Italy goalie is left red, white,definitely blue LILLEHAMMER 94

February 22, 1994|By JOHN EISENBERG

LILLEHAMMER, Norway -- David Delfino doesn't want anyone to call him a traitor. Please.

"It was nothing personal," he said last night. "It was just the way things came up."

Just an all-American, apple pie kid trying to knock the U.S. hockey team out of the Olympic tournament.

Just a loyal, hockey-playing New Englander, one of the millions of Americans who cried and cheered at the miracle of Lake Placid, doing his best to make sure that it didn't happen again.

Nothing personal, of course. At least not to a hockey lifer who didn't want to see the poetry.

"It wasn't like me competing against the whole country," Delfino said. "Anyway, you have to play to win, whatever the circumstances."

Circumstances put Delfino in a pickle yesterday when Team USA and Italy met in a knockout first-round game at Hakon Hall, with the winner advancing to the quarterfinals and the loser eliminated. Delfino started in goal. For Italy.

His grandfather was a carpenter named Domenic who left Italy in the '30s, came through Ellis Island and settled near Boston. Two generations later, Delfino, 28, invoked the rule in Italy's Olympic charter that allows the children and grandchildren of Italians to compete for Italy.

"I never met my grandfather," Delfino said. "But I'm so very grateful to him."

He is short and stocky with a Bahston accent, dark hair and a soft-spoken humbleness. He grew up cheering for the Red Sox and Bruins, played college hockey at New Hampshire and finagled a tryout with the Vancouver Canucks.

But he wasn't good enough to make it, and he knew it, and he left before the tryout to play in a fledgling pro league in Italy. He was 22.

"It wasn't a hard choice," he said. "Not that many kids that age get a chance to see that part of the world, go back to their grandfather's homeland, learn the language their aunts and uncles spoke."

Six years later he is still there. He lives with his wife and 11-month-old son, Devin, in the village of Alleghe, 2 1/2 hours from Venice.

He describes the living as "not rich, but comfortable." He is one of the better goalies in the 11-team league, something of a celebrity in his hometown, but nowhere else. Hockey is still a minor sport in Italy.

He spends nine months of the year playing in Italy, comes to visit his family in Boston, then spends the off-season in Florida. He carries two passports. "I'm still an American citizen," he said.

He had hoped to play for Team USA in Calgary in 1988, but didn't make it out of the tryout camps. His path to the Olympics was a lot less cluttered in Italy six years later. He still can't get over it.

"I was a red-blooded American growing up," he said. "I was proud of my heritage and all, but it would have been crazy to think that I'd end up playing in the Olympics for Italy. How could I see it?"

The Italians were overmatched here, not a medal contender. Delfino played in three of their first four games. They lost three by a combined score of 21-7, but beat France. Last night was their gold-medal game. Beating the disappointing Americans would make their Olympics.

Delfino was fired up to play against his country. "I was so excited, so pumped up," Delfino said. "I thought I had it under control.

I guess I didn't."

Team USA came out sharp for a change, pressing the vulnerable Italian defense, swarming Delfino. He let in one, two, three goals in a hurry. The first two went between his legs.

Nine minutes into the game, down 3-0, Delfino was yanked. He spent the last 2 1/2 periods at the end of the bench, shoulders slumped, a portrait of defeat.

"Failure takes a big piece out of your heart," he said. "I don't know what happened. I don't normally let in easy goals like that."

On one of those modern Olympic nights when nationalities were particularly blurred, such Italian-American players as Sacco, Ferraro and Ciavaglia were among the goal-scorers for Team USA in the 7-1 win against an Italian team composed of 12 Canadians, two Americans, one Czech and a few real, authentic

Italians. Got all that?

At the end, Delfino spoke to a small knot of American reporters. He was dressed in a smart blue suit and an Italian team tie. His hair was still wet from a shower. He was happy to talk, but sad inside.

"You don't know how I felt out there," he said. "It's not that I got pulled. Just how bad I played."

He will go back to Italy, finish the season and come back to the States this summer, as always. He will retire and move back for good when Devin is ready for school.

Of course, as the son of a man who holds an Italian passport, Devin will always be eligible to play Olympic hockey for Italy.

"But," said the Italian goalie of the Lillehammer Games, "I think he's going to be a baseball player."

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