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HOCKEY, TOO, HAS A DREAM

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The last two Summer Olympics have featured NBA Dream Teams, a misleading name if ever there was one. Whose dream was it to stack the competition so heavily in favor of one country and make a mockery of an event meant to bring the world’s top athletes together in the spirit of sportsmanship?

For anyone who doesn’t hold a U.S. passport, it was a nightmare. Basketball talent is too concentrated among U.S.-born players and too thinly distributed throughout the rest of the world to produce a balanced competition when NBA players participate. And even the most fervent American patriots cringed at the routs the U.S. team inflicted. Give us your tired, your poor shooters--we’ll flatten them.

The Dream Team name has also been stuck on the Olympic hockey tournament at Nagano, which for the first time will feature NHL players representing their homelands. But don’t confuse this with the NBA’s Dream Team debacles.

Of the 634 players on NHL rosters at the start of this season, 389 were from Canada, 102 from the United States, 38 from Russia, 32 from Sweden, 31 from the Czech Republic, 15 from Finland and the rest from an assortment of nations. Players born outside Canada and the United States accounted for 22.5% of the league’s players, an all-time high.

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Because of that dispersal of talent, these Olympics will truly be a dream tournament, a field so balanced that three teams--the U.S., Canada and Sweden--are gold-medal contenders and two more--Russia and Finland--could prevail if they get exceptional goaltending and a few favorable bounces.

Which is how it should be.

If you want to see a team humble its opponents game after game, go see the Harlem Globetrotters. If you want to see an in-your-face, rugged competition, Nagano is the one to watch.

In the Olympic basketball tournaments, players from other countries were so awed by Michael Jordan, Charles Barkley and other U.S. NBA stars, they asked for autographs. In the Olympic hockey tournaments, rivals are more likely to high-stick each other.

NBA players sneered at the accommodations assigned to athletes at the Olympic Village and ran for the nearest luxury hotel. They couldn’t live without fluffy bathrobes, mini-bars and 24-hour deferential treatment.

NHL players will stay in the athletes’ quarters. Mock-ups of the rooms displayed in Vancouver during All-Star weekend showed tiny spaces furnished with little besides narrow, single beds that are better suited to 5-foot-6 Theo Fleury than his 6-foot-4 Canadian teammate Eric Lindros. The bedrooms lead into tiny, spartan bathrooms. No Jacuzzis. No heated towel racks. No mints on their pillows. No star treatment.

And no complaints from the players.

Hockey players, in general, are the least egotistical of professional athletes. They’re not pampered and shielded from responsibility from the time they’re teenagers, as many baseball, NFL and NBA players are. And knowing their sport ranks near the bottom of the American sports menu, they’re glad to publicize their game and give it a good image.

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They see Nagano as a key step toward winning international support for hockey, not as a vehicle to help sell sneakers made by a sporting goods company that pays them millions of dollars a year. You won’t see these guys threatening to boycott the medal ceremony because the company that supplied their team-issued warmup suits is a rival of the company they work for.

Of course, the NBA is advanced enough in its popularity, marketing reach and appeal to TV networks that it can get away with all this. NBA players can be ugly Americans at the Olympics without harming the league itself.

The NBA has grown around a cult of personality and the promotion of individual players. It has done its job well, perhaps too well. And Olympic organizers, hungry for the corporate dollars that surround the NBA and its players, will continue to welcome them even though the basketball tournament threatens to overwhelm other events.

No aspect of the Olympics is pure anymore, and the Olympic ideal of “amateurs” has largely disappeared. The Olympic hockey tournament is no exception. Previous U.S. and Canadian Olympic teams consisted mostly of college kids or players released by their minor league teams for a couple of weeks. And there is reason to mourn that change, to know that an upset like the U.S. team’s 1980 gold medal triumph at Lake Placid will never happen again.

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Yet the hockey tournament at Nagano doesn’t stray too far from the Olympic ideal. Certainly, it’s closer than the last two Olympic basketball tournaments were, and isn’t that the idea?

Yes, NHL players are highly paid professionals, but they’re making sacrifices to be in Nagano. They might suffer injuries that could harm or end their careers. They will be playing against NHL teammates but say they won’t ease up--and there’s no reason to doubt them. The NHL itself is taking a risk in playing a compressed schedule to accommodate the 17-day Olympic break.

If any sport lends itself to an equitable international tournament, it’s hockey. Even the non-NHL players who will fill out the rosters of Sweden, the Czech Republic and Finland are world-class players.

In the five years since Gary Bettman became commissioner of the NHL, the NHL has come to resemble the NBA in many ways--not all of them good. Sending its players to the Olympics is an idea it borrowed from the NBA, but it’s a concept more suited to the NHL’s strength--its international talent base. For once, the NHL is celebrating its uniqueness instead of conforming to other sports. Who wins at Nagano is less important than the fact that several teams have a chance to win--and that no matter who takes home a gold medal, hockey will win.

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