Pull plug on pros

TURIN, Italy – After Latvia and the United States tied in men's hockey Wednesday, after the passionate Latvian fans waved flags and danced in the aisles, after the vast majority of remote controls in the U.S. tuned into American Idol, Arturs Irbe summed up the entire thing.

"You can say that this probably means more to us than to the American team," the former NHL and current Latvian goalie said.

Don't stop there, Arturs. It isn't just the American team that may not care all that much about its performance here at the Winter Olympics. It's all of America itself.

Every day, it seems tougher to be a hockey fan. Every day brings another reminder of how far the sport has slipped, how unlikely it is to ever capture imaginations again.

This isn't simply about a weak effort against the Latvians. This is about how another of NHL commissioner Gary Bettman's marketing experiments is failing, how another winter seems lost, how not even the Olympic Games can excite anyone.

Maybe I'm missing it, being way over here, but is there any substantial number of people talking hockey back in the States? Is there? On TV? On radio? In corner bars?

With a full 23-man roster of NHL players, the U.S. has much better talent than Latvia (which has two), but it lacks the element of team. This isn't the fault of the players or coaches, who we believe are trying their best.

It's this silly system. Back in 1998, Bettman and all his suits at the NHL rubbed their MBAs together and decided it would be genius to shut the league down for two and a half weeks every four years and let the pros play.

Unless a drop in the sport's U.S. popularity was the goal, it hasn't worked. Our silver medal in Salt Lake did so much good for the NHL it was out of business three seasons later. It will do less, if possible, this time.

I love hockey. I have loved it my entire life. I would love to have an Olympic team to get excited about, but this isn't it. This never will be it. Thank goodness for the U.S. women.

Here is what this bizarre concept did for USA hockey. With the NHL playing on Sunday, the team couldn't gather for the flight to Italy until Monday. They arrived Tuesday, got a grand total of one, single-hour practice and, just like that, played on Wednesday.

U.S. coach Peter Laviolette wanted to spend time on the trans-Atlantic flight going over game plans but the players were so exhausted that he had to scrap that.

"I feel that all I (can) do it put in short-term plans," Laviolette shrugged.

Gee, and you wonder why Latvia, which has a real team that has been together for months, forming bonds, working on timing, learning to trust each other, wanted this more. How couldn't they?

Team USA isn't a national team. It isn't even a team. It is just a collection of guys. This is not something that should be representing our country. This isn't the best we can send here.

This is just a weak promotional effort by Bettman, the worst sports marketer of all-time and the worst thing to ever happen to hockey, the only commissioner to kill an entire season of a major pro league. This is a professional all-star team that the USOC allows to wrap itself in the flag, and use the Olympics for the national TV exposure the NHL no longer earns on its own.

The result is a team that isn't all that endearing, despite being full of good guys. Who wants to hear that our millionaire pros are underdogs to make the medal round?

The gutsy move for the U. S. Olympic Committee would be to unilaterally withdraw from the NHL's meddling and make our national hockey team a real team, put together with training camps and players bonding for months. We'll send college kids, minor leaguers, old guys and the best of the rest, even if no one else will. Canada and the others can do what works best for them.

But we won't let Gary Bettman ruin this level of the game too.

Of course, it might get ugly. Of course, we might lose. College guys and journeymen pros can't compete against NHL all-stars. Right?

You know, like Latvia. Like 1980.