He was UMaine’s first Olympic hockey player, playing in Calgary in 1988. With more than 550 NHL games on his resume since 1989, Eric Weinrich has settled into a defenseman’s defenseman position with the Chicago Blackhawks, but mention the Olympics and there is an immediate smile.
This year NHL players will participate in the Olympics for the first time. Sunday in Chicago I sat with Weinrich in the Chicago dressing room discussing the pros and cons of this new-look Olympic hockey competition.
“NHL players have had the World Cup [formerly the Canada Cup] to play in,” said Weinrich. “I think that’s enough. We don’t need to compete in the Olympics.”
For Weinrich, the visions as an amateur of competing in the Team USA uniform was a piece of wonderment he hopes will be continued for other youth.
“It was a dream,” he said of making the team in 1988. “That was something to work for, whether you ever made it to the NHL or not. It’s too bad to take that dream away from guys who will never play here [the NHL].”
Weinrich points to the 1980 U.S. gold-medal effort that upset the Soviet Red Army team and the players who went on to be the “do you believe in miracles team” team.
“That is what the Olympics should be. Let the pros have their own World Cup games, but let the Olympics be the dream,” he said.
“The first responsibility of NHL players is to their [NHL] team,” Weinrich added. “What kind of condition are the Olympic pros going to be in when they get back?”
They will be returning just in time for NHL teams to be making the final drive to the playoffs. How many of those Olympic players will come back injured? Those issues concern a lot of NHL owners and coaches.
The NHL schedule has been condensed to accommodate the 2 1/2 weeks the league shuts down for the Nagano Games. There has been constant complaining this year that the travel schedule is downgrading the caliber of NHL games and wearing out the players. Those who participate in the Olympics will have no break from that schedule, but instead will add travel to Japan and fierce games to the elongated hockey season.
NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman convinced the owners to agree to the Olympic plan, believing the television exposure of the games would increase interest in the NHL.
“When will the games be aired in the U.S.?” Weinrich asked.
The answer to that question is 12:30 a.m. on CBS.
The network wants to carry the U.S. games live, but there’s a 14-hour difference between Nagano and the East Coast.
“The people who will stay up to watch are hockey fans already,” Weinrich said.
In fact, they’ll have to be hockey fanatics to be up at 3 a.m. watching the end of a game, no matter how good the action.
There will be some great Olympic hockey games, but the impact on expanding interest in the NHL is problematic. If the magic of the NHL playoffs doesn’t attract more viewers, is it worth denying the dream Weinrich had to other amateurs?
As for the actual games, Weinrich likes Sweden.
“Watch out for Team Sweden. That bigger European ice surface makes a real difference. Speed matters and Sweden may have the fastest team there,” he said. “The big surface prevents defensemen from cutting skaters off. You really have to stand people up to stop them.”
That is a tough task against a team that flies around the ice like Sweden will.
Weinrich will watch his Blackhawk teammates and former UMaine player Keith Carney take on that task for Team USA. As he watches, that dream from 1988 will inevitably be rekindled. For Eric Weinrich, he can know that forever those are his footprints that Carney, Paul Kariya, and future Black Bear Olympians will follow in search of the gold.