NAGANO, Japan — “I hate to be negative, but this was a complete waste of time.”
— Keith Tkachuk, after Team USA was eliminated
By the time you read this, our red, white and (mostly) blue hockey team will be on its way home, its sticks between its legs. Not only did our men fail to outshine the rest of the world at these Olympic Games, they didn’t even outshine their U.S. female counterparts, who captured the gold in splendid fashion.
Now, as you know, America takes victory as destiny (“We knew we’d do it,” the U.S. women crowed) but must always find a culprit for defeat.
Which explains the blame now being hurled at the U.S. men. Columnists are digging in. Radio hosts are tearing them apart. Fans are shaking their heads, saying, “We stink.”
Sorry, but that’s all too easy.
And mostly off-base.
Having seen a few of these Olympics in my time, I refuse to buy any simple explanation for America’s one-victory and three-loss performance, unless that explanation includes timing, leadership, momentum, defense, goaltending and luck.
But then it wouldn’t be simple, would it?
So let’s kill a couple of myths right now. First, the ludicrous idea that a late night out by a couple of U.S. players contributed to the team’s downfall. Whom are we kidding? There was no curfew. There wasn’t even a game the next day.
“That whole thing’s a crock,” said a disgusted Bill Guerin, a U.S. forward.
“People just want to stir something up. We win or lose on the ice, not with curfews.”
Added Westland’s Mike Modano: “It’s not like 24 of us went out and got hammered every night.”
As for being in a bar late at night reflecting a “lack of seriousness” by the American team? I guess that could be true — as long as the reporter who was in the bar to spot them reflects a lack of seriousness about covering the Olympics.
See where assumptions get you?
Two words: Mike Richter
So much for nightlife. Now, let’s talk hockey. Tournament hockey. And, just as in tournament basketball, the teams that get on early rolls in these things tend to have the most success — even if they’re not the best teams. Team USA took a broadside hit in losing, 4-2, to Sweden in its opener. That game set a tone of desperation, because America was supposed to have plenty of firepower, and against a mediocre goalie like Tommy Salo, the U.S. should have scored more than twice.
“That was the one game we didn’t feel ready for,” Brett Hull said.
And that was a mistake. There was no shame in the defeat. Sweden is good — and better accustomed to jumping coldly into a tournament like this, since many Swedish players grew up in international hockey.
But what if the U.S. had drawn Belarus as an opener? Things might have been different. One victory under its belts. A little momentum. Sort of like …the Canadians?
“We were definitely fortunate to open with Belarus and not these guys,” Steve Yzerman told me, after his Canadian squad eked past Sweden in Game 2.
So schedule figures in.
Then there’s the issue of goaltending. Americans keep harking back to our stunning victory in the 1996 World Cup. They wonder what the difference is between that success and this failure.
Three words: Check the net.
Mike Richter was brilliant in the World Cup. The Canadian team couldn’t break him and we won the gold. This time around, Richter was less than brilliant. Four goals to Sweden. Two to Belarus. Four to Canada. Four to the Czech Republic.
Meanwhile, the U.S. ran into two brick walls, one named Patrick Roy, the other named Dominik Hasek, both of whom are leading their teams toward medals. The Americans fired more shots at Hasek and Roy than the Czechs or Canadians fired at Richter.
Why does one goalie get hot while another does not?
If we knew that, we’d be able to predict the NHL playoffs.
So let’s see. So far we’re accounted for schedule, momentum and goaltending. Let’s not forget chemistry. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. I was impressed by the Canadian team’s omission of Mark Messier to the roster and the choosing of young Eric Lindros as captain. That was a gutsy but deliberate move to draw leadership out of Lindros — which has worked — and to make sure the locker room wasn’t dominated by someone who might tend toward overconfidence.
The U.S. team didn’t take such care with personnel. Chris Chelios was the official captain, but I can’t tell you who, if anyone, was the leader in that locker room. Whoever it was didn’t do enough to keep the egos hungry.
“We might have thought too much of ourselves coming in,” Chelios admitted.
That ties into the problem of playing selfless defense — something highly paid NHL superstars aren’t always keen on doing. The Canadians are getting such defense by famous names like Gretzky and Yzerman. Such sacrifice sets a tone for everyone else. The U.S. didn’t have that. Hence the two-on-one and three-on-two breaks that did them in early.
So, OK. Schedule, goaltending, chemistry, leadership, defense. What else?
Two more: Rotten luck
Well, we could mention luck. Critics cite the U.S. lack of scoring, but against the Czechs they had a 39-19 shot advantage and still lost. Doug Weight had an open net when Hasek was out of position; he missed wide.
Meanwhile, in the U.S.-Canada game, Canada got perhaps its most important goal when Yzerman plowed into Richter and Keith Primeau poked in the puck. In the NHL, the crease rule might have negated that score. Here, it counted.
Take all these things, toss them together, and you begin to understand how a team of NHL stars can slide to an ugly destiny. If you doubt this, think back to last year’s Stanley Cup championship, when the best team in the Eastern Conference, the Flyers, still lost four straight to the Red Wings. Such a good team? Four straight?
Things happen. These tournaments are crapshoots. I don’t agree with Tkachuk’s emotional assessment, uttered moments after he left the ice. It wasn’t a waste of time, just a bad time. But to think you can explain it with a single angry sentence is as delusional as thinking you have a medal won before you get here. That doesn’t happen in hockey.
Ice dancing, maybe. But not hockey.
To leave a message for Mitch Albom, call 1-313-223-4581.