It isn't as if the U.S. Olympic hockey team hasn't been cuffed around by big, strong men before. They played NHL teams 21 times during a 64-game training schedule, beating the pros on four occasions.
That invaluable experience will be put to use Friday against the Unified Team, in the biggest international hockey match U.S. fans have seen in a dozen years.
At stake is the right to play for Olympic gold Sunday against the winner of the semifinal between Czechoslovakia and Canada. A victory today also would put this team, finally, close to the heralded "Miracle on Ice" crew of 1980. That never-to-be-forgotten bunch toppled the seasoned and heavily favored Soviets on a Friday in February and went on to take the gold two days later by defeating Finland.
"We knew we were going to have to play (the Unified Team) sooner or later," said Clark Donatelli, captain of the U.S. team.
"It wouldn't be the same if we didn't have to go through the Russians to win the gold medal."
Grinding their way through their difficult pre-Olympic schedule helped Donatelli and his teammates acquire the physical and emotional resources to reach this juncture. They questioned the wisdom of such planning when they were struggling against the NHL clubs, but the purpose is clear now, and their doubts are gone.
"We were on the road all the time and it was real tough," said Donatelli, who was the team's second-leading scorer in pre-Olympic competition with 13 goals and 38 points in 42 games. During the tournament, he has two goals and three points centering for Tim Sweeney and C.J. Young.
"We learned from that tour," he added. "We learned that even though it was tough to see success then, we grew as a team. You can't just look at the won-loss record. We learned we had to play better team defense, and we had to compete night after night or we would be blown out.
"We learned to play when we're tired, too, and that really paid off against France (a 4-1 quarterfinal victory)."
If pressure is building, no one on the U.S. team looked cowed Thursday when the Unified Team walked into the practice arena here to take the ice as the Americans finished their workout. The Americans seemed downright playful, circling the rink making weird crow calls to each other.
"My players are loose now, but they'll get tight as the game gets nearer," said Dave Peterson, the gruff Minnesota high school coach whose Olympic charges were a disappointing seventh in 1988 in Calgary. But he has redeemed himself with a 5-0-1 record here, best mark in the Games.
"The coaches are actually more nervous than the players," said Peterson, "but that's normal. We don't get to work our energy off like they do."
Not that the American players, led by their goalie Ray LeBlanc, are laboring under any delusions.
"We're not going to intimidate the Russians," said Moe Mantha, a 31-year-old NHL defenseman who gave up a backup role on the Winnipeg Jets to play on the team. "That's an impossibility. They're big, strong men. We're just going to have to get in their faces. Our team doesn't fear them."
So that's what it has come down to on the eve of the great hockey showdown of the 16th Winter Games: A mostly young, scrappy U.S. team with more than a dozen fresh faces recently out of college looking to disrupt a team so steady and strong, so clever with sticks and skates it simply commandeers the puck, leaving opponents little opportunity to mount an offense.
"They'll probably have the puck 50 minutes of the (60-minute) game," Mantha said. "We can't lose our composure."
Composure also worries Peterson, who watched his team take unnecessary penalties in the last two games, a 3-3 tie against Sweden and a 4-1 victory over France.
"We've got to stay out of the penalty box," Peterson said. The Unified Team power play "is the best," he said. "They're talented and well coached, so a lot of penalties for us is suicidal."
Said Donatelli: "If a body check can be thrown, we're going to throw it and the other guys better know it. We're not going to change our style for them."
It's a fine line to toe--rough, but not too rough--and Peterson said much rides on how closely officials call the game and whether the phenomenal goalkeeping of LeBlanc continues.
Meantime, his mates have battled grimly to defend the ice in front of him. "Out in front of the goal is the hot place on the ice," said Guy Gosselin. "If anyone sits in there, we're going to move him out."
Defenseman Greg Brown, who took a ferocious body check in the opening minutes Monday against Sweden and wound up on the ice unconscious in a pool of blood, has been cleared to play.