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U.S. Men's Hockey Team Needs a Reality Check

By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Columnist
Tuesday, February 17, 1998; Page C1

Michael Wilbon
NAGANO — Whoever thought a U.S. Olympic team of professional hockey players would need a miracle on ice?

At this point, it's going to take a radical change of fortune for this team to reach the bronze medal game, much less the gold medal game. The U.S. men are in big trouble, only they don't seem to know it.

One would think a 4-2 loss to Sweden, followed by a surprisingly difficult victory over marginally talented Belarus, followed by a 4-1 loss to clearly superior Canada would have Ron Wilson and his players pretty worried as the tournament moves into the single-elimination stage.

Nope. They swear they're getting better, that the first three games didn't matter, that the loss to Canada was somehow an evenly played contest where all the breaks and bounces went against them, blah, blah, blah.

They're fooling themselves, and maybe they have to because it's quite clear to a whole lot of folks that the U.S. isn't nearly as good as Canada. Probably not as good as Sweden. Maybe not as good as Russia and perhaps will be hard-pressed to beat the Czech Republic on Wednesday.

Just don't tell the U.S. players, because they've convinced themselves they're ready to roll. Here's a sample of the U.S. team's comments after getting their butts kicked by Canada:

From Wilson: "We've been focused on Game 4 [the beginning of the medal round] since we arrived. I like the way we're entering Game 4. We put together 60 minutes better than we have in the other games."

From Kevin Hatcher: "This is by far the best game we've played. It's the type of game we can build on. We've got to take the positives out of this game. We played smarter, made better decisions, didn't turn the puck over in the neutral zone."

From Doug Weight: "We played very strong. . . . Just a couple of bounces here or there."

My favorite comment came from Wilson, who said about breaking the shutout: "We scored toward the end. We realize now we can score."

What?

The immediate response when you hear this stuff is to rip a team for being unprepared or lackadaisical or underachieving, especially when you look at a roster chock-full of high-profile players.

There is a mini-controversy brewing over Brett Hull and Chris Chelios being spotted at a club at nearly 5 o'clock Sunday morning, and Wilson calling off Sunday's practice the day before a game against the tournament favorite. That's where most of the postgame criticism was aimed: too much partying combined with not enough practice and preparation. Oh, and don't forget the increasingly popular explanation that Canada's players want to win so much more desperately because the U.S. upset Canada to win the gold in the World Cup in 1996; this is their national sport; and it's all that matters to the country.

Now let's get something straight here and now.

You could march the U.S. team right up the street to Zenkoji temple, lock them in with the Buddhist monks and allow them to do nothing more than drink green tea and attend three-a-day practice sessions, and they still wouldn't be as good as Canada. Okay?

Sometimes we get far too analytical about who wins and who loses. We start looking for secret reasons for victory and defeat, and the story behind the story of what did or didn't happen. This just in: Hull seen at a club! You think Hull didn't go out in all of 1991 when he scored 86 goals? A lot of times — more than most of us acknowledge — it simply boils down to one guy being better than the other guy. This Canada team is simply better than this U.S. team, and nothing's going to change that between now and the gold medal game (Saturday night EST) short of Wilson discovering Patrick Roy has an evil twin who is American. Canada's second-string goalie, Martin Brodeur, is better than the top U.S. goalie, Mike Richter.

Is there anybody to blame? Did GM Lou Lamoriello pick the wrong team? No. There's only one American player back at home — Pittsburgh's Tom Barrasso, who is having a strong season — who should probably be here but isn't. That's it. Otherwise, this is the best team the U.S. could bring, and since they're in midseason form playing under a fine coach, they're as ready as they're going to be. But it probably isn't good enough. The U.S. team is made up of some really good players, but it doesn't appear to be truly great at anything.

If you were picking the very best players in the world today, I'd argue that you'd take at least 10 before you get to an American. You'd take Wayne Gretzky, Joe Sakic, Eric Lindros, Roy and Brodeur from Canada, Dominik Hasek and Jaromir Jagr from the Czech Republic, Teemu Selanne from Finland, Pavel Bure and Sergei Fedorov from Russia, Mats Sundin and Peter Forsberg from Sweden. That's a dozen, and it doesn't even include Steve Yzerman, Ray Bourque, and the injured Paul Kariya from Canada. Maybe you'd throw John LeClair of the U.S. in with those last three — he is having a better season than Lindros in Philly — but no higher.

And the U.S. team is noticeably without a playmaker the caliber of Sakic, who, when playing with Gretzky, is positively deadly. (If the NHL ever adopted Olympic rules and ice size, by the way, Sakic, Forsberg and Roy would have Colorado going something like 75-7 every season).

It would be nice right now if Wilson could go to a Plan B, throw in a couple of wrinkles, try just a little something new. But the U.S. team — the players say so themselves — can't change styles. The highly skilled Europeans have played in the NHL long enough to become stronger and adapt to the hard hitting. But the physical Americans have yet to develop the skating and passing skills of the Europeans. (Just like everybody in the world learns to speak English while we by and large don't learn to speak any other languages.)

U.S. forward Weight could have spoken for the entire team when he said, "The next game, we're going to get the puck in deep and we're going to play North American." I'm not sure how good an idea that is after watching three days of this remarkable hockey.

But maybe there is something to sticking to what you do and doing it with more determination the next time. Maybe the calm demeanor of Wilson and his players is just what the doctor ordered, as opposed to panic or anger. And maybe these three games don't count for anything, and when the Americans come out Wednesday they'll put everything together against the Czechs and Hasek. In fact, the Czech Republic coach said he, too, thought the U.S. outplayed Canada in every area except on the scoreboard.

But if not, the Game 4 the Americans have been waiting for could be everything they're not expecting, and less.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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