It happened to be flanked by a U and an A, but the red S in the middle of the chest was all anyone really noticed on Ray LeBlanc's uniform. Nevertheless, U.S. hockey captain Clark Donatelli was saying on Saturday night in Mèribel, "Ray couldn't be Superman forever."
Any man named Clark should have known better: Goal-tender LeBlanc did remain Superman forever, or at least for the 16 days of the Olympic hockey tournament, in which the U.S. finished fourth. That LeBlanc showed up at all for Saturday's 6-1 loss to Czechoslovakia in the bronze medal game was superheroic. Twenty-four hours earlier he had made 50 saves in a 5-2 semifinal loss to the Unified Team, once taking a slap shot off the mask so hard that the puck cleared the Plexiglas and may have even cleared French customs before it landed.
When the tournament was over, Donatelli knew what had caused the Americans' downfall. "Anytime you watch a guy make save after save after save, and you can't get a goal for him, it's a frustrating thing," he said. The U.S. placed nobody among the top 15 scorers in the 12-team tournament and on defense too often left the slot wide open before its goalie.
And yet the U.S.'s fourth-place finish, after seventh-place disappointments in the two previous Olympics, exceeded most expectations. In fact several members of the team cited the club's pre-Olympic lowballing by the media—and the critical press reports about coach Dave Peterson (SI, Jan. 27), who was also the '88 coach—as primary motivators in the Americans' brief run at the gold medal.
"As I've said all week," Peterson was saying all last week, "I'm not in the vindication business. I'm in the coaching business."
But if the U.S. is to take another step toward winning hockey medals, it will have to develop the kind of stick-handling, puck-control players who prosper on the expansive international rinks. The hustling, hell-bent-for-vulcanized-rubber style that earned the U.S. praise for its "great spirit," as a Unified Team coach put it, didn't work against the finesse style of the Czechs and the Russians.
Indeed, to some opponents, the Americans were the comedy team of Dump & Chase. "They don't play hockey," said Czech goalie Petr Briza. "They just hurry around."
And to too many others they were the Ugly Americans. Peterson, unhappy with a cheap shot delivered by Swedish forward Mats Naslund to defenseman Greg Brown, refused to shake hands with the Swedish coach following a 3-3 tie on Feb. 17. Then the U.S. engaged in a postgame free-for-all with the French team on Feb. 18, and it frothed at Swedish referee Sven Erik Sold after having to kill five penalties in the third period against the superior Unified Team. While LeBlanc was a humble Superman on Friday night, Donatelli was a shrill Captain America. "The Swedish hockey team couldn't beat us," he said, "so the Swedish ref stuck it to us."
"They gave us a pretty good shaft," agreed forward C.J. Young. Said defenseman Sean Hill: "I think the refs beat us more than the Soviets did."
Nonsense. The man who kept the Americans in the semifinal game against the Unified Team, LeBlanc, remained above the whining. He emerged exhausted and silent from the locker room following the bronze medal game and, with his right cheek leaning on the butt end of his goalie stick, answered a couple of questions in his monotone whisper. "I want to thank the American people for supporting us," he said.
And then the 27-year-old career minor league goalie addressed his future. "All I want to do is play in the NHL," said LeBlanc. "No matter who I play for or where I play, I don't care. I just want to play." He will no doubt answer when the call comes. Superman spends a lot of time in phone booths.