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Now That's Hockey!
Rick Charlton
February 19th, 2002

Now that's hockey.

Unrelenting north-south action. Mesmerizing east-west movement. No red line. The freedom of the large ice surface.

How is it possible then, that the Salt Lake City Olympic Hockey tournament could be so good without tons of scoring?

The top six contenders, in six games played amongst themselves, managed to score an average of only five goals per game in the preliminary round of hockey in Salt Lake City.

That's below the 5.23 average goals scored in a typical NHL game so far this season.

Believe it or not.

As wonderful as the Olympic tournament has been, as interesting as the absence of a red line has made it, as mesmerizing as the quality of play has glued hockey fans to their televisions, the mathematical truth sticks out by a country mile.

A tremendous concentration of hockey talent has not lead to a proliferation of scoring, exactly the prediction I have been making in this space for the last year and a half.

And there has certainly never been a greater concentration of talent in hockey history than what we are seeing at these Olympics.

For those observers who insist that more scoring is necessary to save the NHL we need only witness the wonderful play in this tournament to understand there is more to the great game of hockey than red lights flashing behind upturned goaltenders.

Indeed, the least interesting games of the competition involve the most offence. Games featuring inferior talent, Germany and Belarus have resulted in average 8.5 goals scored. Talent dilution actually creates scoring by employing inferior talent, thus allowing the great players of the day to run up the score against less skilled or less intense competitors, another point I've been making for a year and a half.

The absence of the red line in this tournament appeared to have led to a more offensive bent in the opening games, a factor that both Finland and Canada had difficulty adjusting to in the early going.

But Rob Blake said it best after the 3-3 Czech/Canada tie last night.

"It has to start from defence," said Blake. "Everything else will flow from that"

The 1998 Nagano Games gave an early indication of the truth. Again, a high concentration of talent resulted in an average of 4.75 goals per game in contests among the top six hockey powers, Canada, Russia, Finland, USA, Czech Republic and Russia.

A non-diluted NHL between 1930 and 1967 yielded an average of 5.65 goals per game. An NHL which expanded from six teams to 21 teams between 1967 and 1979 saw scoring soar only to fall back again as the European invasion began to fill out playing ranks with high quality talent. Interestingly, the same number of Canadians are employed in the NHL today as there were in 1976. No more, no less. Expansion ranks have been filled by Europeans. And scoring has dropped precipitously.

After opening night in Salt Lake, with all teams clueing in to how to play with the large ice and lack of a red line, scoring plummeted even if the action seemed to get better for the fans. Take out the 5-2 shellacking of Canada by Sweden (Swedish View) and the 6-0 thumping of Finland by the USA and the remaining four contests after opening night averaged 4.25 goals per game.

The Olympic tournament has been a wonderful spectacle for fans but rarely does the NHL have such an opportunity to broadly experiment without harm.

The hurry-up faceoff, one of the greatest fan friendly innovations in the last 25 years, surely has to be coming to a NHL rink near you as soon as next season.

My early objection to the absence of a red line was that it might render previous scoring statistics meaningless but, as noted above, it has actually meant little to scoring totals although games appear to be significantly cleaner with a better flow. It too might be an innovation worth exploring but, as mentioned in my column last week, there is probably significant resistance to such a change.

Yes, the laboratory that is Salt Lake should yield some interesting innovations to a NHL stuck in the same mundane, season over season, repetition.

But Salt Lake has also revealed a factor that may never change. Scoring in the NHL is actually normal these days.

That is also something we can see quite plainly at these Olympics.

THE USA IS 20-0-2 IN GAMES ON American soil since losing the second game of the 1932 Olympics. Although I have them as the Silver medalists in my prediction piece even I would have to admit they caught a Finnish team flat-footed in their opening match, looked second best against Russia, then predictably pounded Belarus. The Americans have an easy march to the final four with Wednesday's game against Germany. So far, so good. But they haven't been the world-beaters their early results might have indicated. The real test lies ahead.

I COULD ALMOST HEAR THE "WHINER, WHINER, WHINER" chants raining down from the Gallery Gods in the Saddledome last night as Wayne Gretzky launched into his tirade against Europeans in general and Roman Hamrlik in particular. If you can't beat 'em in the Olympics maybe you can beat 'em in the NHL. That seems to be the message Gretzky was sending Hamrlik after the Canada/Czech game last night. Gretzky says Hamrlik's vicious cross-check to the small of Theo Fleury's back was gutless, deserving of a suspension and certainly worth the attention of the European media who would have raised a small riot had the tables been reversed. In lieu of the no fighting rule in Olympic hockey, Gretzky says Hamrlik had better be prepared for revenge when the Ranger's meet the Islanders in the first week after the Olympics. Gretzky, scion of a different NHL team, the Phoenix Coyotes, would have likely been fined heavily by the NHL - justifiably - for such a remark if he were actually in the Ranger braintrust. But NHL commissioner Gary Bettman must be scratching his head since Gretzky, promising the revenge of a team he has nothing to do with, has little in the way of power to convince Theo's teammates to take up the flag of retribution. Fighting might not be allowed in the Olympics, but it might as well be given the threats coming out of the mouth of The Great One. Now that Gretzky is with Team Canada is his tirade somehow different than it would have been if he'd been with the Oilers? Of course. He's one of "us" now.

PAY ATTENTION ERIC LINDROS. Alisa Camplin of Australia, surprise winner of the Olympic gold medal in Women's Aerials, is a 27 year-old who has endured nine concussions. Talk about soul mates.

IS ANYONE ELSE GETTING TIRED OF SLOVAKIA'S COMPLAINTS REGARDING THE Olympic hockey format which resulted in many of their NHL players sitting this one out. Belarus certainly didn't complain. Neither did Latvia. Rather than reserving spots and playing with a significantly undermanned lineup, both nations made do with what they had. Slovakia could have done the same thing and might have held that 6-3 lead over Latvia in the qualifying round, a win that would have put them over the top. Instead, with only half the roster they were entitled to, Slovakia was too pooped to pop and ended up in a 6-6 tie and out of the tournament. Yes, a full lineup would have been great PR for the NHL but the Slovaks had more control of their destiny than they're letting on.

THE CURTIS JOSEPH FLOP IN GAME ONE against Sweden (Swedish View) has been set aside for now but may resurface when the NHL resumes play next week. With Ed Belfour dressing as the backup to Martin Brodeur it seems clear Joseph is now on the outside looking in with Pat Quinn, his GM and coach in the real world. The question everyone will want answered will be Toronto's intent or lack thereof to ink Joseph to a contract extension before next summer. His good, but not fantastic performance in the NHL this year, followed by a collapse in the Olympics, might be giving the Leafs pause for thought.

THE CALLS TO ELIMINATE THEO FLEURY FROM TEAM CANADA'S lineup were frequent and loud in the days leading up to the opening faceoff. In the aftermath of the 5-2 disaster against Sweden (Swedish View), however, Fleury was one of the few Canadians looking like anything but a deer in the headlights. He's been Canada's best on ice and off ice leader at these games and, mercifully, didn't even try to decapitate everyone within reach when felled late in the Czech/Canada game. A good sign for everyone. - Salt Lake Center


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