Tuesday, February 17, 1997
U.S. hockey on rink of disaster

The Cincinnati Enquirer

Canada's Joe Sakic checks Joel Otto into the boards. Canada routed the U.S. 4-1.
(AP photo)
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NAGANO, Japan - Their line changes have been sloppy. Their goaltending has been grim. Their best shots miss their mark, and their best players dawdle getting back on defense. Team captain Chris Chelios and several of his teammates were spotted making the bar scene at 4 a.m.

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America's Olympic hockey team has any number of perfectly good reasons to explain the poor quality of its play. What it doesn't have is a good reason to believe things are going to get any better.

The most disturbing part of Canada's 4-1 conquest of Team USA Monday afternoon was not the score, but the spin. The Americans considered it their best game of the tournament, a stepping stone rather than a stumbling block.

The National Hockey League's biggest names have journeyed to Japan to sell their sport to a wider audience, and the league's largest market is being braced for a moral victory. What's wrong with this picture?

Basically, it is that America has come to expect more of its elite hockey players than is presently being produced. A World Cup championship in 1996, and an expanding pool of players, was supposed to have brought U.S. hockey nearer the point of parity with our northern neighbors.

The Olympic tournament is telling us that the gap has not been bridged, and that the ferry boat has sprung a leak.

''Obviously, Canada is the best team right now,'' U.S. forward Doug Weight said Monday. ''We're going to have to raise our level to beat them.''

A single game does not provide all the answers in any sport, but the disparity between Canada and the U.S. was illustrated Monday in a span of two minutes.

With 5:44 remaining in the first period of a scoreless game, the Americans gained a two-man advantage on successive penalties against Canada's Joe Sakic and Rob Zamuner.

The Americans took nine shots while playing 5-on-3, and netted none of them. Brett Hull took five slap shots in the space of 30 seconds, and came closest in clanging the puck off a post.

Then, only 14 seconds after killing their penalties, the Canadians scored on a breakaway, Sakic to Wayne Gretzky to Zamuner. The Americans had Canada on the ropes, and wound up strangling themselves.

Two days earlier, after his team beat mighty Belarus, U.S. coach Ron Wilson had said: ''You have a 5-on-3 with the talent that we have, and it would be a crime if we didn't score against anyone.''

High crimes

What might have been a misdemeanor against a lesser opponent was a felony against Canada. What should have been a 1-0 lead instead resulted in a 1-0 deficit. With Patrick Roy in goal, this was as much of a reprieve as the Canadians required.

The Canadians have far more firepower than the Americans, and most of the household names in hockey.

The biggest difference between the two teams as the tournament enters its single elimination phase has been not in talent, but transition.

''The hardest thing in hockey is to put your head down and go back (on defense),'' Hull said Monday. ''I just think we have to make a commitment to each other to get back. You can't give up 3-on-1s and 2-on-1s. You've got to come back and help.''

Under siege

Canada scored its first goal Monday with its fast break, and its second while playing short-handed. Richter has not exactly distinguished himself in this tournament, but he has too often been besieged by unequal numbers.

''I certainly don't think anyone's selfish,'' Hull said. ''(More that we're) thinking about 'Boy I want to stay out and get that next rush,' instead of getting off early and getting a fresh guy in.'' HD:Going home

Among the problems with any All-Star team is the players can be slow to recognize their roles, and - or the greater good. If the U.S. team doesn't come to its senses soon, it will be headed home.

Because the Americans completed the first round of the Olympic tournament with a 1-2 record, they must start single-elimination play Wednesday against the Czech Republic. Should they survive that game, they would then be looking at a rematch against Canada. They have a great shot at going home with no medal.

''It would be disappointing,'' said U.S. forward Jeremy Roenick. ''Very very disappointing. On the flip side, there are five or six teams that could win a gold medal. If we were playing Pakistan every day, we would hang ourselves if we didn't win.''

There is every reason to believe the U.S. hockey team could beat Pakistan. There is no reason to believe it is good enough for gold.

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

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