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WINTER OLYMPICS : The Toughest Part : U.S. Hockey Players Will Most Regret When Teammates Go Separate Ways

February 23, 1988|GORDON EDES | Times Staff Writer

CALGARY, Canada — When Tony Granato awoke here Monday morning, the dread that gripped him had nothing to do with the night before, when the United States hockey team was eliminated from medal competition by West Germany. Granato and most of his U.S. teammates had made their peace with that defeat after the game at Coconut Joe's, a downtown lounge.

"Last night after the game, my sisters were crying, my fiancee was crying," Granato said. "I told them, 'Relax, it was just a game.' Like Coach Pete (Dave Peterson) said, 'It's only a hockey game--someone's got to lose.' "

Certainly, there was gloom, but nothing compared with what Granato expects to feel Thursday. That's the day Team USA plays Switzerland in the seventh-place game, then will be a team no more.

"It's sad for us in a way, because this team is going to disperse," he said. "That's going to be the hardest.

"People don't realize the year we had as a team. I wouldn't trade this year for anything.

"We gave it our best shot. It wasn't for lack of effort. The nice thing about our team was its closeness and togetherness. You need a close team on nights like last night."

Granato, who grew up in suburban Chicago and was captain of the University of Wisconsin hockey team, is the property of the New York Rangers, who drafted him before his 18th birthday in 1982. After Thursday, he'll have a career to look forward to in the National Hockey League.

"But this will be the year I'll remember most of all," he said. "Today was a tough day, though. We had the day off, so I've just been lying around, thinking back."

Those thoughts drifted back to a three-goal lead blown to the Czechs, a comeback that fell short against the Soviets, and Sunday's game against the West Germans complicated by mathematics: Not only did Team USA need to win, it needed to win by at least two goals to advance. The West Germans made that a moot point by winning, 4-1.

"We were a young team playing against older, experienced teams," said Granato, one of only five players on the team born before 1965. "Maybe our youth hurt us in the fact we didn't know how to respond when we fell behind.

"You look at the Soviet team, when we battled back to within 6-5, they came through when they had to. That's experience."

Granato also defended Coach Dave Peterson, who had likened the Olympics to a state high school tournament, then had his team play a wide-open style more conducive to winning at Southwest High in Minneapolis than in an international arena.

"We feel responsible for what happened," Granato said. "No one is going to put the blame on the staff. We had enough talent to do better than we did, but the type of team we had, we had to play that way."

While the teams in the medal round--Soviets, Czechs, West Germans, Swedes, Finns and Canadians--are all older and have considerable professional experience--Granato said he would hate to see the U.S. team go that route.

"I'd like to keep it to amateurs and college guys," Granato said. "I don't think you should take the 28-year-old guys from the minor leagues.

"Emotion and enthusiasm add a lot to our team, I think. That's the American way."

And if that wasn't the best way here, Granato said, it was still the only way to go.

Bob Johnson's hockey pedigree would make a Canadian proud.

Coach of the University of Wisconsin, where he picked up his nickname, Badger Bob.

Coach of the 1976 U.S. Olympic team. Coach of the Calgary Flames in the NHL. Coach of U.S. teams in world championship and Canada Cup competition. Father of Mark Johnson, a star on the gold-medal winning 1980 U.S. Olympic team.

And now, in his latest and perhaps final incarnation, executive director of the Amateur Hockey Assn. of the United States (AHAUS).

Johnson knows his way around a rink. And Monday afternoon, before running off to meet with a delegation of Soviets--whom he hoped to sell on the idea of sending over some teams of teen-agers this summer--Johnson offered a few thoughts on another Olympic team gone south before its time.

"No. 1, I give a lot of credit to the opposition--they're better from the standpoint of experience and maturity than ever before," he said. "No doubt the best players on most of the teams were National (Hockey) Leaguers. Those players had not been allowed before.

"We were a young team and counted on some young guys to really be leaders. Maybe we asked too much of Brian Leetch and Greg Brown. They're 19 years of age, playing against men. We made Leetch captain. Maybe we expected too much.

"Maybe we have to come up with some sort of compromise. Maybe we need to add a couple of defensemen next time who have been around the horn, or a veteran goaltender who can come up with the big game."

Johnson said Team USA's schedule--which was loaded with games against inferior college teams--worked against it.

"It's easy to rip that schedule apart," he said. " . . . This team had so many blowouts, it probably picked up many bad habits," he said.

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