Some people go to Disneyworld. But for hockey fans in
February of 2002, the
Magic Kingdom - Fantasyland, to be precise - was actually
in Utah. For 16
days, the Winter Olympics made Salt Lake City the center
of the hockey
Like most puckheads,
I went for the star power and the Stars, the chance
see NHL players competing at the highest level in a
tournament. And as everyone who saw the US-Canada gold
medal contest knows,
the Games delivered on that promise. But there was equally
in the stands, where you could see how the game means
so many different
things to so many different people.
pride in hockey and pride in country are almost synonymous.
For the people of Slovakia, Latvia and Belarus, it was
about stealing a
little athletic glory from bigger, richer countries.
For an American like
me, it was enough to simply congregate with other hockey
nuts - even
Avalanche fans - and see the sport we love take precedence
basketball and baseball for a change.
A TALE OF TWO
I'm ashamed to
admit it now, but initially I was not too interested
early Olympic rounds, populated as they were with little
no-name players. I went to the first game, Germany-Slovakia,
of the drama surrounding the latter club. With its best
because of NHL obligations, Slovakia had to shuttle
the likes of Buffalo's
Miroslav Satan, L.A.'s Ziggy Palffy and Ottawa's Marian
Hossa in and out of
the line-up, while enduring a shortened bench at other
These trying circumstances
made Slovakia a sentimental favorite. After all,
who wouldn't want to root for a team whose most visible
furry little marmots (better known to us as woodchucks
or groundhogs) on
their heads? If nothing else, fans wanted to see the
Slovaks in the medal
round because by then, their squad would be top-to-bottom
came up on the short end of a classic hockey lesson:
win games based on how many great players you have,
you win them as a team.
Slovakia was disorganized and no doubt distracted by
their plight, which
allowed an anonymous German squad to beat them with
nothing fancier than
grunt work. Deutschland put four guys at the defensive
blue line, avoided
mistakes, converted the only chances (one on the PP
and one on the PK) they
would need and let unheralded goalie Marc Seliger do
the rest. It was a
funny introduction to international hockey, since the
North American style made the wider ice and legal two-line
Not so the next
day, when the Slovaks needed to beat Latvia to avoid
in the prelims for the second straight Olympics. Latvia's
sole NHL player,
defenseman Sandis Ozolinsh ("Ozolins" in Latvian)
put on an exhibition of
crisp, perfect, visionary passes while logging Derian
playing every other shift.
he can't play defense," the fan in front of me
(yes, he was wearing
an Avs jersey) said. Ordinarily, I would agree with
that statement, but on
this day, Ozolinsh's offensive magic was too beautiful
to fault. His five
assists allowed Latvia to erase the Slovaks from the
Games with a 6-6 tie.
The Latvians had
taken over as crowd favorites long before that. It was
amazing to realize that a country of less than 2.5 million
people, one that
didn't even exist until 1991, could field a competitive
team. It was even more incredible that hundreds of boisterous
their way to Salt Lake City. They dominated the rink
with a cheering section
(including the other Latvian athletes) led by a tireless
drummer in a
maroon-and-white striped top hat, pounding along to
the rhythmic chants of
When I started
talking to one fan, Alekseas, I was surprised to discover
was a Brigham Young student, just 20 years old, majoring
relations. He couldn't believe how many of his brethren
made the trip,
because "it's a poor country."
That didn't stop
Aigars, 34, and Kriseacs, 30, two guys in jerseys and
face paint who flew from Riga to New York City with
three friends, then
rented a motorhome and drove to Utah. By the time their
team, even with
Stars goaltender Arturs Irbe, missed out on the second
round thanks to
another flawless German effort, they were barely scraping
by. "We're going
to go home to do some work because our money's gone,"
Aigars told me, though
he declined to auction off his jersey. "Not for
five thousand dollars."
I can't say I
was offering quite that much. When I got home that night,
I found one on a web site called The Baltic Shop for
Besides, as it
turned out, I was fated to support a different Eastern
thanks to a suburban Salt Lake store called the Hockey
I had stumbled
onto it by accident before the Games began and found
place had a good mix of gear and memorabilia, plus an
impressive display of
sweaters from long-defunct International Hockey League
teams like the San
Francisco Spiders and the San Antonio Dragons. The store
also had a replica
of the Utah Grizzlies' 1996 Turner Cup.
So later in the
week, I paid a return visit, figuring I'd rather spend
Olympic souvenir money there than at some random knick-knack
shop. I was
just about to pay for a Team Suisse jersey when I realized
the guy next to
me in the blue and yellow jacket was the equipment manager
for the Ukraine,
Switzerland's opponent that very afternoon.
root for you instead, but Nike didn't make a replica,"
I'm still not
sure the guy understood a word of English. But while
continued his business, picking up spare rivets and
skate blades to take
back to the players, one of the Ukrainian coaches walked
in. He gave out
pins and cards to a couple of little kids, then rummaged
through his bag and
produced something for the big kid, me - a real sweater
from back home,
complete with a number (but no name) on the back.
It was mine for
50 bucks, which is more than many Ukrainians take home
month. Later, I ran into a collector friend who owns
more than a thousand
jerseys, and apologized for not getting one for him.
That's ok, he told me,
he'd bought one under similar circumstances at the World
Championships a few years back. The black market lives.
LET'S HEAR IT
FOR THE GIRLS
As a hockey fan,
I was hoping the 2002 Games would catapult Cammi Granato
Krissy Wendell to the sort of fame Mia Hamm and Brandi
Chastain earned from
World Cup soccer a few year's back. That probably wasn't
realistic - by the
time they got down to theirs sports bras, it'd be time
for a commercial.
Unlike soccer, the level of competition in international
women's hockey is such that after falling to the U.S.,
one German player
could say, quite sincerely, "we lost 10-0, but
we did our best." A
two-out-of-three final between the United States and
Canada would have made
a better show. But even the gold medal game wasn't sold
out in advance.
Those who were
there experienced something that seemed more in line
old Olympic spirit. Signs trumpeting various American
towns -- "Churchville,
NY Loves Lindsay Wall!," "Salem, NH -- Go
Katie (King)," -- were all over
the rink. The players' friends and family members were
conspicuous in their clusters of "Mleczko"
and "Granato" and "Ruggiero"
jerseys. U.S. defender Courtney Kennedy's clan opted
for a T-shirt.
"Courtney, the other Kennedy from Massachusetts,"
read the front, while the
back parodied the MasterCard commercials while highlighting
financial commitment that helped get their daughter
to Salt Lake. "Skates:
$400. Stick: $150. Pads: $200. Helmets: $130. Gloves:
$150. Competing in the
Of course every
player's family made those same sacrifices once upon
but if you're Mike Modano, the investment has paid off
a bit more tangibly.
Also, as moved as the NHLers were to represent their
the Stanley Cup remains pretty darn important too. Whereas
for the women,
the Olympics are the pinnacle.
At one game I
met Katie King's parents, Joe and Susan - they were
enough to spot in their matching jerseys. They told
me how Katie started
skating at age 4 and played on boy's teams until she
was 12. She also has an
older brother. "I don't think there's one only
child on the team," Susan
said. "Everyone had siblings that they played with
who made them stronger."
Katie had split the D and scored a goal to give the
2-0 lead over Sweden in the semifinal, but when we began
period, Susan's first instinct, in the typically humble
way of hockey folk,
was to praise the first goal, which Granato scored in
pool-cue fashion from
her stomach after being cross-checked to the ice. Hitting
may be illegal in
women's hockey, but everyone's still tough.
At the gold medal
game, I sat with a family of players from Colorado.
year-old Tammy Crossman is a budding wing, while 10
year-old Nancy has just
made the switch from the boy's team to Denver's only
girl's under-12 girl's
squad. She's been playing since she was six, and has
already travelled for
games in Alaska and Connecticut. When I ask her what
she likes best about
hockey, she says, "when both teams worked as hard
as they could."
Yep, she's been
well-coached - by mother Debbie, who also plays, and
Jeff, an Ontario native who spent a few years in several
He finished his career in the late '80s with the Colorado
Rangers, then New
York's top farm team, and had been catching up with
former teammates Mike
Richter and Tony Granato before the game began.
that you learn in hockey will make you go further in
said. "I always tell parents, I'm going to teach
your kids how to act well,
how to treat the other team well, and that if you work
hard, good things
will happen. And by the way, I'll teach them how to
play hockey too."
Nancy and Tammy
take the US women's silver hard, as they should, since
was not the kind of 3-2 loss that included moral victories.
Nor does it help
women's hockey from a marketing perspective. But just
as the game's growth
in Texas over the last decade will some day produce
a NHL player -- but not
tomorrow -- kids like Nancy and Tammy mean the women's
game will keep on
There was one
place where the Olympic spirit of unity and equality
always be found, no matter what -- the security checkpoint.
It didn't matter
if you were a CEO with a luxury box, movie producer
Jerry Bruckheimer and
actor Cuba Gooding or a medal-winner in another sport.
Everyone had to wait
in the same line, go through the same metal detector,
get frisked by the
same National Guardsmen.
Going into the
USA-Finland game that began the final round, I got swallowed
by a corporate tour. These little groups were everywhere,
matching Olympic parkas and fresh-faced escorts, always
holding up a sign so
no one would get lost. This gang was wearing AT&T
jackets, but I quickly
realized they were Finnish. Naturally I had to make
small talk about Jere
Lehtinen with the bearded fellow next to me. He turned
out to be K.P.
Wilska, Fort Worth resident, Stars fan, president of
Nokia Americas and now
a voice on my tape recorder yelling, GO FINLAND GO!
Sorry it didn't work out
for your team, K.P.
Now, I don't want
to dis my own country, but whether it was that night's
game or the big semi-final against Russia, Americans
were not the the most
impressive hockey fans at the Olympics. The hardcore
nuts were represented,
but a huge chunk of each night's crowd consisted of
families, sponsors or
tour groups who were there for the overall experience,
hockey being just one
thing to check out along with skating, skiing and skeleton.
I explained icing,
offsides and - this one really puzzles non-fans for
reason - changing on the fly to somebody at every game.
When John LeClair
lit the lamp three times against Finland, the hats were
slow to come, and
there weren't even 10 of them. Perhaps no one wanted
to lose those fancy
Roots berets they'd waited in line five hours for.
My point is, at
any given time 8,000 Americans were nowhere near as
crazed as 2,000 Canadians. It's their sport, and as
it turns out, it was
their tournament. Much was made of the fact that the
crowd sang the Canadian
national anthem with less than a minute left in the
gold medal game, a
moving tribute to be sure, but shoot, those people also
belted it out during
warm-ups before the awful Sweden game, and in the security
line before the
the battle with the Czechs. Maybe it's the easy melody,
or maybe it was the
Molsons everybody brought over the border -- Canadians
love to complain
about American beer, so imagine how they felt about
Utah's watered down
stuff . But you just don't get spontaneous renditions
of the Star Spangled
Banner in the States. "O Canada" was inspiring
every time, and the scary
thing is, I've been around hockey so much that I know
80% of the words.
They were colorful
fans, even if that color - oh, sorry, colour -- was
always red. At one game, I had a Mountie on my right
and four painted faces
to my left. Another contingent put on sequined sunglasses
and fake Elvis
sideburns. In the hallway, I encountered the "Canadian
team," outfitted in goggles, helmets, red union
suits and "I am Canadian
And even as that
horrible first Sweden game unfolded, the guy next to
unveiled a new tattoo: "Team Canada, Salt Lake
City '02." Pat Freer, 21,
hails from Ken Hitchcock's old stomping ground of Sherwood
and it cost him $ 160 - "that's 100 American,"
he helpfully explained. Given
what was going on against Sweden, I had to ask if he
would regret the tat if
the team won bronze.
not gonna bronze," Freer said. "It's not an
issue! No issue. It's
not an issue. They're gonna win gold."
And indeed they
did. To me, that was both ironic and appropriate. Before
Games, we heard a lot of talk about recreating the "Miracle
On Ice," which
simply couldn't be done. There's was also the ongoing
drive to heal the
nation's terrorist-ravaged psyche, which is a lot to
ask of sports. Instead,
the Canadian squad healed more appropriately modest
wounds. To fully imagine
the pain of 50 years without hockey gold, picture the
Hamilton Tiger Cats
beating the Cowboys in the Super Bowl -- a dozen times.
While you're at it,
move the New York Yankees to a luxurious new stadium
in Winnipeg. The
Canadian people were starving for a reason to feel good
about their sport,
which is why the 5-2 triumph became that country's most-watched
TV ever. One
game really did unify the nation. It just happened to
here for pictures!