Grit, but gold? Team USA Caps off rugged review

Phil Jackman

January 23, 1992|By Phil Jackman

LANDOVER -- Thanks, Washington Capitals, Team USA needed that!

No, the guys from the NHL didn't lay down last night just because the lads representing us at the Winter Olympics are headed for France today and needed a boost.

Sure, some of the Caps were missing, reinforcements being rushed in from the Skipjacks roster, but, as Olympic coach Dave Peterson reminded, "We're a pretty gritty team."

It showed as the travelers gave up a goal in the first 51 seconds, scored three of their own in a little more than three minutes in the second period and went on to a 5-3 victory.

"At this point," Peterson said, "you'd have to say we're battle-hardened. No Olympic team has ever gone through the regimen we have."

It makes one weary just checking the itinerary since last August. First, it was off to the Olympic Arena in Maribel, France, then it was on to Finland, back to the States, playing tic-tac-toe across the U.S. and Canada, including stops in Red Deer, Alberta, Campbellton, New Brunswick, and Dallas, Cotton Bowl Week.

The team record heading into a six-nation tourney in Rouen, France, beginning Monday is 17-31-8, including a 4-14-3 log against NHL clubs.

"Ah, don't look at the record, that doesn't mean that much," the coach said. "It says we're not very good, but there's a bunch of kids in the locker room that don't think that way. We've been developing all along."

Team USA has some wingers who can move, improvise and create, such as the guys who did the scoring last night, Steve Heinze of Boston College and Ted Donato of Harvard. Don't get the impression this is a squad of fuzzy-faced collegians, however.

Moe Mantha, longtime NHLer with Pittsburgh and Winnipeg, turned 31 Tuesday. The man in goal, the guy who handled 32 of 35 Washington shots with ease is 27-year-old Ray LeBlanc, who plays for the Indianapolis Ice of the IHL when he isn't adorned in red, white and blue.

"I got here [with the team] in mid-November," he recalled. "My coach got a call from the Olympic people and they asked if I wanted a trial. I thought about it and said, 'What can it hurt?' It's good exposure.

"When this is all over, it's up to the Chicago Blackhawks what they want to do with me. They can send me back to Indianapolis or give me a shot to stay with them. If they don't want to give me a look, maybe someone else will."

"I like our goalies," said Peterson, "and all of them will get a chance to play. You need three, actually, because you never know what's going to happen between now and when we play Italy [in the Olympics, Feb. 9]."

The coach then slipped into an assessment of the teams his team will be facing in the six-team round-robin that deposits two teams into the medal round: "Sweden's the defending world champion, so they're one of the favorites. Finland did well in '88 and most of those players are back. Germany is now a combined team, so they figure to be stronger.

"People see Italy's our first game and they say we should beat them. It won't be easy. They have a North American team. They have some very strange rules in the Olympics and a kid often ends up playing for a country because his maternal grandmother was born there, or something. I'm not knocking it but just trying to explain the circumstances of how someone can surprise you."

The Caps never did get around to scoring on either of their two power plays, but they put great pressure on LeBlanc with many shots. "We've got some defensive help coming," said the goalie.

"Our defense will get better," said the coach. "There was a while when we were playing college teams not as good as us and you don't get around to playing defense when you're on the attack."

LeBlanc says the best international play test the team received occurred around New Year's when it went against a Soviet Select aggregation six times in nine nights in Ohio, Georgia, Florida and Texas: "We went 2-3-1 against them and could have won two more games. Nine of their players are on the Russian National team."

"The tournament is 12 nations out to win a medal. Like every one of them, we think we have a chance for a medal," said Peterson. "We didn't in Calgary, but there was 'The Miracle' of 1980 in Lake Placid. Will another miracle happen? I don't know."

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