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The NHL's Great experiment

Let the comparisons begin.

National Hockey League superstars are making their first foray into Olympic competition, similar to the "Dream Team" approach of stockpiling National Basketball Association All-Stars on the United States' squad for the 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona, Spain.And while it may not be fair, this is one of the most anticipated hockey tournaments in the history of the sport - an eight-team race for Olympic gold involving some of the world's best and highest paid professional athletes.

It also represents the best opportunity to inject some octane into what has been thus far (Picabo excepted) a vanilla Olymics for the folks back in the States. Oh, and did we mention that CBS could use a good kickstart for its sagging ratings too.

The original Dream Team was as advertised, featuring the likes of Michael Jordan, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Charles Barkley and the Utah Jazz's duo of Karl Malone and John Stockton.

The NHL Olympians, which include names like Gretzky, Hull, Lindros, Ritcher, Roy, Forsberg, Federov, Bure and Hasek are a star-studded, 125-player package spread over not just one national team but many - mostly among the six medal contenders of the United States, Canada, Finland, Russia, the Czech Republic and defending Olympic champion Sweden.

"I know there'll be tendency for some people in this country to look at our 1998 Olympic hockey squad as another `Dream Team' like in basketball at Barcelona and Atlanta," said David Ogean, executive director of USA Hockey.

"This, of course, isn't the case because the U.S. never has dominated the world in hockey as it has in basketball. So, we prefer to look at the '98 Olympics as the `Dream Tournament.' It should be as good as any ever held because the change in the hockey landscape means Canada no longer is a slam dunk to win."

The U.S. proved just that in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey championship, when the Americans shocked their neighbors to the north by claiming the best-of-three series. The victory solidified the Americans' belief in themselves; it gave Canada the impetus to improve and regain its worldwide bragging rights. Here's a quick look at the similarities and differences between the Dream Teams of hockey and basketball.

- SEASONS: Basketball is a winter sport . . . except when it comes to the Olympics. The sport has long been a part of the Summer Games schedule, which make it possible for collegiate and professional players to compete during their regular seasons and then come together as an Olympic team.

But hockey is played in the Winter Olympics in February, right smack in the middle of the traditional hockey season. To accommodate its players for the Olympics, the NHL instituted its "Winter Break" - a 16-day moratorium on league play during the Nagano Games.

Proponents say it will only add to the NHL's global image - that's evidenced by a high-profile Nagano shop selling NHL jerseys and memorabilia just a block or so away from the Big Hat hockey arena where the men's games will be played.

However, critics say it's all a matter of Olympic overkill, and that NHL commissioner Gary Bettman, who once worked at the knee of NBA counterpart David Stern, is trying to mimic the international successes of his former mentor.

- COMPETITION: Admit it, when the Dream Team took to Barcelona's basketball court, the question wasn't if it would win or not, but by how much it would win. Margins of victory received less press than where Barkley was putting his elbows on any particular day.

Men's hockey, however, will be the most competitive of contests at the 1998 Nagano Games - and certainly one of the most-watched around the world.

More than a thousand fans and onlookers jammed Nagano Station when Team Canada arrived on the Shinkansen (bullet train) earlier this week.

Most of the slots on the 23-player rosters for the aforementioned Big Six hockey teams in Nagano are filled with NHL-experienced talent, so six different nations throughout the world think they have a Dream Team.

- HOME, SWEET HOME: The 92 U.S. Dream Team would have nothing to do with the Olympic Village in Barcelona - what with its dorm-style rooms, shared bathrooms and lack of air conditioning - and quickly checked itself into a $900-a-night hotel. And when they weren't worrying about the competition - and they didn't have to worry much - most Dream Team-ers busied themselves with gambling junkets to Monte Carlo and golf with PGA Tour pro Payne Stewart.

NHL Olympians instead are - for the most part "roughing it" at the Olympic Village in Nagano. Part of it is the Olympic experience, and part is the NHL and its players union wanting the superstars-turned-Olympians to be model citizens, in turn boosting TV ratings and generating interest in the sport.

And then there are the players' perks, which include first-class airfare for the 18-hour flight to Japan and the allowance to bring a guest to Nagano. That guest is given a complimentary travel package worth about $15,000, which includes first-class airfare, lodging at a first-class hotel and game tickets.

There has been some thought that the NHL players may end up moving in with parents, friends, wives or girlfriends who are staying at the luxury hotels. But most seem to be holding out quite well so far.

"The village has been great; the food has been great," said Brett Hull of Team USA and the NHL's St. Louis Blues. "We have seven guys in our place in four different bedrooms. Richter (U.S. goalie Mike Richter of the New York Rangers) is in our room, and he is like the `Den Mom.' I like having roommates.

"I am really interested in meeting the other athletes from different sports," Hull added. "I don't know if I need to learn how to do the other sports - I mean, I don't want to learn to luge or anything. I don't need to go that fast."

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Additional Information

Team USA

Lines and defensive pairings for the U.S. Olympic men's hockey team:

Lines

1. C Mike Modano, W Bill Guerin, W Keith Tkachuk.

2. C Doug Weight, W Adam Deadmarsh, W Shawn McEachern.

3. C Jeremy Roenick, W John LeClair, W Tony Amonte.

4. C Pat LaFontaine, W Brett Hull, W. Joel Otto.

Defensive parings

- Mathieu Schnieder/Kerin Hatcher

- Keith Carney/Bryan Berard

- Brian Leetch/Derian Hatcher

- Chris Chelios/Gary Suter