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NHLís Olympic intermission


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Of the major sporting consortiums, only the National Hockey League would ever close down at the height of its season even as the stretch-run to its playoffs was beginning. Can you imagine Major League Baseball taking a beach break for a fortnight in the middle of August, or the NFL closing shop in deference to the holidays? Are you mad, child?

But the NHL is not like your ordinary collection of spoiled and super entitled people who play games for a living. The promotion of their product, the protection of their market, the sanctity of their schedule, the preserving of their manpower, the compiling of profit, even, have never been real priorities in the good old fashioned and moss-bound NHL.

Soaring song and grand theatre, however, are another matter. Invite them to a spectacle that throbs with ritual, ceremony, glorious fanfare and blinking lights, and hockey people will roll over every time. They come from another age, you see, maybe another planet and they devoutly believe the playís the thing. The sounding of trumpets rouses their spirits bringing tears to their eyes.

Actually, I find it rather quaint if a bit misguided.

At the Winter Olympics, the international hockey tournament is just another act and hardly the most important one in the scheme of things at Vancouver. Hockey gets equal billing with luge, curling, and cross country and in the eyes of the all-controlling television network thatís really running the show it has nowhere near the stature of the big traditional skiing events, let alone figure skating or even -- heaven help us -- snowboarding. Donít hold your breath in anticipation of the mighty U.S-Canada hockey showdown because it wonít be on NBCís prime-time schedule unless, of course, they meet in the finals of the medal round at around nine oíclock in the morning.

Thereís nothing wrong with all that. Indeed, itís the way it should be. The kids who do giant slalom or long blade speed-skating get one gig on the Big Stage every four years. They donít deserve to be upstaged by Sidney Crosby and Tim Thomas. Still, for hockey huge questions persist.

Would the almighty NFL consent to serve as just another sideshow? Would Baseball run the risk of loaning its premier and highest paid talent -- their all-stars -- to foreign teams coached and managed by people they hardly know smack in the middle of their season? Would any league allow its best and brightest to risk burnout by fighting fiercely for flag, crown and anthems on the eve of their day-jobís showcase event, ďthe playoffsĒ? Keep in mind, when the NHL resumes operations March 2nd all 30 teams face a much-compressed schedule. With playoff hopes desperately at stake, theyíll be playing furiously every other day until mid-April to make up for the lost time. They must. Otherwise theyíd be playing until almost July.

A precious few players may get a hoot out of being allowed to compete for the Motherland but thereís little else in it for the NHL other than a little goodwill and that plus a million bucks or so rents you a back-up goalie, nowadays. Moreover, itís not clear many appreciate the NHLís sporting sacrifice.

If the United States Olympic hockey team, dominated by NHL personnel, were to win the Gold at Vancouver would it mean anywhere near as much to Americans as it did when the gung-ho college kids prevailed at Lake Placid in í80 or Squaw Valley in í60? The 1960 wunderkinds, led by our own Harvard boys, Billy and Bobby Cleary, had a fireman for a goaltender. It was charming. I havenít done a plebiscite on the matter but Iíd bet the ranch 80 percent of the responders would say they liked it the way it was.

It is so much more satisfying to have true amateurs win these medals. It was the concept on which the games were long predicated and still should be. The use of multi-millionaire professionals in the hockey tourney makes fair-minded folks squirm although the use of NBA all-stars in the Summer Olympicsí basketball competition is much more egregious given that the vast majority and very best of them perform for only one team. Ours!

In theory the 16-day break can be useful to the Bruins although the six players theyíre lending to the cause -- the Charaís, Bergeronís and Sturmís etc. -- are naturally those who carry the bulk of their load and are thereby most in need of R and R. Zdeno Chara, the teamís workhorse, continues to play with a broken finger. The condition is not likely to improve as he captains his Slovakian brethren against such traditional blood foes as the Russians and the Germans. Little good will come of that for the Bruins. Nor is it likely Thomas, the admirably thoughtful goalie whose game has lately gone astray, will benefit from sitting on the U.S. teamís bench the next two weeks.

The matter of gravest concern though is Bergeron. Heís rebounded brilliantly from a near career-ending concussion but concern about over-extending him is reasonable. However, others among their chronically injured who are not going to Vancouver -- notably Marc Savard, Milan Lucic, Mark Stuart and Andrew Ference -- should benefit. With 22 games scheduled the last 41 days of the regular season, they had better.

The temptation is to say it hardly matters. In the long run, this team is going nowhere and after enduring a winless stretch of 10 straight games, smashing a team record for ineptitude that had proudly been standing three quarters of a century they were even money to not make the playoffs only a week before the break.

But parity rules in the brave new NHL. There are about six very good teams and six very bad teams and the other 18 are exceedingly mediocre. There are degrees of mediocrity, of course. Last season your Bruins were in the upper range of the parity pack making them slightly above average whereas this year theyíre decidedly in the packís lower range making them quite borderline.

Still as long as you are snug in the middle of the mob, cheek to jowl with all the other teams clawing furiously to make the playoffs while not having a ghost of a chance to reach the semi-finals, you remain viable. By winning their last four games before the break, the Bruins climbed five notches and if Lord Stanleyís nice little tourney were to begin tomorrow they would have the honor of being swiftly eliminated by the New Jersey Devils.

Quite simply, itís not a very good team. They got lucky last year when their injury burden was light. Injuries are always a factor but never an excuse. It remains a tough game despite the determined effort in recent years to tame it down. Injuries are inevitable and must be dealt with. The Bruins donít have the depth to do so and havenít for some time. Case closed.

After last seasonís decent surge some sophisticated fine-tuning was crucial but the new boy, General Manager Peter Chiarelli, proved unequal to the task. His meager response was to bring aboard a journeyman defenseman, Derek Morris, plus minor spare parts. He would have been better off keeping high character role-players, P.J. Axelsson and Aaron Ward. Subsequently and inexplicably he saddled himself with Savard for another generation. That will prove to be a big mistake.

In the short term, the Phil Kessel deal with Toronto hurt with their most pressing need remaining a genuine sniper. But thatís all Kessel can do and the second or third pick in the draft -- if they get lucky and the Leafs finish that low -- should offer more; that is if General Manager has the hockey smarts to make the right choice, which is yet unproven. And somewhere along the line the owner will have to pay the price, which he never has.

This much is for sure. The Olympic break, whatever its charms, will resolve none of these issues. The more things change the more they remain the same. Itís an old hockey expression.

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