- Terry Frei, Special to ESPN.com
- 0 Shares
It sneaks up, doesn't it?
There probably are some North Americans who haven't changed their car's oil since the last time the NHL was involved in the Olympic tournament at the 2006 Torino Games. Even the 2002 Canada-USA final in Salt Lake City seems as if it happened a couple of years ago at most.
Yet we're six months out from the NHL's fourth full-fledged participation in the Winter Olympics, this time in Vancouver. The regular-season shutdown will last 14 days, from Feb. 15 to 28.
While there still might be occasional talk of a "compressed schedule" because of the Olympic season, the truth is, it isn't much of an issue any longer. It's an urban -- or Olympian -- myth.
Disregarding last season's four-team, four-game opening show in Europe that preceded the North American portion of the schedule, and also the five-day All-Star break, the NHL's 82-game season was stretched out over 181 days in 2008-09. Sticklers can add five days for the Senators, Lightning and Penguins, and four for the Rangers.
This season's schedule, not counting the 14-day break, will take 179 days. The season-opening European games in Helsinki (Panthers versus Blackhawks) and Stockholm (Red Wings versus Blues) are built into the same period in which all teams are playing.
The two fewer days doesn't qualify as significant compression.
Actually, schedule compression compared to the previous season hasn't been much of an issue since the '98 and '02 Games, and they came in seasons when the NHL also had four-day All-Star Game breaks.
The Olympic 1997-98 season of 180 days (excluding both breaks) was eight days shorter than the previous season, 1996-97. Coincidentally, the Olympic break of 17 days was the longest, but that had to do with the logistics of getting to and from Japan, so the season was stretched to April 19.
The 2001-02 season of 178 days was five days shorter than 2000-01. That's in the gray area; enough to be significant, but certainly not drastic. The talent-laden Red Wings won the Stanley Cup in both seasons, though, so they were resilient to the effects.
The 2005-06 season, minus the 15-day Olympic break for Salt Lake, lasted 181 days. Because of the lockout, the previous season was 2003-04, and, minus the All-Star break, it lasted 175 days. Now that -- in a non-Olympic season -- was compression.
This season, let's make the Canucks the example in checking out the schedule because they arguably have the worst travel. (It's either Vancouver or Dallas, primarily because the Stars are forced to make so many trips to the Pacific Time Zone.) Vancouver last season played on back-to-back nights 11 times. This season, it will happen more (14 times), which in theory creates more possibilities for the Canucks to give Roberto Luongo a night off on one of the two. Yet, taking Monday through Sunday as a week, the Canucks last season played four games in a week 10 times. This season, that will occur only seven times.
Plus, for most of the players in the league, the Olympic break is just that -- an in-season, two-week vacation for the recharging of batteries at the approach of the stretch run and the playoffs. It can be abused with too much travel and sloth during the break, but the net effect for most probably will be positive, with practices as the resumption approaches. The All-Star break served the same purpose, but for fewer days.
So with all of the above in mind, the issue becomes whether there are any things to look for based on past Olympic seasons. It doesn't involve scheduling as much as the intangibles involving so many players' looking ahead to or having lingering effects from playing for their countries:
Yes, though all that talk of "focus" is one of the most aggravating aspects of sports today -- we mainly have sports "psychologists" for that -- it's absolutely correct that the Olympics can diminish attention or even fire to some degree for the elite players. Whether they're looking ahead to playing for Canada, under great pressure in the home nation, or about to wear the colors of Sweden and remembering that poor Tommy Salo, for a time, was to Stockholm what Bill Buckner was to Boston.
Jarring reminders that the NHL is only a job to some guys
There have been plenty of instances in the past when defensemen who can seem meek on Tuesday nights in November -- or meek, period, in the NHL -- suddenly look like a Czech Larry Robinson in the Olympics. Martin Skoula in Salt Lake City comes to mind, but he's far from the only one. Forwards who float through much of the season on the NHL's smaller ice surface turn on the jets, both physically and emotionally, in the Olympics. This isn't a big deal in the long run in the NHL, unless regular-season teammates end up shaking their heads over the sudden transformation and it becomes the subject of whispering down the road.
The Carolina factor
Both of the Hurricanes' Stanley Cup finals appearances have come in Olympic years. They lost to the Red Wings 2002 and outlasted the Oilers in 2006.
Well, sure, but would you rule out coincidences coming in sets of three? Then it becomes a pattern, and a scientist in the Research Triangle probably could come up with some reason the Canes get cranked up in Olympic years.
The Hurricanes' appearances in the finals also provide mixed evidence about the Olympic effect. The number of Olympians on an NHL roster can be a measuring stick for talent, but it also means the potential exists for fatigue and more attention deficits.
Only one Hurricanes player who appeared in the 2002 playoffs was on a Salt Lake Olympic roster. And that was goaltender Arturs Irbe, who got in one game for Latvia in the preliminary round just before the NHL shutdown. Toronto had seven Olympians, and the Hurricanes handled the Leafs in the East finals. The champion Red Wings had a staggering 10 on Salt Lake rosters.
In 2006, though, five Hurricanes -- Doug Weight, Frantisek Kaberle, Bret Hedican, Erik Cole and Martin Gerber -- had been on rosters in Torino. (Eric Staal was an alternate.) Cole suited up for only two playoff games because of injury. Gerber played six postseason games, as Conn Smythe winner Cam Ward got most of the work. Weight was with the Blues at the time of the Games. The other Eastern finalist, Buffalo, had four Olympians; Cup finalist Edmonton had three.
Elsewhere on the team front
In the 11 seasons from 1997-98 on, the Presidents' Trophy winner has taken the Stanley Cup four times. That happened with Dallas in 1999, Colorado in 2001, and Detroit in 2002 and 2008. That means the ratio has been roughly the same in Olympic and non-Olympic seasons, so that's one more reason it's hard to argue that the drive to be the league's best regular-season team takes more out of a team in an Olympic year.
Awards yes, Olympics not necessarily
Most of the major NHL awards in the NHL's three Winter Games seasons have gone to Olympians in those years, but there have been exceptions.
Of the Hart Trophy winners in the NHL's three Olympic years, one wasn't even named to a national roster. That was Montreal's Jose Theodore in 2002, when the Canadian goalies were Martin Brodeur, Ed Belfour and Curtis Joseph. Theodore and another non-Olympian, Patrick Roy, were 1-2 in the Vezina voting that year, and Roy was third in the Hart race, also behind Jarome Iginla. Roy had taken himself out of the running for an Olympic berth, saying it was for professional and personal reasons, and the major consideration probably was that he had no assurances of being the No. 1 in Salt Lake.
In the season with the 12-day Olympic break, Theodore played 67 games for the Canadiens. Roy posted 63 for the Avalanche in what might have been his best regular season, which was right in line with his workload at that stage of his career. But he also had mentioned the 1998 Games had left him a bit drained, and the Avalanche were ousted in the first round. Colorado reached the Western finals in 2002 against Detroit, but Roy's Statue of Liberty gaffe in Game 6 and overall so-so play might have started nudging him toward his 2003 retirement.
Also in 2002, Brodeur was his usual workhorse self, playing 73 games for the Devils and five for Canada. Belfour, the backup who didn't play in Salt Lake, played 60 games for Dallas that season, and Joseph played 51 games for Toronto and one in the Olympics. By winning the goal-scoring race in 2005-06, non-Olympian Jonathan Cheechoo of the Sharks took the Rocket Richard Trophy. Linemate (and Canadian Olympian) Joe Thornton won the Hart and Art Ross trophies.
When Ward took the Conn Smythe in 2006 (that was another shaky vote), he became the first non-Olympian to win the award in an Olympic year. (Steve Yzerman and Nicklas Lidstrom had won in 1998 and 2002, respectively.)
If the schedule truly were compressed, there would be more instances of backup goalies receiving an extraordinary number of starts in Olympic seasons. Five goalies played 65 or more games in the most recent Olympic season, 2005-06. Three of them were Canada's Olympic goalies -- Brodeur, Luongo and Marty Turco. They also had been among the eight goalies who played 65 or more games in the previous non-Olympic season of 2003-04. Without a compressed schedule to make it wise to play the backup more often, no NHL coach is going to tell his star goalie to take an extra night off for his country. And the great ones think they need that much work to stay sharp, anyway.
The Olympic effect, especially with the scheduling impact becoming minimal, is more about intangibles and attitudes than anything else.
Terry Frei is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His books include "Third Down and a War to Go" and the upcoming "The Witch's Season." He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
5dBonnie D. Ford