NHL's CBA issues cause international uncertainty
USA Hockey is taking a "what, me worry?" approach to preparing for the country's international hockey future, even if it seems almost certain NHL players will not be suiting up for the 2006 Olympic Games in Italy in a little more than a year.
The philosophy is reflected in the announcement this week of a U.S. roster for the Deutschland Cup that features 16 NHLers, including some rising stars like World Cup of Hockey netminder Rick DiPietro, World Cup defenseman Paul Martin, Ryan Malone, David Legwand and Mike York. It is a philosophy that is dramatically different than the one announced this week by Hockey Canada, which could be more appropriately dubbed a "who's that guy?" approach to international competition.
NHL commissioner Gary Bettman has said he would be reluctant to shut down the league for the 12 days it would take to travel to Italy and compete in the Olympics, especially if there isn't a season in 2004-05. As a result, hockey playing nations are starting to consider a non-NHL Olympics, just in case.
Hockey Canada announced this week it will not use NHL players at the Deutschland Cup in Germany, Nov. 10-14, nor in the Spengler Cup in Switzerland in December, in order to begin preparing an Olympic team without NHL players.
Hockey Canada president Bob Nicholson said the organization is entertaining a number of scenarios heading into 2006, one of which is resurrecting its national team which closed up shop in 2000 after the NHL made its debut at the 1998 Olympics in Nagano. It would cost Hockey Canada between $4 million to $5 million (Canadian) to ice such a team, which would presumably be comprised mainly of North American minor professionals, players playing in Europe and recently retired NHLers. As a result, Hockey Canada sponsors will be asked to contribute more, if Canada hopes to defend its recent international successes which include a World Cup of Hockey championship this fall, a gold medal in Salt Lake City in 2002 and two straight World Championships.
USA Hockey officials say there is enough young talent to field teams at coming tournaments, as well as the Olympics, even if the NHL returns to action and withdraws its services from the Olympics. However, the organization won't form a national team, said Art Berglund, USA Hockey's senior director of international administration.
"We don't feel that's necessary. We always go with the best available," Berglund said. "We have the strongest pool of players that we've ever had. We'll have a good team at the Olympics. Just don't ask me who'll be on it."
If the lockout continues, USA Hockey will reassess the situation from month to month, Berglund said.
"I'd like to see the NHL in it even if there is a lockout," Berglund said, "because it would create great interest in the game."
Berglund and president Ron DeGregorio noted the emergence of future NHL stars -- such as Mike Richter and Chris Chelios from the U.S. Olympic programs of the 1980s -- as an attractive quality of a non-NHL tournament.
"We have a lot of players coming through the system that are very young but not so young," DeGregorio said.
Still, the prospect of watching players like Brett Harkins and Jeff Desner, both members of the U.S. squad that won last year's Deutschland Cup, bearing down on the likes of Frederic Chabot (Canada's Deutschland Cup netminder of a year ago) or Canadian defenseman Micki Dupont isn't a compelling one even for the most ardent hockey fan -- even with an Olympic medal on the line.
The situation reflects the great uncertainty the NHL's labor stoppage has created across the hockey globe.
One would assume that if the 2004-05 season were canceled that the world's best would be free to suit up for what would be a true world championship tournament in Austria in May. (Typically, World Championship rosters are made up of NHL players whose teams did not make the playoffs or were eliminated in early playoff rounds and other journeymen and minor pros.)
But just as the insurance issue forced many free agents, like Mathieu Schneider and Ziggy Palffy for instance, to decline participating in the World Cup of Hockey in August, it will likely prevent a significant number of out-of-work NHL stars from competing in Vienna and Innsbruck.
The International Ice Hockey Federation has established a committee to address the insurance problem, but it's a difficult task given the enormous cost of covering both existing contracts and the future earnings of younger players. The committee is to report its findings by Feb. 15, Berglund said.
"The IIHF may find some standard that will be the standard that is used for all nations for all contracts," said DeGregorio. "Probably they won't be able to set a standard that would accommodate the most lucrative, long, long term contracts."
An alternative is for individual nations to come to agreement with individual players and their agents, as the Swedes have often done with players like Peter Forsberg and Mats Sundin, regular participants in the World Championships.
All the NHL players donning a USA jersey at the Deutschland Cup have secured their own insurance to supplement the standard policy provided by USA Hockey, which has a separate fund that is usually used for NHL players in the World Championships.
Beyond the 2005 World Championships, the future of international play will remain uncertain until the new collective bargaining agreement is signed.
Scott Burnside is a freelance writer based in Atlanta and is a frequent contributor to ESPN.com.
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