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1992 Winter Olympics: Let’s Get Physical

5 minute read
Paul A. Witteman/Meribel

Anyone who watches Olympic hockey in the hope of getting his jingoistic juices flowing is bound to be disappointed this year. The new order is cosmopolitan. The American goalie Ray LeBlanc has blossomed in part because of advice from former Soviet star Vladislav Tretiak, who coaches goalies for the Chicago Black Hawks’ farm team in Indianapolis, from which LeBlanc is on loan. Gene Ubriaco, coach of the Italian team, is a Canadian who lives in suburban Baltimore, and had been dismissed as coach of the N.H.L.’s Pittsburgh Penguins before hooking up with the team from his father’s homeland. The top-seeded Swedes have four former or current N.H.L. All-Stars. Rounding things out, there is a Czech defector on the German team and half a dozen Quebecois on the surprisingly successful French squad.

If national stereotyping weren’t in enough danger, in early round-robin play of the tournament, the “Goon of the Games” award for most penalized player went not to a Canadian or an American but to Patrice Brasey of the usually docile Swiss. Brasey alone has spent almost as much time sulking in the penalty box as the entire U.S. team, which, for its part, was playing more politely than the traditionally sportsmanlike Czechs or Finns.

Does this make sense? Sort of. Hockey has become globalized in the past decade, and traditional lines of demarcation have become ever more blurred. As players from Europe moved to the N.H.L. and players from North America immigrated to the European leagues, styles began to blend. The international game, played on a rink that is as much as 30 ft. wider than an N.H.L. rink, rewards players who skate and pass well. Enter the Swedes, who are grace epitomized. But as Team Sweden swept effortlessly to early victories, they displayed newfound passion for knocking their opponents into the boards. Swedish coach Conny Evensson admitted that his N.H.L.-blooded veterans actually enjoy “body contact,” but he quickly asserted that as skaters, “they are good to look at on the ice too.”

In fact, coaches are quick to cry foul when an opponent abandons the gentler Olympic style. After the Swedes were upset in a pre-Olympic warm-up against the Americans, the Swedish coaches branded the Americans hooligans. But Swedish center Bengt-Ake Gustafsson, a veteran of rough and tumble during nine seasons with the Washington Capitals, shrugged it off. “There was a lot of holding and pulling us down, that’s all.” Gratuitous violence of the kind that has turned N.H.L. hockey into a spectacle sport is the last thing American coach Dave Peterson wants to see, he claims. “We’re not trying to play an aggressive style,” he says. “We have to stay out of the penalty box to win.”

The callow members of the Unified Team want to win too, but their motivation for playing well is mainly so they can escape to the N.H.L., like nearly two dozen of their former colleagues. Such Unified Team stars as Alexei Jamnov, Alexei Kovalev and goalie Mikhail Shtalenkov know that stellar performances will take them from Moscow’s food lines to the land of sports agents and deferred-annuity packages in seven figures. Unified Team coach Victor Tikhonov, who prefers the discipline of the old order to the chaos of the new, is trying to make teenagers play like Heroes of the Republic — or whatever it is called this month. The Russians are merely following the lead of the Czechs, many of whom have already fled to the N.H.L. or Finland.

Canada’s best chance for a gold medal since 1952 is said to rest on the broad shoulders of 18-year-old Eric Lindros, whose entry into the N.H.L. has been complicated by his unwillingness to play for the sleepy Quebec Nordiques. But an equally important key to Canadian success is ace goalie Sean Burke, who took a sabbatical from the league after four years with the New Jersey Devils. As for the Finns, who will also be in the medal round this week, seven of them are current or former players in the N.H.L., and several more have been drafted.

Relegated to the sidelines, the Poles and Norwegians pondered what might have been. But even some losers found joy in the act of participation. Italian defenseman Bob Manno, 36, a former N.H.L. All-Star winding down his career in dignified exile a long way from his native Niagara Falls, demonstrated the fine points of public relations. “I waited eight long years to play in the Olympics,” he said. “This has been a great character builder.” Character was not the principal goal of the medal hopefuls as the final, single elimination round began this week. Each face-off won and goal scored brought them one step closer to gold.

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