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OLYMPICS WILL HAVE DREAM TEAMS BUT FORGET A MIRACLE ON ICE

You did not even have to ask the question. Mike Ramsey is one of the special ones, the American boys who worked the miracle at Lake Placid in 1980. When he hears the word "Olympics" these days, he knows exactly where the conversation is heading.

"Do I like the new format?" asked Ramsey, the former Sabres defenseman and first-year assistant coach. "Personally, no. You'll get the best players in the world. That's a good thing. But the unfortunate thing is, there's never going to be another Miracle on Ice. I think it'll be great hockey, but obviously, I'm partial to the old situation."

As Ramsey says, there is no question that the best hockey players on the planet will be in Nagano, Japan, next February for the Winter Olympics. For the first time, professionals will be allowed to take part, and the NHL has given its full support by agreeing to shut down its regular season for 17 days so its best players can be in the Games.

Unquestionably, there will be some great hockey played in Japan. The question is whether the "Dream Team" concept will have the desired effect -- whether it will significantly expand the NHL's profile around the world, while providing a boost to the league's international marketing.

"I know the league is trying to market itself internationally," said Ramsey. "But we've got plenty of international players now. I don't know if they plan to place teams in Europe or what. You have to market your team in North America. This is one man's opinion, of course."

I happen to agree with him. Certainly, having the NHL players in the Olympics will be intriguing for hard-core hockey fans. To the extent that hockey fans around the world need to be educated about their sport, it will help promote the NHL game in other countries.

But it's a flawed and ill-advised venture, the latest attempt by NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, a former top NBA executive, to mimic his former employer. Bettman was pushing for the new format back in November 1993. In succeeding years, he met with international hockey officials and officers of the NHL players' union, twisting arms and trying to iron out the details.

Bettman likes to point out that awareness of the NBA took off globally after the first Dream Team went to the Olympics in 1992. "We're going to get exposure like the world has never seen for hockey," he says.

Maybe so, but the exposure in the U.S. will be a different matter. Because of the time difference, it will be difficult for U.S. viewers to see the games live. Most of the games will be begin after midnight in this country, because the big shots at CBS said they wouldn't pre-empt David Letterman.

As the TV ratings suggest, it's tough enough to get marginal American sports fans interested in hockey during prime-time. Only avid hockey fans will be willing to stay up well beyond midnight to see NHL players skating for the greater glory of their respective nations.

I don't see the typical U.S. viewer getting excited about the hockey competition. The NBA Dream Team worked the first time around because it was a spectacle, a coronation of American stars, not because of any competitive drama. Four years later, the charm had worn off considerably.

Also, it's hard to imagine the NBA shutting down operations in the middle of the season to promote itself in the Olympics. For the NHL, it's a big gamble, and not necessarily worth it.

Will the players go all out and risk injury, knowing they have to return to the regular-season grind when it's over? If a player encounters an NHL teammate in the corner, wearing the uniform of a rival country, will he smash him into the boards? Will players be fatigued when they rejoin their NHL teams, and less effective if they play well into June with the Stanley Cup on the line?

What about the NHL fans? Will they lose interest when the season shuts down? Once the players return, will the final two months of the endless regular season seem even more meaningless than usual? And what sort of advertisement will it be for the Sabres if none of them shows up in Nagano?

It's not as if I don't enjoy international hockey. Some of the most exciting hockey ever played has been in the Canada Cup, or the World Cup, or in exhibition series against the former Soviet Union. But this Olympic deal seems forced, a tad phony.

For one thing, it's a pretty exclusive field. Six of the final eight teams (the U.S., Canada, Russia, Finland, Sweden, and the Czech Republic) have already been determined, since they have most of the NHL players. The other two spots will be decided in qualifying play, before the NHL players get involved.

That's not quite the essence of the Olympic spirit, the entire world vying for two spots.

The NHL players won't take part in any training camps. The rosters will be hand-picked. After playing for their NHL teams on Feb. 7, players will fly to Japan and join their national teams. The six elite teams will practice for four days, then begin play on Feb. 13.

That's not a lot of time to put together true teams. The play doesn't figure to be very smooth in the early going. It'll be more like an All-Star game, with a lot of individual talent on display.

It's the opposite of what Olympic hockey used to be, when players would come together a year before the Games and slowly grow into a team. The American players would be largely unknown, but they'd have a special bond. Now and then, it would result in something very special. Even a miracle. That's what made Olympic hockey unique.

Now, it's just like the rest of sports. It's all about marketing the product. I'm with Ramsey. I preferred the charm of the old Olympic format.

Maybe the real miracle is that it took this long for them to ruin it.

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