Sunday, February 15, 1997
U.S., Canada ready to rumble

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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NAGANO - Officially, the game means nearly nothing. It represents neither sudden death nor certain victory. It will determine seedings, not medals, and will have no bearing if the two teams must meet again.

But just in case there is no return engagement between the United States and Canada in this Olympic hockey tournament, this match must be savored. Great talent and bad blood make for terrific theater.

Let's get ready to rumble.

''We all know it's going to be a slugfest,'' said American forward Jeremy Roenick. ''There will be a lot of slashing, a lot of hitting, a lot of trash talking. There could be some bloodshed.''

His eyes fairly sparkled at this prospect. The gash across his nose was almost healed, and Roenick is the kind of hockey player who prizes fresh scars as proof of combat.

For two games, the Americans and Canadians had been obliged to play politely, adapting to the gentler game mandated by the wider Olympic ice surface, and to the European players who were weaned that way. Both teams found comfort in the notion that for one game, at least, life would be back to normal.

The North American game is more physical than the international version. Smaller ice surfaces promote intimacy and encourage elbows. Much as the character of boxing match can be determined by the dimensions of the ring, larger rinks mean fewer bruises.

''We thought there would be an adjustment period,'' said U.S. coach Ron Wilson. ''But we didn't anticipate the problems we've had so far. . . . We've done a lot of talking, but there hasn't been a lot of action. To this point, we haven't been working as hard or as intelligently as we could. You worry because you don't know what's coming next.''

The Americans and Canadians can not arrange a change of venue for Monday's game, but they should be able to transfer some of the North American style to the Big Hat arena. They will play dump and chase, clutch and grab, and zealously bang unsuspecting opponents into the boards. The rink may reduce the amount of rough stuff, but it should still be quite a show.

''The big ice takes away some of the physical play,'' said American defenseman Brian Leetch. ''But certainly there are going to be opportunities on both sides to have chances. Obviously, it's going to be a great game.''

''I don't think there's any doubt it is going to be a very physical game,'' said Canadian center Joe Nieuwendyk. ''We have to remember to remain disciplined in what we do.''

The Canadians must stifle the urge to retaliate against American defenseman Gary Suter, who is serving a four-game NHL suspension for a brutal cross-check that sidelined Canadian star Paul Kariya. The Americans must resist the temptation to respond if their Canadian-born players, Brett Hull and Adam Deadmarsh, are taunted as ''traitors.''

There is a surreal quality to this tournament. Players who were long-time teammates and will be again when the National Hockey League season resumes must change on the fly and behave like rivals. Canadian captain Eric Lindros and America's John LeClair have played on the same line for the Philadelphia Flyers. Wayne Gretzky's next shot on goal could be against his New York Rangers' goalie, Mike Richter.

Professional athletes are quick to lose old loyalties when they move to new teams. Because they know what buttons to push with which players, the friction can build fast.

The Americans know that the Canadians carry the expectations of an entire country, and they seldom squander an opportunity to point out that pressure.

''This is their game,'' Roenick said. ''If they lose, they can't walk down the street without somebody saying something wise to them. If we lose, we walk down the street and no one will know who the hell we are.''

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

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