Thursday, February 23, 2006

USA Hockey reveals truth about All-Stars

For years Americans lamented the tremendous disadvantage we faced in the Olympics when it came to team sports. In hockey and basketball there was little argument that the best athletes in the world were native to the good old USA, but Olympic rules regarding professional athletes prohibited the USA and Canada from sending their best to the games to compete.

Of course the problem was the Soviet Union. The Soviets put together powerful teams filled with grizzled veterans who had no choice but to play for the national team. In the States where people are free to make their own choices, the best players typically signed professional contracts and left the national team scrambling to find new players every year. In spite of the fact that the players representing the US were just children, we still found ourselves on the podium almost every Olympiad.

In basketball the US has enjoyed dominance, missing out on winning gold only four times in 16 Olympics. One of those was 1980 when the US opted to boycott the Moscow games and in 1972 there was reason to believe that the game was rigged to favor the Soviets. 1988 was the straw that broke the camel's back, with the US taking home a bronze after getting handled by the Soviets in the semi-finals. Over the next few years the US Olympic Committee lobbied to include professional athletes in the games because of the unfair advantage enjoyed by the Soviets. The International Olympic Committee relented, realizing the money that could be made off of the so-called Dream Team the US would assemble. 1992 was unforgettable. Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, and Michael Jordan rounded out a team that included some of the best basketball players to ever play the game. It was bigger and better than an All-Star team. It was like the Basketball Hall of Fame put a team together. You couldn't have improved that team if you had a time machine.

After 1992 it went down hill. Fast. The novelty wore off and egos started to get in the way. Internationally teams simply got better and some of the biggest stars in the NBA were now coming from Europe. By 2004 the wheels came off and Team USA struggled to attract the best players. While that team featured Lebron James and Tim Duncan, there was no team unity and zero leadership. The 2004 team took home the Bronze medal after losing three games. That was more losses than USA Basketball had endured in the all of the previous games combined. From 1936 to 2004 the US lost two games in Olympic competition. TWO! Then in 2004 we dropped three? One of them was to Puerto Rico. At least the other teams that beat us actually had NBA players on their rosters. It was an embarrassment.

Hockey was slightly different. The US didn't dominate Hockey the way it did basketball, but the same situation was an issue in hockey. The US and Canada sent boys into the Olympics to take on the men assembled by the Soviet Union and other communist countries. Many of those teams were comprised of players who would later defect and become stand out player in the NHL. Since the US and Canada couldn't force players to remain in the amateur ranks this put those teams at a decided disadvantage.

That's what made the 1980 Olympics so special. The US hadn't sniffed a gold medal in hockey since 1960 and the Soviet Union was a dominant force. A team that crushed the NHL All-Stars when the NHL All-Stars really wanted to win. The Olympics Games was such a source of nationalistic pride that the Soviet Union invested heavily into dominating the games. Young athletes were harvested and sent to camps where their skills would be developed through strict programs. It was like SEAL training for jocks. There was no school, no social life, no family obligations. All practice all the time. There is even speculation that the Soviet Union used its power to import children from other communist countries in order to fortify their own programs.

Everybody around the world knew what was going on. Even though the US was a superpower and always enjoyed a strong showing at the games, the Soviets were the juggernaut and the US was the underdog. The entire world was on our side because we represented what was good and pure about sports while the Soviets were the imperial power that bullied everybody. It was great. Yes, the Soviets typically won more than their share of medals, but that made every victory gained by the US that much more rewarding.

After the 1988 games, US fans were fed up. They were tired of watching our boys get pushed around by grown men. By this time Canada was singing the same tune with regard to its hockey team and pressure from media outlets such as NBC, who saw the tremendous financial benefits of professional athletes playing on the international stage forced the Olympic Committee to make changes. Money, money, money.

Had it not been for the Soviet union collapsing, it might still be a good idea. Before the Cold War ended the rivalry between the US and the USSR was heated and professional athletes bought into it. Now that the evil empire is gone and our foes are less tangible, it's hard for professional athletes to get worked up over a gold medal. When the Soviets were there it was a challenge, now it's an exhibition. By the time an athlete gets to the professional level they have more trophies and medals than they know what to do with so taking time out to play in the Olympics is more of a chore than it is an honor.

Now we still assemble our all-star teams, but they don't represent the US with any sense of pride. They go over begrudgingly and complain about the accommodations, the weather and the fact that they're away from home. They simply don't want to be there, but they might be able to exploit a marketing angle so they play along.

In Hockey, the problem is that the rest of the world loves the game more than we do. They simply put out better players. Some of the biggest stars in the NHL are from other countries. Even in Canada, the heart and soul of hockey, there is a struggle to find the best players in the world.

Additionally, the fact that the US and Canada send teams that are entirely composed of NHL players as opposed to rounding out a national team with a few ringers, hurts the team in the international game. International rules are different. The ice is wider in the International game and the rules favor a more wide open game. NHL players are used to playing on a smaller ice surface and rely more on muscle and positioning to win games. NHL players simply can't keep up with the international teams.

Sure, the teams that sent the US and Canada home early have NHL players, but not from top to bottom and the NHL players who hail from Europe grew up playing the faster brand of international hockey. US and Canadian players are equipped for a different game.

Part of the problem is general malaise. When professional leagues sponsor their all star games the atmosphere is festive and the players take it easy. It's an exhibition game where winning and losing is not as important as having fun and putting on a show. In hockey, basketball and baseball the all star game is part of a mid season break, where players get to decompress before taking on the last half of the season. It's like a seven inning stretch. In football, the all star game is well after the season and is little more than a gathering of the league's best players for a company outing. The point is that all-star games are not taken seriously.

So what do we expect when we assemble an all star team to play in the Olympics? NHL players are right in the middle of their season. They've been playing for a different team all year and suddenly we expect them to pack their bags and get geared up for an international tournament.

In basketball we expect the all-star team to get into game shape during a time of year they normally relax in preparation for the coming season. With the rest of the world suddenly taking a liking to basketball, we're finding that the US no longer owns the rights to hoops dominance. In cities around the world you're likely to find poor kids shooting hoops in a rundown playground. Sadly in the US the kids who used to shoot baskets until their fingers bled are busy playing video games. And just like in hockey, the international game of basketball is different than what is played here. In the US the game is dominated by big men in the paint and high flyers above the rim. In the international game it's all about the jump shot. Our players aren't familiar with having to play outside the arc.

What we need in both sports is a bona-fide national team. We might be better off fielding a team of guys who aren't quite ready for prime time and supplement the base roster with a handful of earnest professionals who really want to win. Instead of stocking a roster full of prima donnas who want face time, play the international game with some hardworking grunts who share the objective of winning Olympic Gold. If we must send professionals, try to send an entire team as opposed to selecting all stars at least they'll know how to play together.

One thing true sports fans can't tolerate is under achievement. That's what makes recent Olympic performances so unbearable. Two years ago our basketball team let us down, this year US and Canadian hockey failed to show up. We would rather see a team over-achieve and go home empty handed than watch a collection of superstars go through the motions and win it all. We prefer to root for the underdog. So why waste time sending a punch of pampered professional athletes to represent our interests in the Olympics? Wouldn't it be more fun to watch a bunch of nobodies give their best effort on every play?

I miss the Soviet union. There was something comforting about the open hostility and the mutually assured destruction. We knew where we stood and every four years we got to vent our frustrations in head to head athletic competition. Now Russia is a broken down shell of a country, the old Soviet bloc is a diluted handful of wimpy republics and our biggest enemy on the global stage is our own inept leadership. Where have the good times gone?

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