CALGARY, Canada — The United States Olympic hockey team, which choked on what was supposed to have been an appetizer four years ago, was served dessert for a first course Saturday night: An Austrian team that was something less than apple strudel, what with a Czech as coach and six Canadians as players.
Before the night was over, Team USA had gorged itself, 10-6, to win its opening-round game for the first time in seven Olympics dating back to 1960, when the U.S. team won a gold medal in Squaw Valley.
This U.S. team won nothing enduring Saturday except a guarantee that it would not repeat the experience of 1984, when it lost early--4-2 to Canada--and often en route to a seventh-place finish in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia. But this may have been enough for the USA, which faces Czechoslovakia--a 2-1 surprise loser to West Germany earlier Saturday--in its next game Monday night.
"I imagine (the Czechs) will be a little irritated," said Team USA Coach Dave Peterson, whose own anxiety level was reduced in the second period Saturday, when the Americans scored four times to break open what had been a 2-1 lead after the first period.
Nine different players on all four lines scored for Team USA, including two players--Corey Millen and Scott Fusco--who had gone 0 for Sarajevo. Millen scored two goals and Fusco one for Team USA, which hadn't waltzed to so many goals since a 13-2 win in 1948. Austria was its dance partner that time, too.
"Corey's played well all year, and there's no reason to believe he's not going to have a big Olympics," said linemate Tony Granato, who assisted on Millen's first goal. "He proved it tonight, that he's a world-class player."
What did Team USA prove? The surprising answer, at least from Austrian Coach Ludek Bukac, is that the '88 edition of the red, white and blue revue isn't as good as its Sarajevo predecessor.
"It looks like the team in '84 was a little bit stronger," said Bukac, who coached the silver-medal winning Czech team in '84, tried to land a job in the National Hockey League, and wound up in Vienna.
"I think the '84 team was stronger than the '80 team, too," said Bukac, a heretical idea inasmuch as he was referring to the Lake Placid miracle-workers who won a gold medal.
That kind of talk would have caused many reporters to wonder if there was something wrong with their translation headphones--except Bukac was speaking perfect English when he said it.
"I think some players (in '84) had better skills, better hockey skills," Bukac said. "They were a faster team, too, that played with a great emotional approach.
"But that team had lots of publicity before the competition, and they were such young guys, they were not able to play under that wave of pressure."
Somewhere in Italy, where he is now coaching a club team, '84 Coach Lou Vairo must be wishing he had punched out the first mini-cam pointed his way.
Peterson, by contrast, appears to be cut more in the mold of '80 Coach Herb Brooks, who exuded all the warmth of a frozen puck but succeeded in deflecting the pressure off his players. Peterson, a former teacher, is described by his players as a father figure and is usually affable one-on-one. But in his public sessions here, he apparently has decided to be something less than lovable.
When he was asked why he had chosen to start goalie Pat Richter--who gave up three goals--Peterson glowered and said: "I looked at the moon, and it seemed the thing to do."
When someone raised the possibility that his decision to replace Richter with 9:05 left to play with Chris Terreri--who came in cold and gave up three goals--could cost Team USA a chance to advance because of its goal differential, Peterson snapped:
"You've got to win points (two for a win, one for a tie). If you're relying on goal differential, you're in trouble."
He did acknowledge, however, that he put Terreri in a tough spot.
"In fairness to Chris Terreri, we threw him in there stone-cold," he said.
If Peterson seemed cranky by night's end, his team seemed nervous at the outset, when it went five minutes before getting its first shot on goal.
"We were a little uptight, I think," Granato said.
But things grew considerably looser when right winger Steve Leach cruised down the right side, fought off an Austrian check and threw a perfect pass into the slot to the trailer, Lane McDonald. McDonald, whose father, Lowell, played in the NHL, put a shot between the pads of Austro-Canadian goalie Brian Stankiewicz--and the United States was on the board, 1-0, at 8:32 of the first period.
A little more than six minutes later, it was 2-0, with Millen scoring a connect-the-dots goal. Defenseman Jeff Norton drew the first line, with a perfect pass from the left point to the right circle to Granato. He, in turn, went right to left to Millen, who beat Stankiewicz with a short putt just before being whacked from behind by Austrian Michael Shea.
The Austrians countered with a power-play goal with 35 seconds left in the period, but Team USA scored four times in 11 minutes in the second period--power-play goals by Craig Janney and Fusco, a pretty solo back-hander by Allen Bourbeau, and an unassisted blast by defenseman Brian Leetch.
Each time a goal was scored, the Saddledome message board sounded off with a Yaa-hoo, which meant that before long, there were as many ya-hoos on the board as yahoos in the stands.
With the Czechs and Soviets on deck, it's not going to get any easier any time soon. But this will more than do for openers. In Saturday's other game, the Soviets beat Norway, 5-0.
"I'm very pleased," Peterson said in a lapse of non-grumpiness.
There were more than a few flag-wavers in the stands who would agree."