This hockey generation had a great ride. Now it's over
Posted: Wednesday February 22, 2006 5:43PM; Updated: Wednesday February 22, 2006 6:45PM
Mathieu Schneider and the U.S. came up just short against Finland.
Clive Rose/Getty Images
TURIN, Italy -- The Greatest Generation of American hockey left the stage in Turin early Wednesday night, walking through a guarded door in Palasport Olimpico but definitely not into the history books. On the 26th anniversary of the improbable win over the Soviet Union in Lake Placid, the listless, concrete-legged Americans were one-and-done in the Olympic crossover, falling 4-3 to a superior, more cohesive Finnish team.
The last remnants of the American squad that produced the best hockey this nation ever has seen -- Chris Chelios, Bill Guerin, Keith Tkachuk and others from the fabulous 1996 World Cup champion -- will disperse to their NHL teams to squeeze another year or two or three out of their fading gifts, but they will leave this wide-ice Olympic business to younger players.
This was a less-than-stellar effort until the third period, when they buzzed the Finnish net -- at least when they weren't cooling their heels in the penalty box. But this denouement still could have been a chin-up, bittersweet moment that marked the changing of the guard, a last hurrah for their contributions to hockey in this country.
Instead, Mike Modano grabbed the guard's machine gun and opened fire on USA Hockey.
If the U.S. was going down -- and since an opening tie against Latvia, this undisciplined team that couldn't put the puck in the Po River was primed for a hasty exit -- Modano, another '96er, would take an entire program with it.
Perhaps he spoke out of frustration at having been stapled to the bench by coach Peter Laviolette in the third period. (The decision might have been quirky -- a ton of Craig Conroy and Jason Blake but no Modano, who, at 35, remains the most creative American forward -- but then it hardly seemed worth arguing given that the final 12 minutes of the third period was the only stretch in which the Americans looked more than mildly interested.)
Maybe the roots of Modano's ill will went deeper than such irritating things as having to arrange family travel and tickets, the sort of things that often are handled by the federation.
In either case, Modano, in a matter-of-fact tone, went down with gums blazing, calling for changes at the top of USA Hockey. "Maybe they need some new blood in there to kinda run things a little differently," Modano said. "[It's] probably time some things change. How things are operated, how things are run behind the scene.
"USA Hockey, you think, would be more of a well-oiled operation," he added. "The way things are run are questionable. It's frustrating. [The players] put a lot into it. You want things to run smooth behind the scenes. Basically we were on our own for arrangements, flights, hotels, tickets. Normally that's something you don't have to think about. [We should just have to] get ourselves ready to play and not have to deal with it."
Once the question was: "Do you believe in miracles?"
Now the question is: "How long is that connection in Milan?"
Anyway, Modano also ripped Laviolette for calling a timeout at 10:24 of the first period with Finland leading 1-0, instead of saving it until the final minute.
"There's a lot of game to be played," he said. "You can probably use it at the end of the game there. Give some guys a rest. A bit of composure. A little less panic. Just play the game. There are 50 minutes left."
Foresight is 20-20, of course. Given the uninspired hockey, Laviolette was worried the game might be out of reach early if he did nothing to raise the emotional level of a team that had no jump. (Reading lips from the TV monitor, anyone could see Laviolette's 30-second tirade definitely was putting the blue in red, white and blue.)
Maybe the players could have used a bit of a breather in the final minute, when Doug Weight was whipping three different Finnish centers on offensive-zone faceoffs, but ultimately the U.S. problems in Turin had precious little to do with timeouts and everything to do with time.
USA Hockey was caught in a time warp in 2006, stuck in the crevice between generations. The U.S. was too old or too young, not just right. The best chance for a medal, general manager Don Waddell and Laviolette had agreed, was to lean one final time on some of the Boys of '96, rewinding the biological clock. (The oft-repeated argument that the U.S. was taking players who were performing well when the team had to be named was a canard: Guerin and the huffing-and-puffing Tkachuk were having bleak NHL seasons, and to prove that was no fluke, they replicated it in Italy.)
While the approach obviously failed, it was not as if Waddell was doggie-paddling in the deep end of the talent pool. Does Jamie Langenbrunner, rather than Guerin, get this team a gold medal? Does defenseman Brian Leetch add more than Derian Hatcher (a double high-sticking minor in the third period)? On the power play, indisputably, but Leetch would not have altered the tenor of an American team that had ciao written all over it.
The only player who might have made a difference was Ryan Miller, the Buffalo Sabres goalie who had a broken thumb when Waddell was forced to finalize his roster in late December. Rather than take a chance on Miller, who has sandwiched the injury with superb play, Waddell played it safe with his three goalies -- Rick DiPietro, John Grahame and Robert Esche -- instead of grabbing America's goaltending future. In terms of personnel, this was Waddell's only glaring error.
Of course, he also could have had the next great American forward on the team, but then he would have had to yank Phil Kessel out of his freshman classes at the University of Minnesota. The defense in 2010 could be led by a guy now playing at the University of Michigan. Some other cornerstones of the future -- Zach Parise and Ryan Suter -- are still barely cutting their teeth in the NHL. As Modano noted, "There're a lot of young guys coming up, a lot of good players who weren't here, that might have a chance in Vancouver."
"If we all play until Chelly's age [captain Chris Chelios is 44], then no, this isn't" an end of an era, defenseman Mathieu Schneider said with a smile. "But there's a good chance that this is. I talked about this being the last chance for a gold medal with this group of guys. This was a frustrating tournament from Day One for us."
Now having failed to have their tickets punched for the semifinals -- did USA Hockey screw those tickets up, too? -- the Americans head home with nothing. Modano, in good conscience, can tell the customs officials he has nothing to declare. He left it all in a mixed zone.