U.S. men to debut tonight in hockey


SALT LAKE CITY - Two very separate histories will dog the U.S. Olympic men's hockey team tonight when it takes the ice against Finland in its Winter Games debut.

On one hand, it marks the first time an American hockey team has competed in an Olympics on home ice since 1980, when the United States shocked the Soviets - and the world - on its way to winning a gold medal in Lake Placid, N.Y.

"I was 10 years old, and I watched every game I could in my parents' dining room," said Boston Bruins forward Bill Guerin. "It was a huge inspiration for me, and it still is. It's one of the biggest reasons I love the game and why I really decided to pursue a career in the game."

But the other hand, it will also mark the first time the U.S. team has competed together since the 1998 Olympics in Nagano, Japan. There, a sixth-place showing by the Americans turned into an embarrassment after several unnamed players did $3,000 in damage to their Olympic Village condos after a loss to the Czech Republic.

"It happened. It's over. It's done," said head coach Herb Brooks, who coached the 1980 team to a gold, and returned this year to help restore some dignity to U.S. hockey. "I don't think any of us are looking in the mirror, other than to learn from some of these things. I haven't mentioned it to our guys. We haven't even talked about it."

He has talked about 1980, though. Brooks can't deny that. During a short pre-Olympic training camp with the team before the NHL season, Brooks told the players it was OK to have dreams, that they wouldn't be human without them. But he emphasized that effort, something that was missing in 1998, will be the key to winning a medal, not delusions of grandeur.

"The challenges are a little different [from 1980]," Brooks said. "This time, I'm not going to be telling these players something they don't know. I'll be more trying to pull it out of them instead of putting it in."

The field is extremely deep, Brooks said, much more so than in 1980. Eight teams - Canada, the Czech Republic, Germany, Sweden, Belarus, Finland, Russia and the United States - are in the final round, and only the Germans seem like unlikely medalists. The biggest keys for the Americans will be how they adjust to the larger international ice and how their veteran legs hold up late in games.

"It's the same for everybody, but there is a difference," Brooks said. "For the Canadians and Americans, when we get on a bigger ice surface, we play a little different game and have adjustments to make. [Europeans] grew up on that kind of game, so it will be difficult."

Bigger ice or not, Canada will still be the favorite, though it hasn't won a gold medal in 50 years. With stars like Mario Lemieux, Paul Kariya, Eric Lindros, Joe Sakic, Martin Broudeur and Steve Yzerman, the Canadians are a virtual who's-who of the NHL. Alexei Yashin and Sergei Fedorov will lead a strong Russian team, and the Czech Republic (gold medalists in 1998) has two of the world's best players in Jaromir Jagr and Dominik Hasek.

The U.S. team boasts a few big names in Brett Hull, Mike Modano and Jeremy Roenick, but more important for the United States will be the play of goalies Mike Richter, Mike Dunham and Tom Barrasso. If one of them gets hot, good things could happen.

"If we play smart and do it with class, we'll be able to sleep at night," Brooks said.

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