ALBERTVILLE, France -- Once, they were young, fresh-faced kids from Minnesota and New England. They wore red-white-and-blue uniforms and took on teams that were machines, creating miracles once every two decades.
But a strange thing happened to the U.S. hockey team on the long road to the 1992 Olympic Winter Games:
The plucky kids have vanished and the Broad Street Bullies have hit the French Alps.
Tomorrow, the United States will begin Olympic hockey play by taking on Italy in a chalet-style rink that sits a mile high in the chi-chi ski resort of Meribel.
With a cast of characters that could be found in your average Tuesday night American Hockey League main event, the United States will take on the world in what amounts to a second-rate hockey tournament.
There is one superstar (Eric Lindros of Canada), one favorite (Sweden) and one dark horse filled with exactly the type of players the U.S. Olympic team once had (the Unified Team of the former Soviet Union).
Since coming to France earlier this week, the U.S. team hasn't made many friends in the international hockey community.
Tuesday night, the team turned a friendly 6-3 victory over France into a game-ending melee when defenseman Moe Mantha shoved an opponent during a hand-shaking ceremony.
"Some guy on their team spit on Moe," U.S. captain Clark Donatelli said. "And he just didn't take to it, I guess. It was some little guy. No. 7. Who knows? But it all stopped pretty quickly. They were standing there saying, 'Finis, Finis.' It wasn't much."
One night later, the U.S. team beat up on Sweden, 3-2. After that contest, Swedish fans pelted the ice with beer bottles and cans. The American players threw the objects back into the stands.
Swedish coaches and newspapers depicted the U.S. players as goons. They called the American style "dangerous" and "disgusting."
Yesterday, U.S. hockey coach Dave Peterson defended his team and its suddenly rough-and-tumble playing style.
"I think we can be physical if we have to," Peterson said. "Do we try to do it? I don't think so. But we're not afraid to play that way.
"We are not trying to play an over-aggressive style," Peterson added. "I don't know what rumors you've heard. When we played Sweden, I didn't think it was a physical game at all. Of course, the Swedish coach will probably tell you that it was the most physical game of all-time. Draw your own conclusions."
The aggressive play may be a sign that the U.S. team is beginning to peak. Its 22-32-8 pre-Olympic record is hardly inspiring. But the team closed with a rush after going 1-12 in December.
The win over Sweden was impressive. The Swedish team, aiming for its first Olympic gold, is littered with former NHL stars, including ex-Washington Capital Bengt Gustafsson, who lost a tooth against the Americans after landing on a skate.
"It was a great win for us, but we can't make too much of it," forward David Emma said. "Now is when the games start counting."
In this made-for-television tournament, the U.S. team has a kind draw. Based on results from the 1991 World Championships, the United States was placed in a six-team pool with Italy, Germany, Finland, Poland and Sweden. The top four teams will advance to the medal-round quarterfinals against the four survivors from the opposite pool.
"We've had a strong nucleus since August, even though players have been coming and going," Donatelli said. "Hockey is a funny game that way. People are always going in and out, but we have to get used to it."
Peterson beefed up his defense in the final month, moving in four new defensemen. He cut his final player, Dan Keczmar, at a Swiss airport. It was a controversial move that enraged Keczmar.
Still, the remaining players say they are prepared for the Olympics.
"You're not going to find a closer team than this one," Emma said.
And you may not find a tougher team in the Olympic tournament.
The Unified Team still has finesse and panache. The Swedes have tremendous speed. And the Canadians have a blend of defense with a -- of Lindros' scoring magic.
To win, the U.S. team will have to bump and grind.
"Canada always plays very physical," Donatelli said. "The Canadians have been playing that way all of their lives. A leopard can't change his spots. We're just trying to take a page out of their book."
They'll probably rip it out.