"Slap Shot" meets "A Season on the Brink" in this twisted tale of minor league hockey in the place with more pro teams than any place in North America: TEXAS!

Olympic Hockey


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
universe.

Like most puckheads, I went for the star power and the Stars, the chance to
see NHL players competing at the highest level in a passionate international
tournament. And as everyone who saw the US-Canada gold medal contest knows,
the Games delivered on that promise. But there was equally riveting action
in the stands, where you could see how the game means so many different
things to so many different people.

For Canadians, 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 over football,
basketball and baseball for a change.

A TALE OF TWO SWEATERS

I'm ashamed to admit it now, but initially I was not too interested in the
early Olympic rounds, populated as they were with little countries and
no-name players. I went to the first game, Germany-Slovakia, mostly because
of the drama surrounding the latter club. With its best players unavailable
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 times.

These trying circumstances made Slovakia a sentimental favorite. After all,
who wouldn't want to root for a team whose most visible supporters wore
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 NHLers.

Instead, they came up on the short end of a classic hockey lesson: you don't
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 Germans' plodding,
North American style made the wider ice and legal two-line passes virtual
non-factors.

Not so the next day, when the Slovaks needed to beat Latvia to avoid losing
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 Hatcher-sized minutes
playing every other shift.

"Too bad 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 international hockey
team. It was even more incredible that hundreds of boisterous Latvians found
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
"LAT-VI-A LAT-VI-A."

When I started talking to one fan, Alekseas, I was surprised to discover he
was a Brigham Young student, just 20 years old, majoring in international
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 full
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
former
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 thirty bucks.

Besides, as it turned out, I was fated to support a different Eastern
European team,
thanks to a suburban Salt Lake store called the Hockey Zone.

I had stumbled onto it by accident before the Games began and found the
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 my
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.

"I would root for you instead, but Nike didn't make a replica," I said,
half-joking.

I'm still not sure the guy understood a word of English. But while he
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 in a
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 Junior
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 or
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.

But seriously.... 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 with the
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 charmingly
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 the 15-year
financial commitment that helped get their daughter to Salt Lake. "Skates:
$400. Stick: $150. Pads: $200. Helmets: $130. Gloves: $150. Competing in the
Olympics: Priceless."

Of course every player's family made those same sacrifices once upon a time,
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 respective countries,
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 easy
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."

Minutes earlier, Katie had split the D and scored a goal to give the US a
2-0 lead over Sweden in the semifinal, but when we began discussing the
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. 7
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 father
Jeff, an Ontario native who spent a few years in several NHL organizations.
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.

"The things that you learn in hockey will make you go further in life," Jeff
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 it
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
growing.

WHOA, CANADA

There was one place where the Olympic spirit of unity and equality could
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, with their
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 some
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 loud or
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 Snowball fighting
team," outfitted in goggles, helmets, red union suits and "I am Canadian
boxer shorts.

And even as that horrible first Sweden game unfolded, the guy next to me
unveiled a new tattoo: "Team Canada, Salt Lake City '02." Pat Freer, 21,
hails from Ken Hitchcock's old stomping ground of Sherwood Park, Alberta,
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.

"They're 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 the
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 be Canada.

Click here for pictures!


Site designed by Rusty/CMW Consulting ©2002 Content ©2002 Jason Cohen