Forget gold-rush days . . . this team's as cool as ice

JOHN EISENBERG

February 15, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

MERIBEL, France -- This is a story about the U.S. Olympic ice hockey team, so enter at your own risk. The coach is a grump. The players are vanilla. The rink is cold. Feel free to keep reading, but wear your long underwear and don't get upset if the coach hollers. He does that.

But let's not talk about the coach's purple piques. That was the story four years ago in Calgary, where the Americans got knocked blotto by just about every hockey-playing nation except the Cayman Islands. (Just kidding, sort of.) Things are different this time. The coach is friendlier. Winning de-purples.

Perhaps you already have heard the news: The Americans are doing much better this time. They have played three games and won three games. Whether they're medal fodder will remain unclear until they trade bridgework-rattling bangs with Sweden and other favorites, but they're certainly not the laughingstock of four years ago.

So maybe it is worth pulling on your long underwear and enduring happy-jack coach Dave Peterson and his hard-checkin' brigade of one-game-at-a-timers. They learned a lot four years ago, which actually is what this story is all about: getting a second chance and strangling the thing.

Peterson doesn't even want to talk about 1988, of course. ("It's history. Good, bad or otherwise, it's over.") You can't blame him. Would you want to keep talking about the time you left the bathtub tap running and flooded your living room?

Peterson had a team that, upon further review, was loaded, led by winger Kevin Stevens, defenseman Brian Leetch and goalie Mike Richter -- all now among the NHL's best. But he put in this crazy, fast-breaking style, leaving the defense defenseless. The team got hammered and failed to make the medal round, and Peterson barked at people from many cultures.

Afterward, Peterson and the other big hats of Olympic hockey in America sat down and tried to figure out where they'd gone so wrong. Their deduction was a) too many players, particularly defensemen, still weren't shaving, and b) the training schedule, months of games against college teams, was about as helpful as months of games of Roller Derby.

(No one mentioned the no-defense thing to Peterson. They didn't want to get bonked on the head.)

Anyway, now the team is 3-0 in 1992, and Peterson and the big hats are looking smart.

This time, see, the Americans prepared for the Games by playing NHL teams and national teams from other countries. It wasn't pretty. They got blasted night after night, winning only four of 21 against NHL teams. The losing got old. Several players anonymously ripped Peterson in Sports Illustrated. But the bottom line was that, as Olympic preparation, these games sure beat blowing out Bowling Green, RPI and the Adirondack Red Wings.

"We spent a lot of time in our end," goalie Ray LeBlanc said.

And then, bang-zoom, things began falling together when the team came to Europe a couple of weeks before the Games. It beat Sweden in two exhibitions and suddenly had won five of its past six against Olympic-level competition. That's now eight of nine.

"I don't think there's any question the training schedule has helped make us tougher," said Peterson, who took lessons to be friendlier to reporters. "We were just too strong for those college teams [in 1988]."

They're also older this time. You know that everlasting image of the scrappin' young American hockey team? Scrap it. This team has 10 players with NHL experience, including five defensemen. One look at the worn, dark face of Moe Mantha, 31, and you won't say these are young Americans.

Besides Mantha, there is Guy Gosselin, 28, and Clark Donatelli, 27, among others. There are still kids around -- two notable ones in Shawn McEachern and Scott LaChance -- but the team's basic approach is professional calm instead of youthful glee.

And look: These wiser Americans have won their third periods by a combined 7-0, breaking up three close games. Four years ago, remember, they couldn't hold a lead, their young defensemen wandering too far from the net.

Of course, the defensemen aren't wandering anywhere anymore. They're not budging from the defensive end. Peterson still refuses to admit he made a tactical mistake in 1988 -- his personnel dictated his style, he says -- but his new tactics speak volumes.

So is it enough to piece together a repeat of the 1980 miracle? Don't get excited yet. The Swedes are experienced and skillful, and Canada has Eric Lindros. But the tournament's level of play has dropped now that the best young Russians and Czechs are in the NHL, not here. It's not exactly a minor-league tournament, but it isn't what it used to be. The Americans rate. They certainly do.

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