NAGANO, Japan — The U.S. men's hockey team's stay at the Olympics was almost as short as Coach Ron Wilson's newly buzz-cut hair--and just as ugly.
Shaky defensively and unable to transform enough scoring chances into goals, the U.S. team was a ghost of the self-assured, cohesive squad that won the World Cup in 1996 with a short-haired Wilson behind the bench. That team seemed poised to win the first U.S. Olympic hockey medal since Herb Brooks' team struck gold at Lake Placid in 1980.
If Wilson went the buzz-cut route to rekindle the magic he worked at the World Cup, the plan failed miserably. His defensemen failed too, wandering around the wider international ice surface and lacking the patience and discipline to break opponents' traps. Although Wilson repeatedly insisted his team was improving and building toward a fine finish, he fooled no one--least of all his players.
"I don't see how anybody could go home and say we gave it our best shot," said winger John LeClair, a two-time 50-goal scorer who failed to score here. "Obviously, to get the results we did, we didn't give it our best shot."
Not once in four games did the U.S. players hit stride. And before they could reach the climax Wilson promised, they were frustrated by goaltender Dominik Hasek in a 4-1 quarterfinal loss to the Czech Republic on Wednesday at Big Hat arena.
"If you don't win the gold, it doesn't mean anything," left wing Keith Tkachuk said. "It's amazing how things can go so well in one tournament and you come back and they go so bad for you."
The Czechs (3-1) will meet Canada in a semifinal Friday. By then, the U.S. players will be on their way home, trying to figure out how their Olympic hopes went sour and ended in a 1-3 record.
"I'm not so sure if our focus was as great as it has been in the past," right wing Bill Guerin said. "Maybe we were too confident because of the World Cup.
"We disappointed ourselves and disappointed a lot of people. It's not a good feeling right now."
Said center Mike Modano: "We buckled. We never jelled. We just never got it going.
"We had great confidence from the World Cup, but maybe we were a little overconfident in some areas."
Hasek, the NHL's most valuable player last season with the Buffalo Sabres, made 38 saves Wednesday to deflate the confidence of the high-scoring NHL stars on the U.S. roster.
The Czechs, who have 12 current NHL players and a few others with previous NHL experience, fell behind when U.S. right wing Tony Amonte slid a pass behind defenseman Frantisek Kucera and onto the stick of Modano for an easy backhander at 16:12 of the first period. But Hasek was perfect after that and his teammates, inspired by a speech from team captain Vladimir Rucizka during the first intermission, took command of the game in the second period.
"I've never seen a better goalie," said Rucizka, a former Boston Bruin. "Some of the saves he made were unbelievable. His legs were going over here, his hands were going over there. We know we only have to score one or two goals."
Rucizka did his part at 8:21 of the first period, nudging in a bouncing puck from close range. Right wing Jaromir Jagr of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who has been hampered by a shoulder injury, put the Czechs ahead at 9:19 with a spectacular individual effort, cutting from the right-wing boards to the middle of the zone before flicking a shot past Mike Richter, who had come out of his net and was on his knees.
After Hasek stopped Modano and Guerin during a scramble in the slot, winger Martin Rucinsky used Brian Leetch as a screen to launch a long shot that deflected off Leetch and spun past Richter at 16:35. Jiri Dopita sent the flag-waving Czech fans in the crowd of 9,822 into a frenzy when he pounced on a loose puck and lifted it into the open top half of the net with 39 seconds to play.
"In a tournament like this, you have to be at the top of your game and scratch and claw for every inch," Richter said. "This is a great, great hockey tournament and the fact that we didn't win is incredibly disappointing. We were so happy for the women [Tuesday] night and we thought we could be in the same situation."
They didn't come close to duplicating the women's gold-medal success for a number of reasons.
Richter didn't lose any games, but he didn't win any either--and to win any major championship a goalie must be able to steal a victory or two. The best save of the tournament was actually made by John Vanbiesbrouck, who replaced Richter with 2:19 left in the game--a delaying tactic meant to buy a few minutes' rest for weary U.S. players--and made a sprawling glove save on Jagr.
Their defense was their obvious downfall, a hole Wilson never plugged. Exasperated by the poor play of Kevin Hatcher and Bryan Berard in the first three games, Wilson kept both on the bench Wednesday. That solved one problem but did nothing to keep Mathieu Schneider from taking bad penalties or Gary Suter from making bad defensive decisions.
"Going into this tournament you know you've got to play well defensively to win," Modano said. "If you have to score more than three or four goals, you can't win. You have to play well in your own zone and you can't make mental mistakes like we did the last two games."
Offensively, Wilson had no one to make up for the chances LeClair, Amonte and Jeremy Roenick squandered. Only six players managed to score at least one goal, and only Modano, Chris Chelios and Brett Hull scored two.
"Our biggest guns couldn't find a way to score," Wilson said. "If the ones you expect to score don't, you're not going to win.
"I'm very disappointed. We came here with high expectations, expectations of winning gold. It's something you're always going to remember."