MARATHON ON ICE U.S. hockey team ends pre-Games tour with odd mix

THE BALTIMORE SUN

The coach is a retired schoolteacher who once defiantly assumed the role of Ugly American.

Gathered on the roster is a collection of castoffs, kids and patriots who have been assembled and then reassembled on a journey that makes a presidential campaign appear like a sprint.

There is the goaltender who survived a horrific season with the Baltimore Skipjacks.

There is the forward who once skated for lire in a snowstorm in Italy.

There is the college star who once tended bar in Boston, the teen-ager poised to make a fortune in Long Island and the veteran seeking only redemption in France.

And, overshadowing them all, is the miracle of 1980.

For the U.S. Olympic hockey team, a season that began last May with a tryout camp in Lake Placid, N.Y., will end next month in a chalet-style rink that sits in a village perched in the French Alps.

The blade-runners are exhausted.

After stops in 46 cities in 21 states and three Canadian provinces, after surviving a blackout in Cromwell, Conn., a deep-sea fishing expedition off the California coast and a 1 a.m. fire drill in Philadelphia, they're in the home stretch. Their tour of North America concludes Wednesday night with a game against the Washington Capitals in Landover.

But the trip to the 1992 Winter Olympic Games has really just begun.

Twelve years removed from its miracle triumph over the Soviet Union and gold-medal performance at the 1980 Lake Placid Games, the U.S. hockey team is struggling for victories and playing before empty seats in NHL arenas.

The Cold War on ice that gave the team its dramatic hook with a flag-waving American public has vanished.

The Soviet Union doesn't even exist anymore.

Now, this is just a hockey story, a team of grinders and goalies playing a rough, relentless game that leaves most of the country cold.

"People who have never seen a hockey game remember 1980," forward Clark Donatelli said. "We have to live with that. Everyone always remembers that gold medal. Now, we want to win a gold medal. And if we do win it, it will be just as great a miracle."

Though the hockey world has changed, with North American pros in the Olympics and Russians and Czechs in the NHL, the Americans remain underdogs. In the previous decade, the team compiled one miracle at Lake Placid in 1980 and two debacles at Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, in 1984 and Calgary, Alberta, in 1988.

Medal hopes are not being scaled back in France. Despite a 16-29-8 record during its world tour, this team talks of winning gold, talks of creating its own miracle at the 12-team Olympic tournament in Meribel, the center of "the three valleys" that lie beyond the crossroads city of Albertville.

"I like the expectations," coach Dave Peterson said. "If we didn't have any expectations, we wouldn't have fun. Our first goal is to go and win a medal, preferably a gold."

Some might say Peterson is a glutton for punishment, returning for another nasty and improbable mission. At the 1988 Olympics, Peterson, a retired high school business teacher from Minnesota, screamed at officials and bickered with the media.

It was part huff and part bluff. What appeared to be a personal meltdown was actually a calculated effort by Peterson to shift the focus and the pressure from the players to himself.

"Dave shouldered the blame," said Scott Fusco, a 1984 and 1988 Olympian. "He didn't feel it was fair that he was being criticized by people who didn't understand what we were trying to do. He felt they were coming off as experts. Some of it, he really didn't handle well."

The 1988 team, led by defenseman Brian Leetch and goaltender Mike Richter, may have been the most talented in U.S. history. Ten players graduated to the NHL. But Team USA entered the Olympics caught in a slump, and, under the circumstances, a seventh-place finish was as understandable as it was disappointing.

"You know, 1988 was a lot of fun for me," Peterson said. "I know people won't believe that, but it was."

Before taking the 1992 Olympic job, Peterson met with media relations specialists to polish his image. He'll never be the Great Communicator, but it's unlikely that he'll ever again be portrayed as some sort of on-ice ogre.

At 61, he isn't about to undergo a transformation. He is tough and direct, with both his players and reporters.

"I think Dave Peterson is still Dave Peterson," he said.

The one-time goaltender for the minor-league Minneapolis Millers, Peterson makes his teams play aggressively, pressuring center ice. It's a strategy bound to create goals -- for Team USA and its opponents.

But against quick-skating Europeans such as the unified team of the former Soviet Union and the Swedes, the strategy provides the Americans with their best opportunity for victory.

"If you get on the big sheet of ice, where you can open up, our quickness will show itself," Peterson said. "We're not bad defensively. We're just not as good as we need to be."

Don't worry. Peterson has a goaltender who has seen and endured far worse.

Scott Gordon appeared in 34 games with the American Hockey League's Baltimore Skipjacks in the 1987-88 season. Without an NHL affiliation, the Skipjacks wheeled in 57 players and won 13 games.

How bad was it?

"We played Utica, N.Y., four times, and I had 200 shots taken at me," Gordon said.

Gordon learned to stand up and survive, though. He made it to the NHL, playing with the Quebec Nordiques for two seasons. But when Team USA offered him a tryout last spring, he took it. At 28, Gordon realized this would be his one shot at greatness.

He has seen others become Olympians and legends. His father, James Gordon, once coached Jim Craig, the star goalie of the 1980 gold-medal team.

"This is it for me," Gordon said. "I don't know how many Stanley Cup winners there have been. Who remembers who won the Cup in 1988 or 1984? But people remember 1980. They remember the American team. I think most people would take a gold medal to the Stanley Cup."

David A. Jensen is one of those players who has come to understand the value of the Olympics. Eight years after his first Olympic appearance, he's back for a last hurrah.

In 1984, he was an 18-year-old on an Olympic ride. He was part of the U.S. Diaper Line, with Pat LaFontaine and Ed Olczyk. They toured the country, heroes-to-be. Four years after the Lake Placid miracle, the U.S. hockey players were stars.

They appeared at car dealerships. They signed thousands of autographs. They were besieged with television interviews.

"When you're 18, and fresh out of high school, you have so many opportunities, so many directions you can go in," Jensen said. "Everything is out there for you."

The Diaper Line came home from the 1984 Sarajevo Games without a medal. LaFontaine went on to stardom with the New York Islanders. Olczyk struggled with the Chicago Blackhawks and Toronto Maple Leafs. And Jensen? His career imploded almost before it started. Marty McSorley broke his leg on a breakaway in Binghamton, N.Y.

Jensen became a sojourner on ice. Hartford, back to Binghamton, Washington, Boston, Maine. He ended up last year playing outdoors in Cortina, Italy.

"One time we played in the snow, and they thought about canceling the game," he said. "But we just kept playing. We got rained out once, though."

The call came from the United States. Team USA was looking for a veteran forward with speed and experience. Was Jensen interested?

You bet.

"I look at the younger guys, and I remember what it was like," he said. "It's like that song, 'I want to go back, and do it all over.' Well, I'm back."

He's on the ice. He's surrounded by kids.

There is Shawn McEachern, 22, Boston University graduate, sixth-round draft pick of the Pittsburgh Penguins. He spent his college career scoring goals and pulling drafts at The Dugout.

In Albertville, he is expected to score, period. On tour, he has a team-leading 23 goals and 19 assists.

"We don't have any stars," he said. "In 1988, there were a few guys on this team with big names. But we have to work hard defensively to create things. A lot of guys will have to come up big in big games."

If you were to pick out one player for stardom, it would be Scott Lachance, a 19-year-old defenseman from Bristol, Conn. He grew up playing hockey in his back yard on a rink built by his father, Guy. He moves the puck like Ray Bourque of the Boston Bruins. After playing one season at Boston University in 1990-91, the New York Islanders drafted him fourth, the top American.

Lachance may go straight from Albertville to the NHL.

"I've had an easier road than most," he said. "Some of these other guys on this team have had a tough hockey life. They've had to work through a few things. They've survived."

Just look at Donatelli, a red-headed fire hydrant on skates. He was there in 1988 in Calgary. He is trying to hitch another ride to Albertville.

The Boston Bruins cut him in the fall. But Team USA never forgets. He was given a tryout, for old time's sake. And he showed the old fire, and stuck around, and made everyone else look a whole lot better.

There are nights now when he goes up against a Brett Hull or a Murray Craven, and his team is getting beat. But he hears the superstars gasping for breath. And in those moments, he thinks of Swedes and Russians gasping in high altitude in France.

He's tired, too. Everyone is, now.

They've gone from Albany, N.Y., to Tampere, Finland. They've played the Great Gretzky and the franchise-to-be named Eric Lindros.

"Some people don't even get one chance to win a gold," Donatelli said. "Here I am, I may have a second chance."

He tells his teammates to relax. Tells them to slow down. The Olympics will come and go in a flash.

"We left Calgary with a sour taste," he said. "We were there and we blew it. Let's learn from our mistakes."

Team USA vs. NHL

Date.. .. Opp. .. .. .. .. Site.. .. .. .. ..Att.. .. .. .. .. Score

Sept. 13..vs. Washington.. Albany N.Y. .. .6,214.. .. .Capitals, 6-2

Sept. 18..Calgary.. .. .. .Salt Lake City..5,107.. .. .. Flames, 7-3

Sept. 20 Pittsburgh.. .. ..Denver.. .. .. .9,236.. .. .Penguins, 5-2

Sept. 21 San Jose.. .. .. .Cleveland.. .. .4,865.. .. ..USA, 5-4, OT

Sept. 24 Buffalo.. .. .. ..Cincinnati.. .. 3,274.. .. .. .. tie, 3-3

Sept. 28 Minnesota.. .. .. Duluth.. .. .. .5,196.. North Stars, 13-6

Oct. 7.. at Minnesota.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .6,422.. .. .. .. USA, 6-3

Oct. 23. at Buffalo.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 11,527.. .. ..Sabres, 4-1

Oct. 24. at N.Y. Islanders.. .. .. .. .. .. 6,033.. ..Islanders, 3-0

Nov. 6.. at New Jersey.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .6,668.. .. ..Devils, 5-4

Nov. 10..at Philadelphia.. .. .. .. .. .. .15,336.. .. tie, 1-1 (OT)

Nov. 11..at Boston.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. .12,290.. .. ..Bruins, 3-0

Nov. 17..at San Jose.. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..10,725.. .. .. ..USA, 6-2

Nov. 20..at Hartford.. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..10,836..Whalers, 5-4 (OT)

Nov. 25..at St. Louis.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .13,308.. .. .. Blues, 6-4

Dec. 1.. at Detroit.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 19,281.. .. .. ..tie, 4-4

Dec. 4.. at N.Y. Rangers.. .. .. .. .. .. .13,569.. .. .Rangers, 7-3

Dec. 10..at Kings.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. ..10,426.. .. .. Kings, 5-0

Dec. 12..at Chicago.. .. .. .. .. .. .. .. 16,146.. .Blackhawks, 8-3

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