Winter Olympics 2002 Ice Hockey Winter Olympics 2002 Ice Hockey


Bridging the gap

LeClair scores, sacrifices for Team USA

Posted: Wednesday February 20, 2002 11:11 PM
Updated: Thursday February 21, 2002 12:44 AM

SALT LAKE CITY -- Not that the Miracle on Ice is on the minds of all the American hockey players here, but after the surgical 5-0 dismantling of Germany, Jeremy Roenick noted that in 1980, the United States had also beaten Germany on Wednesday, Feb. 20; the Soviet Union on Friday, Feb. 22; and Finland for the gold medal on Sunday, Feb. 24. This is a potential case of déjà vu, even though 22 years later, all of us who covered the Lake Placid games need glasses.

"How did you know those dates?" I asked.

"We have a lot of down time," Roenick said.

Itís coming one game earlier than the scriptwriters would have had it, but the matchup is here. The U.S. plays Russia in the semifinals on Friday, a rematch of last Saturdayís gorgeous 2-2 tie, and the U.S. will see something they havenít seen before in these Olympics: Nikolai Khabibulin.

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    The men's hockey team is the bridge between those Olympics, which brings us to the last bridge that was crossed, the one in John LeClair's mouth. LeClair just had some dental work done -- "His teeth are a lot better now than they were growing up," said Jamey Horan , an NHL official who was LeClair's roommate at the University of Vermont -- but a German defenseman named Erich Goldmann performed an on-ice extraction in the first period, swiveling his head to spot the referee before turning around and simply reefing LeClair. The high stick sent one of LeClair's false front teeth to the ice and split his lip. "Johnny got his tooth back," said U.S. defenseman Aaron Miller , "so everything turned one well." The five-minute penalty assessed to the impromptu dentist gave the U.S. a five-on-three power play and eventually its first goal, scored by Roenick, the icebreaker midway through the first period that allowed the Americans to relax.

    LeClair has always been willing to trade a tooth for a goal, some blood for a victory -- even though it started to get ridiculous in the second period. Fresh off some new sutures in his lip, another German defenseman, Daniel Kunce , got LeClair in the same spot five minutes into the period. Kunce offered an upraised hand and a heartfelt Entschuldigung which LeClair dismissed as blood dribbled down his chin. The Philadelphia Flyers left winger bristled, if you'll pardon the expression.

    I donít know what you call the fact that a rematch will occur 22 years ago to the day that was the defining moment in United States hockey. Symmetry? History? Irony? No matter, this matchup is more even than that of the fabled memorable moment, the Miracle on Ice, when a pack of unknown American college players stunned the big, bad USSR 4-3.

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    Until now the Sher-wood surgeons of the Olympic tournament simply have had no choice because, at 6-foot-3, 220 pounds, LeClair is too strong on his skates to handle down low. Maybe Vladimir Malakhov of Team Russia has a chance Friday, but it takes a defenseman with girth and grit to battle the premier power forward in hockey in his office outside the crease. LeClair leads the Olympic tournament with six goals, burying another 3-footer against the Germans, shifting the puck from his backhand to forehand and roofing a shot. His goals, added together, probably wouldn't reach the blue line, but like the Dorothy Parker gag about the coeds, with LeClair, a three-time 50-goal scorer, it's never been how long but how many.

    LeClair is playing with Mike Modano , emerging as the best player in the tournament, and Brett Hull , who were former linemates with the Dallas Stars. They have been as patient as they have been unstoppable, rarely forcing the play, looking for holes in the seams in the case of Modano and Hull, and searching for rebounds in the case of LeClair. "Gee, I'm glad they don't play as a line in the NHL," U.S. forward Bill Guerin said. "Unless it's for my team."

    The gold medal no longer looks like a bridge too far.

    Sports Illustrated senior writer Michael Farber is in Utah covering the Olympic hockey competition for the magazine and Check back regularly for more behind-the-scenes reports from Salt Lake City.

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    Russia beats Czech Rep. 1-0 on Khabibulin's 41 saves's Darren Eliot: Khabibulin offers up career-defining performance
    USA blanks Germany 5-0 to move on to face Russia
    SIís Kennedy: Keying on Khabibulin
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