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Olympic Interruption

by Bill Fleischman / Philadelphia Flyers
Legend has it that a couple NHL marketing guys were sitting in their New York office (or maybe it was Toronto) a few years ago. While they were drilling slapshots into a miniature net in the office ("Score!"), Nick says to Charlie, "What do you think the reaction would be if we shut down the NHL for a couple weeks so our players can participate in the Winter Olympics?"

Charlie stops in mid shot, glances skeptically at Nick and replies, "Eh? What did you say?"

Nick: "We close down the league in mid-season so our guys can play in the Olympics. Brilliant, eh?"

Charlie: "You've lost too many fantasy fights with Tie Domi. No one will go for such a crackpot idea."

Sorry, Charlie. Nick's idea was put into effect. NHL players appeared for the first time in the 1998 Winter Games. They returned in 2002 and have gathered again in Torino, Italy.

Most of the world's best players gather to perform on the Olympic stage. It's an exhilarating experience for the players and great exposure for hockey.

Now though, the question is: is the Olympic break good for the NHL?

Players who participate in the Olympics are often physically and emotionally drained when they return to the NHL.

No other major professional league shuts down in the middle of its season. Not football, baseball or basketball, three sports ranked ahead of the NHL in national popularity.

Of course, football is not part of the Olympics. Baseball has been in the Olympics since 1992. Baseball will be played again in the 2008 Summer Games, but the sport will be dropped for the 2012 Olympics in London. Since Olympic baseball is played during the major league baseball season, no major leaguers are involved in the Olympics.

Basketball is fortunate that the Summer Games are held during off-season for the NBA and colleges.

The NHL has made a strong comeback from the lockout during the 2004-05 season. With soaring interest and momentum on its side, you'd think the last thing the NHL would want is an interruption in its season.

Joni Pitkanen, Sami Kapanen and Michal Handzus were among the large group of Flyers players chosen for the Olympics. However, Pitkanen and Kapanen declined to play for their native Finland because they want to recover from injuries while Handzus sat out for Slovakia for the same reason.

Just after the skill and chill games began in Torino, Italy, Peter Forsberg decided that he would travel over for the games to play for Sweden, but only if he was healthy enough after practicing. Forsberg missed the last eight games before the break while recovering from a groin injury.

Flyers General Manager Bob Clarke would like to see the league have more control over its players regarding the Olympics. Referring to the various national Olympic officials, Clarke said, "They can call our players any time. They can come into the locker room any time. They put an unbelievable amount of heat on the players.

"Some injured players feel they have to go to represent their countries. We need to better control people talking to our players."

Paul Holmgren, the Flyers' assistant general manager, is in the same role for the United States Olympic hockey team. He sees the pros and cons of NHL players skating in the Olympics.

"That (Olympic) stage is wonderful for the players and the NHL," Holmgren said on Daily News Live on Comcast SportsNet. "But, you run the risk of injuries and not being at full strength or feeling that great when you come back. (Still) every four years it's probably a worthwhile experience for everybody."

Holmgren, a former Flyers player and coach, believes the players will make the correct decisions about slipping on their Olympic uniforms.

"You have to trust players to do what's right for themselves and, in the end, it probably will benefit the organization," he said.

Teams that don't send many players to the Olympics seem to have some advantage following the Winter Games. The Carolina Hurricanes and Washington Capitals are two examples. Neither team had many players in the ''98 and ''02 Olympics and both reached the Stanley Cup Finals those years. However, Detroit, with a large delegation of Olympians, beat Carolina and Washington in the Finals so the argument can be made both ways.

Still, the quality of NHL hockey undoubtedly will suffer in March and probably into April. When the Flyers resume playing on March 1, they'll play three games in four days. During March, they'll play 14 games. In April, they'll play 10 games in 18 days to finish the regular season. Either play hockey with NHL players during the Summer Games, during the league's off-season, or don't include NHL players at all. The risks and disruptions for the league aren't worth it.

Recalling Stevens' hit on Lindros

It's difficult for Flyers fans to ever say anything favorable about the New York Rangers or New Jersey Devils. But give the Devils credit for their classy handling of Scott Stevens's retirement ceremony.

Stevens played in 1,635 games, more than any other NHL defenseman. He helped lead the Devils to three Stanley Cup Championships. His No. 4 is the first number retired by the Devils.

From his early days as a player with a short fuse, Stevens developed into a quality leader. His last season (2003-04) was halted after 38 games after he sustained a career-ending concussion.

Flyers fans will never forget Stevens's hit on Eric Lindros during the 2000 Eastern Conference Finals. Stevens drove his shoulder into Lindros' head, leaving the Flyers center slumped on the ice with a concussion. I've always thought that Stevens could have delivered his message with a hit to Lindros' shoulder.

Rangers keep rolling

After the New York Rangers decisively handled Ottawa, considered by many as the NHL's best team, in a 5-1 victory at Madison Square Garden, Rangers Head Coach Tom Renney was asked if his Atlantic Division-leading team was now among the league's elite.

"Let's not get carried away," Renney said. "But I guess, and I hope, we're developing a reputation as a team that's tough to beat."

Point made, Tom.

The Rangers are the surprise team of the season. Picked to finish last in the league, the Rangers opened the season by beating the Flyers in Philadelphia. They haven't slowed down since. At the Olympic break, the Rangers hold a three-point division lead over the Flyers.

Jaromir Jagr, the league's leading scorer (40 goals, 48 assists), appears to be enjoying hockey again. Rookie goaltender Henrik Lundqvist has been outstanding (25-7-6, 2.09 goals-against average, .927 save percentage).

Jagr's 88 points are seven more than San Jose's Joe Thornton.

The good news for the Flyers may be that the Rangers are sending nine players to Torino. Maybe the Rangers Olympians will be as weary as the Flyers' contingent when they return.

Please note that the views expressed in this column are not necessarily the views expressed by the Philadelphia Flyers Hockey Club.

Bill Fleischman is a veteran Philadelphia Daily News sports writer. He was the Flyers' beat reporter for the Daily News in the 1970s, and continued to cover games in later years. A former president of the Professional Hockey Writers and the Philadelphia Sports Writers Associations, Fleischman is co-author of "Bernie, Bernie," the autobiography of Bernie Parent. Fleischman also is co-author of "The Unauthorized NASCAR Fan Guide." Since 1981, he has been an adjunct professor in the University of Delaware journalism program.

He is a graduate of Germantown High School and Gettysburg College.
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