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U.S. Defeats Belarus, 5-2, but Questions Persist

By Rachel Alexander
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 15, 1998; Page D14


NAGANO, Feb. 14 — This game has been a matter of heated discussion for more than a year. It's been dissected in sports bars from Concord, N.H., to Kitimat, B.C. And it hasn't even been played yet.

With no Cold War to create a politically charged grudge, the hype surrounding the Olympic men's ice hockey matchup between the United States and Canada on Monday (Sunday night EST) has grown to massive proportions.

"I don't think you can overemphasize the importance of this game; you want to play well," said U.S. Coach Ron Wilson of the Washington Capitals. "Obviously it's going to be a great hockey game — Canada's best against America's best — and it will be interesting to see how both teams respond on the bigger ice surface."

So far in this tournament, the Canadians have been responding just fine, while the United States has struggled. The United States (1-1) won its second round-robin game, 5-2 over Belarus this afternoon, but the play was much closer than the score indicated. Later in the day, Canada (2-0) faced the Swedish team that soundly defeated the U.S. squad the day before. But unlike the Americans, the Canadians were able to handle Sweden, 3-2. Canada also beat Belarus, 5-0.

The results of these round-robin games won't help teams advance, but rather they're used for seedings in the single-elimination quarterfinals. Still, the game between the United States and Canada has not lost any of its luster, even though there are no immediate consequences. To Canada, this is a major grudge game, revenge for the best-of-three series the United States won at the 1996 World Cup of Hockey. In that series' final game, Canada went into the third period with a 2-1 lead, but the United States scored four unanswered goals in the final four minutes.

The 5-2 result, a blip on the sports radar of most Americans, resonated loudly in Canada. National integrity was questioned, as was every move the players had made in the game's final period. Canada captain Eric Lindros even remembers that after losing the World Cup, he was stopped by an older woman in the potato chip aisle of convenience store. She didn't want his autograph. She wanted to know why he had blown it against the United States.

"This is a chance to take it back, and that's what we're looking forward to," Canada forward Trevor Linden said. "It's ultra-ultra important because Canadians don't deal with losing very well.

"We carry the flag for not only the country and its fans, but every Canadian player that's in the NHL, every Canadian player that's played international hockey, whether it be in the Summit Series or world championships. There's no feeling like it, and there's no pressure like it. And the Olympics, because it's the first time [NHL players have been allowed to compete], probably carries the most pressure; that's what makes it so exciting."

The United States has plenty to prove in this game as well. With its lackluster play so far in this tournament, many are already calling its World Cup victory a fluke. The players vehemently disagree, although they also admit they're concerned. Against Belarus, a qualifier in this tournament, the Americans had problems controlling the puck and there was often a huge gap between the forwards and the defensemen.

By the middle of the third period, the United States held a precarious 3-2 lead, with two of their goals coming on five-on-three power plays. Only in the game's final 10 minutes did the U.S. players seem to relax, and goals from Brett Hull and Adam Deadmarsh made the score respectable.

"We're a little frustrated right now because it hasn't come as easy as we expected," Wilson said. "I think we might have been a little overconfident. You can almost see this stunned expression that we aren't able to do what we want.

"We're going to have to start getting our noses a little dirty."

Adding more intrigue to this game is an incident that occurred in the NHL two weeks ago. During a Chicago-Anaheim game, a hit by Blackhawks defenseman Gary Suter gave Mighty Ducks forward Paul Kariya a concussion from which he has yet to recover. Suter earned a four-game suspension from the NHL, but because suspensions do not carry over to International Ice Hockey Federation events, he is here playing for the United States. Kariya, expected to be a key to Canada's Olympic team, will not play.

Since learning Kariya would be unavailable, Canada General Manager Bobby Clarke has been furiously denouncing Suter for making the hit and the IIHF for allowing him to play in the Olympics. There is a feeling among the Americans that during the upcoming game, the Canadians will be looking to take out their frustrations about Kariya.

"There could be some bloodshed," U.S. forward Jeremy Roenick said. "There's a lot of animosity because of what happened with Paul Kariya and all that. I think we're going to be feeling each other out for a while and then trying to inflict as much pain as possible."

Roenick was amused, however, that Clarke, a member of the Philadelphia Flyers in the 1970s, is the one leading the cry against Suter, noting that "the Broad Street Bully's all of a sudden turning Pope on us."

Clarke isn't the only indignant one, however. Both Roenick and Hull recounted an incident involving Suter in a bar recently.

"Gary was in the bar the other night when some Canadian asked him if he was still wearing No. 20 [Lindros's number]," Hull said, his eyes dancing. "Gary said yes, and the guy said, 'Good, I'm going to tell Eric.' So Gary said, 'Eric who?'"

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post

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