NAGANO, JAPAN — As the US men's hockey team, with a thoroughly undistinguished 1-2 record, headed into Wednesday's quarterfinal game with the Czech Republic, coach Ron Wilson insisted that "we continue to improve as a team and from my point of view, that's what is most important."
If Wilson really thinks that's what's important, he is a group of one. In truth, three things are most important:
1. Playing with passion. The US didn't.
2. Playing as a team. The US didn't.
3. Winning. The US didn't.
And that's why the US - that fabled entry in the Nagano Olympics, the dream team of unspeakable dimension, planned to rival what the NBA sends to the summer Olympics, that inordinately talented bunch of NHL superstars - is not going to bring home a gold medal.
Bring home a gold medal? The Americans failed to even improve enough to get into the medal competition, losing out in the quarterfinals to the Czech Republic, 4-1. That means the US ended its Olympic debacle with a 1-3 mark, managing only a hard-fought win over that legendary powerhouse, Belarus.
The best you can say is that the US perhaps was the fifth-best hockey team here. Perhaps.
Afterward, a wise-cracking journalist - if you can believe there is such a thing - said, "Well, you can't win 'em all.'' And a perfectly stoic Wilson all but shrugged: "Life has potholes.'' He said the loss might bother him for a few days but then he would be refocused fully on his job as coach of the Washington Capitals. So this was only a blip, a detour through Nagano, a loss of little moment, a pothole.
The USA hockey team came to Nagano as co-favorites with Canada but didn't have its heart in it. Team members tried to pump themselves up for the Olympic experience but they were faking it. They partied until they dropped rather than practicing until they got better. They tried to keep up appearances by whistling past the cemetery and making Pollyanna explanations: The opening loss to Sweden was because of getting used to the larger international playing surface; the unimpressive 5-2 win over Belarus showed things were getting better; the loss to Canada represented a really good effort.
And then came this fundamentally uninspired effort against the Czech Republic - Wilson, of course, insisted that "I'm proud of our effort" - which gave the US the only thing it truly earned and richly deserved at the Olympics: a quick exit.
THIS is not to say or even hint that the US wasn't peopled with great players. Even casual observers can see the enormous talent in the likes of Brian Leetch, John LeClair, Brett Hull, and many more. They put their bodies into the game but not their hearts and certainly not their souls. It's hard to imagine a single tear being shed by these guys in sorrow. That's because they never cared enough.
This was the first year for the National Hockey League to suspend play to allow its players to be in the Olympics. Maybe it's a bad idea. Maybe they are so zeroed in on the NHL season that something like this was more a bother than an opportunity. Maybe it was just another long plane ride they didn't have the stomach for. Maybe they are too old for Olympic dreams.
And maybe we all share the blame. That's because hockey just doesn't get close to many Americans as it does many foreigners. At the Big Hat Arena yesterday, it was as clear as the Rising Sun that the game meant tons more to the Czech Republic. For some reason, their fans and their NHL players were sky high for the encounter. Watching goalie Dominik Hasek, whose real job is as the best goalkeeper in the NHL where he labors for Buffalo, is as close to excellence as most of us will ever get. Jaromir Jagr, whose main employer is the Pittsburgh Penguins, was beyond brilliant. Both played with joy and verve and want-to. The counterpoint was watching a lackadaisical effort by US goalie Mike Richter, aided and abetted by his underachieving buddies.
The US didn't have a hockey team representing it. It had a bunch of hockey stars. Their only links to each other and to us were their uniforms. At core, the NHL had hoped for a major, prime-time boost for hockey. Instead, it got one win over Belarus and potholes.
* Douglas S. Looney's e-mail address is: email@example.com