As experiments go, the NHL's marriage to the Olympics accomplished what it was supposed to do with a fiercely competitive and immensely enjoyable hockey tournament involving many of the world's best players - despite the upsets that robbed it of some drama back home.
But as the researchers often say, further examination is necessary before calling it a success and deciding to do it again in four years.The NHL suspended its regular season for 17 days to allow upwards of 120 of its best players to compete for an Olympic gold medal. But the honeymoon lasted barely midway through the tournament when one of Sweden's players, defenseman Ulf Samuelsson, was booted because he held passports from two nations, including the United States. That's a violation of Swedish law.
It got worse a few days later, when the favored Americans were eliminated after losing three of four games they played. First some of them trashed the experience - alternation captain Keith Tkachuk called it "a waste of time" - then a few of them trashed their rooms and furniture in the athlete's village, resulting in negative headlines in many languages around the world. The ugly Americans, we were.
NHL players managed, however, to avoid committing the hat trick of embarrassments. The great Sudafed scare never materialized; no players violated the stringent Olympic drug policy.
TV ratings took a beating, too, at least in North America - because of all the upsets. Team USA's early departure killed interest in the United States. But it was worse in Canada, where one of the major sponsoring breweries offered to give fans a wake-up call so they could get up and watch hockey live in the wee hours of the morning in such places as Toronto and Montreal.
But there was similar disappointment, too, in Sweden, where there were great expectations to repeat as Olympic champions as it did in 1994.
In the absence of the three favorites, however the world learned not only that European hockey is alive and well, but that all the best foreign players aren't necessarily in the NHL. The champions from the Czech Republic, for instance, had just 13 NHL players. And Finland managed to win the bronze medal over powerful Canada using a lineup featuring just 12 players employed by NHL clubs.
Will the NHL return to the Olympics in 2002 at Salt Lake City? Probably. Should pro players go again? Absolutely not. Not in ice hockey. Not in basketball or baseball either.
The Olympics weren't meant to be a stage for players more comfortable in luxury hotel suites, or for players willing to create a kind of reverse image as humble hockey players by staying in the dormitories of the athletes village only to wind up complaining about them - then vandalizing them
For as wonderful story as Dominik Hasek and the underdog Czechs turned out to be, it wasn't quite the same was it? No, the Olympics are about a group of kids winning against incredible odds and giving us a miracle in 1980. But the closest we got to that in 1998 was a group of women, a special team and a terrific story, who were hardly an underdog when the first Olympic women's ice hockey tournament began.
For now, NHL commissioner Gary Bettman is taking a pragmatic approach about the future of the NHL in the Olympics.
"It's been a very good experience for all of us," he said, clearly forgetting about the PR problem the league has over the debacle caused by Team USA. "I can't say now if the NHL players will be back in 2002 in Salt Lake City or not. I can just say that I do have positive feelings about the tournament here."
The professionals have plenty of opportunity to participate in international events such as the World Championships and the World Cup, where guys such as Wayne Gretzky, Brett Hull and Hasek can represent their countries.
It wasn't a horrible marriage, the NHL and the Olympics. But there are still too many good reasons to have it annulled.