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The Verdict: At Olympics, Sleep Is Optional

by Bob Verdi / Chicago Blackhawks

Patrick Kane is scheduled to arrive in Vancouver late on Valentine’s night, by which time he will have played two faraway games for the Blackhawks after Friday evening’s Opening Ceremony there hailing the 2010 Winter Olympics. So, forgive this gifted young man for mulling his cramped itinerary.

“What about hockey in the summer Olympics?” Kane was saying the other day. “I wonder if that could ever happen.”

Crazy? Not so fast. The National Basketball Association conducts business concurrently with the National Hockey League, but does not interrupt its regular season. Instead, the professional hoopsters convene in July or August to play for their countries, and the dreamier the teams, the heftier for TV ratings.

Whether the NHL pursues such a course in the future is unknown and unlikely, but for now, the league’s Olympians will have to sleep as fast as they skate. Following Sunday afternoon’s tiff in Columbus, six Blackhawks plus video coach Brad Aldrich will board private jets—one provided by the United States committee, the other by Canada’s—for Vancouver, where Monday will be a whirlwind of practice and acclimation. On Tuesday, the hockey competition commences, ready or not. And that would be Tuesday at noon there. The team meal will be bacon and eggs.

This is a far cry from 1980, when America’s “Miracle on Ice” squad arrived in Lake Placid, N.Y., after months of drills under coach Herb Brooks and 60 exhibition games all over creation. A different era, to be sure. That was only 30 years ago, but it might as well have been 300. The storied U.S. team featured a bunch of college kids who, while drafted by the NHL, had not turned pro. Any player who took NHL money was instantly a non-candidate for Brooks’ roster. Those who resisted temptation and stuck it out were rewarded with a tax free stipend of $1,100 per month, never imagining that the end result—shocking “amateurs” from the Soviet Union—would consititute a memory for life. Priceless, indeed.

Fear and trepidation about injuries and fatigue exist in Chicago, and throughout the NHL, the only pro league to observe an Olympic shutdown. Fans and front offices fret that star players partaking in the international movement will return to their local precincts bent, broken or simply exhausted. It is a viable concern that shall exist until the NHL considers what to do about 2014, when the Winter Olympics are destined for Sochi, Russia. You think Vancouver is a long flight from Columbus?

Various Russians in the NHL are already on record: if the NHL takes a pass on 2014, they’re going anyway. That is the other side of this debate, and not an insignificant one. Players consider the Olympics an honor, and rest assured that getting hurt or getting tired is not a cause for concern. World class athletes thrive on competitive challenges, and today’s NHL multi-millionaires are clones of predecessors who required off-season jobs to feed their families. These guys are tough and motivated. It’s a fabric of the sport, and if there’s a difference between then and now, it’s that modern players are in superior condition, year-round, 24/7.

Whether the NHL is receiving a sufficient return on its investment of talent is another question. In theory, the objective of closing its doors in mid-February is to maximize exposure via the ultimate platform. Even those of us who believe there is no sports spectacle as gripping as the Stanley Cup Playoffs must concede that Olympic hockey is special, and Vancouver’s games on a regulation NHL rink will represent yet another dimension to these quadrennial matches. Then again, the much-awaited contest between the U.S and Canada will be televised on MSNBC. Sunday night, Feb. 21, NBC will take figure skating, a ratings bonanza. Hockey goes to cable. Is that the ultimate platform sought by the NHL?

Kane is gushing about the goalkeeping on his U.S. team, while fellow Hawks Marian Hossa and Tomas Kopecky seem quietly confident about Slovakia , an under-the-radar proposition. Without question, however, the pressure is on Team Canada. Jonathan Toews, Duncan Keith and Brent Seabrook are not heading to Vancouver for a holiday. The next gold medal Canada garners on its home soil will be its first. Our friends to the north were shutout at the Montreal Summer Games of 1976 and the Calgary Winter Olympics in 1988. Suffice it to say, anything less than a hockey championship on home ice in Vancouver will be deemed unacceptable.

In a recent New York Times article about his country’s perceived inferiority complex,  writer George Woodcock was recalled for remarking how “Canadians do not like heroes, and so they do not have them. They do not even have great men in the accepted sense of the word.”

Well, with all due respect to Mr. Woodcock, he must not have been a hockey fan. Wayne Gretzky can’t walk down Yonge Street in Toronto without traffic screeching to a halt. Same with Bobby Orr or Bobby Hull or Gordie Howe. What about Steve Nash, who earned consecutive NBA most valuable player awards with the Phoenix Suns? After Mike Weir won the 2003 Masters, the entire nation declared a virtual holiday.

“It’ll be a great experience,” forecasts Kane, who will have to divvy up tickets on Monday. Each player receives four per game with an option to obtain more, but he can determine from a distance that probable demand has already exceeded potential supply. Should the underdog Americans somehow conspire to celebrate the 30th anniversary of the Miracle with another one, Canadians might retire from public life for an extended period of time to mourn and reflect.

Whatever the outcome, however, Kane sounds as though he is ready and willing for more.

“I realize it’s in Russia in 2014,” he says. “But if the NHL is still in, and I make the team, I’ll be there. I’ll always want to play for my country in the Olympics.”

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