US-Russia puck drama plays on

It's not 1980 and the cold war is gone, but this remains a great hockey rivalry

To extract the ultimate jolts of suspense and electricity from the last days of the 2002 Winter Olympics and its collisions on hockey's ice, you have to revert to the atmosphere of the gray days of the cold war.

It used to be that when the Russians brought their athlete-warriors into the arenas of America, they were met with the same affection accorded Dracula crashing a Dick Clark pajama party.

The environment has changed, true. But if the Americans and the Russians play one more hockey game this week with the passion and kinetic power of their first game of the 2002 tournament, the figure-skating pairs saga of "justice avenged" may at last be eased into a deserved retirement from the Olympics' show window.

You remember the invasions of the Russian athletic regiments years ago. In the minds of Americans, there was a serious question whether they should submit to a blood test or a mirror test. When they won, it was because they all trained in gated Red Army camps beyond the Urals and were only released to their loved ones for two days over May Day. It was generally believed that the Russians showered twice a month and posed a hygienic threat to public health in America. Olympic collusion between the KGB and the Bulgarian judge was widely suspected because it probably happened.

But in Washington and Moscow, these are new days of cross-cultural joy and borderline trust. Vladimir Putin has been adopted by George W. Bush. Some of the Russian athletes, transplanted into Florida and New York condos, now make more millions than the Americans. Brett Hull and Sergei Fedorov are teammates in Detroit. Herb Brooks, the onetime Russophobe who coaches the American men, now calls Russian coach Slava Fetisov one of his heroes. Igor Larionov is expected to be the first Russian to coach an NHL team.

Yet if it's an adrenaline charge and a clash of national pride you're looking for to wind up the Olympics, consider a reprise of Saturday night's 2-2 game between the men's hockey Team USA and the Russians.

The seeding brackets may act against it. But it's still an active possibility. Both countries, plus Canada, Sweden, Czechoslovakia, and Finland among the powers, are still playing and begin eliminations Wednesday. And no matter how much you adore Canada, how many tears you spilled for Jamie Sale and David Pelletier of the Canadian pairs, and how many maple leaves you put in the window, there is nothing that can quite match the voltage of one more US-Russian ice war.

Their battle Saturday night crackled with tension from end to end. It was rocked by the chants of "USA, USA" whenever the crowd got scared enough to flood the Americans with reinforcement and reverence. The Russians heard all of it, and it could hardly have shocked them because they have heard it a few thousand times before. They played this time with a zeal to match the Americans and, frankly, with more gifted players. For the better part of the game, they sent assault waves fronted by some of the greatest offensive skaters in world hockey - Fedorov, Pavel Bure, Alexei Yashin and more - at the American defenders and the veteran goaltender, Mike Richter. Richter played a marvelous game, but the Americans looked finished until with less than five minutes to go, Hull banged a rebound of his whiffed shot past Russia's Nikolai Khabibulin, who had been superb himself in the Russian goal.

Reporters tried to goad Brooks into drawing a parallel between the Americans' "Miracle on Ice," in 1980, which he coached, and with his latest encounter with the Russians. To this kind of talk, Brooks responds with a flash of annoyance. "Look," he says. "That was then. Those were excitable kids and they played beyond themselves against a superior team. The games here are between experienced professionals.... They are great players and they're all playing with national pride and mutual respect. The table is even. It's terrific hockey."

Brooks may tilt the table toward the Americans. On the day his team assembled here, he walked into the locker-room and invited his players to share their thoughts about strategy, about how to deal with larger ice, how to come together. They entered into the exchange seriously. Even million-dollar jocks want to be credited with brains and ideas. Brooks is a fascinating study. As hard-rock individualist he will land somewhere between John Wayne and Gen. George Patton, absent the revolvers. But more than many coaches, he understands today's players. The players see it, trust him, and play for him.

That U-S-A chant can strike some as tedious. But Brian Leetch of the Americans feels it to his bones. "I get chills each time I skate out there...." And Hull, who after 650 goals has seen it all, will tell you that until this week he hadn't felt it all. "These are just two great teams," he said. "You always want to beat the Russians. They're so skilled. They think we're a bunch of plumbers. We're just trying to play to their level." With luck, they will meet again.

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