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U.S. learns Unified Team is a great team

Here's an idea. Forget the National Hockey League expansion draft. Charter the Concorde, Shanghai the entire Russian/Soviet/Unified Team to New St. Petersburg and rechristen them the Tampa Bay Lightning.

What talent! If it's okay, I'll call them "Russians" to dilute the confusion. By whatever name, they are the Bolshoi Ballet on skates, and stick-handling Houdinis.

Miraculously, for 2{ periods Friday, the outstyled and overmatched but gritty Americans hung and hung and hung with their opponents in an Olympic semifinal.

The score was 2-2.

It could've been 10-2.

Everywhere U.S. goalie Ray LeBlanc glanced, a Russian was coming with a puck. Zing! Zap! Smack! Finally, a smoking slapshot by Andrei Kovalenko would bring LeBlanc to his knees. America's masked hero got the save, but he stayed down on all fours for a long, long time.

LeBlanc had the look of a man facing a firing squad. They should've offered him a cigarette and a blindfold. Chuck Wepner, boxing's old "Bayonne Bleeder," never took as many shots in one fight as did LeBlanc.

U.S. athletes from other Olympic venues bused into Meribel, sat en patriotic masse and cheered with relentless lungs. "Holy moly, what a goalie!" they chanted in honor of LeBlanc.

Silver-medalist figure skater Paul Wylie and speed skater Eric Flaim were the head cheerleaders. Wylie also waved a Harvard banner in support of three former Cambridge classmates among the hockey Yanks.

Dozens of American flags waved in a snug 6,000-seat arena. For every customer rooting for the Russians, a hundred were screaming "USA! USA!"

But ability reigned.

Russia kept the puck 70 percent of the time, or was it 80? In the second period, the United States was outshot 20-3. If you want to talk miracles on ice, well, in those 20 minutes the Americans somehow outscored the relentless opponents 1-0.

Almost incredibly, the U.S. team was staying in the fight. With 92 seconds left in that extraordinary second period, Marty McInnis popped in front of the Russians' goal to score. It became 2-2, a tie that would stand up into the game's last 10 minutes.

Then it happened . . .

Moe Mantha, a 31-year-old U.S. defenseman with 10 years of NHL experience, was sent to the penalty box, charged with tripping. It would be one power play too many for the silky Russians. Before you could've yelled "Yeltsin!" they went up 3-2 on a rebound shot by Andrei Khoumoutov.

It was time to chill the vodka; the party was on. LeBlanc could catch only so many Russian bullets in his teeth. Pronto, they scored again, Yuri Khmylev's missile whistling past the besieged American goalkeeper.

"The American goalie has played wonderfully in Meribel," said Russian assistant coach Igor Dmitriev, "but we could see he was tiring after so many saves. We told our players to shoot high, because he (LeBlanc) began to slump over."

Like a battered fighter LeBlanc had stashed a plastic water container atop the goal netting, and with an angry stick he reacted to a Russian goal by sending the bottle flying. Ray might as well have been throwing in the U.S. towel.

Final score: 5-2.

It could've been 15-2.

Astonishingly, after being so dramatically outplayed, and staying close mainly on LeBlanc's goalie grit, U.S. players would complain they'd been robbed by referee Sven Erik Sold.

Instead of swallowing hard and standing proud for advancing further than anyone had a right to expect of these U.S. hockey Olympians, team captain Clark Donatelli opted to orally scald the referee.

Sold is a Swede, and two games ago the Americans were tied 3-3 by Sweden's team in a match that deteriorated into rival players and coaches exchanging curses, shoves and insults.

Donatelli smelled payback.

"I told the referee we'd gotten rid of his boys," the U.S. captain fumed, "and since he was the only damn Swede left on the ice that he'd decided to screw us Americans."

In France, a land of vineyards, such an outburst comes off as a major crop of sour grapes. C'mon, Yanks, suck up your disappointments, play hard today for the bronze medal, and bid "au revoir" to these Olympics with a little class.

And as for the Unified Team, let's get busy on a nonstop Concorde bound for the Florida Suncoast Dome. Instantly, Tampa Bay would have itself an NHL winner.

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