A hockey team in search of identity

US men have stars, lack team spirit

To understand the difference between a crisis in Olympic women's hockey and men's hockey, try this:

One of the stars of the defending champion American women's team discovered to her horror a few days ago that her hairdressing appointment conflicted with a team practice. It was a dilemma, the forces of vanity colliding with Commitment and Rules. A team administrator stepped in gently. "Why don't we," he said, "reschedule the hair appointment?" Wisdom and honor harmonized. The American women haven't lost yet.

On the other hand, here come the professional stars of the men's hockey heavyweights: Canada, the USA, Russia, Czechoslovakia, Finland, and Sweden. They're carrying multimillion-dollar bank accounts - but all of the esprit of an aimless colony of displaced persons.

Same coach as 1980 'miracle'

The crisis of men's hockey in the Olympics is all about identity. And the coach who can transform his millionaire gypsies into all-for-one musketeers may be the winner. Is that Herb Brooks of the 1980 "miracle on ice?"

The US players he'll coach for the next 10 days will be hockey's best. But essentially these will be all-star hockey games involving great players flung together for ratings and TV money. One team practice is all they're allocated under the awkward agreement of the National Hockey League and the International Olympic Committee, hardly enough to galvanize a loose platoon of stars into a team. But the NHL wants to showcase its players, and the Olympics - having surrendered to professionalism years ago - want the best. So the Olympics get the stars for 12 days, hardly enough time to build collegiality. Their rosters are bursting with marquee names but all of that stirred a sigh of nostalgia from Mike Eruzione, a hero of America's 1980 triumph over Soviet Russia.

Olympic hockey - minus the pros?

Wouldn't it be great, Eruzione said, if hockey could revert to those years when the athletes lived and played together for a month and, by implication, sacrificed together?

In fact, it might happen as early as four years from now if the NHL decides the Olympic sabbatical is not good business for pro hockey. For now, Brooks is a man who just might turn the calendar back He's tough and glib, knows the pros and carries the charisma.

"Herb coaches old pros as well as he coaches impressionable kids," Walter Bush said. "One thing the American sports public can count on: Their pros will play for Brooks. They know him. He coached four NHL teams ... and nobody who plays for Brooks ever dogs it." Bush is one of the godfathers of US hockey who, as an adviser to the Olympic committee, helped install Brooks as the 1980 coach.

Privately, Brooks is turned on by the idea of putting a stamp of personality and identity on the US team, which includes Mike Modano, Keith Tkachuk, Tony Amonte, and Chris Chelios. "Sometimes all-star teams self-destruct with their egos, their narcissism," he said. "If we play smart and hard and do it with class, we'll be able to sleep at night. I'm an American in a game in which we Americans are working hard to justify our position in the world stage." Four years ago in Nagano, the Americans sported some expensive thugs who ripped up a hotel room. There was a question whether they'd draw a medal or 200 hours of community service. Can the USA win now? With this guy as coach, it's possible.

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