NAGANO, Japan -- Before the NBA Dream Team's first-ever Olympic game, Charles Barkley said, "I don't know anything about Angola. But Angola's in trouble."
Well, the U.S. men's ice hockey team knew about Sweden.
And the United States was in trouble.
"I wish we could have played Jamaica or something," Mike Modano said after Team USA lost its Olympic opener, 4-2.
This isn't 1992, or even 1996.
The American NBA stars had no competition.
The American NHL stars have almost too much.
"I think that's what a lot of people who aren't familiar with the game of hockey are truly unaware of," U.S. goaltender Mike Richter said.
"I had somebody ask me if we're going to have any competition in this tournament. And I thought, 'Wow, where do I begin?' "
Might as well start with Sweden, which displayed far more patience and savvy than Team USA on the larger international ice surface.
"We came into this game knowing that the Swedes were one of the best teams," U.S. coach Ron Wilson said. "We came out of it thinking the Swedes might be the best."
Sweden, Canada, Russia, the Czech Republic -- each is capable of winning the eight-team tournament. Team USA is, too, but it will face a difficult path if it loses to Canada and finishes 1-2 in the opening round.
By the time you read this, the Americans will have faced Belarus, and likely evened their record. A victory over Sweden, however, would have given them a chance to go unbeaten in round-robin play, and ensure a top seed entering the quarterfinals.
The top seed gets the best draw, crossing over to play the fourth-place team from the other group, probably Kazakstan. Now Team USA must beat Canada, or likely face Russia or the Czech Republic in the first game of the single-elimination round.
Russia's goaltending is suspect, but its team is deep and loaded with terrific forwards. The Czech Republic shut out Finland in its opener behind perhaps the top goaltender in the world, Dominik Hasek.
Get the picture?
Team USA wasn't sure America would.
"I don't know," defenseman Kevin Hatcher said. "It all depends on how much you follow hockey.
"Anyone who followed the World Cup last year and saw how Sweden played against Canada might not be so surprised. Somebody just picking up the game on TV probably expected us to win."
Well, the United States upset Canada in 1996 to win the inaugural World Cup tournament. But Sweden beat Canada in the last Olympic final, and lost to Canada in overtime in the World Cup.
For further evidence of world parity, consider the nationalities of the top six scorers in the NHL: Teemu Selanne (Finland), Jaromir Jagr (Czech Republic), Peter Forsberg (Sweden), John LeClair (United States), Eric Lindros (Canada) and Pavel Bure (Russia).
Eighteen of the Swedes' 23 players are from the NHL. Against Team USA, the league's 1995 Rookie of the Year, Forsberg, twice assisted on goals by its 1996 Rookie of the Year, Daniel Alfredsson.
Goaltender Tommy Salo of the New York Islanders outplayed Richter, his Rangers counterpart. And clearly, the Swedes adapted better to the size of the rink, which is 15 feet wider than the NHL's, with the goals 3 feet farther out from the boards.
The NHL Swedes might be accustomed to the smaller dimensions in North America, but they grew up playing on the wider surface. After only three days of practice, Team USA found it difficult to adjust, and wore down.
"It's definitely a factor, something you've got to get used to," defenseman Brian Leetch said. "In NHL games, the boards create a lot of traffic in front. There's not a lot of room to spread out. Here, you follow a guy around into the corners, and do a lot more skating than you're used to."
The forwards experienced their own problems.
"I thought I was about 5 feet out of position all night," Brett Hull said. "I was almost getting to the puck. I thought I was in position, and I wasn't."
Team USA took a one-goal lead in both the first and second periods, but Wilson said the Americans peaked too early, swept away by the excitement of the opener. Hull came right out and said it: He had a dry mouth. He was nervous.
Still, Team USA has two more games to work out its kinks, to figure out how to better use its size and strength, to refine its dump-and-chase attack, rather than try to skate with teams like Sweden.
"I don't think the first game means so much," said Swedish coach Kent Forsberg, the father of Peter, and a dead ringer for StevenSpielberg. "The real tournament begins in the quarterfinals."
"It's way too early to tell where you are as a team. I said coming in we wanted to start something, and go from there. The fourth game is the most important. We have to build toward that."
The fourth game likely will be against another powerhouse.
The fourth game could be Team USA's last.
"The Dream Team, it's a misnomer here," Richter said. "It's the Dream Tournament."
Pub Date: 2/14/98