Saturday, February 14, 1997
Team USA stunned but not out

The Cincinnati Enquirer

The U.S. bounced back today with a 5-2 team over Belarus. John LeClair tries to deflect a shot past Belarus goaltender Andrei Mezin.
(AP photo)
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NAGANO, Japan - Mike Richter had some explaining to do. He needed to bring the nation up to speed and down to earth. He wanted America to understand that the Olympic hockey tournament will not be like basketball, will not be a blowout, will not be a bore.

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''I had somebody ask me if we were going to have any competition at all in this tournament,'' the American goalie said Friday. ''And I thought, 'Wow, where do I begin?' ''

You begin with the premise that hockey's Dream Team belongs to no one country, and then Sweden's 4-2 conquest of the United States becomes simpler to swallow. The National Hockey League did not shut down its season to turn the Winter Games into a walkover, but to stage a tournament that would make the game more attractive to a wider audience. Guess what? It might work.

Sweden's ambush of the American team may not play well on Main Street, or in the corner offices at CBS, but what better way to wake up the country to hockey than an immediate crisis? Instead of the anticlimax of the NBA Dream Team, hockey affords authentic anxiety.

''I'm one of the best at downplaying pressure,'' said American right wing Brett Hull. ''But if you want to be honest and realistic, there's a lot of pressure on us.''

No fewer than five teams are capable of winning the Olympic tournament. Canada is the favorite, but Sweden sure ain't Angola.

''We came into this game knowing that the Swedes were one of the best teams,'' U.S. coach Ron Wilson said. ''We come out of this thinking the Swedes might be the best team.''

Six have all-stars

The power rankings in this tournament are not yet plain. With Wayne Gretzky and Eric Lindros, Canada has more name recognition than any of its rivals, but the NHL's six leading scorers are here in six different uniforms. Finland's Teemu Selanne leads the NHL in goals. The Czech Republic's Dominik Hasek is the league's preeminent goaltender. Sweden's Peter Forsberg is first in assists.

If you didn't know about Forsberg before, check out the videotape from Friday. Playing on the European-style Olympic surface, which is 15 feet wider than NHL rinks and deeper behind the goal, Forsberg found maneuvering room the Americans barely knew existed. He fed Daniel Alfredsson for Sweden's first and go-ahead goals, and left Hull with the troubling sense he was always 10 feet short of where he wanted to be.

''He's played it his whole life,'' Hull said of Forsberg, and the larger rink. ''You could see it on their first goal. He knew exactly where it was going and we were kind of like - we didn't.''

Hockey, as practiced in North America, tends to be a more physical game than its European cousin. Smaller rinks encourage aggressive checking, and leave a skill player less space in which to hide. A guy takes enough elbows in the face and he's not so eager to lurk in front of the goal. That same player, operating on a European surface, is better equipped to use his finesse to cause an opponent fatigue.

The Americans may eventually adjust to the additional ice in Nagano, but three days of practice were obviously not going to get it. They have not played enough together to look much like a team. What they looked like Friday was a bunch of All-Stars astonished that they were expected to play defense.

''There's been a lot of hype,'' said American defenseman Kevin Hatcher. ''A lot of people probably expected us to roll over a team like Sweden. But as players, we knew it was going to be a tough game.''

If the U.S. players were not alarmed by their loss, it was in part because there was so little at stake. All eight teams still competing in the tournament are assured of a berth in the quarterfinals, and the scores at this stage determine only the seedings. Sweden's 4-2 victory surely startled some hockey fans, but it might also create more of them.

Competition is always more compelling than coronation. Not that this was of much solace to the American hockey team Friday. ''I wish,'' said forward Mike Modano, ''we could have played Jamaica or something.''

Columnist Tim Sullivan is covering the XVIII Winter Olympic Games for the Enquirer.

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