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WINTER OLYMPICS : Peterson's Priority Is Coaching : U.S. Hockey Coach Isn't Being Asked to Work a Miracle

February 11, 1988|GORDON EDES | Times Staff Writer

CALGARY, Canada — The pressures that beset and ultimately did in Lou Vairo, coach of the United States Olympic hockey team in 1984, are not the same ones facing Dave Peterson, the coach of the '88 team.

For one thing, Vairo was called upon to duplicate a miracle--Team USA's gold-medal finish in 1980. Vairo's team finished seventh in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. Peterson can't help but improve on that performance.

And Vairo, a young, ambitious climber who grew up playing roller hockey in Brooklyn, was looking at Sarajevo as a chance to further his career--perhaps by getting a head coaching job in the National Hockey League, as his predecessor, Herb Brooks, did.

Dave Peterson isn't particularly interested in another job. At 57, he already has retired from one as business teacher and coach at Southwest Minneapolis High School, where he was for 27 years.

"That's the luxury I have," he said. "I'm not worried about what people are saying in terms of Dave Peterson as a coach.

"I'm not looking for this to take me any place. I don't even know if I'd want a job. . . . After all of this is over, I'll be a retired schoolteacher once again."

If Peterson is unknown to the public, he is a familiar figure to his players, most of whom played for him at some stage of their development.

The son of a barber, Peterson has been involved in amateur hockey for more than 40 years, from the time he was a top high school goalie in Minneapolis. He has never coached at the college level, but he was Vairo's goaltending coach in 1984, then coached the U.S. national junior team in 1985, '86 and '87.

"He's a career coach," said Art Berglund, general manager of Team USA. "It doesn't matter whether it's high school, college or the pros, he knows how to handle young men. And he's been part of our developmental program for years. He knows the U.S. hockey talent pool."

Few coaches have had quite the same hands-on experiences in coaching as Peterson, who used to make masks for his high school goalies.

"It would get a little messy when we got a kid who was a little claustrophobic," Peterson told one interviewer. "A story came out that I used to stick straws in their noses so they could breathe. But that's not true. We were good enough at it that we always left room for the kids to breathe."

When the U.S. team surprisingly won the gold medal in Squaw Valley in 1960, Peterson was out on the ice with his high school team, conducting a practice. Twenty years later, when Team USA won in Lake Placid, it wasn't any different.

Peterson is a striking contrast in styles from the last two U.S. coaches, Vairo and Brooks. Vairo was glib, chatty and loved the media attention. Brooks was the steely eyed martinet.

Peterson is gray-haired and gruff in a good-natured sort of way, but there is a directness about him that conveys his disregard for nonsense. He is quick to dispute, for example, that the '84 team was a victim of all the media attention heaped upon it.

"I never personally felt that the media hype was the reason the team didn't perform well," Peterson said. "I haven't bought into that.

"My job as coach is to handle the pressure from the media and the sponsors. This is a very high-profile team, but you have to learn to handle that. As long as I've got practice time and I can go behind closed doors and my team can go play, then you can't blame anything else."

And although Calgary will be the most important stage on which he has been called to perform, Peterson said that he--and his players--have the experience to deal with it.

"We know what we're going into," Peterson said. "After the last three international tournaments, it isn't a mystery who the Russians are, or the Czechs."

And if his team plays well, this retired teacher will no longer be a mystery, either.

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