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Joe Lapointe

Joe Lapointe

Posted: February 22, 2010 12:12 AM

Olympic Hockey Heaven

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Midway through the middle game of Sunday's historic hockey tripleheader, the television screen showed National Hockey League Commissioner Gary Bettman in blue jeans schmoozing with two men in suits. One was Jacques Rogge, the president of the International Olympic Committee. The other was Rene Fasel, president of the International Ice Hockey Federation.

We can only hope Bettman was not repeating his tired threat to withhold N.H.L. players from the next Winter Games, as he did again a few days before in a Vancouver news conference, just as he warns every four years. The athletes love to play for their nations, so Bettman chooses to use their patriotism against them as a collective bargaining issue.

"We disappear for two weeks,'' Bettman told MSNBC after the United States upset tournament favorite Canada, 5-3. He was speaking of his league.

As if often the case, Bettman had it exactly backward.

The N.H.L., since Bettman locked out the players and canceled the 2004-05 season, has virtually disappeared from the mainstream of American sports media.

Hockey's national profile in the U.S. is most revived only during the Olympics, when its stars reappear on the world stage and shine with elan and effort.

Sunday's three games made for one of the best days of hockey television in the history of the sport and it was only the end of the preliminary round, with players of All-Star talent still getting used to each other.

Earlier in the day, before the Canada-U.S. game, Russia outlasted the Czech Republic, 4-2. Late at night (after midnight in the East), Sweden played Finland.

All three games featured not only historic geographic and political rivalries but all also were matches of the gold-medal finalists from the previous three Olympics, beginning with the N.H.L.'s first participation in 1998 in Japan.

The 2014 games are to be in Russia. Alex Ovechkin of the Russian team has already warned the North American professional hockey bosses that he will play for his national team then no matter what the N.H.L. negotiates. Good for him.

Although American fans will more fondly recall goals and details from the U.S.'s spirited victory over Canada Sunday, the most memorable moment of the day was Ovechkin's clean, hard hit on the Czech star Jaromir Jagr in open ice.

It jarred loose the puck and created the crucial goal in the Russian victory, an astounding moment will live on highlight reels for years.

The telecasts -- on NBC and MSNBC -- were almost free of the production gaffes that used to mar and distort N.H.L. appearances. There were no glowing pucks or disorienting camera angles so popular in the early years of Bettman's reign.

(Note to NBC: Please don't miss faceoffs by showing replays. And try not to cut to low-level cameras or to camera shots from behind the nets. We know you mean well, but, folks, Canadian TV learned decades ago that these shots simply don't work).

Sunday's funniest moment came when NBC explained that Russian players and Czech players speak their own languages among themselves but choose to use English when they speak harshly between the benches.

Even the boards looked beautiful, with colorful Olympic designs instead of tacky commercial ads. Shoot, you could even forgive the color analyst Eddie Olczyk for calling the U.S. victory "tremendously tremendous.'' It was the sort of day that made people giddy.

Even the dour Bettman, late at night on MSNBC, could not quite kill the buzz after the American victory with his downbeat analysis of how his poor team owners have to sacrifice their small-minded priorities for the greater good of the game at the Olympics.

Now, the tournament moves into its next phase. After Tuesday's play-in games, there will be four quarter-finals on Wednesday, two semi-finals on Friday and the gold-medal match on Sunday.

The exposure and excitement -- particularly if the Americans keep winning -- might help return the league back from its self-created media wilderness that began with Bettman's devastating lockout.

The sport is so good it could still survive and thrive despite the short-sighted thinking of the people who run it.


 

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