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Wild ride comes to sudden stop for hockey team U.S. falls to Czechs, 6-1, in game for 3rd


MERIBEL, France -- Ray LeBlanc came off the ice slowly, this man with the Stars and Stripes mask, and the big white lobster claw of a goalie's glove that had given the hockey world fits these past two weeks.

There was 17:22 left in the bronze-medal game last night. The team without a name was losing in this building without a name. But LeBlanc still wanted to hold on to a piece of a dream, still wanted to play it out at the Winter Olympics.

"I'm sad how things worked out," he said. "But it's just a game."

The wild, emotional ride of the U.S. hockey team finally ended with a 6-1 loss to Czechoslovakia. The game was unremarkable. The Americans simply ran into a bigger, stronger, more talented team, capable of exploiting every weakness an opponent could offer.

But they gave a country and a tournament a ride. For some reason, they connected with the United States all over again. It wasn't 1980 and the Miracle of Lake Placid, but it was close. They became overnight stars with a run that took them right into the medal round, right into a 5-2 loss to the Unified Team and a buzz-saw defeat against the Czechs.

"They don't play hockey. They just hurry around" is how Czech goalie Petr Briza described the Americans.

They played with a lot of heart. But now, it didn't matter.

LeBlanc stood in the corridor underneath the stands and talked of the tournament. His brown eyes stared straight ahead. His voice was low.

He faced 298 shots and made 281 saves in eight games, and when he gave up a fourth goal last night, there he was, coming to the bench, giving a wave to his replacement, Scott Gordon.

"It's a team game," he said. "If they thought it was best for me to come out, then fine."

He had grown frustrated between the first and second periods after facing 24 shots. He had bailed his team out time and time again. But on this night, he had little more to give and told Peterson to take him out. Still, he stayed in for the second period, and part of the third.

"I relieved Ray," said U.S. coach Dave Peterson. "I thought he was getting tired. I thought he was getting tired out."

The whole team was exhausted. Drained by Friday's loss to the Unified Team. A little embarrassed by the emotional charges made about the officiating in the tournament.

"It's tough," said captain Clark Donatelli, who had talked one night earlier of a Swedish conspiracy against the Americans.

"Emotions were flying," he said. "If I offended any of the fellow Americans back home, I'm sorry. The Russians were a great hockey team. We want to take it as men. We don't want to be a bunch of babies."

They showed some respect after the game. They shook hands with the Czechs. They lingered on the ice. Five wins, two losses and a tie. Not bad. Not bad at all. The best record by a non-medal-winning U.S. team. But still, they had somehow failed, running the string of non-medal-winning Olympic performances to three, a record.

"No one expected us to finish higher than seventh or eighth," LeBlanc said. "It's not a bad finish. We have nothing to be ashamed of."

When it was over, they talked of the future. Peterson, the 61-year-old coach, was asked if he would like to come back for a third Olympics in 1994 in Lillehammer, Norway.

"I think you're talking to the wrong person," he said. "As of tomorrow, I go back to my player development job with USA Hockey."

But does he want the job?

"I think I'll take a few days to get back in my own bed," he said. "I haven't been there since July 30. Then, we'll see."

Donatelli is looking to get back into the NHL. So are most of the rest.

Defenseman Scott Lachance is at the beginning of his career, 19 and on his way to the New York Islanders. And Moe Mantha, the 12-year NHL veteran, may be near the end. But they took this ride together.

They hopped on the back of this 27-year-old goaltender named LeBlanc, the career minor-leaguer suddenly gone big-time in France. LeBlanc will go back home to Indianapolis, maybe back home to the International Hockey League. The Chicago Blackhawks own his rights, and now, there is talk he might get a 60-minute NHL shot, making him eligible for the spring expansion draft.

"I want to play in the NHL," he said. "That's my dream."

LeBlanc said he would remember the two Olympic shutouts. He would remember this time on the center of a stage.

"I have to thank the American people for supporting us," he said. "It's a great country to be in. I'm proud to be an American."

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