That was part of the Miracle of '80. Coach Herb Brooks took every opportunity to play on the larger ice and taught his squad the international game through six months of barnstorming. In the process, the Boys of '80 also developed amazing chemistry, bonding into a real team. This year, no big ice and no lengthy bonding tours exist for the U.S. Olympians, pulled from their NHL clubs a few days before their first tournament game.
A second puzzle piece was NBC's willingness to expose hockey to its biggest potential audience. During the Nagano Games in '98, hockey was largely relegated to late-night viewing, with prime time belonging to figure skaters and other high-ratings events. This year, hockey games from Utah will run in prime time, but most will be somewhat marginalized on CNBC, NBC's business cable channel, which will have direct competition from the more popular events on the more widely available main NBC network.
The Czechs won the gold in Nagano with the fewest number of NHLers among the top teams, and the Czech Miracle did little to boost hockey's U.S. popularity. Neither did the U.S. team, which finished sixth. On national TV, winger Keith Tkachuk called the U.S. participation "a waste of time." And in the Olympic Village after their elimination, a few U.S. players broke furniture and sprayed teammates with fire extinguishers in an early-morning frat-boy raid that torpedoed the sport's and the league's image.
Hockey grew in the '90s, but not without problems and not explosively, and ownership debated long and hard before agreeing to try again at Salt Lake City, cutting the break to 12 days.
Meanwhile, there have been rumblings, even from staunch Bettman supporters like New Jersey Devils president Lou Lamoriello, that the NHL should revisit its Olympic commitment. They question suspending and compressing the NHL schedule. They worry that the better NHL teams will be sending a disproportionate number of elite players to Salt Lake, risking fatigue and injury. They don't see the logic of promoting a tournament that is not their product when the NHL already has a superior one, the Stanley Cup playoffs. They wonder why hockey's traditional pre-season international competitions, like the thrilling Canada Cup and World Cup, have vanished in favor of the Olympics.
"I understand the business part of it, but I just don't like it," league-leading Red Wings coach Scotty Bowmanwho has 10 players in the Olympicstold a Detroit newspaper. "There better be something at the end of this rainbow for the league, like a new TV deal."
But nothing is more troubling than the loss of amateur participation. While hoping he can bring home the gold, U.S. center Jeremy Roenick admitted recently over ESPN, "We're taking the dream away from someone who may not be able to make the NHL but could play in the Olympics." That is the saddest part of all.