FOR UBRIACO, THAT'S AMORE Lutherville resident coaching Team Italia against Team USA


Courchevel, France -- To find him, you drive on roads that cling to the French Alps like pieces of thread on a coat. Past the ski slopes, ski jumps, town markets and village squares lies an ice skating arena that is perched a mile above sea level.

As hockey players crash into the boards and swipe ineffectively at a puck, a coach circles the ice, gesturing and watching.

Gene Ubriaco, an ocean away from his home in Lutherville, Md., has come to the Winter Olympics.

Ubriaco is head coach of the Italian hockey team, an underdog collection of club players from Italy, Canada and the United States.

Tonight, this ragtag bunch makes its debut against Team USA, the emerging big, bad bully of the 12-team Olympic tournament.

"It's wonderful," Ubriaco said. "I died and went to heaven. You're talking to a spirit."

Ubriaco, 54, has enjoyed a coaching rebirth by going back to his family's roots. Two years after he was fired as coach of the NHL's Pittsburgh Penguins, he has re-emerged behind the bench in an international setting.

Few expect the Italians to win a medal, or even advance to the eight-team medal round. Their victory was breaking into the tournament by emerging as one of the 12 top Olympic teams in the world.

"In a way, it's strange to be here," Ubriaco said. "I was born in Canada, but my home is in America. "But you realize, you have to be loyal to the people who pay you."

The man who coached the Baltimore Clippers and Skipjacks, who suffered through an 18-game losing streak and who controlled the Penguins for 1 1/2 seasons has found a temporary hockey home in Italy. In November 1990, he was asked by Italian hockey federation officials to come to Bolzano to discuss taking over the national team.

He stayed for eight days and fell in love with the city that is cradled in the Dolomites. He immediately agreed to take the job through this spring's world championships, renewing ties with a country that his father left years before.

"For me, to represent my father's country, is an honor," he said.

The honor has yielded extraordinary travel opportunities. Ubriaco has guided the national team for 20 weeks. He was in Yugoslavia on the brink of its civil war. He was in Moscow the day Russian President Boris Yeltsin claimed control of the Soviet Red Army.

"We played a game, and they changed flags," he said.

Coaching the Italians has played to Ubriaco's strengths as a teacher. He has shaped a team, providing it with a professional personality. Fourteen of his players are Canadians who travel with Italian passports. His starting goaltender is David Delfino, 26, of Medford, Mass.

Ubriaco prowls the ice during practice, wearing blue pants, a blue turtleneck and a navy blue cardigan sweater. To communicate with the seven native Italians on the team, Ubriaco gestures and speaks through a translator. His grasp of Italian is limited. Thanking an Olympic official, he said, "Gracia," instead of "Grazie."

The team has an effective defense, and Delfino could be the tournament's second-best goaltender behind Sean Burke of Canada.

Recruited to Italian hockey by former U.S. Olympic coach Lou Vairo, Delfino has spent the past four seasons with H.C. Fassa in Canazei.

"People think Italian hockey is crazy," Delfino said. "But it's not."

For one night at least, Delfino has a chance to show the world just how good hockey in Italy can be. He is prepared to climb from obscurity by playing against his native country.

"All my friends at home say they'll be wearing the Italian green, white and red," Delfino said. "I want to prove I can play. I don't think they'll take it that bad if a Medford boy beats the U.S.A. I'm not expecting any miracles."

Neither is Ubriaco.

He said again and again that his loyalties are mixed. He said that one of his proudest coaching accomplishments was helping the United States win a silver medal at the 1991 Deaf World Championships in Banff, Alberta. Yet he is now trying to set up an Olympic roadblock for the U.S. team.

"I'll be disappointed if it isn't a great hockey game," he said. "I think our team will give the United States a good game. All we can ask is to force them to play their best. But if they don't, we could jump up and bite them."

The Olympics are filled with upsets.

"This is the one you dream about," Ubriaco said. "Our players have the opportunity to show their moms and dads where they've been the last five or 10 years. This is for the Familia Italia."

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