Originally created 02/15/02

US hockey team stays focused



SALT LAKE CITY -- They departed the Nagano Olympics in disgrace, leaving behind a 3-1-2 record in pool play, a disappointing 4-1 loss in the quarterfinals and some broken furniture in their rooms.

Today, the National Hockey League players representing the United States in the 2002 Winter Olympic Games will try to take the first step toward eradicating that bad memory while attempting to revive a better one.

The U.S. team, one of six teams that did not have to qualify through a preliminary round, takes on Finland tonight in their opening contest.

Remembering how the last U.S. Olympic team to play on American soil engineered the famous "Miracle on Ice" in 1980, this year's team will be feeling the heat when they take the ice against NHL friends and foes who now are playing for their respective countries.

The pressure is not necessarily to win the gold medal -- a formidable challenge given the strength of Finland, Sweden, Canada and the defending champion Czech Republic.

Still, the Americans are under the gun to perform better -- on the ice and off -- than they did with their fading rock-star effort in Japan four years ago.

"I really believe we were focused in Nagano, but I don't think things came together as quickly as they had to," said Boston Bruins forward Bill Guerin, a member of the 1998 all-star team. "When you're thrown into a tournament like this with a bunch of guys who haven't been playing together, the big thing becomes who can put it together on the ice the quickest."

Why, then, should this year be any different?

Most of the NHL's Olympians reported to Salt Lake City on Thursday after playing games on Wednesday night, after which the league began its 13-day Olympic break. The American team had its first practice on Thursday evening, conducted team meetings that evening and will hit the ice at the E Center in Salt Lake City at 9:45 (CST) tonight.

But it's not like these guys haven't played together before, noted Lou Vairo, America's Olympic coach in 1984 who will serve as an assistant to Herb Brooks this year.

"These guys have grown up in our program and have played together representing our country on numerous occasions -- under-16, under-17 teams; national teams, World Cups, Canada Cups, previous Olympics," Vairo said. "They're professionals and they're all great players. Their chemistry is natural."

The prospect of playing on American turf, Guerin noted, should be incentive enough.

"Just being in the United States should make us focus more," Guerin said. "Because of the way we played in Nagano, we're disappointed. Not in our effort, but in our result. We don't want to come out of here empty handed."

Besides, noted U.S. assistant coach Lou Vairo, it's long beyond time that people forget about the off-ice behavior he believes was largely overblown.

"I wasn't there, so I don't know first-hand what happened, but whatever it was, was minor," Vairo said. "Maybe it wasn't handled as well as it should have been handled, and maybe the fact that we didn't win as many games as we wanted to had something to do with the frustration.

"These are good kids, but they broke a few chairs. I'd imagine there are people in this (interview) room who've broken a few chairs when the wife shows them the credit card bill.

"On top of that, Chris Chelios, our captain (from the Detroit Red Wings) apologized to the Japanese people and made a generous restitution. We're sorry anything like that happened, but it's over and it's time to move on."

Brooks, who coached the 1980 team that will be on hand tonight after lighting the Olympic Torch, put his lines together at Thursday night's first practice.

But even with such NHL stars as Mike Modano of Dallas, Brett Hull of Detroit, Brian Leetch of the Rangers, Keith Tkachuk of St. Louis and goalkeeper Michael Richter of the Rangers, the Americans are considered only outside medal candidates against the likes of Canada with Eric Lindros, Joe Sakic and Mario Lemieux; the Czech Republic with Jaromir Jagr up front and Dominek Hasek in goal; and the Fins, led by San Jose's Teemu Selanne.

After playing late tonight, the U.S. faces another late-night game Saturday against Russia. They play a final round-robin game Monday. The round robin will determine placings on the quarterfinal bracket, which begins Feb. 20. The semifinals are Feb. 22 and the gold medal game Feb. 24.