MASON: Quite simply, Olympic hockey is more fun

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Steve Mason

There was a great sign last night at the Delta Center where Alexei Yagudin skated to the gold medal in men's figure skating. "Drug test the athletes. Polygraph the judges!" It's a relief to get the Men's Olympic hockey tournament cranked up tonight because when the puck gets by the goalie, there's nothing subjective about it. Hockey officials can't make backroom deals to preordain the outcome of games. The National Hockey League should be saying, "Thank God it's the Olympics." The greatest stars in the sport get a vacation from the dull, grinding, sluggish, trapping, defensive-minded, molasses-slow brand of hockey that is synonymous with the NHL. When the greatest player in the history of the game describes the Olympic hockey tournament as "something special, spectacular," the powers that be in the league should listen to "The Great One." Olympic hockey is a lot different than NHL hockey. The biggest difference? It's fun. International ice rinks are 13 1/2 feet wider than the American standard. That's a lot of wide-open space for the likes of Brett Hull (USA), Pavel Bure (Russia), Jaromir Jagr (Czech Republic), Teemu Selanne (Finland), and Mario Lemieux (Canada) to roam free and create. NHL superstars will get plenty of time to hang around with the puck, which is a nightmare for the goalies here ... but what a treat for hockey fans. Giving Lemieux lots of time working the puck is like giving Van Gogh a paintbrush and saying "Vince, paint a little something for us." And in the end, if the NHL wants to break through the indifference of American sports fans toward the sport, adopting international rules and a larger ice surface is a great start. Why send the most inventive, extraordinary athletes in the sport into competition straightjacketed by smothering defenses? The braintrust that runs the NHL is undecided about whether or not they will suspend the season in 2006 to free up players for Olympic competition. They'd rather play dull regular-season games while fans of the sport are watching the hockey played in Torino, Italy (host of the 2006 Games)? It's ignorant, shortsighted and defeatist to consider pulling out of the Olympic movement for even a split second. The Olympics are the NHL's only chance to sell the sport to the 97 percent of Americans who didn't watch a single Stanley Cup Finals game last year (Stanley Cup games generally pull a rating of 2.5 or less, so I'm being generous). NHL superstars are thrilled to be representing their countries, and playmakers have to be psyched about getting a chance to show the world what they can really do away from the sleep-inducing games played for their full-time employers. Hey, people will actually be watching them play! League executives, team owners, and general managers should make a note of this. The NHL needs the Olympics a lot more than the Olympics need the NHL. Given the league's ambivalence about continued participation in the Olympics, fans should soak as much of this action up as possible. Here's how I'm handicapping the 2002 Olympic tournament, which Team USA coach Herb Brooks is calling "the greatest hockey ever played". Belarus and Germany played into "The Great 8," but neither will be a factor now that "The Big 6" have arrived in Utah.

Sixth place — Finland

The Fins are Team USA's first opponent, and despite the high-scoring Teemu Selanne (top scorer in the tournament four years ago), there's not enough offensive firepower. Plus, goaltending at the Olympics is the top consideration, and Ottawa's No. 2, Jani Hurme, has no big-game experience.

Fifth place — Sweden

They have lots of international experience, and solid Tommy Salo is in the net. With Peter Forsberg unavailable, Mats Sundin becomes the team's top centerman. No Forsberg, no medal.

Fourth place — Team USA

There will be no miracles for coach Herb Brooks this time around. The bottom line is that kids growing up here didn't play on that big international ice surface. The Finns, the Swedes, the Russians, and the Czechs will have less adjusting to do. Plus, despite his terrific '98 performance, goalie Mike Richter doesn't seem like the kind of guy who can carry this team to the medal stand in 2002.

Bronze — Russia

This is a dangerous team with Pavel Bure, Sergei Samsonov, and Alexei Yashin doing the damage on offense and Nikolai Khabibulin in net. At first glance, team defense seems to be a shortcoming. I don't rule out Khabibulin carrying them into the gold-medal game, but this feels like a team that falls just short.

Silver — Canada

The last time Team Canada won the gold medal in its national sport, Prime Minister Jean Chretien was in diapers. Nobody questions how badly GM Wayne Gretzky wants this, and the Canadians will be a sentimental favorite. With seven NHL 50-goal scorers and eight 100-point players, they will score. But they don't have "The Dominator." Opponents will see Curtis Joseph and perhaps Martin Brodeur if Cujo struggles. Call it a strong hunch, but I think the Canadians will have to wait four more years.

Gold — Czech Republic

The bigger ice surface places a huge premium on goaltending in the Olympic tournament. Dominik Hasek carried the Czech Republic to a surprise gold medal in Nagano, and I say he does it again. This is a seasoned team, having won the gold medal at the last three World Championships. Plus Jaromir Jagr will key the scoring attack with Petr Sykora, Patrik Elias and Milan Hejduk. The last time the Canadians and the Czechs met in the Olympics, it was among the greatest sporting events I've ever witnessed. Patrick Roy (who elected not to come to Salt Lake) and Hasek locked up in a goaltending duel for the ages in the Olympic semifinals. The Czechs got on the board midway through the third period, then Canada tied it as Trevor Linden slipped one by "The Dominator" with a little over a minute left. Roy matched Hasek save for save through a scoreless overtime period. Then came a shootout for a spot in the gold-medal game. Robert Reichel was up first for the Czech Republic, and he fooled Roy for the score. Roy stopped the other four Czech shooters. Then Theo Fleury, Ray Bourke, Joe Nieuwendyk, Eric Lindros, and Brendan Shanahan were stonewalled by Hasek. That was the greatest performance by a goalie I've ever seen, and Hasek was almost as impressive in the gold-medal game, a 1-0 victory over Russia.

Double the pleasure in luge

When I told people about broadcasting the luge doubles final, more than a few guys said, "That's just not right." Joking aside, it's an odd event to look at. After their final training run Thursday, I talked to Mark Grimmette and Brian Martin who won the bronze medal four years ago and were among the medal favorites coming into the finals. On the doubles sled, both guys are on their back sliding toes first. The heavier guy, in this case Grimmette, is on top, and the smaller guy is underneath In my estimation, the tough job is Martin's. He's sliding at 85 miles per hour, and he can't see where they're going. "My main view is Mark's helmet, but I can see a little bit in the profile like the tops of curves and the walls," Martin said. "So I use those cues to feel where I am on the track." It sounds more like Fear Factor than the Olympics. The U.S. had never won a medal in any luge event until four years ago when Chris Thorpe and Gordy Sheer won the silver and Grimmette/Martin won the bronze in the doubles at Nagano. "I think that experience prepares you for what's happening here," Martin said. "We can come in a little more relaxed." The two doubles combos from the U.S. used their previous Olympic experience to their advantage, as they doubled the all-time American luge medal count to four. This time around, Grimmette/Martin won silver and Thorpe with new partner Clay Ives won the bronze. The gold medal was won by German duo Patric-Fritz Leitner and Alexander Resch on their second and final run. After winning silver in Nagano, Thorpe turned to Ives who went to two Olympics as a singles slider for Canada. But the fact that Ives' mother lives in Arizona allowed him to make the jump to the U.S. luge team. Thorpe says that they worked well together from their very first run, but he had his doubts coming into Salt Lake. "We knew we were sliding hot," he admits. "But we didn't know if we could hit the podium today. It's only two years we've been sliding together. To end our career on this note is just a fairy tale." And who did he like sliding better with ... Gordy or Clay? "I like them equally," he said. "We won Olympic medals together. It was tremendous sliding with both of them. They were such great partnerships." That partnership is both on the sled and off. These guys travel together, room together, and see the best and worst of each other. When asked to pinpoint Brian's most annoying habit, Mark drew a blank. But Brian Martin was quick to jump on the question, "Mark snores; I have to wear earplugs." They tell me that they are undecided about whether they will be training to slide for the 2006 Games in Italy. I'm guessing that Martin might tolerate four more years of earplugs to unseat the Germans and win the first-ever gold for the U.S. in Olympic luge. Steve Mason regularly anchors Fox Sports Saturday Night and We Are There Sunday on . He is broadcasting the Salt Lake games for Westwood One Radio Network. Steve previously anchored the 1998 Winter Olympics in Nagano, Japan and the 2000 Summer Olympics in Sydney, Australia. His new television interview show, The Steve Mason Show, will premiere on PBS September.

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