WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah -- Wasn't the National Hockey League's appearance at the Winter Games supposed to further expose it, both in North America and internationally?
The preliminary round has exposed the NHL brass, all right.
As bumbling, disingenuous hypocrites.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman has been Nixonesque is his tortuous rationalizations, and that has been insulting. It has been insulting not only to the fans and the players from the preliminary round nations, but to anyone paying attention to this mess. Does the NHL really think we're that stupid?
The Olympics were going to be a celebration of one of the league's strengths, its international talent pool and fan base. Perhaps it still will work out that way. If the United States or Canada wins the gold medal, all will be forgotten and forgiven, and NHL officials will suffer separated shoulders attempting to pat themselves on the back.
Maybe the NHL brass even will deserve the self-congratulation.
But the NHL should be embarrassed over the preliminary-round fiasco, and it shouldn't be allowed to forget it after the "Big Six" teams begin playing later this week.
This needs to be made clear: That isn't so much an unqualified excoriation of the league for not allowing star players to miss NHL games to instead appear in the preliminary round. That stand is short-sighted, counterproductive and even inconsistent with the rationale for NHL participation in the Olympics in the first place. Yet it also is defensible.
The Slovaks, the Latvians, the Germans all are making big money in the NHL. As wrenching as it has been for some of them, especially those involved in the Slovak Republic's failed Shuttle System that won't even get it out of the preliminary round, it's fair to wonder what the Slovaks would have been saying if the NHL had said they could go -- as long as they forfeited pay for the games they missed.
More important, the NHL's head-in-the-sand handling of this issue -- involving what's-the-big-deal-denial, inconsistency and insensitivity -- has been nothing short of shameful. It was an issue even before the Sabres' Miroslav Satan publicly expressed his disappointment early in the season when he was told he wouldn't be allowed to miss Buffalo games to appear for the Slovaks in the preliminary round.
The NHL insists the policy has been the same all along.
That's true, if the NHL policy has been obfuscation.
First, the NHL said players couldn't miss NHL games to play in the preliminary round, but the inference was that the final decision was up to individual teams. So general managers, such as Buffalo's Darcy Regier, were taking the heat for "denying" players -- in his case, Satan -- the right to miss NHL games. Then individual teams began clearing players to wedge in single-game appearances in the preliminary round.
The Sharks decided it would be OK for Marco Sturm to miss a San Jose game against Carolina to play for Germany. But an Eastern Conference team complained that it might help the Hurricanes in a playoff race, and Bettman harumphed that the Sharks would be fined $1 million if they didn't field their "best" team. If the Sharks knew that was the policy all along, why did they publicly clear Sturm in the first place? Either the Sharks were grandstanding and forcing the commissioner to take the hit, or the policy hadn't been either formulated or communicated.
Then the Colorado Avalanche backtracked. Originally, general manager Pierre Lacroix had been adamant that Colorado wouldn't allow backup goalie to play for Switzerland in the preliminary round. Aebischer, the only Swiss player in the NHL, was distraught when he heard about it. Lacroix said he thought he was following the league mandate, but then he -- to his credit -- conditionally allowed Aebischer to go to Salt Lake before the shutdown. The catch: If Patrick Roy were injured, all bets were off.
Isn't that heartwarming? Of course it is. But Arturs Irbe wanted the same consideration. The veteran Latvian goalie was cleared by the Hurricanes to play for Latvia on Sunday against the Slovaks, and then also Tuesday against the Germans. The Hurricanes had manipulated the rotation so Tom Barrasso would play Sunday night against San Jose, but the NHL vetoed Irbe's early departure and forced him to sit and watch Barrasso Sunday instead of playing for his homeland at Salt Lake. As it turned out, Latvia's 6-6 tie with the Slovaks meant the Latvia-Germany game Tuesday will decide one preliminary round winner, so it wasn't a major problem for Latvia. But it could have been.
There are cosmetic differences in Irbe's and Aebischer's situations: Aebischer is a sporadically used backup -- who was used on Friday night at Minnesota, getting his second straight shutout, before coming to Salt Lake to play for Switzerland in a 3-3 tie with France Saturday. Irbe shares the job with Barrasso. But the NHL's lame justification for not allowing Irbe to go to Salt Lake to play against Slovakia -- that if Barrasso was injured, the Sharks would have to use a minor-leaguer -- is absurd. Why? Because if Patrick Roy had been injured in any of the three Colorado games Aebischer was scheduled to miss, the Avalanche would be using minor-leaguer Phillipe Sauve, the Buffalo-born son of former NHL goalie Bob Sauve.
IT'S THE SAME THING!
The Atlanta Thrashers cleared winger Lubos Bartecko to play all three games for the Slovaks -- both for humanitarian and pragmatic reasons. The Thrashers' schedule this week meant that Bartecko had been part of the shuttle in and out of Salt Lake, he would have been exhausted, so Atlanta said, what the hell, Lubos, stay there and have a good time.
The NHL didn't bat an eye. Why? Bartecko is not a difference-making defenseman -- at least in the positive sense -- and the league implicitly was saying: Lubos, you stink, so we don't care.
That sort of value judgment only highlighted the stupidity of this process.
The NHL's "best-team" stance is an absolute joke in a sport in which teams routinely rest star regulars down the stretch. The Red Wings have done it and will do it again. Colorado allowed Ray Bourque to take a weekend off when the Avalanche played the lowly Islanders because, as coach Bob Hartley pointed out at the time, he hadn't had an All-Star break in years. At the All-Star game weekend in Los Angeles, when Bettman was asked to reconcile that phenomenon with his "best-team" stance on the Sturm issue, he acted as if the question had been asked in German and went into a long-winded and convoluted explanation about how the compressed schedule wasn't really compressed and about "coaches' decisions" -- and none of it addressed the point at hand.
But that's the NHL approach. It's Nixonesque. Hear only the questions you want to hear and rattle off the numbers you heard in the briefing.
So, again, this isn't only about the issue of whether these men should have been allowed to miss NHL games for the preliminary round. That part is debatable. The NHL's bigger sin is its cavalier handling of the preliminary round imbroglio.
To steal one of Bettman's pet phrases: Now, having said that ...
Anyone who has been at preliminary round games would have a tough time sticking to the position that the NHL's position was defensible. The angst on display, especially among the players on the Slovakian shuttle -- Ziggy Palffy, Satan, Michal Handzus, Marian Hossa, Pavol Demitra -- was palpable. Satan's post-game speech after the loss to Germany was eloquent and heart-felt, and his point hit home. "If you guys would have been in the situation, I'm sure you would have been writing about it a lot," Satan said, meaning that if it had happened to Canada or the United States, it would have been a hotter issue. "If it doesn't touch you, because you're not in that situation, you probably can't understand how hard it is. I don't think the system is fair. I wish the people running things and making decisions would realize it."
The Slovaks' strategy backfired because Peter Stastny tried to run players in and out of Salt Lake and had to go shorthanded because of the 20-skater roster limit for the entire preliminary round. It seemed workable on paper -- or, more to the point, on the map. Salt Lake, unlike Nagano, was a reachable destination, and the shuttle didn't seem impractical. Going with Slovak players from European leagues didn't work in Japan, so this also seemed a reasonable alternative approach.
In hindsight, the Slovaks would have been better off going with a set roster of the players the could line up, or some Slovaks should have just come out and said: "Sorry, (insert name of general manager), I'm going to Salt Lake, this is important to me, and I hope you will respect that. If you want to suspend and-or not pay me, go right ahead." If NHL teams had allowed them to go, it would have been great P.R. for a sport that needs it.
"I don't want to make excuses," said Slovak captain Robert Petrovicky, who played 208 games in the NHL before returning to Europe. "But we just ask for five days from the NHL. Five days off! If it's miss a couple of games, move some (preliminary-round) games to July, I don't care. If we have to play this pre-Olympic tournament, we should be able to do it with the full Slovakian roster. It could be like that for the Germans, too, or whatever. It wouldn't kill anybody. If everyone could have been allowed to come here the day before (the preliminary round), some of the guys from Europe wouldn't be here, but that's OK. That wouldn't kill anybody. We would have everybody here, together."
Florida's Sandis Ozlinsh played for Latvia on Sunday against the Slovaks, then returned to the Panthers. He was honest enough to admit he originally wasn't wild about playing at Salt Lake, but that he had warmed to the idea. "Before the opening ceremony, I didn't really feel that excited about coming," Ozolinsh said. "Then when I saw our team and the captain carrying the flag, marching in, I got goosebumps, and I knew this was the place I wanted to be."
Isn't that the point?
And what of the goodwill issue with the fans? The NHL is trying to cultivate the international market, and to a large extent, it has been succeeding. We can tell that from e-mails and souvenir sales and everything else, and the fact is that many Slovaks, for example, have taken this as if Gary Bettman is standing there, sticking out his tongue at them.
At the Slovakians' tie with Latvia on Sunday, Poul Vasek, a 33-year-old stockbroker from Nitra, Slovak Republic, was wearing a Slovak jersey, with Miroslav Satan's number (18) and name on the back, and a moose head hat.
Satan, of course, was back with the Sabres, playing that day against New Jersey.
"Some NHL players are playing now, and some players played in first game, but it is not fair to Latvia and to Slovakia that everybody cannot play," Vasek said. "It is NOT fair. For Canada and for USA, everybody can play."
Valdis Keris was one of many fans wearing red Latvia jerseys, but the 57-year-old lives in Torrance, Calif. For him, as the Olympics are for many Americans, the Salt Lake Games can be a salute to family roots. Keris was a toddler when his Latvian parents ended up in a displaced persons camp in Germany at the end of World War II, and the family immigrated to the United States on a U.S. Army troop ship in 1949.
"I speak the language, my kids speak the language, and we're tight," Keris said. Keris works for an airline, and he said he has been back to his homeland "about 20 times."
Keris was well-versed on Irbe's quest to play for Latvia on Sunday, and he could recite elements of Irbe's and Ozolinsh's involvement in the hockey programs back home, including their partnership in a new sports center in the Latvian capital of Riga. "It's a shame that Irbe's not here yet," Keris said. "Come on, these are the Olympics! Miss a game? B-i-i-i-g deal!"
It is to Gary Bettman.
The NHL would have been better off setting a policy and sticking with it. Either say that if NHL players wanted to play in the preliminary round, fine; or that there would be no exceptions. The former would have been the noble thing to do, whether the players were docked their pay or not, and great for the league in the long run. The latter would have been defensible. But the league's half-baked, non-sensical approach has been a joke.
Terry Frei of The Denver Post is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His feedback address, for e-mails signed with names and hometowns, is ChipHilton23@hotmail.com.