Ever since 1998, when professionals first competed, Olympic hockey had been a reminder of how far the NHL had gone astray. Skill came to the forefront as the larger international ice surface invited talent to flourish. Artistry abounded. There were full-ice rushes, lightning-quick transitions. Mesmerizing is what it was, a celebration of the sport the way it was intended to be played.
When the fortnight concluded, resignation began to set in. An end to the Olympics meant a return to the NHL. And a return to the NHL meant the suppression of all things that had made those two weeks a wonder to behold. The Olympics were a showcase, all right. A showcase for the NHL's shortcomings.
The melding is complete. Olympic hockey has become the complementary force NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman envisioned when he first split the season to permit pros to participate. No longer is what happens on Olympic ice exclusive to Olympic ice. Alexander Ovechkin, the Washington Capitals' dynamic rookie, this week is free to dominate NHL games as he did for the Russians in Turin. There's a chance of seeing the Sabres' Chris Drury reprise the goal he set up while hovering parallel to the ice, the play that trumped all others as the U.S. was ousted by Finland in the quarterfinals.
A year ago this month, NHL hockey was in the midst of its darkest moment. The regular season had been canceled because of labor strife. Sponsors were fleeing. Television networks were backing away. The fallout from the lost campaign figured to be profound and perhaps devastating.
Instead, it was a catalyst for necessary change. The stalemate peeled away the long-term reluctance and forced the league to assess its product. Widespread input was sought as all the parties came to accept there had to be a better way.
"I was in a meeting in Detroit where they asked about certain pieces of equipment, about certain changes that they wanted to make, and they listened," Sabres goaltender Martin Biron said Friday. "Making the nets bigger wasn't really an ideal situation, we all knew it. Going drastically down to like 10-inch pads was dangerous. Guys tried 'em. It was not right. With all the additions and all the new rules, you needed maybe to go just halfway and really trust one another that it was going to work. And it does. It's worked well."
The NHL's revival has been startling. The introduction of new rules promised to heighten the action. The rigid enforcement of old rules succeeded in removing the shackles from the game's premier talents. Skill players such as Ovechkin and Pittsburgh's Sidney Crosby stepped right in and were permitted to demonstrate what the hype was all about. Scoring chances increased. The fans returned, putting the NHL on pace to set an all-time season attendance record.
"Every night it's highlight-reel goal after highlight-reel goal. You'll get to see probably five a night in our league," said Sabres coach Lindy Ruff. "And the guys that can skate are the guys who stand out. I think the game has greatly improved."
Now, more than ever, the marriage between the Olympics and the NHL makes perfect sense. The NHL's renewed popularity benefits the Games. The international exposure offered by the Olympics enhances the NHL. No longer are the two entities separated by stark differences in style. The NHL should extend the agreement, which expires after the 2010 Vancouver Games.
The Miracle on Ice of 1980 was captivating and heartwarming, but how often would that have been duplicated so long as full-fledged amateurs were playing against pros in disguise?
"A lot a people . . . like the fact it was just a bunch of kids," Biron said. "They got together for a year before or whatever, six months, and really formed a tight family and whatnot. But for a while there it was just the Soviets. That's it. There was nobody even near to them. [The miracle] was one time. It was great and it was something special, but I don't think it would ever be repeated."
He's right. This is the way Olympic hockey should be, a gathering of the world's elite, just as it is in every other sport.
"I don't think you have a level playing ground if you don't do it that way," Ruff said. "You can take young players and put them in a program, I don't think they would even be close to being as good as the pros.
"You go through lineups, there are no holes. There's no holes in any team. It's impressive line after impressive line. There's disappointment with the U.S. and Canada, but you look at the other teams. The margin of error was very small. The parity between those teams is right now as good as it's ever been."
They'll play for the gold this morning, Sweden against Finland, the last Olympic hurrah before the NHL season resumes, finally rife with anticipation.