General Manager Craig Patrick and USA Hockey are scheduled to meet on Saturday to finalize their choices for the 2002 Olympic team, a club that, until a more appropriate nickname comes along, qualifies as a reunion of the Village Idiots. The damage done to the three Olympic suites in Nagano several hours after the team was eliminated by the Czech Republic in the quarterfinals was relatively minor (broken chairs, gouges in a wall, a discharged fire extinguisher that ended up in a courtyard five floors below), and the frat boy indiscretions were apparently limited to three players. However, the 1998 Olympians—a majority of whom will be back for the Salt Lake City Games, including, in all likelihood, the culprits—misguidedly embraced the dubious concept of collective guilt. If one was guilty of loutish behavior, all were.
Fearing lifetime Olympic bans, according to a U.S. hockey official, they took a vow not to reveal the names of the miscreants. Almost four years later they have been true to their word. "It was a black mark but a strong point too," says Brett Hull, a member of the 1998 squad who has been preselected to play in Salt Lake City, "having a group that stuck together and wouldn't narc on the guys."
The players chose this perverse notion of togetherness over the virtue that has been drilled into them since the first day they played organized hockey: accountability. The three culprits hid behind defenseman Chris Chelios, the captain, who caused none of the damage but who mailed a note of apology and a $3,000 check from his own pocket to cover repairs. This was supposed to be the end of the story. In fact the cover-up breathed life into it, turning a potential four-day tale into a four-year whodunit.
After Nagano, USA Hockey president Walter L. Bush Jr. vowed the players who caused the damage would not be invited back. But a hockey official with knowledge of the incident said St. Louis Blues left wing Keith Tkachuk, who has already been named to the 2002 team, was the central figure in a USA Hockey investigation. Through a Blues spokesman Tkachuk said that whatever happened was in the past and as a group the players did what they could to make it better.
Doug Palazzari, who became USA Hockey's executive director in June 1999, says he has no direct knowledge of who was involved in the incident, which speaks either to a half-hearted investigation (players were sent letters asking to confess) or a stunning lack of curiosity. "There was a great deal of overreaction at the time," Palazzari says.
The 23 U.S. players in Nagano, whose punishment was not being permitted to visit the White House with other Olympians and not getting the Olympic rings awarded by the U.S. Olympic Committee, have hung together. Rather than drag down a country's hockey program, it would have been nice if the few would have been man enough to hang separately.