CALGARY, Canada — While the United States hockey team went behind closed doors Sunday afternoon to prepare for its game tonight against Czechoslovakia, the home team narrowly averted what would have been the greatest national embarrassment since Margaret Trudeau.
Team Canada may still live up to its billing as a gold-medal contender, but Sunday it had to live down its opening-game 1-0 win over Poland, a team that had lost 19 straight times to Canadian teams while being outscored, 261-9. Canada won on a first-period goal by Marc Habscheid, but came within the width of a crossbar of being tied.
Poland, whose national team has been together for only five weeks, frustrated the Canadians with a second-string goalie, Gabriel Samolej, and would have been even if Krystian Sikorski's shot hadn't hit the crossbar about five minutes into the third period.
"We were sorry it didn't go in," Polish Coach Leszek Lejczyk said.
How sorry would the Canadians have been if they had somehow lost Sunday?
"They would have held the closing ceremonies 48 hours after they'd opened," joked Bob Verdi, columnist of the Chicago Tribune.
Dave King, the coach of the Canadian team, chose to go into seclusion rather than explaining what happened Sunday, but goalie Andy Moog tried to give the win a positive spin.
"I think a lot of teams can self-destruct in that type of game in which you're playing so well but score just one or two goals," he said. "I think it was a credit to our team that we kept our poise."
While Poland was supposed to be a breeze for Canada, Czechoslovakia figured to be an acid test for Team USA. But the Czechs lost their opener to West Germany, 2-1, and a USA win tonight would all but guarantee American entry into the medal round.
The Czechs beat Team USA, 4-1, in 1984, but No. 1 goalie Dominek Hasek did not play Saturday because of a torn stomach muscle and it's unknown whether he'll be able to play tonight.
USA Coach Dave Peterson closed practice Sunday and also declined a request for a press conference. Peterson is fast gaining a reputation for being uncooperative with the media, although there is reason to believe he is merely emulating Herb Brooks, coach of the '80 team.
"He's being a jerk but he apparently has been that way for the last three weeks," said one U.S. official.
Still, it should be pointed out that Peterson is one win up on Lou Vairo, the '84 coach who was a publicists' dream but something less than the perfect coach. Besides, Canada's King has been a no-show for post-game press conferences since the Izvestia Cup in Moscow last December.
If the Czechs should get the support of the Saddledome crowd tonight, it won't be a surprise: The Flames, Calgary's entry in the National Hockey League, hold the rights to six Czech players, including star center Jari Hrdina.
If Poland's near upset wasn't enough for longshot lovers, there was Switzerland, a 2-1 winner over Finland. The Swiss hadn't qualified for the Olympics since 1964, when they lost all seven of their games by a combined score of 42-9. They came into this tournament seeded eighth, but goaltender Richard Bucher--who works in a fiduciary's office and lists his hobbies as tennis and voyages--made 31 saves and Peter Jaks and Jakos Koelliker scored first-period goals 91 seconds apart.
Swiss Coach Simon Schenk was asked in jest if this win would make the people back home forget all about skier Pirmin Zurbriggen, but something must have been lost in the translation.
"I'm competent in ice hockey only," Schenk said dourly. "I know nothing about the skiers."
The biggest underdog of them all, 12th-seeded France, was 1-1 with top- seeded Sweden after one period, but then succumbed. 13-2. Said French Coach Kjell Larsson: "I think the goalie made some wrong decisions."
There are still rumblings about the favorable scheduling treatment given Team USA after ABC convinced the International Ice Hockey Federation to permit six teams--three from each pool--instead of four to advance to the medal round. Also, the schedule was altered to permit Team USA to play Austria in its first game, instead of the Czechs, who would have been the opponent if normal IIHF procedures had been followed. Finally, all of Team USA's games have been scheduled to be played in prime-time, which prompted Team Canada Coach Dave King to call the U.S team co-hosts of the Olympics.
Ludek Bukac, the former Czech national coach who now runs the Austrian team, was diplomatic when asked about the alterations.
"It was very important for North American TV to have (Team USA) reach the final group," he said. "They remember the experience of the U.S. team in Sarajevo in 1984. As business, I quite understand this.
"It's not my responsibility. I'm only a coach. It is the responsibility of the management of IIHF. It is very difficult to say."