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Monday, February 25, 2002
NHL now pressured to return in 2006

Associated Press

WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah -- The United States couldn't repeat 1980. Canada finally put 1952 to rest.

But after the success of the Salt Lake City Olympic hockey tournament, it is the 2006 Games that could benefit the most.

John LeClair
John LeClair and Team USA didn't take solace in their silver medal success.

The riveting tournament featured a dream finale (at least for North Americans) between Canada and the United States and one of the biggest upsets in Olympic history.

So, how can the NHL say no to the 2006 Olympics?

The Salt Lake City Olympics not only erased the Canadians' medal-less flop in the 1998 Nagano Games and enabled the Americans to save face for their chair-smashing antics, they put considerable pressure on the NHL to shut down for the Turin Games.

NHL commissioner Gary Bettman was noncommittal about the league's participation, saying he first wants to study these Olympics. Of course, Bettman spoke before the league reaped a decade's worth of good will and publicity with Canada's 5-2 victory Sunday over the United States in the most-watched gold medal game since the Americans' "Miracle on Ice" triumph in 1980.

Now, Bettman will find it difficult not to go to Italy, especially when his own players are saying how much the Olympics means to them and the league.

"Everybody's so balanced now," Canadian forward Steve Yzerman said. "We're all too balanced now for any team to dominate. I just hope they keep the NHL players in the Olympics."

U.S. goalie Mike Richter agreed.

"It was a great success for exposing international hockey to the North American audience," he said. "If you can work it out so it does not disrupt the schedule too much, and that's a big if, then it's a great thing."

The NHL schedule resumes Tuesday night with 13 games, making teammates of players who just days earlier were on opposing sides. One of the games, New Jersey at the New York Rangers, features the Devils' Martin Brodeur vs. the Rangers' Richter, the opposing goalies in the gold-medal game.

The Detroit Red Wings sent the most players to the games -- 11, including four evenly split between the teams in the gold-medal game.

The Olympic finish wasn't so great for the Americans, yet they still won the country's first Olympic hockey medal since 1980, all without breaking a single chair.

And, like any tournament, there were winners and losers:

Bettman -- Think an Edmonton-Anaheim NHL game would draw better TV ratings than "Saturday Night Live"? No, but Russia vs. the United States did, and with all NHL players on the ice. (What's next, "Hockey Night in America"?)

Wayne Gretzky -- The Great One might have a new nickname -- the Great GM -- after assembling Canada's gold-medal team. He also deflected the heat after a 5-2 loss to Sweden by accusing other countries of hating Canadian hockey. The bombastic comments got the media talking and writing about Gretzky and not his underperforming players. "But I didn't sleep for five days after that," he said.

Herb Brooks -- OK, so he won't have a lifetime 1.000 winning percentage in the Olympics. But his give-the-game-to-the-players approach looked masterful, even if he riled up some Canadians by suggesting that he prefers to play a more cerebral style than they do. "I think he's the reason why we're here" in the gold-medal game, defenseman Tom Poti said.

Dan Craig -- The NHL's ice-making specialist, hired to make the surface at the E Center, secretly implanted a gold Canadian coin below the ice. The result? Gold medals for the Canadian men's and women's teams. "I hope he doesn't get fired," Gretzky said. Fired? If he chooses, Craig probably could run in Canada for, uh, Ice President.

Mario Lemieux -- As if winning two Stanley Cups, six scoring championships, buying the team he plays for and beating cancer wasn't enough, now he's won an Olympic gold medal. What's next for Super Mario: propping up the devalued Canadian dollar?

Slava Fetisov -- Blamed the Russians' disappointing bronze-medal finish and 0-1-1 record against the United States on poor officiating and a North American bias. His caustic remarks may have helped himself with the Russian hockey hierarchy, but certainly not with NHL general managers looking for a new coach.

Team Sweden -- Sweden 5, Canada 2 -- wow. Belarus 4, Sweden 3 -- pow. Played great for three games, then melted against what essentially was a minor league all-star team in one of the great upsets in Olympic history. No wonder the Swedes are still upset. One paper published the players' faces and NHL salaries and called them traitors to their nation.

Curtis Joseph -- Started the Olympics as Team Canada's goalie but, after losing to Sweden, never played again. Now he must go back to playing for the coach who benched him, Pat Quinn, who also coaches him with the Maple Leafs. At least he has a nice souvenir: a gold medal.

Dominik Hasek -- The one problem with being almost perfect in an Olympics? It's hard to be perfect again. He wasn't, and not only did the Czech Republic not repeat its 1998 gold medal, it didn't even medal.