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U.S. Falls in Medal Meltdown, 4-1

By Rachel Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 19, 1998; Page C1

 U.S. captain Chris Chelios (right) skates off after shaking hands with Czech captain Vladimir Ruzicka after the Americans' 4-1 loss Wednesday morning. (Mike Blake/Reuters)
NAGANO, Feb. 18 — Stocked with NHL players for the first time, the U.S. men's squad blew chance after chance at the Olympic Games and today was knocked out of medal competition with a 4-1 quarterfinal loss to the Czech Republic.

Six 50-goal scorers and 18 professionals amounted to a team that finished sixth out of eight in the tournament's main draw. The U.S. team in four games defeated only Belarus; in its three losses, it was outscored 12-4.

"This was the biggest waste of time, ever," alternate captain Keith Tkachuk said. "I hate to be negative, but this is disgusting. We deserve to be out of it; we didn't play well from the start.

"It's devastating," said Tkachuk, who plays for the NHL's Phoenix Coyotes. "From the opening shot, we weren't well enough to do anything. We were just a big disappointment."

In today's game, the U.S. players created more scoring chances than at any other time in the tournament but were able to finish just one of 39 shots on Czech superstar goaltender Dominik Hasek, who plays for the Buffalo Sabres and was the NHL's most valuable player last season.

"We had a number of chances but Dominik Hasek was just unbelievable," said U.S. Coach Ron Wilson, the coach of the Washington Capitals. "It just seemed we couldn't finish off, especially in the last two games, the opportunities that we managed to create."

The United States, winner of the 1996 World Cup, was expected to compete for a gold medal, and players said they had never considered going home without playing even a medal-round game. Another gold medal favorite, Sweden, was also knocked out of the tournament today by Finland, 2-1. Canada rolled over qualifier Kazakhstan, 4-1, and Russia defeated Belarus, 4-1.

Finland's victory was a major surprise, but it was hard to call the Czech victory over the Americans an upset. The Czechs, who have 12 NHL players, won two of their three round-robin games, falling to Russia, 2-1.

The U.S. men's hockey team hasn't won a medal in Olympic competition since the surprise gold medal in 1980, the so-called "Miracle on Ice."

The Americans in these Winter Games lost their first game to Sweden, 4-2, starting the game strong but then looking lost on the international ice surface, which is significantly larger than an NHL rink. They then defeated Belarus, 5-2, but the game was much closer than the score indicated. By the time they got to their third and final round-robin game, a much-hyped matchup with Canada, the Americans looked more comfortable with the size of the ice. They struggled against goaltender Patrick Roy, however, and the defense made a number of mental errors in a 4-1 loss.

On Tuesday, Wilson tried to give his players some extra motivation for the game against the Czech Republic by having his hair sheared to a close-cropped crew cut by trainer Juergen Merz. Wilson had a similar hairstyle at the World Cup and was apparently trying to remind his players of that productive time. He also showed an inspirational highlight video before the game that included scenes from "Network" and "Animal House."

Neither technique worked. Part of the problem was Hasek, who may be able to propel the Czech Republic to a medal if he continues to play this well. But he wasn't the reason the Americans surrendered four goals. The defensive lapses that have plagued them throughout this tournament were evident again today, and goaltender Mike Richter (New York Rangers), while adequate behind a sloppy defense, did not sparkle.

The forwards were not a great success story, either. They often failed to backcheck and help the defense when opponents were in the U.S. zone, and when they had the puck, they had trouble scoring.

"I think we coped pretty well as a team, but the bottom line is that we just didn't score goals," said forward John LeClair (Philadelphia Flyers). "That's something you need to win and obviously one of the reasons I was on the team, and I was not able to contribute.

"I'm extremely disappointed. It was an honor to play in the Olympics, but we didn't just come over here to play, we came here to win."

Few doubted the U.S. players' intentions of winning a medal, although their commitment to that goal has been questioned throughout the tournament. Compared with some of the Europeans and the Canadians, who believe they are here on a mission for God and country, the Americans seemed less intense on the ice and off.

"For our little country, we have a lot of pride; we needed to accomplish something for Czechs," said defenseman Petr Svoboda (Philadelphia Flyers). "We did have more passion [than the Americans], yes."

Responding to criticism that the Americans spent too much time sampling Nagano's local nightlife and not enough time practicing, Brett Hull (St. Louis Blues) said he has spent eight of the last 10 nights in bed by 8 p.m., doing crossword puzzles. He wasn't sure that was such a good idea, however.

"That more than anything was a downfall for us; it was almost stifling," he said. "Maybe if we did something to relax a little more, we would have done better. We were no angels at the World Cup."

Many of the players contrasted the intense high of winning the World Cup with the intense low of today's loss, although none thought this result would mean a step back for U.S. hockey. Still, the frustration is overwhelming.

"I'm very disappointed — we came here with the expectation of winning a gold medal," Wilson said. "This is something that will always be in the back of my mind, 'What if?'

"In life you find potholes in the road. You try to negotiate around them, and sometimes you fall in them."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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