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Mettle Comes Before Medal : After Soft Pre-Olympic Schedule Hurt U.S. Team in ’88, U.S. Hockey Players Are Taking Their Lumps for ’92

TIMES STAFF WRITER

He left Calgary in a huff, but he didn’t leave in disgrace. Not by his standards. And if his standards differed from those of his numerous and vocal critics, Coach Dave Peterson of the U.S. Olympic hockey team didn’t much care.

With his brusque manner and short temper, Peterson became the archetypical “ugly American” of the 1988 Winter Games. After assembling a team overstocked with scorers who were only casually acquainted with playing defense, Peterson was decried in a dozen languages, and his competence was questioned by no less than Juan Antonio Samaranch, president of the International Olympic Committee.

“It’s a pity the Americans are so weak. They are good players, but they have no cohesion,” Samaranch said as the United States played to a 3-3 record and a seventh-place finish. “They have no coordination between them. . . . They run and shoot, run and shoot.”

Peterson said sarcastically of Samaranch: “I didn’t know he was a hockey expert,” and told reporters, “This team played well, but you missed that story. . . . This team is a lot better than you’ll ever know.”

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Why wasn’t its talent evident on the ice? There were theories galore.

An obvious problem was a soft pre-Olympic schedule, which resulted in deceptively easy victories and offered little preparation for the slick skating and passing of international play.

“We played Canada eight times, and they played just like we did, tough, physical games, dump-it-in, things European teams don’t do,” said defenseman Brian Leetch, Team USA’s captain in 1988 and now a star with the New York Rangers.

“The teams we played were a lot of college teams and the Russian team that wasn’t their top team. You get used to doing things you won’t be able to do in the Olympics, where the caliber of competition is higher.”

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Peterson also slighted the defensive end of the game, a telling oversight. “We learned a lesson as we were playing,” said goaltender Mike Richter, who was criticized by Peterson but has earned raves in the NHL with the Rangers.

The years since Calgary have made Peterson look even more culpable for the team’s inability to win a medal, because all but a few players from that team have played in the NHL, and 10 have become regulars.

“People ask me, ‘With all that talent, how could you not have won it?’ ” Peterson says. “The question is, was there all that talent, or did we have something to do with it becoming that good?” Despite his vilification in the international press, despite the frustration of knowing that the best American-born players are in the NHL and unavailable for the Olympics, Peterson will be back behind Team USA’s bench in Albertville, France, in February.

And he will be back gladly, with a team whose skills are being seriously tested against NHL competition and whose youth is leavened by the addition of players with European and minor league experience.

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“A lot of people have the perception that it was unpleasant, and I can understand why they would perceive that, but honestly, the experience in ’88 was a great experience,” said Peterson, who scrapped his plans to retire after Calgary.

“We set three goals for ourselves, and the only place where we fell short was in getting to the medal round, because we thought we were good enough. As it turned out, we didn’t make it. So you’re disappointed in that, but I was not disappointed with the players. The total experience was awesome, and I think that’s what brings you back to do it again.”

Officials of USA Hockey, the governing body of American amateur hockey, brought Peterson back instead of hiring Yale’s Tim Taylor, who was described as not forceful enough by a member of the selection committee. Herb Brooks, coach of the gold medal-winning 1980 team at Lake Placid, also was a candidate, but was considered too evasive and too independent.

Peterson, who coached for 27 years at Southwest High in Minneapolis besides coaching the junior national team and national team, is nearly 61 and doesn’t see this as a springboard to the NHL. He also was a familiar face, albeit a man who required classes on how to deal with the media.

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“His rapport with the press hurt him,” said right wing Tony Granato, now with the Kings. “He tried to take the pressure off us and take it himself, because he didn’t want us destroyed by the media.”

Said Leetch: “He had a handle on the team, but he didn’t have a handle on the press. He didn’t do a good job there. But the team respected him.”

Peterson will ask his team to do in Albertville what has been done only twice before, and then only on American soil: win a gold medal.

The 1960 team’s victory at Squaw Valley caused few ripples beyond amateur hockey because the Olympics had not yet been glamorized by television. The so-called “Miracle on Ice” pulled off by Brooks’ collegians transcended sports because of the upset of the mighty Soviets in the semifinals. Peterson and his players will be under constant pressure to repeat the feats of 1980, a challenge he welcomes.

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“Hopefully, the day will come in USA hockey--and I think we’re getting closer--to where we don’t need a miracle to win a medal,” Peterson said. “Have we reached that stage yet? I’m not sure. . . .

“And in no way is that a knock on what’s happened, because the win in ’80 is one of the reasons we’re enjoying the growth success we have in USA Hockey. Everybody says, ‘Geez, that puts unfair expectations on you.’ I don’t really think so. I never really felt that, even though (the) ’84 (team), I think, carried that harder than anybody. I don’t think (winning a gold medal) is an unfair expectation. The thing that would worry me and the people in USA Hockey would be if nobody cared about us.”

He took care to set a tougher pre-Olympic schedule, although the mistakes of 1988 weren’t entirely his fault. The 1980 and ’84 teams played interlocking schedules with the Central Hockey League, a feeder for the NHL, but the CHL was about to fold in ’88 and couldn’t commit to any games. To fill the schedule, Peterson arranged games against college teams, who offered little resistance because their best players were playing for Team USA.

That proved costly later, when the Olympic team was unable to hold a three-goal lead over Czechoslovakia in its second game at Calgary and squandered its medal hopes.

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“We tried to sit back, but we didn’t have to protect a lead all year long,” Granato said. “We didn’t have a game where we had to do all those little things defensively. . . . You look and see how much talent we had on that team, and you can second-guess.”

Midway through an ambitious schedule that includes at least one game against each of the 15 U.S. NHL teams, a dozen games against the Canadian Olympic team, matchups with teams from the Soviet Union and Europe and only four games against college teams, the 1992 team, before the weekend, was 14-17-5. That includes a 3-10-2 record against NHL opponents.

The results aren’t as good as before the ’88 Games, but the players are getting a more realistic picture of how they will fare in February. They also are getting as much practice time as possible on international-size rinks--200 feet long by 100 feet wide, 20 feet wider than NHL surfaces--although they haven’t been able to play on the bigger rinks as much as they would like.

“Even though we won’t win too many of these games, just playing NHL teams will help because it’s good competition,” said right wing Bill Guerin, a deft scorer at Boston College who was drafted fifth overall by the New Jersey Devils in 1989. “Good competition is going to make us better.”

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Scott Fusco, a center who played on the ’84 and ’88 teams, called the schedule the most rigorous he has played.

“In ’88, if we had a bad night, we’d get by. When we have a bad night now, we’re going to get beat,” said Fusco, who left his family’s computer business for a third attempt at winning a medal. “This is much better. You make a mistake in a game against an NHL team, you’re going to pay the price and you’re going to learn. . . . We’ve come a long way since the start. We still have to work on our defense a little bit.”

Peterson contends that he didn’t deliberately ignore defense in ’88.

“It’s kind of what was available to us,” he said. “As you boil it down to the people who are good enough to play, sometimes what’s there dictates what you have to do. Of the best that were available, very few were really defensive defensemen--or are defensive defensemen now. Brian Leetch is still an offensive defenseman playing in the NHL.”

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Leetch was the offensive catalyst in ’88, a role unfilled on the ’92 team. The leading scorer, with 19 goals and 34 points in 32 games, is center Shawn McEachern of Boston University, but he is not a dominant player.

Forwards Joe Sacco and C.J. Young have some scoring ability, and center Keith Tkachuk shows immense promise at 19. Forward David Emma, winner of the Hobey Baker Award as the top player in college hockey at Boston College in 1990-91, has been hampered by an eye injury, but has recovered and will be counted upon heavily.

The defensemen are capable but not flashy. Scott Lachance, the fourth pick--and first American--in the 1991 NHL draft, is fond of taking chances in the offensive zone but has the speed to get back to his position. David Quinn, whose NHL career was ended because of a rare blood disorder, is playing again since the discovery of medication that keeps his illness under control. At 25, he lends experience.

The goaltending remains unsettled. Scott Gordon, who played seven games for the NHL’s Quebec Nordiques last season, has started half of Team USA’s games. He will compete with Matt DelGuidice, who played seven games for the Boston Bruins this season before being added to Team USA last week; and Ray LeBlanc, who was added from Indianapolis of the International Hockey League. Highly regarded goalie Les Kuntar, 22, suffered a broken jaw and is sidelined indefinitely.

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Roster changes are probable in the next month, but no front-line NHL players will be added because teams won’t relinquish key players during the season.

Team USA will be seeded fourth at Albertville, and its chances of winning a medal are uncertain. The United States is in a six-team group with Finland and Sweden--both of which will be fortified by several former NHL players--as well as Italy, Germany and Poland.

The defending champion Soviets and perennially strong Czechs are in the other six-team group, but both have lost their best players to the NHL and will have young, relatively untested teams.

After round-robin play, the top four teams in each group will advance to the medal round, which will be a single-elimination format.

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“I think we can look ahead and think, ‘Medal,’ ” Lachance said. “Our team is probably not as gifted, player by player, as in ’88, but overall we’re just as good. As a team, I think we can give it a good shot.”


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