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Hockey is last golden hope for U.S. men

American women are performing heroically at the XVI Winter Olympics, but when is the "U.S. Male" likely to deliver a gold medal?

Lillehammer, in 1994?

Nagorno, in 1998?

If the battling hockey Yanks flame out today against the favored Russians and Co., the Olympic boys from America will have gone 0-for-Albertville.

Thanks, Bonnie.

Thanks, Donna.

Yours is coming, Kristi.

If it weren't for its women, the United States Olympic team might be flying home with blue jeans, white jackets and red faces.

Weaker sex?

Only in a sexist mind.

Bonnie Blair was supposed to win speedskating's 500- and 1,000-meter Olympic sprints, and the Illinois Icewoman went slicing through the pressure to earn double gold.

Donna Weinbrecht was highly advertised as the ace of moguls skiing, and the New Jersey woman justified the billing by shock-absorbing her way to a gold medal in the French Alps.

There's one to go Kristi Yamaguchi and Nancy Kerrigan rank 1-2 heading into tonight's figure skating conclusion, and after a fall Wednesday night by Japan's Midori Ito, a U.S. gold-silver sweep is anticipated.

How about it, guys?

There's still hockey, but Dan Jansen's story has become a different kind of sadness this time. He was nationally embraced at the 1988 Olympics, due to losing a sister to leukemia and then twice tumbling in speedskating races. But he came to France as a world record-holder and a major medal hope. Jansen kept his feet this time but was a flop fourth in the 500 meters and an absurd 26th in the 1,000.

Dan is 1992's great U.S. bust.

There were other U.S. fellows with supposed Albertville medal chances, but skier AJ Kitt wasn't ready to challenge European elite, Duncan Kennedy turned out to be just another outclassed American luger, and Christopher Bowman didn't have the athleticism to succeed '88 U.S. gold medalist Brian Boitano in figure skating.

Americans have won eight total medals, six by women, including the silvers of skiers Hillary Lindh in the downhill and Diann Roffe in the giant slalom. The only U.S. males to win Olympic jewelry have been figure skater Paul Wylie (silver) and moguls skier Nelson Carmichael (bronze).

Being one myself, I'm not happy bashing U.S. males, but we're again facing too many negative Winter Games facts. Millions of new U.S. Olympic Committee dollars were invested after Calgary, but Americans _ especially men _ haven't been quick to justify the investments.

But, at dusk today, in the majestic skiing village of Meribel, there comes a high-profile final chance for the U.S. male Olympian.

Two weeks ago, only the next-of-kin of U.S. hockey players expected this team to challenge for an Olympic medal, much less gold. But with a 5-0-1 Meribel record, these Yank toughs have earned a tantalizing opportunity.

Even if they don't handle the so-called Unified Team, these are U.S. Olympic gents who should leave France with rugged jaws held high. They've already over-achieved. Anything more is Meribel gravy.

"One thing Americans can depend on," said Clark Donatelli, the U.S. hockey captain, "is that we'll defend the flag proudly. We respect the Russians but we don't fear them or anybody else. Our intent is to play for the gold medal on Sunday, and to win it."

Similarities are many to 1980/Lake Placid, but it's Meribel mega-hype to suggest this is the second coming of the "Miracle on Ice."

Too much has changed.

It's not bad guys vs. good guys like a dozen years ago. There's no more Soviet Union. No more cold war. Today, it's nothing deeper than a fascinating, maybe-even-mesmerizing Olympic hockey semifinal.

Unifieds vs. Uniteds.

In nine Winter Olympics since Soviets first appeared, the old U.S.S.R. won seven gold medals, and U.S. upset corps of 1960 and 1980 took the other two.

"We've got another outstanding team," said Viktor Gussav of the Russian Information Agency, "but, frankly, our biggest need is not medals at the Olympics, it's for food to feed our people back home."

Viktor has perspective.

Today's game (scheduled start, 11 a.m. Eastern Time) will feature stick-handling, smooth-skating craftsmen from eastern Europe against some fighting, slashing, appealing underdogs predominantly from the northeastern United States.

CBS is hooked. Midday network soap operas are being scrapped for this Olympic melodrama.

I know, I know Most of our best U.S. athletes play football, basketball and baseball. But what are we looking for, excuses? The best available American males should be doing much better in the Winter Olympics.

Hockey shouldn't be forced to carry the load. But it's going to be fun watching those true-grit Yanks give it a try.