Well, I started off with full intentions of putting together an analysis of the international teams to watch for the next couple of weeks in Italy, but so much has happened, the Olympic tournament itself will in all likelihood take a back seat to all the hoopla.  From allegations of illegal gambling to growing hair (more to come), itís just been one of those weeks.  It all leads one to say ďThank God the break is hereĒ?

Letís make no mistake, Iím all for sending the NHL to the Winter Olympics.  The argument has been made in the past it undermines the amateur flavor of the Games themselves, but I digress.  You have the best players in the world on the biggest of worldwide stages, so by all means the NHL should be there.  However, in my humble opinion, the league is going about it the wrong way.  The schedule alone is way too compressed, with teams playing too many games in too short a time.  Injuries to players who would have been going to Torino have forced them on the shelf.  The most compressed part of the schedule has yet to come, after the break.  Teams are showing their fatigue and when you have games on back to back nights, the quality of the game we saw at the very beginning of the season has dwindled somewhat, and heading into the downward stretch, this is simply a shame.  If the NHL does anything before 2010 in Vancouver, they need to have a shorter schedule, even if only for the Olympics.  The NHL has yet to convince me of the necessity for eight games between divisional rivals.  When you have the opening ceremonies of the games on Friday, and the hockey players canít get to Italy until after the weekend at best, two days prior to the tournament starting (weather permitting!), thereís something wrong with this picture, donít you think?

Furthermore, even though some might argue itís become nothing more than a popularity contest, Olympic year or not, the NHL needs to stage an All Star weekend, especially since there hasnít been one for two years.  If for nothing else, the NHL is obligated to give something back to the fans.  OK, so theyíre sending players to the Olympics, but canít the league see the value in a lighter workload and a light hearted weekend?  Apparently not.

The tournament itself is going to be one of the most exciting in years, or at least since Salt Lake City.  The usual suspects should be there in the end, with Canada, U.S.A., Sweden, Finland, Russia and the Czech Republic all icing the best they have to offer.  Itís the teams not expected to make it to the medal round who could make the most noise.  Kazakhstan replaces Belarus in Pool B, and you can be sure there will be no Swedish Meatballs upset here (Tommy Salo is retired, remember?).  Switzerland, who boast two of the best goaltenders in the game with Martin Gerber and David Aebischer, will be interesting to watch.  Germany, with Marcel Goc, Christoph Schubert, Christian Erhoff and Olaf Kolzig, may have seen improvement upon their quarterfinal showing of the last Olympics and World Cup tournaments, if it wasn't for the recent injuries to Marco Sturm and Jochen Hecht.  Slovakia, with the Great Wall of (Zdeno) Chara, Marian Hossa and Pavol Demitra may finally see international success.  Finally, Italy, the host team, will have their hands full, but have a fairly modest lineup who will surprise a few people, starting in goal with Jason Muzzatti, who some may remember played 62 NHL games throughout the 1990s.  The Italiansí main goal I would think would be not to get blown out too badly.  All I can say is may the best team win.


Youíd have to be living under a rock this week to have not heard about Operation Slap Shot, and I definitely donít mean a re-release of the classic movie on DVD.  Phoenix Coyotesí assistant coach Rick Tocchet finds himself in the middle of an alleged illegal gambling ring, and subsequently in a lot of hot water.  As of this writing, the details are still sketchy at best.  Since all weíve heard so far is media speculation, I wonít read too much into this, yet.  Iíll let the lawyers and the courts find out the truth.  All Iíll ask is why this week with the Olympics on the horizon?  Couldnít they have at least waited until the Figure Skating competition?  I guess the North American sports watching public and media are hungrier than usual for a scandal.  And another thing, can we leave Wayne Gretzky alone for once in his life.  Yes, I know his wife is one of the alleged bettors, but until the evidence is before a grand jury, give it up already, please and thank you.

Itís no secret in Montreal, Jose Theodore canít stop a beach ball lately, but apparently he can grow a healthy head of hair, or can he?  It seems Theodore is the second NHL player to test positive for a banned substance.  This time, itís propecia, an anti-balding drug which has been prescribed by Joseís dermatologist.  Just when things couldnít get more hairy for Theodore, it remains to be seen when he can return to the Habsí lineup.  I figure if heíd put half as much effort into his slumping game as his mop top, Montreal might have a few more wins this year.

The next time Chicago Blackhawks owner Bill Wirtz wants to open up his wallet to sign overpriced free agents, perhaps he should seek some advice outside of the Chicago media.  As if everybody outside of the Windy City didnít know this already, it has taken Wirtz two thirds of the season to figure out his extravagance wouldnít and hasnít translated into on ice success.  ďWe made mistakes on our free agent signings because we didnít think the game would change that much with the new rulesĒ.  Gee, you think?  The biggest mistake has been in net, with the $27 million man Nikolai Khabibulin.  Watch out for the fire sale to start in earnest after the break.

A story I covered during the lockout has a somewhat happy ending this week.  Gard Shelley and David Burt, members of a Toronto pickup team named the Wednesday Nighters, have won a court settlement against the NHL over who controls the Stanley Cup.  While this means absolutely nothing if the NHL never has another lockout shortened or cancelled season, at least we wonít ever go another year where the Stanley Cup is not awarded.  As it was originally intended by Lord Stanley himself, if God forbid we ever go through another lockout, the Cup will be released and awarded to the best non-NHL team.  As part of the settlement, the NHL will donate $100,000 a year for the next five years towards underprivileged children and womenís hockey leagues.

And finally, Green Bay, Wisconsin was home to yet another outdoor hockey game, as the host University of Wisconsin Badgers beat the Ohio State Buckeyes 4-2 in the Frozen Tundra Hockey Classic.  The game was held at Lambeau Field before a crowd of 40,890.  Now I donít know about you, but thereís an NHL franchise possibility just waiting to happen.  Who knew?

Well folks, I know itís short and sweet this time around, but as always thereís a lot more to come, so stay tuned.  Operation Slap Shot is just starting to heat up, and you can be sure Iíll keep you posted on all of the relevant developments.  As well, mark March 9th on your calendars (NHL trading deadline), and keep checking the website for more commentary.  As soon as the Olympics are over itís right back to business, big time.  Teams play no less than 15 games in the month of March, so more back to back nights, and plenty of action as the playoff race is on.  Enjoy the Olympic Hockey tournament everyone, and go Canada go!!!


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