Olympic role means better look in NHL for LeBlanc

Phil Jackman

February 14, 1992|By Phil Jackman

Three weeks ago, following a hockey game at the Capital Centre, a smallish, somewhat shy goalie sat in the midst of his considerable equipment and told his story.

"I didn't start out with the team," he said. "My coach in the minor leagues [Indianapolis, IHL] got a call and they asked if I'd come in for a trial. I guess they needed help. I didn't take me long to decide. 'What can it hurt?' I thought. It's good exposure."

Ray LeBlanc had no idea how good. Yesterday, after playing a key role in Team USA's solid 4-1 victory over favored Finland, the smallish, somewhat shy goalie got two minutes and 30 seconds of prime-time exposure, answering questions put to him by CBS Winter Olympics co-host Tim McCarver.

Three days ago, he turned away 46 shots as the United States was blanking Germany, 2-0. He was the man in net for the opening-game win against Italy, too. Not bad for a guy who has kicked around in the minor leagues for seven years after going to Canada to play junior following high school in Fitchburg, Mass.

That night at the Cap Centre, the Olympians had waxed the Washington Capitals, 5-3, in their last game stateside. Since hitting Europe, Team USA has lost just one of 10 games.

LeBlanc, the living embodiment of what every hockey team craves, a hot goaltender, told McCarver he has heard there has been a lot of notice of his exploits in the hockey tournament, "but I don't worry about that."

Not much. He had some pretty good years in the minor-league system of the Chicago Blackhawks and was willing to wait his opportunity. Then, last offseason, the Hawks went out and got themselves another goalie.

"When the Olympics are over," LeBlanc said three weeks ago, "it's up to Chicago what they want to do with me. They can give me a shot to stay with them. If they don't want to give me a look, maybe someone else will."

It's safe to say NHL teams are already lining up. After all, there's no better exposure than being a star on a successful U.S. Olympic hockey team; remember Jim Craig and Jack McCartan?

Once again, TNT's afternoon handling of the victory over Finland (live) was expert because NHL announcers Jiggs McDonald and Bill Clement brought forth the impact of the victors' overwhelming play against a team loaded with ex-NHL talent.

As Clement summarized, Team USA's "go-go-go style" dictated the play throughout. Think of it in basketball terms where a zone press so unsettles another team it never does get around to setting up in its halfcourt offense.

No doubt you've noticed, as the Games wear on, that CBS is cutting down on the number of returns to the studio for empty chit-chat and preparing more short capsules outlining what's going on.

Between segments of the opening night of men's figure skating, interesting packages on Donna Weinbrecht's gold medal and Nelson Carmichael's bronze in freestyle (hot dog) skiing, the Team USA victory, cross country and women's slalom made it appear as if the time was flying by.

The network is doing a good job of adopting the stars of the Games, be they Norwegians who can pump their arms and legs for hours without ill effect or Austrians who simply ski better than anyone else. At the same time, you can't say CBS has given any American short shrift.

A big star over the weekend and early next week figures to be Petra Kronberger, who has a gold already and might have to buy a suitcase in Albertville to get all her medals home to Austria.

As the women's downhill course continues to resemble the icy Jones Falls Expressway scene last evening, we're reminded that the Daytona 500 races are on CBS tomorrow and Sunday at noon.

* THUMBS UP: Paul Wylie, skating the short program of his life, coming through hugely after being relegated to also-ran by many (including me) . . . The commentary of Scott Hamilton (CBS) and Peter Carruthers (TNT) on figure skating, aided and abetted by the calm and assured work of their partners, Verne Lundquist and Jim Simpson. There, Dick Button, I've said it and I'm glad . . . Women ski experts Christin Cooper, Cindy Nelson and Pam Fletcher have been fine, too, until they get excited and their voices shoot up an octave or two. Fletcher, incidentally, is the same ill-fated skier who, four years ago while warming up on the slopes, was clipped by a volunteer worker and got her leg broken, so she knows something about disappointment . . . Great to see Tim McCarver finally found his specs.

* THUMBS DOWN: The misconception that Team USA is in the medal round. Uh-uh. Eight teams will advance to a sudden-death quarterfinal, the four victors then going on to divvy up the gold, silver and bronze . . . The "CBS Morning News" continuing to masquerade as some sort of Olympic coverage . . . The size 52-long sportcoats of Professor Cool (Pat O'Brien).

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