Enigmatic Peterson stands behind U.S. hockey team's medal drive

February 20, 1992|By Filip Bondy | Filip Bondy,New York Times News Service

LA TANIA, France -- The U.S. hockey team did not bang a single body yesterday. Instead, while the players and coaching staff waited for the Unified Team to torment Finland at the Olympic ice rink, the Americans took a unified walk through the snow-capped Alps.

They inhaled the breeze and were one with the mountain. The touchy-feely guide was coach Dave Peterson, Big Daddy himself.

"That's been what Clark Donatelli has called me for a while," Peterson said. "Behind my back the players probably call me something a lot worse. They can call me what they want."

Peterson was becoming gruff again, because he was talking to a reporter, who definitely was not one of his "23 kids." There is the team, there is the rest of the world, and never the twain shall meet.

Before the unbeaten U.S. team relighted the Olympic torch at Meribel, before the players had marched behind "zoned" goaltender, Ray LeBlanc, to a coming semifinal match tomorrow against the former Soviet Union players now called the Unified Team, Peterson was widely presented to the world as a boor without portfolio; Bobby Knight, minus the X's and O's.

Now, some things are different,some the same. Peterson continues to insult many people around him, with sometimes clumsy behavior.

Sweden's assistant coach, Curt Lundmark, put out his hand to Peterson after a 3-3 tie on Monday, and it was ignored. Peterson says the Swedish coaches had refused his handshake after an earlier exhibition at Chamonix, but both teams then had hurried off the ice to opposite locker rooms under a shower of beer cans.

"I live four doors from that guy," Lundmark told a Swedish reporter, referring to Peterson's room at the Olympic living quarters in La Tania. "I hope I never see that pig again."

Peterson has screamed at referees here, refused to talk about sensitive 1988-type questions with the news media and unloosed his tongue at players when the time felt right. His team has crossed the bounds of sportsmanship, bashing the smaller French around on Tuesday long after the Americans had won the game.

And yet, Peterson has done something right along the way. The players, the ones he selected and mixed and recalibrated, have been playing at full tilt, motivated beyond belief. The Americans have been using sound, countering strategies against technically superior teams, clogging the passing lanes while pushing attackers to the perimeter.

There have been stupid penalties, which must stop against the Unified Team, and an occasional sloppy cross-ice pass. The world must admit, however, that the Americans are competitive even without being capable of completing three successive passes on the power play.

That can't all be because of a lousy, irrational coach.

"I'd heard what he'd done, mostly to the media, at Calgary in 1988," veteran defenseman Moe Mantha said. "But Big Daddy looks after his 23 kids. He prepares us by watching the tapes. He'd go to the wall for us.

"The man is taking the heat off us, letting us just play hockey. How can you hate a guy like that?"

Peterson has some endearing qualities. He was gracious enough to talk a French bus driver into giving a ride to two stranded women at Meribel. He was concerned enough about injured Greg Brown that he ordered the key penalty-killer to sit out the game on Tuesday against France after Brown had asked to participate.

There is an element of self-deprecation. Peterson freely admits he was never able to play at LeBlanc's level as a minor league goaltender in the old Central League, making kick saves around Minnesota and Iowa. He also admires Unified Team coach Viktor Tikhonov, the confirmed hockey genius he will meet again tomorrow.

Tikhonov's former Soviet Union team defeated Peterson's U.S. teams five times over four years of world championships and Olympics, from 1985 through 1988.

"We've met a lot of times, and I'm sorry to say he's won most of the time," said Peterson, who was also an assistant with the 1984 United States Olympic hockey team before taking over as head coach in 1988.

"He's a private person, but I've read what he's written, whatever I could get translated. He's got kids now who have more freedom. In the past, whatever he has said, the players had to do. Now, the situation is more similar to what we have with the National Hockey League."

Peterson says he has incorporated some Tikhonov strategy, and,

"grabbed from everybody I coached against." He remembers feeling insecure as a former high school coach, suddenly coaching NHL players on national teams, only to discover they were more cooperative than he thought possible.

When his talented Olympic team finished seventh at the 1988 Games in Calgary, Alberta, Peterson managed to astound everybody with an unapologetic attitude.

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