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They Were Dreaming, All Right

By Michael Wilbon
Washington Post Columnist
Thursday, February 19, 1998; Page C1

Michael Wilbon
NAGANO— Did someone say "Dream Team"? Shouldn't you be good enough to get at least, say, a bronze medal to be a Dream Team? Shouldn't you have to finish higher than, oh, sixth to qualify as a Dream Team? Shouldn't a Dream Team be able to play more than three good periods and score more than nine goals over four games? Wouldn't a Dream Team take its work seriously from the first day of the competition instead of waking up and finally starting to play during the quarterfinals? At the very least, a Dream Team ought to know when it has become a crowd of handsomely paid, high-profile professionals who have gone from start to finish in the Olympics looking downright amateurish, right?

If the U.S. men's hockey team was really lucky, this would simply be a bad dream and they'd eventually shake it. In reality, Coach Ron Wilson and his players have to live with what has to be the most disappointing performance of any team from any country in these Winter Olympics.

And the actual on-ice play — sorry as it was — wasn't as bad as the no-account excuses and flat-out denials that weighed down the team afterward.

The 4-1 elimination loss to the Czech Republic Wednesday was just like the previous losses that put the U.S. team in a tougher bracket than it should have been. The Americans played a high-energy, totally purposeful, crisp-passing, aggressive-checking, up-tempo, quick-skating first period and then collapsed. Once again, exactly as it happened against Sweden and Canada, the U.S. couldn't dent an all-world goaltender, grew frustrated, and then got exposed by a team with skills better suited to Olympic-style hockey.

Then there were a bunch of lame excuses and missed-the-point explanations. When a team of defending World Cup champions that expects to reach the gold-medal game is eliminated this early, some conclusions have to be drawn. Either you played like dreck, or you're not as good as you think. One or the other almost has to be true, except Wilson and the U.S. players would have you believe that they played great hockey and were too unlucky to have their shooters find the net.

Please.

The U.S. had to control two players Wednesday to beat the Czechs: Dominik Hasek, tied with Patrick Roy for the best goaltender on Earth, and Jaromir Jagr, the best soloist on Earth. Two players, that's it. Okay, granted those are two supernovas, but the Czechs don't have much else. They're not Canada. But the U.S. either couldn't figure that out or couldn't do anything about it. In his heart of hearts, Wilson must know. Hasek blocked shots with every part of his body — asked why the U.S. team didn't shoot high, Chicago's Chris Chelios said, "Jeeeeez! We hit the guy in the face mask twice!" — and Jagr set up the tying goal and scored what stood up to be the game-winner. Wilson was 100 percent accurate when he said, "A good goaltender can knock a team out."

But the U.S. didn't have to be playing Hasek and Jagr in the quarterfinals; a better effort in the preliminaries would have matched the U.S. against Finland or Kazakhstan. A couple of players were forthcoming enough to properly assess the blame and one of them was Chelios, who said: "We put ourselves in this position, to have to play Dominik Hasek. If we'd taken the preliminaries a little more seriously and put some more emphasis on it . . . if we played the way we're supposed to play. . . . The coach says our goal was to get better, but we were so out of sync that first game it was pretty tough not to get better . . . We never thought we'd be in this situation."

And who's in charge of making sure the team was ready to play well that first game, against Sweden? Wilson, of course.

Wilson, immediately after the game, appeared to be in denial. "Generally speaking," he said, "we controlled play for almost the whole game, in terms of puck control, forechecking, clogging up the neutral zone."

Excuse me for being rude, but what about in terms of scoring goals?

And just when you thought it couldn't get any more absurd, Wilson said — and I've looked at this quotation 25 times to make sure I got it right — "The one thing you can't control is wins and losses, unfortunately."

Using that illogic, I guess Vince Lombardi would have said, "Winning isn't everything; it's the only thing — you can't control."

I feel bad for Wilson because he's obviously a very good coach. He's got the Washington Capitals playing close to their maximum. But this is the kind of thing that doesn't just go away, even if it's not reflective of your work over the years. Trust me, if the Caps were to win the Stanley Cup this June the very first question would be, "Ron, does this make up for getting kicked out of the Olympics without a medal?"

I'm still not one to make a big deal out of professional athletes staying out late when it's not the night before a game, but maybe it was reflective of a general lack of focus at the beginning of this tournament. Wilson, as Chelios said, kept talking about "getting better" and aiming for Game 4, but in a competition that's only six games long max, you'd better come in gangbusters. Like Canada. Setting that tone is one of the head coach's high priorities.

Speaking of Canada, we go back to Chelios for the last word, a revealing last word, too. There's been a lot of whispering around the yard that the Americans don't care as much about this tournament as the Canadians because in Canada hockey, not football or baseball or basketball, is the national sport. The U.S. players have generally pooh-poohed that. But Chelios said: "If I have to put my finger on one thing, the difference between us and the Canadians is that the Canadians have a different sense of pride about hockey. If we had that same kind of pride . . ."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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