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    Saturday, February 7, 1998

    The Great flag debate

    By AL STRACHAN -- Toronto Sun
      NAGANO -- It would have been the perfect way for the National Hockey League to enter the Olympics as a full participant -- with Wayne Gretzky carrying Canada's flag.
     It was a concept that had been considered right from the earliest days, back when the NHL was starting to face the reality of shutting down a season to take part in an Olympic hockey tournament.
     At one point, there was even thought of having the New York Rangers finish their pre-Olympics schedule a couple of days earlier than everybody else so Gretzky could get here in time.
     He, of course, was totally in favor of it. He has always dreamed of taking part in the Olympics, and carrying the flag in the only appearance he will ever make as a player would make the occasion even more unforgettable.
     For fans, it would have been ideal too. Even though Gretzky has a few critics in the media, the average fan has made it clear in recent weeks that he is revered in Canada. The Hockey News selected him as the top player in history by only the tiniest of margins, but in a subsequent poll among fans, he was a runaway winner.
     And when The Toronto Sun's Internet site, SLAM! Sports, asked for opinions as to who should be the flag-bearer for Canada, Gretzky finished with twice as many votes as second-place Elvis Stojko.
     It would have been a memorable moment in our sporting history. The best-known athlete this country has ever produced would have led the nation's Olympic entourage into the stadium, proudly bearing the Canadian flag.
     But unfortunately, all of this turned out to be nothing more than a dream. The bumblers who run -- in the loosest sense of the word -- the Canadian Figure Skating Association failed to insist upon the honor being given to Stojko. In fact, they didn't even nominate him.
     Meanwhile, the other politically correct bumblers who run the Canadian Olympic Association, having failed to find an aboriginal lesbian, did the next best thing and did what we always do in this country. They gave it to a French-Canadian.
     This is certainly not meant to be a criticism of Jean-Luc Brassard. He's a fine man and an excellent athlete in his chosen sport -- if it is a sport.
     Nor is it necessarily a bad approach to alternate between English and French flag-bearers. If we're going to keep the country together, we have to make the people who founded the civilization as we know it feel that they are equal partners.
     But no one in the teeming masses that comprise the COA has the guts to stand up and say, "It was the turn of a French-Canadian." Instead, they natter on about criteria, nominations, procedures and precedents. They should simply have said, "Hey, we're shafting the two most popular Canadian athletes in this Olympics because we're bureaucrats and we're covering our not inconsiderable asses."
     Their snubbing of Stojko has been well explained by The Sun's Steve Buffery.
     As for Gretzky's case, they quietly tried to shift the blame to the New York Rangers, whispering -- not for attribution, of course -- that overtures had indeed been made, but it was suggested that the matter should not be pushed too far.
     The Rangers make an easy target. They're Americans and they're not here to defend themselves.
     But it just so happens that they're paying Gretzky $6.5 million US -- which is about $6.5 million US more than the COA is paying him -- and it also happens that the Rangers are in the middle of a battle for a playoff spot.
     The Rangers happen to be a very classy organization. If there were a way to let Gretzky go, they would surely have done it. But there are NHL rules against such things and if the COA wanted Gretzky, it should have made overtures to the league to amend the schedule accordingly.
     After all, the Olympic schedule was put together four years ago. Had the COA seriously wanted Gretzky, it had plenty of time to indulge in the sport in which they are the most proficient -- lobbying.
     But the COA would never dream of such a thing. There are procedures, you know. And application forms -- in triplicate, of course. And there are committee appraisals and studies and precedent evaluations.
     Just because we could have accorded the greatest Olympic honor to the greatest athlete we have ever known doesn't matter.
     Do you suppose that Brazil would have hesitated for a second if it had ever had the chance to have Pele as the Olympic flag-bearer?
     But that's not the Canadian way. More important that we follow the procedures and make sure we're politically correct in the process. If only there were medals for that, we'd dominate the Games.