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WINTER OLYMPICS : Peterson in the Heat of the Spotlight

February 16, 1988|THOMAS BOSWELL | Times Staff Writer

CALGARY, Canada — Every high school in America seems to have a Dave Peterson. He's that graying and beloved old bear of a career coach--part gruff practical wisdom and part barrel-chested mischief--who gets an inscribed watch, then retires to a life of "fishing, golf and naps."

"Especially naps. I'm an all-American napper," says 57-year-old Peterson, who has found himself cast here as the controversial and cantankerous coach of the U.S. Olympic hockey team.

The thousands of students who have known and appreciated such embodiments of the popular Old Coach always wonder what would happen if fortune chose him for an experiment. What if, after those dedicated decades in the small time, he were suddenly placed on a world stage? What if he coached an Olympic squad with a decent chance for a medal, even a remote chance for a gold over the Soviets?

Could he pick the best national team? Could he mold its style? Could he train it to peak at the proper time? Could he take the relaxed, fun-loving approach of a schoolboy coach and make it work with world class athletes? And could he endure the pressure of the spotlight, the burden of his country's expectations--some very unrealistic?

For the next two weeks, Peterson may get more prime-time exposure--for good or ill--than most presidential candidates. Twenty-seven years at Southwest High School in Minneapolis doesn't prepare a man for this.

If his bumptious young underdog team, which beat Austria, 10-6, on Saturday, upsets Czechoslovakia on Monday night or the Soviets on Wednesday, then talk of another Miracle on Ice will start like crazed wildfire. Prime time won't be big enough to hold 'em.

If both games are lost, however, then Peterson's name may be forbidden at ABC-TV. That network bid far too much ($309 million) to televise these Games. So, to cut its losses, ABC's praying for a contending U.S. hockey team that could play eight live prime-time games.

Some men seize their moment of a lifetime. Some are seized by it. With Peterson, it's impossible to tell which scenario is in progress. In a small group, he's the sort of brusque but appealing authority figure around which so many schools revolve. But at news conferences, he's been a disaster, chastising the world media for innocent, even innocuous questions and generally seeming belligerent. In a phrase, out of his depth.

The genial Peterson says: "I think we'll play well. I think people will enjoy watching us. But I don't know how we'll do. We'll have fun. I guarantee that . . . We are a (physically) large team and play with youthful enthusiasm. We're not going to try to be subtle. We've got 23 kids who love to play. . . . I enjoy 'em. They're relaxed. They're cohesive. We'll go at it wide open. . . .

"I still have to chase 'em off the ice after practice. If you blow the whistle and they all disappear, that's a bad sign. . . . Team chemistry is the key and I think we have it."

Gung-ho high-school stuff, some would say. But wonderfully refreshing when it works. Peterson's players, not surprisingly, swear by him. "The kids here like to play for him," says Steve Leach, on leave to the Olympic team from the Washington Capitals. "He's a real good guy. (But) he's feeling the pressure. He likes the team to be real low key. He's not crazy about the hoopla."

More accurate would be to say that Peterson despises the hoopla and wants to protect his team from it. After all, he was the goalie coach on the '84 U.S. Olympic team that finished seventh. The consensus on that team, according to Austrian Coach Ludek Bukac: "The '84 U.S. team was stronger than this ('88) one. But they were also stronger than the '80 team, I thought. The '84 team had a lot of publicity, such young guys, and they were unable to play under this unbearable pressure."

This time around, Peterson has been defiantly downplaying everything. Asked if he has had NHL coaching offers, like '80 U.S. coach Herb Brooks, Peterson says: "I'll probably be coaching somewhere next year, even if it's Pee Wees in Southwest Minnesota. At my age, I don't expect a pro offer to come up."

Just when he looks perfectly cast to be America's favorite Dutch uncle, he looks for a nose to tweak.

"We're pleased to be here, I guess," was his first public remark. Asked why he named Mike Richter as his opening game goalie, Peterson snapped: "I looked at the moon and it seemed like the thing to do." Next, asked politely if he'd really played a hunch or whether other tactical factors were involved, Peterson snapped, "I'm not here to psychoanalyze my goalkeepers for you people." Could his team's strong offense overcome its weak defense? "You said that. I didn't. I don't feel that way."

And so forth.

Peterson knows there's a second-guesser waiting behind every rock.

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