The kids went to the grown-up party. They had a lot of energy, so sometimes they ran around and acted crazy. And they kept getting sent to their rooms for two minutes for misbehaving. The experience was supposed to teach them poise and maturity, but when it was over...the kids were in eighth place—the worst finish ever for a U.S. Olympic hockey team.
If the young U.S. hockey team left an impression in Lillehammer at all, it was from the collective weight of its backsides in the penalty box at H�kon Hall. For the American kids, H�kon Hall was Hacking Hall. And Roughing Hall. And Charging Hall. Of the 12 teams competing, the U.S. was the third most penalized, but it wasn't raw numbers so much as raw emotions—penalties of frustration and exuberance—that sabotaged this team, one that had a real chance to win a medal in this wide-open tournament.
"I'm the one who selected them, I'm the one who trained them, it's my responsibility," coach Tim Taylor said of his team, which averaged a little more than 22 years in age and included just two first-round NHL draft choices. "As coaches we can preach discipline, but when it comes down to crunch time and they don't execute with discipline, who do you blame?"
Taylor's message never got through. He is a grand tactician who knows the international game, but he is more teacher than preacher. During games he would stand behind the bench with his arms folded across his chest while his assistant, John Cunniff, stood with his hands in his pockets. Occasionally Cunniff would remove his hands from his pockets and fold his arms across his chest too, a reminder that this tableau wasn't a still life.
Even if the U.S., which finished with a 1-4-3 record, had found the balance between emotion and discipline, it had technical flaws, especially in comparison to its more experienced European rivals. "They work hard and love the game," Swedish winger Mats Naslund said of the Americans after his team's 6-4 victory in the preliminary round. "But they don't have the skills."
In stocking his squad, Taylor had emphasized speed, only to meet teams like Finland, which were faster. What's more, the U.S.'s undersized forwards couldn't bump anyone from the puck in the attacking zone, and its overmatched defensemen ran amok in their own end. There were tantalizing spurts when Taylor's vision for this bunch would come to life, but hockey is a 60-minute game. If you add up all those good moments (not counting the team's 7-1 win against Italy), you find that the U.S. played 60 minutes of hockey.
There were good omens, like coming from behind to tie France 4-4. And against the Italian team, with the U.S. needing a victory to advance to the medal round, Peter Ciavaglia, Peter Ferraro and David Sacco put three quick ones past Italy's goalie, David Delfino, a Massachusetts boy, proving at least that our Italian-Americans could beat their American-Italians.
In the quarterfinal game, the U.S. was dominating Finland until winger John Lilley took a senseless charging penalty midway through the first period. Finland scored and went on to get three more power-play goals after the U.S. was called for one cross-checking and two roughing penalties—not your high-IQ fouls. After Finland's 6-1 win, a result that assured a fourth consecutive Games in which the U.S. did not get a medal, leading goal-scorer Brian Rolston suggested that the team might have had a little Olympic stage fright.
"They seemed tight," Canadian goalie Corey Hirsch said of the Americans. In pre-Olympic competition, the U.S. beat Canada eight times in 11 games and had a 37-17-7 overall record. "I think they were feeling the heat from having a good year," added Hirsch, "feeling the pressure of trying to be another Miracle 1980 team. That's a lot to put on a bunch of kids."