The Sweden Incident, rated X-for excuse

JOHN EISENBERG

February 22, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

MERIBEL, France -- You go to a hockey game and you don't figure an Oliver Stone movie is going to break out. It happened yesterday, though. The Americans lost to the Russians and blamed it on a conspiracy.

The Swedes did it. That was the conspiracy. The Swedes got us, not the Russians.

Don't buy another Volvo, people. Forget Iraq. Forget Japan. We have seen the enemy and it is . . . Sweden.

"The Swedish hockey team couldn't beat us, but a Swedish referee sure did," said Clark Donatelli, captain of the U.S. team, after the 5-2 loss to the Russians, now the Unified Team, in the Olympic semifinals.

Donatelli's teammates agreed. So did his coach, Smilin' Dave Peterson. They insinuated that the game was decided by a man named Sven, in cooperation with others.

It wasn't that the Russians took 55 shots to the Americans' 18. Or that three-fourths of the game was played within 25 feet of American goalie Ray LeBlanc. Or that the Russians skated twice as fast and worked the puck like so many Magic Johnsons in red, while the Americans chased and threw elbows.

It was Sven.

Quick, set up the trade embargo. Rope off Minnesota. We've got trouble. The Swedes want us. The Swedes, those warriors of the world.

"The ref decided the game," said American defenseman Sean Hill. "We don't care if the rest of the world thinks that's sour grapes. We don't care what the rest of the world thinks."

Whew. Listen up. You're not going to like this, but it's true: the good guys won, people.

The guys who play beautiful hockey without the rough-boy nonsense that has reduced the sport to cult status in America. The guys who skate as well as Kristi Yamaguchi and run weaves as well as the Globetrotters. And didn't whine like 3-year-olds when they lost.

A remarkable performance by LeBlanc was all that kept the score from being 10-2. He was an acrobat, stopping shot after shot belonging in the net. His Russian counterpart was barely tested. But that wasn't the story, or so we were told. It was Sven Erik Sold.

The Americans saw a conspiracy because they haven't gotten along with Swedes here. They fought with the Swedish team in an exhibition before the Olympics. Then, when they played a 3-3 tie here, Sweden's Mats Naslund sent American Greg Brown to the hospital with a blast to the face, and Peterson refused to shake the Swedish coach's hand.

So then the score was 2-2 midway through the third period yesterday and Sven whistled American Moe Mantha for tripping. Good call. The Russians scored on the power play. Sven then called two more American penalties, LeBlanc tired and the score got big.

Then Peterson walked into the press room and started talking conspiracy, baby. "I have no comment on the refereeing," he said, "but I'm not sure it's a coincidence we ended up with a Swedish referee."

He is insinuating that perhaps the people running Olympic hockey decided to make it tough for the Americans and maybe give the Russians an advantage. He is insinuating that perhaps Sven could be co-opted by the Swedish players and coaches and, who knows, Juan Antonio Samaranch.

He is insinuating that the game was unfair.

Makes you proud to be an American, huh?

It's too bad. The U.S. hockey team was one of the best stories of these Olympics. They played hard and together and accomplished more than anyone expected. They're good kids who had the nation cheering. But we saw an unfortunate side yesterday. We saw they couldn't just say, "We got whipped by a better team and that's it." They had to blame someone else.

Almost makes you think you're in the middle of baseball season.

They were the only people who thought the Mantha penalty was unjustified. Canada coach Dave King said it was right. Finland coach Sakari Pietila said it was right. Anyone with eyes could see it was right.

The puck was heading to the Unified's Alexei Kovalov, and he was a step behind Mantha, who did the right thing and prevented the breakaway. Didn't complain. Skated right to the penalty box. Yet here's Donatelli: "The Swedes have been bad-mouthing us the whole tournament and we end up with this guy [Sven] and he just takes the game from us."

L If he's right, we'd better rethink our stand on Elke Sommer.

The game was won not by Sven, but by the Russians' beautiful hockey. They don't worry about the referee because they don't commit many penalties. Three yesterday to eight for the Americans. A third fewer for the tournament. The Russians skate. They don't smash. They don't try to survive on that man-down edge. They play hockey in fast, elegant waves.

Playing defense against them is like standing in the middle of traffic on a busy highway with cars coming at you going 55 mph, and you have to try to grab one, open the door and jump in," said American defenseman C.J. Young. "If you don't have your head on a swivel, you get left standing there."

That's what won the game. Not a Swedish conspiracy. What a laugh.

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