Hockey team ends pre-Games tour with odd mix


January 19, 1992|By Bill Glauber

The coach is a retired schoolteacher who once defiantly assumed the role of Ugly American.

Gathered on the roster is a collection of castoffs, kids and patriots who have been assembled and then reassembled on a journey that makes a presidential campaign appear like a sprint.

There is the goaltender who survived a horrific season with the Baltimore Skipjacks.

There is the forward who once skated for lire in a snowstorm in Italy.

There is the college star who once tended bar in Boston, the teen-ager poised to make a fortune in Long Island and the veteran seeking only redemption in France.

And, overshadowing them all, is the miracle of 1980.

For the U.S. Olympic hockey team, a season that began last May with a tryout camp in Lake Placid, N.Y., will end next month in a chalet-style rink that sits in a village perched in the French Alps.

The blade-runners are exhausted.

After stops in 46 cities in 21 states and three Canadian provinces, after surviving a blackout in Cromwell, Conn., a deep-sea fishing expedition off the California coast and a 1 a.m. fire drill in Philadelphia, they're in the home stretch. Their tour of North America concludes Wednesday night with a game against the Washington Capitals in Landover.

But the trip to the 1992 Winter Olympic Games has really just begun.

Twelve years removed from its miracle triumph over the Soviet Union and gold-medal performance at the 1980 Lake Placid Games, the U.S. hockey team is struggling for victories and playing before empty seats in NHL arenas.

The Cold War on ice that gave the team its dramatic hook with a flag-waving American public has vanished.

The Soviet Union doesn't even exist anymore.

Now, this is just a hockey story, a team of grinders and goalies playing a rough, relentless game that leaves most of the country cold.

"People who have never seen a hockey game remember 1980," forward Clark Donatelli said. "We have to live with that. Everyone always remembers that gold medal. Now, we want to win a gold medal. And if we do win it, it will be just as great a miracle."

Though the hockey world has changed, with North American pros in the Olympics and Russians and Czechs in the NHL, the Americans remain underdogs. In the previous decade, the team compiled one miracle at Lake Placid in 1980 and two debacles at Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, in 1984 and Calgary, Alberta, in 1988.

Medal hopes are not being scaled back in France. Despite a 16-29-8 record during its world tour, this team talks of winning gold, talks of creating its own miracle at the 12-team Olympic tournament in Meribel, the center of "the three valleys" that lie beyond the crossroads city of Albertville.

"I like the expectations," coach Dave Peterson said. "If we didn't have any expectations, we wouldn't have fun. Our first goal is to go and win a medal, preferably a gold."

Some might say Peterson is a glutton for punishment, returning for another nasty and improbable mission. At the 1988 Olympics, Peterson, a retired high school business teacher from Minnesota, screamed at officials and bickered with the media.

It was part huff and part bluff. What appeared to be a personal meltdown was actually a calculated effort by Peterson to shift the focus and the pressure from the players to himself.

"Dave shouldered the blame," said Scott Fusco, a 1984 and 1988 Olympian. "He didn't feel it was fair that he was being criticized by people who didn't understand what we were trying to do. He felt they were coming off as experts. Some of it, he really didn't handle well."

The 1988 team, led by defenseman Brian Leetch and goaltender Mike Richter, may have been the most talented in U.S. history. Ten players graduated to the NHL. But Team USA entered the Olympics caught in a slump, and, under the circumstances, a seventh-place finish was as understandable as it was disappointing.

"You know, 1988 was a lot of fun for me," Peterson said. "I know people won't believe that, but it was."

Before taking the 1992 Olympic job, Peterson met with media relations specialists to polish his image. He'll never be the Great Communicator, but it's unlikely that he'll ever again be portrayed as some sort of on-ice ogre.

At 61, he isn't about to undergo a transformation. He is tough and direct, with both his players and reporters.

"I think Dave Peterson is still Dave Peterson," he said.

The one-time goaltender for the minor-league Minneapolis Millers, Peterson makes his teams play aggressively, pressuring center ice. It's a strategy bound to create goals -- for Team USA and its opponents.

But against quick-skating Europeans such as the unified team of the former Soviet Union and the Swedes, the strategy provides the Americans with their best opportunity for victory.

"If you get on the big sheet of ice, where you can open up, our quickness will show itself," Peterson said. "We're not bad defensively. We're just not as good as we need to be."

Don't worry. Peterson has a goaltender who has seen and endured far worse.

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