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WINTER OLYMPICS : Backup Goalie Waits for Word--Is He Blue?

Times Staff Writer

For the last seven months, he took all of the six-hour bus rides, sat through the Rotary luncheons, slept in unfamiliar beds in hotel rooms from Orono, Me., to Tacoma, Wash.

“You can only watch so many movies on HBO,” John Blue said, a grin forming under his mustache. “I can recite ‘Robocop’ in my sleep.”

There are times Blue has felt more like a traveling salesman from El Toro, his Orange County home, than a goaltender on the United States Olympic hockey team. Especially when wearing the team’s official navy-blue blazer, the one with the USA/Dodge emblem on the breast pocket.

“It looks like we’re selling cars,” he said.

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Blue was willing to keep his bags packed for the same reason he was once willing to spend summer evenings backed against a garage door while his father, Jim, hit tennis balls at him--stick side, glove side, eye level, between his legs--a couple of hundred shots a night. He was nurturing the same ambition that has brought 22 other hockey players here--the chance to represent his country in the Olympics.

But while his teammates will be draped in red, white and blue on the ice today, when the U.S. team plays Austria in its opening-round game, Blue will be sitting somewhere in the stands of the Saddledome arena. He won’t be pitching cars, but neither will he be stopping pucks for Team USA. He is the spare goalie on a two-goalie team, an unmasked man while Mike Richter and Chris Terreri tend goal for the U.S. team.

Blue saw it coming during the team’s exhibition tour--while Richter and Terreri made 26 starts apiece, Blue made just 8. But even now, a week before his 22nd birthday, he is unwilling to accept that he came this far merely to be a spectator.

“I think I can still play,” Blue said. “As hard as it’s been, I don’t want to kill my dream. I’ve accomplished part of it by being on the team. The next part is playing in the Olympics.”

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Dave Peterson, the coach of the U.S. team, said that both Richter--who played for Peterson the last two seasons on the national team--and Terreri will play.

“John Blue could play, too,” Peterson said, but at best it’s a long shot.

Blue could have returned to the University of Minnesota, where he helped the Gophers to a NCAA Final Four appearance in 1986-87, for his senior year. Or he could have pursued a possible pro career--he was a 10th-round draft pick of the Winnipeg Jets of the National Hockey League.

Instead, Blue--who had left home at age 17 to play junior hockey in Des Moines and finished his high school degree by correspondence course--went to the National Sports Festival in North Carolina last summer and won a spot on the Olympic team. At the time, it appeared he would battle Richter, a former University of Wisconsin goalie and second-round draft choice of the New York Rangers in 1985, for the No. 1 job. But then the team added Terreri, a pro who split last season between the New Jersey Devils and their minor league team in Maine. Before that, Terreri also played for Peterson in international tournaments.

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“I knew when it all started that they knew who they wanted,” said Blue, who didn’t help himself by playing poorly in three exhibitions against National Hockey League teams. “These guys have grown up with (Peterson). He’s pretty loyal to his guys. But I’m glad I have the chance to be here.

“If I had the chance to do it all over again, I’d definitely be back.”

He has never played on a team as close as this one, he said.

“We’ve gotten along really well, almost like a family,” he said. “Like a family, we’ve had our fights and all, but we have great support for each other, too.”

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When the team was in Los Angeles in November to play an exhibition against Team Canada, Blue brought two dozen hungry hockey players home with him for Thanksgiving. His mother, Shirley, and father barbecued turkeys in the backyard.

“When I went home (alone) for Christmas,” Blue said. “I felt like part of me was gone for a while. It was really weird.”

Blue was born in Garden Grove but wasn’t much more than a toddler when his family moved, eventually settling in San Jose. He became a hockey player after Jim Blue walked into a colleague’s office, spotted a photo on the wall of the man’s son with his peewee hockey team, and decided that he’d like to see his own son on skates, too.

“I was only about 5 or 6 and my dad coached me my first year,” John Blue said. “He didn’t really know what he was doing, so the coach’s son became the goalie.”

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Blue’s first love was football--he played middle linebacker in high school and was good enough to make all-league as a junior. But at 5-10, he decided his size precluded playing major-college football, packed his skates and goalie’s glove, and headed for Iowa. Soon after, his family moved to El Toro.

“I’ve been away from home since I was 17--you learn to grow up fast,” Blue said. “We were traveling six, seven hours a day, and the team I played on was pretty rowdy. Hockey players are a different breed--they’re pretty raw. They don’t hold anything back.”

Minnesota offered a scholarship, and Blue, in addition to compiling a 64-25-1 record in three seasons with the Gophers, also was named a Williams scholar, an honor accorded athletes with a grade-point average of 3.0 or better. A broadcasting major, Blue eventually would like to pursue a career path similar to that followed by Mike Eruzione, who starred on the gold-medal winning ’80 team, then went to work as a commentator for ABC.

As much as he entertains hopes for a chance to play here, Blue is just as hopeful that his team will be more successful than the ’84 team, which finished a disappointing seventh in Saraejevo, Yugoslavia.

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“I think it’s good for us that we’re not expected to win the gold medal,” Blue said. “I think that takes a little of the pressure off.

“I was asking Corey Millen (who played on the ’84 team) the other day who he thought had a better team. He said the ’84 team had more individual stars, but we’re a much better team. We don’t have any superstars on the ice, like a Pat LaFontaine or Eddie Olczyk. We’re just a bunch of workers--above-average players, but no superstars.”

And one goalie sitting in the stands, clinging to the thread of a dream.

“There’s still a part of me holding on,” Blue said, smiling. “There’s still a part of me that believes I’ll get my chance.”

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