Friday, February 20, 1997
Hockey team leaves ugly mark

BY TIM SULLIVAN
The Cincinnati Enquirer

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NAGANO, Japan - This was not what Gary Bettman had in mind. Not by a longshot. Not by a slap shot.

The Commissioner of the National Hockey League had hoped to use the Olympics as a springboard for his sport, to promote the game internationally and to showcase it in prime time in the United States.

He couldn't have expected the U.S. team to fold so fast. He couldn't have imagined they would behave worse than they played.

But as the facts started to surface surrounding Team USA's performance in the Olympic Village, Bettman was deep in damage control. Some of the American players responded to their elimination loss to the Czech Republic early Thursday morning with a pre-departure binge of hooliganism.

Paul George, the USA's Chief of Mission, estimated the damages at about $1,000. Chairs were broken. Fire extinguishers were activated inside players' apartments, and two units were sprayed. One fire extinguisher was flung from the fifth floor, where the hockey players were housed, into a common area.

Compounding the vandalism was the rampant disregard some of the U.S. players showed for their supposed peers in lower-profile sports. Athletes who had devoted their lives to preparing for the Olympics - including some scheduled to compete that day - were disturbed at 4 a.m. by drunken members of the U.S. hockey team.

Wealthy, rude, destructive

There is no way to paint a pretty face on this one. The U.S. hockey players were thought refreshingly unpretentious when they agreed to stay in the Olympic Village instead of demanding first-class accommodations as did the NBA Dream Team. Now, they be remembered as surpassingly ugly Americans: wealthy, arrogant, rude and destructive.

''I'm really upset that all this stuff is happening,'' U.S. forward Doug Weight told the San Jose Mercury-News. ''The people will think we were all hammered and destroying furniture and don't care about the Olympics.''

Well, yeah. But it goes a lot deeper than that. Any time an American Olympian behaves boorishly, he (or, in rare instances, she) reflects on the nation at large. Sadly, a couple of clods can color a whole country.

The number and names of the culprits were unclear early Friday in Nagano, but the responsible organizations expressed their regret and vowed to investigate.

Conduct unacceptable

''The USOC and our Olympic delegation are deeply disturbed by the behavior of some of our athletes,'' USOC President Bill Hybl said. ''We will work with USA Hockey and the NHL to determine if we can identify those who were clearly in violation of our Code of Conduct.''

''Obviously,'' Bettman said, ''such conduct is unacceptable and will not be tolerated.''

Weight, who plays for the NHL's Edmonton Oilers, admitted that the American players were angry after their 4-1 loss to the Czech Republic.

''After the game, a bunch of our players and families were taken to a karaoke restaurant,'' he said. ''We had a good time, singing and drinking a few beers. We got back to the village late and were probably too loud. Some guys were wrestling and stuff, but that's it.''

Weight said some chairs had been broken earlier in the Games, and innocently. He's probably right about some of them. The chairs in use in the Olympic Villages are not especially sturdy, and ill-suited to full-figured Americans. Yet USOC spokesman Mike Moran said 10-12 chairs were damaged, and ''I don't believe they were all splintered by big guys (sitting on them).''

''We weren't throwing furniture,'' Weight insisted. ''I'm really upset that we are going to be perceived as this bunch of guys who don't care. We cared. We cared a lot. And just because a few guys had some beers and are a little loud doesn't mean we destroyed the village.''

No it doesn't. The hockey term is gross misconduct. Severe penalties are appropriate.

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

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