Toll of the Games
TURIN--The cross-country skiers don't have a grind to immediately return to, the figure skaters will have some down time and for the speed skaters, this is by far the biggest event of their season.
For hockey players, male hockey players, however, it's very different. Other than Italy, all the teams participating in the Olympic tournament have players expected back with their NHL teams in nine days.
Some will have played eight games in 12 nights, and some will return in worse physical health than before they left. For those who make it to the gold medal game, they may have to be back in North America 48 hours later to play for their NHL squads.
So while "Operation Slap Shot" and the incredibly poor timing of Steve Moore's latest legal gambit against Todd Bertuzzi have made news, the growing story likely to dominate the men's hockey event is the toll the competition is taking on athletes who are being paid enormous sums to compete in good health for their club teams in North America.
Philadelphia Flyers president Ed Snider has made it clear he would prefer his star centre Peter Forsberg did not play for Sweden because of concern over repeated groin injuries, and so far Forsberg has not appeared.
But the biggest news so far came today when the Czechs were hit by two enormous losses. Goalie Dominik Hasek injured his groin in the first period of the Olympic opener and has been forced out of the Games and back to Ottawa where Senators doctors will determine the damage.
|Senators fans close your eyes, this is not what you wanted to see in Turin - Dominik Hasek goes down with a leg injury in just his first game with the Czechs at the Olympics.|
Not just to Hasek, but to the Sens' season.
Czech Republic forward Patrik Elias has also left Italy after suffering bruised ribs in the opener against Germany and then missing Thursday's surprising loss to Switzerland. Elias, who will be replaced by Buffalo's Ales Kotalik, missed most of the early part of the season recovering from hepatitis, and his return was a big reason why the New Jersey Devils have turned their season around.
Bruised ribs can take a long time to heal. You can bet Lou Lamoriello, always lukewarm about Olympic participation, is not going to be happy.
Anaheim defenceman Scott Niedermayer decided not to come to Turin to play for Canada, and underwent knee surgery instead that should help his NHL season. Calgary goalie Mikka Kiprusoff bailed out a long time ago, and it could well be that the Ducks and Flames could substantially benefit from the decision of their key players not to play for their countries.
It will be interesting to see how baseball deals with the injury question in terms of how it relates to the upcoming World Baseball Classic, which in all likeliehood will see some injuries that will result in players missing the early weeks of the Major League season.
The difference with the NHL, of course, is that there are less than 30 games left in the season, with the long, tough Stanley Cup playoffs following soon after.
Is it reasonable, really, for NHL teams fighting to rebuild their business from the lockout to risk the health of their very best players, and therefore of the potential economic benefit of lucrative playoff dates, just so those players can participate for their countries in the Olympics?
Does patriotism trump the financial concerns of NHL teams?
The answer is mixed. Yes, the Olympics are worthwhile, but it appears the model simply won't work without allowing for a longer break and shortening the season. If, in an Olympic year, the NHL played 70 games and allowed three weeks for the Olympics, the game could still benefit and the toll on the athletes would be far less.
The fans benefit through a splendid, high level tournament, but how will the fans in Ottawa feel if Hasek is lost for the remainder of the season or his play is compromised? What if Wade Redden were to go down as well while playing for Canada?
It's a problem that could become a firestorm by the end of this tournament. Imagine if Bryan McCabe were to suffer a season-ending injury while playing for Team Canada and thus all but ensure the Leafs miss the playoffs, or if Forsberg does suit up for the Swedes and then goes down with another groin injury.
The NHL and NHL Players Association have simply not grappled with this problem in a serious way. It's a big reason why the NHLers will be in Vancouver four years from now, but that will quite likely be it for the league's experiment with the Olympic movement.
Part of the answer may also be dumping the World Cup, and NHLPA executive director Ted Saskin said today that is possible and perhaps likely. The event was held in 1996 and then not again until 2004, with the championship game at the Air Canada Centre in Toronto.
"It's usually the same guys going," said Wade Redden today. "It's tough to ask every two years, and with the world championships, it adds up."
Redden was hoping for the best with respect to Hasek's injury, but said he still thinks its worth it to play at the Olympics despite the risk of injury.
"They're definitely keeping their fingers crossed back home," he smiled. "But I'm going to be a better player for playing in this. I'll get home, take a few practices off, and then I'll be ready for the stretch run."