by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

CALGARY, Alberta — This is a story about an American hockey team that did not play defense, lost three times in five tries, and watched helplessly as a West German player put a final nail into its Olympic hope chest.

The puck stops here. For the second Winter Olympics in a row, the United States has been eliminated from the medal round. It was a sad moment for American fans who saw West Germany’s Roy Roedger whack a puck into an open net with 51 seconds left — the final dagger in a 4-1 U.S. defeat.

What hurt most, though, was the West German goal that preceded it, when the game was still breathing, a goal scored on a defense as thin as a paper napkin. Here was a recurring nightmare of America’s 1988 Games: An opposing hockey player (in this case, Georg Holzmann) breaking away from two U.S. defenders, then whipping a pass to a wide-open teammate (Peter Obresa) for an easy goal. Once, twice, three swipes you’re out. Goodby, Calgary. What time does the plane leave?

“How do they keep doing that?” the U.S. fans seemed to say Sunday night.
“Why do they keep doing that?”

Why? How? Why not stop it? “You saw the game, make your own decisions,” snarled U.S. coach Dave Peterson.

Don’t tempt us.

With a 2-2 record, the Americans had entered Sunday night’s game needing to win by at least two goals to make the medal round. Instead, the game quickly melted into a blur of near- miss passes, of pucks flying off sticks and shots that dribbled, slipped, wobbled, ricocheted — did everything but go in.

How many times were the U.S. players close to scoring? How many “oohs” and
“ahhhs” echoed through American living rooms Sunday night? How many? Too many. The final whistle blew, and the U.S. players skated off, shaking their heads, looking like children who could not understand why they were being punished.

The puck stops here.

Who’s to blame for this performance? The favorite target of the media will surely be Peterson, who has been as personable as a leech. And in truth, much of the blame does lie with him. He put this team together, picked the players, developed the wide-open style of offensive hockey that made for some exciting moments but too few victories.

One wonders why Peterson opted for so much firepower, for converting forwards into defensemen, for shunning checking and discipline in his own end. One also wonders why Peterson was such a nasty grouch during an event that is supposed to stress brotherhood.

Perhaps he knew what was coming.

“You seemed to have some problems with your team’s organization,” a foreign journalist began, when Peterson arrived for the press conference after the defeat.

“You want to give a lecture? Come up here,” Peterson growled. “OK. We played 60 games for nothing. We only came to the Olympics for the fun of it, right?”

Class act, huh?

Peterson, a longtime high school and national juniors coach, also kept his players from the media after Sunday’s loss. “I don’t think they need to sit and face you guys tonight,” he said. “They don’t have to apologize and I don’t have to apologize.”

True. All they needed to do was play hockey, preferably smart hockey. But if they wanted to do otherwise, none of us was able to stop them. The fact is, the strongest part of the U.S. game went south when it was most needed. One goal? This blast-furnace offense scored one goal?

The puck stops here.

A lot of you people seem to have different expectations of this team than ours,” Peterson said. “We thought it was realistic to make the medal round. We almost made the medal round.”

OK. Hard to argue with that. Remember that the United States was playing some of the finest hockey teams in the world — in the case of the Soviets, perhaps the first- or second-best — and it was still, for all our hype, a bunch of hand-picked kids. Comparing their international experience with West Germany’s or Czechoslovakia’s is like comparing Bambi to a brontosaurus.

Sure, there were nice moments in the five games the Americans played. There were the 10 goals they scored against Austria, and the furious attack in a losing cause against the Czechs (the game that truly did them in). There was the 7-5 loss to the Soviets, which featured a comeback that invigorated an entire nation — three goals in the third period, and a desperate shot by Brian Leetch that hit the post and will be talked about with a sigh for years to come.

But, more often, there were defeats. More often there were moments like Sunday night’s: Clark Donatelli in front of the West German net with the puck at his feet, poking once, twice, three times, trying to push it past goalie Karl Friesen, having as much luck as trying to sweep an elephant under a carpet.

Pressure? You bet. But here was a moment capturing a team, instead of the other way around. Remember that West Germany was facing the same “lose and you’re eliminated” circumstances. Yet that team played tight, disciplined hockey. That team advanced to the medal round.

The United States is going to the losers’ bracket.

Sad. True. Perhaps inevitable.Sure, the United States once was a power in Olympic hockey. But that was a long time ago. These days, the top young players are gone to the NHL. The players we send to the Games are children compared with the veteran teams of Eastern bloc nations. One wonders if we would even expect anything out of Olympic hockey anymore if that crazy 1980 team hadn’t knocked off the Russians that night in Lake Placid.

Whatever. Over now. The 1984 team left with tears; the 1988 version departs with a shrug. The truth is, it was simply not good enough to pull off any upsets, and its legacy in these Olympics will be games that were close, exciting, sometimes breathtaking, but more often than not, disappointing. How? Why? Why bother? The Winter Games continue.

The puck stops here.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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