league, NHL insiders say many team owners who were already sour on the Olympic experiment are resolved never to return.

Nothing short of U.S. gold, and a subsequent lift in the NHL's popularity and TV ratings in the United States, will convince them otherwise.

The NHL has shut down for two weeks while its top players join their respective Olympic teams for an international "Dream Team" tournament. The league played games during the preliminary round of Olympic play in which eight countries, including hockey power Slovakia, competed to get to the second round.

The league would not allow any regular players to miss NHL games in order to join their countries' teams but did allow some minor leaguers and fringe NHLers to participate.

League officials said this was their stated policy all along, but the union lashed out at the NHL, saying it did not abide by the agreement between the NHLPA and the league to make its "best efforts" to let players represent their countries.

Carolina Hurricanes goaltender Arturs Irbe personally called NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman, asking for his permission to play in a game for his native Latvia rather than warm the bench for the Hurricanes. Bettman refused.

"The impression originally is that it was up to the teams," said Dean Lombardi, general manager of the San Jose Sharks. He said the Sharks decided to allow forward Marco Sturm to miss a Sharks game to play for Germany, but were then informed by the league that it would violate a league bylaw that says clubs must field their best players.

In the end, 17 NHL players, including Sturm, participated in the first round, but no NHL regulars missed NHL games.

No team or league official has publicly counted the league out of future Olympic participation just yet.

"To an extent it will be determined by how the U.S. does," said Hurricanes general manager Jimmy Rutherford.

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