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Ducks, Canucks Warm Up Japan for Five-Ring Circus

Hockey: Two-game series provides preview of Olympic Games, which will feature NHL players for the first time.

October 04, 1997|ELLIOTT TEAFORD | TIMES STAFF WRITER

TOKYO — Mark Messier chops at Pavel Bure's stick and the puck pops loose to Paul Kariya, who rockets down the left wing, fakes out Dmitri Mironov and beats Mikhail Shtalenkov with a knuckling shot into the top corner of the net for the game-winning goal.

Scouting the game from the press box, Guy Hebert and Scott Young wince and Jack Ferreira and Ron Wilson exchange worried looks.

The possibilities are limitless when NHL players, coaches and executives participate in the Olympic Games for the first time during the league's break from Feb. 7-25.

Linemates will become enemies. Others will remain teammates. Enemies will become teammates.

This weekend, Messier and Bure are teammates on the Vancouver Canucks. Kariya eventually will sign a new contract and join Mironov and Shtalenkov on the Mighty Ducks. Hebert and Young play for the Ducks too. Ferreira used to be Wilson's boss in Anaheim.

But come the Nagano Olympics, Messier and Kariya will be playing for Team Canada. Bure, Mironov and Shtalenkov will join forces for Russia. Hebert and Young hope to be coached by Team USA's Wilson with Ferreira acting as assistant general manager.

To be sure, the two-game series Friday and tonight between the Ducks and Canucks at Yoyogi Arena in Tokyo is viewed as a bold move into a foreign market by the NHL. There are new fans to be won and new money to be earned.

But these games are merely a warmup for bigger, even more global things to come in the Olympic Games.

The United States, Canada, the Czech Republic, Finland, Russia and Sweden have already qualified for the championship round. Eight other nations play a round-robin tournament to determine the other two teams in the final eight.

It's hoped by NHL and international hockey officials that this tournament will eclipse the interest of even Team USA's Miracle on Ice at Lake Placid in 1980. It's certainly viewed by all concerned as a far bigger deal than last year's inaugural World Cup of Hockey, which used to go by the more egocentric name of Canada Cup.

"[NHL players] will make this Olympics' hockey one of the best competitions ever to take place," said Steve Solomon, NHL senior vice president who spent this week pinch-hitting for Commissioner Gary Bettman, who had a family function scheduled and could not come to Tokyo.

"These games are a dream come true," said Shoichi Tomita, a Japanese hockey official. "The impact of these games and the Olympics will judge the future of Japanese hockey for the next generation."

The Japanese team, inexperienced, undermanned and included in the field only because it is the host nation, is among the eight qualifying nations.

Many of the nations playing in the Olympics will be represented. In addition to those mentioned, the Ducks also have Teemu Selanne from Finland, Tomas Sandstrom from Sweden and Ruslan Salei from Belarus.

Vancouver's Alexander Mogilny, who like Kariya is unsigned and not playing this weekend, is expected to play for Russia. Jyrki Lumme will join Selanne in playing for Finland.

U.S. and Canadian players expect to learn whether they have been selected Dec. 1. Wilson, who coached the U.S. to the World Cup victory before Ferreira fired him as Duck coach in May, is considered a slam dunk to be named coach. Ferreira expects to be assistant general manager.

"I'd like to think I have a chance because of playing on the World Cup team," said Hebert, who played with Young last year for Team USA. "Obviously, Mike Richter is penciled in as the No. 1 goaltender. I hope they go with whoever's hot at the time, and I hope that's me. If not, it's been a chance of a lifetime to come over here [to face the Canucks]."

Most of the other nations have already selected their teams.

Picking a gold-medal favorite isn't difficult, Selanne said: "It has to be Canada or the U.S."

After all, they were the finalists in the World Cup and with the old Soviet Union broken apart, the Russian team isn't considered as deep or as invincible as it once was.

And that means you could see Kariya trying to beat his old coach, Wilson, or Hebert trying to make a big save on Kariya as Canada and the U.S. battle for the gold medal Feb. 22.

The TV audience will be huge on both sides of the border, to be sure, but Ferreira believes even greater interest and ratings will be seen when Salt Lake City hosts the Olympics in prime time in 2002.

"This is going to be a great learning experience," said Ferreira, who has been an executive with a number of U.S. national teams over the years. "But when I think you'll really see it take off is in Salt Lake City."

Opinions are mixed about the impact the Olympics will have on NHL games once the season resumes. Some have suggested NHL teammates might harbor anger over a cheap shot or even a bitter loss during the Olympics. Others believe the Olympics will halt any momentum an NHL team may have generated before the break.

"When the players return from the Olympics, there will be a concern about them getting back to the pace of the NHL right away," New York Ranger General Manager Neil Smith told the Canadian Press this week. "Hopefully, there will be no hangover-effect after non-Olympic players get a vacation in the middle of the season."

Duck Coach Pierre Page isn't worried returning players won't get along after the Olympics.

"There's too much at stake when they come back for the stretch run in March," Page said. "Winning will always bring you closer together. [But] I think the Olympics will be bigger than a Canada Cup or a World Cup. This gives people a lot more reason to watch it because the best players in the world are going to be playing."

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