Sports Scoop: Gary Bettman's Losing Bet

Author:
Publish date:

Sometime last year a friend and I went to Atlantic City. He wanted to feed his jones for a little blackjack. Typically, I was drawn by the spectacle and the promise that we wouldn't be there long enough for me to lose a fortune. True to form, I quickly forked over $250. In the same two hours my friend got a slew of breaks and emerged ahead $1,000. But the most exciting moments of the trip came in our last two minutes in the casino.

Charged with confidence, my friend sauntered to a high-stakes table and put the whole thousand down on one last hand. Having that much ride on one big gamble was even enough to get the adrenaline coursing through my veins. It was like watching a car wreck when he drew a 15 to the dealer's exposed king: too horrible to stop watching.

Watching

NHL

commissioner

Gary Bettman

the past 10 days has filled me with exactly the same feeling. He had the brass to stop the league's season mid-breakaway for 17 days to allow its players to participate in the

Winter Olympics

at Nagano. He has emerged from the experience a loser on a much greater level than my friend did that night in Atlantic City.

The idea was simple enough. Bettman's goal is to increase hockey's exposure across the United States. Whether he's willing to admit it or not, he thought a brilliant showing by Team USA would set the stage for the next big push by the NHL. Everyone is watching the Olympics. After a great campaign by the Americans, who wouldn't have hockey fever? It would set the table for so much: better television deals for franchises, more sales of NHL merchandise and, most important of all, more expansion. The league just loves the idea, particularly in the Sun Belt.

And Bettman must have felt he had a pretty good horse to bet on. American interest in hockey is spiking up. The country is producing more talent than ever before. Team USA had a roster with 23 NHL stars on it, including big scorers like

Brett Hull

of the

St. Louis Blues

,

John LeClair

of the

Philadelphia Flyers

and

Jeremy Roenick

and

Keith Tkachuk

of the

Phoenix Coyotes

.

"This had the makings of a great thing," said

Jack Parker

, coach of

NCAA

powerhouse

Boston University

. "The greatest players in the world were out there. And any time the United States has a successful team in an international competition, the sport gets a big boost."

But what the Americans did over a six-day stretch was as good as finishing last. Team USA played four games and won only one, against

Belarus

. The Americans were shown up by

Sweden

(4-2) and

Canada

(4-2). The final blow was the 4-1 upset by the

Czech Republic

on Wednesday that eliminated Team USA. The Czechs have 12 NHL players suited up.

No fewer than six of the Americans are the leading scorers on their NHL teams. But Team USA was outscored 11 goals to nine. LeClair is the No. 2 scorer in the league and Tcachuk is No. 4. Both were blanked. Hull and

Pat Lafontaine

of the

New York Rangers

are both 20-goal scorers, and they managed two and one, respectively.

Bettman's grand idea turned into an embarrassment.

And if that wasn't bad enough. The men's hockey team's failure must be held up closely to the triumph of the American women, who won the gold medal.

* * * * *

Girls all over this country are running out to buy skates and sticks. At a clinic held by former New York Ranger

Brian Mullin

in a New York City high school on Thursday, girls outnumbered boys 2-to-1. And access to skating rinks in New York is probably comparable with that found in St. Petersburg or Houston.

"I can remember the boost hockey got after other American successes," Parker said. "You can count on women's hockey getting that kind of a boost now.

"Even with this thing they are calling a failure, did the sport of hockey get the chance it should? They held the games at times when almost no one could watch them."

You might say there is a reasonable explanation for the American failure: Team USA wasn't the only squad with NHL players on it. And it's true the Americans were shut down by two top goaltenders playing at their best. Canada's

Patrick Roy

, who plays for the

Colorado Avalanche

, and the Czech Republic's

Dominik Hasek

, who plays for the

Buffalo Sabres

, turned in stunning performances. But it will never justify the idea of sending NHL players to Nagano.

If the Czech Republic or Finland win the gold medal, how do you think it will play in Atlanta? Or San Diego? Spring training is already under way. Spring football isn't far off.

* * * * *

The spin is on. On Thursday Bettman said, "We never believed we could rely on the U.S. going to the gold medal game as the justification for participating in the Olympics.

"Worldwide, this is having the delivery of our expectations."

I can imagine. Sure, the NHL is thrilled that the people of Finland have been whipped into a hockey frenzy. League suits were angling to have American kids in that frenzy, sparking an interest that would sustain expansion and sow the seeds for future American stars.

Instead, they have a setback, if anything. Remember when the U.S. used to send a bunch of enthusiastic college kids to the Olympics? They did more than this Dream Team ever did.

"The 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team crossed all boundaries,'' Parker said. "There were beach bums in San Diego and grandmothers in New Orleans who were tuning in to see how our kids did against the Soviets. It was incredibly compelling because it was a bunch of American college kids beating their pros.

"Even if the Americans had won the gold this year, they couldn't have topped that."

Hockey's last big boost in the U.S. came with the 1980 Miracle On Ice. The NHL suits would trade for an American team like that one, you can bet on it. Win or lose, it would have averted this fiasco.

Truth of the matter is, U.S. audiences completely tuned hockey out before it hit the medal round. As Parker said, "the Olympic hockey tournament has turned into a news bite and nothing more." We're more likely to see a boom in figure skating than in hockey as a result of the Nagano Games.

On Wednesday, the day after the American women's hockey team captured gold, many wore their medals to breakfast. Members of the men's team ogled the hardware with envy in their hearts. Then they went out and took a beating from the Czechs.

It remains to be seen whether participating in the Olympics has any long-standing effects on the players when they return to North America for the remainder of the NHL season. Will there be residual fatigue? Injuries?

Gary Bettman has to hope not. He's already lost his shirt.

Roger Rubin has covered sports in the New York area for the past 10 years. He currently is a staff writer for the New York Daily News covering high school and college sports. He appreciates your feedback at

Gotascoop@aol.com.