Thursday, February 19, 1997
U.S. hockey team lacks talent

The Cincinnati Enquirer

A look of defeat shows on the faces of the U.S. hockey team late in Thursday's loss to the Czechs.
(AP photo)
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NAGANO, Japan - First, it was the larger ice surface. The American pros had a hard time adjusting to Olympic hockey because it was like playing a game on a glacier.

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Too much room to maneuver. Too many places to hide. Too few opportunities to intimidate. Too little time to adapt.

Then came the goalies who played like gods: Canada's (St.) Patrick Roy and the Czech Republic's Dominik (The Dominator) Hasek. Masked men on a mission, grabbing games by the throat.

Then the argument was advanced that the U.S. Olympic hockey team did too much partying at the Winter Games and played with too little passion. Wee-hour karaoke preceded a cancelled practice the day before Canada came up on the schedule.

Better than 1-3, but . . .

Each of these theories may have some merit, but they miss the main point. If you'd like to know why Team USA left the Olympics with its reputation in ruins, the best place to start is with the basics. We refer here to talent, or rather the lack of it. The Americans may have been better than their 1-3 record suggests, but on their best day they might have been battling for a bronze medal at the Winter Games.

Wednesday, their worst day, was woeful.

Barely 24 hours after seeking sanctuary from the American hockey team, the Czech Republic crushed Team USA Wednesday at the Big Hat arena 4-1. A protest designed to force Sweden to forfeit two games because of an ineligible player was denied, and the Czechs had no choice but to honor the existing bracket.

Their worry was wasted, for Dominik Hasek stoji na hlave. That's Czech for ''stood on his head,'' which is Canadian slang for ''the goalie was great.'' Which means trouble.

Hasek was unable to block a first-period, strength-in-numbers shot by Mike Modano, but he ultimately stopped 38 of the 39 U.S. shots on goal. And that was the game.

Hasek is a hulking acrobat between the pipes, as nimble in a confined space as a cockroach on skates. Mike Richter, the American goalie, is not nearly so good.

It was Richter's career performance in the 1996 World Cup of Hockey that fomented much of the mindless optimism surrounding the 1998 U.S. team. Reality, as reflected in the Olympic tournament, is that the U.S. is inconsistent in goal, a trifle slow on defense, a little anxious with the puck, and terribly thin compared to its chief competition. Canada could probably have handled these guys with the players it left at home.

Long-term, U.S. wing Brett Hull believes, the Americans might want to rethink their strategy on the Olympic surface, and play a more conservative style of game to prevent breakaways.

Annex Ontario?

Short-term, there are two solutions to America's Olympic hockey problem: Either we annex Ontario or we resign ourselves to ridicule. ''Sure we're disappointed right now,'' Pat LaFontaine said. ''It hurts and it's no fun not living up to the expectations we set for ourselves . . .''

In search of a wider audience and a network niche, the National Hockey League shut down its season for the Winter Games. Team USA's flameout in Nagano is bound to make this marketing experiment less bountiful - ''If you don't win the gold medal,'' said U.S. forward Keith Tkachuk, ''it's a waste of time.'' - yet that should not preclude another attempt in four years in Salt Lake City.

Fans will forgive if they see progress. The best thing about the first U.S. hockey Dream Team is that it can only improve on this nightmare.

''American fans are a little different than Canadian fans when it comes to hockey,'' said U.S. captain Chris Chelios. ''They're more 'cheering' fans. If they know the work ethic is there, fans will be still be with you. But we'll just have to see when we get home.''

The people are going to have to be patient. Team USA is going to need some time.

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

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