The Ogre had mellowed, had actually been to charm school. At least, that was the word on U.S. Olympic hockey coach Dave Peterson.
I'll believe it when I see it, I thought shortly before my first encounter in four years with Peterson. The meeting occurred at the Richfield (Ohio) Coliseum on Dec. 28, moments after Peterson's 1992 team had dropped its eighth straight pre-Olympic game. The loss, to a Select team from the Russian Elite League, was particularly galling, the result of—stop me if you've heard this before—a late and costly defensive lapse.
To get things off to a smooth start in the postgame Q & A, I lobbed Peterson a softball: The pre-Olympic schedule is much tougher than it was four years ago, isn't it?
Peterson wasn't in the mood to make nice. 'The media is under the misconception that the coach has the final say in the schedule, but that's not true," snapped Peterson, who had coached the 1988 U.S. Olympians to a seventh-place finish—when he wasn't feuding with the world's press corps. "I was criticized in '88 because the schedule was too soft, now I'll be criticized because it's too hard."
Nice to see you again, too, Coach. Feeling a bit defensive?
The 1988 squad is thought to have massively underachieved. Indeed, 12 of its players are in the NHL, including All-Stars Mike Richter. Brian Leetch and Kevin Stevens. The '88 team's difficulties started with its pre-Olympic tour, which included 20 college teams on its 60-game schedule. While thrashing those collegians by an average of seven goals, the Olympians fell into bad habits—a marked lassitude on defense chief among them—that undid the team during the Games in Calgary.
The schedule this time around has been much more ornery. It includes 21 games against NHL teams, 14 against the Canadian national team and eight against the aforementioned Russian side, a tough unit, most of whose players also skate for Moscow-Spartak of the Russian Elite League. "This schedule forces us to play solid team defense," says U.S. forward Clark Donatelli. "If we don't, we'll get blown out every night."
Time for another softball—I'll put this one right in his wheel-house: Coach, will there be more of an emphasis on defense this time around?
Peterson won't answer the question directly. In his opinion, it's based on a flawed premise. "Whether it looked like it or not, we worked hard on defense in '88," he says. "People decided we didn't care about defense, which is not true. I was criticized like hell when somebody said I said we were going to be the Runnin' Rebels. I never said that in my life, but it became my quote."
The 61-year-old Peterson is not finished venting his spleen: "I don't understand the logic that says getting beat 3-1 is permissible, because that's a defensive posture, but 7-5 is no good, because that's running and gunning. I have yet to hear a satisfactory explanation for that." He looks balefully out from under the gray hedges of his eyebrows and then disappears into the dressing room. So much for the new and improved Dave Peterson.
It turns out that Peterson has had a tough night and deserves a break. Moments earlier he'd let two players go. The first cut was Scott Fusco, a Harvard grad and a member of the 1984 and '88 Olympic teams who had been trying—on Peterson's recommendation—to become the first American to play hockey in three Games. The second player cut was Dave Quinn, a former Boston University defenseman and first-round NHL draft pick in '84. Quinn played no hockey between '87 and '91 after it was diagnosed that he had hemophilia B, a rare blood disorder. Medical advances enabled Quinn to make a comeback, but after only four months of training, he was too far behind to make the team. Peterson had broken down while giving Quinn the news.
What's this? Mr. Brusque, the s.o.b. of the Saddledome, puddling up because he had to cut a guy? The truth is, despite the Ugly American of Calgary moniker he earned in 1988, Peterson is a kind man. "A great guy—off the ice," says one Olympian.
After playing goalie at Hamline University in St. Paul, Peterson became the hockey coach at Minneapolis's Southwest High in 1957. College coaching offers came up periodically, but he turned them all down. He stayed at Southwest for 27 years. "I enjoy teaching," he says.
According to his players, though, what he perceives to be his strength is his primary weakness. When asked how the instruction they have received from Peterson and his staff compares with the coaching they got in college, two players on this year's Olympic roster looked at each other and burst out laughing. "I'm from a well-run program," said one. "If the other team was coming at you with a certain forecheck, the coach would say, 'All right, they're coming at us with this, so we'll do this.' Here, you get, 'You forwards are going to have to get your butts in gear!' So you're sitting there thinking, O.K., how should I interpret that?
"It's been a little disappointing, because a lot of us put off professional careers to play in the Olympics. I expected to learn a ton, and I haven't."
With a roster filled with smooth-skating artistic types, the 1988 U.S. team scored—and yielded—bushels of goals. Its most painful defeat, which Peterson describes as "the game that will always haunt all of us," came at the hands of Czechoslovakia in the Americans' second game in Calgary. The U.S. led 3-0 and 4-1, but it lacked the ability to protect the lead. Czechoslovakia rallied to win the game on a late, shorthanded goal. The Americans' finest moment came two nights later against the Soviet Union, which would go on to win the gold medal. After trailing 6-2, the U.S. scored three unanswered goals to cut the lead to one, then hit the post with a potential game-tying goal before falling 7-5. After that, the Americans somnambulated through a 4-1 loss to West Germany, their medal hopes dust.
Peterson was shrill to the end. "You missed the story," he told the press at his acrimonious final press conference. "This team's a lot better than you'll ever know."
When Peterson wasn't demoted after the Games, many hockey observers were stunned. They shouldn't have been, considering the penchant of USA Hockey, the sport's national governing body, for rewarding mediocrity. How did this august body follow up the 1980 Miracle on Ice at the Lake Placid Games? By hiring a man who could barely skate, Lou Vairo, to coach the '84 team. Under Vairo, who had coached several junior national teams at the time of his appointment, the U.S. wound up seventh in Sarajevo, its worst Olympic showing ever, duplicated only by the '88 team's performance.
USA Hockey officials proudly point out that only about 20 Americans were in the NHL in 1980; today more than 100 are in the league. Yet despite its ever-improving talent pool, the U.S. has, for two straight Olympics, finished closer to the bottom of the standings than to the top. You would think it might occur to someone at USA Hockey that coaching has been at least part of the problem. Apparently, no one has hit upon that notion.
As they went about choosing the coach for Albertville, the members of USA Hockey's selection committee had a golden opportunity to make a fresh start. Herb Brooks, who had coached the victorious 1980 team, was interested in the job. In his interview with the committee, Brooks proposed overhauling the body's satellite training program. Backs stiffened. Also, with the Olympic schedule shifting so that the next Winter Games, in Lillehammer, Norway, will be played in '94, Brooks saw an opportunity to create some real continuity: He informed the committee that he wished to sign on for both Olympics.
When Brooks left the room, it was agreed that he had "come on too strong," according to a USA Hockey source, that he had "talked down" to the committee. Says one member of the U.S. team, "What it really boils down to is that it's a good-ol'-boy network, and Herb Brooks isn't one of the boys."
Another finalist was Tim Taylor, Yale's highly respected coach. According to a selection committee member quoted in the Los Angeles Times, Taylor was "not forceful enough." Last summer, when the late Bob Johnson fell ill, Taylor took over the U.S. entry in the Canada Cup and coached the team to a second-place finish, its best in the five years of that competition. No one seemed to think Taylor needed assertiveness training then.
Wisconsin coach Jeff Sauer, who has won two NCAA championships in nine years with the Badgers, was told: Nice job, we like you, be patient, your time will come. The committee then returned to Peterson. Would he be willing to take a course in media relations? Sure, Peterson said.
"These people put me in various situations," says Peterson of the two-day session that he attended. "Press conference, sports show, one-on-one interview. They got kind of nasty at times—it was pretty well done. Everything was videotaped and critiqued afterward. It was a little like analyzing your golf swing."
Peterson's promise to be less of a churl at press conferences was all the committee needed to hear. "When all the pluses and minuses were weighed, we felt Dave was our best candidate for '92," says Robert Fleming, chairman of USA Hockey's Olympic Committee and a member of the selection committee. Fleming cites Peterson's international experience as the decisive factor in his favor. In addition to the '88 Olympic team, he has coached three national teams and two junior national teams. The only one of them to earn a medal was the '86 junior team, which got the bronze at the World Juniors in Ontario. "Look at the Soviets under Viktor Tikhonov, the Canadians under Dave King," says Fleming. "We'd like to achieve that kind of continuity."
"That's how they're going to accomplish it?" says one former Olympian. "With two high school coaches?" (Peterson named Dean Blais, a high school coach from Roseau, Minn., to be his top assistant.)
Maybe it is. The balance of power is changing. The United Team of Russian Republics—mirroring the turmoil in the former Soviet Union—has been in some disarray. Moreover, like Czechoslovakia, it has lost a number of players to the NHL since the '88 Games. Sweden, Canada and Finland are strong, but the Finns, who finished second in Calgary, failed to win a medal at the most recent world championships, which they hosted in Helsinki in May.
What's more, whether he admits it or not, Peterson may have learned some lessons in Calgary. The defensemen for 1992 are sturdy, conservative stay-at-home types. Although Richter and Chris Terreri, the American goalies in Calgary, are now proven NHL netminders, four years ago they were callow and uncertain. The goaltenders who have seen the most action for this U.S. squad, Ray LeBlanc, 27, and Scott Gordon, 28, are far more seasoned than Richter and Terreri were in '88. Shortly after the slight, nifty Fusco was cut, Peterson brought in Moe Mantha, a steady, burly, take-no-guff 11-year NHL defenseman. It was a telling exchange.
To prevent the team from getting worn down by its 60-game exhibition schedule, Peterson has kept roughly 30 players on the roster. Trouble is, only 23 will go to Albertville. By late December, Peterson had told his players on three occasions that cuts were imminent. As of Jan. 13, he still had not made them. Instead, he keeps replacing those he lets go.
Says one player, "One night you're getting lots of ice time, lots of power-play time. The next night you're on a swing line, and the next night you're on the bench, watching guys play your position and thinking—I know this sounds bad—I hope they screw up. We're not playing as a team; we're playing to make the team."
In truth, some of the players' gripes aren't with Peterson as much as they are with USA Hockey. Just before Team USA's game against the New York Islanders at Nassau Coliseum on Oct. 24, 31-year-old New York City cop Eddie Galiani was given a three-game tryout. "That was a little strange," says one U.S. player. One Boston paper insinuated that USA Hockey had added Galiani to the roster to put a few extra fannies in the seats.
"We're on the home stretch now," says one player, despite all the complaints. "Hopefully the Games will make it all worthwhile."
Indeed, it should be an ideal Olympics for sneaking up on someone. However, among the cognoscenti, expectations for the U.S. are not exactly towering: Peterson's reputation precedes him. But as far as he's concerned, it doesn't do him justice. "Dave Peterson came away from Calgary feeling pretty good about the job he did," he says.
Peterson will no doubt leave France feeling the same way. Perhaps by then he will have done something to make the rest of us agree with him.