This happens with such cosmic regularity that you can set your calendar by it. Once a generation the U.S. hosts a Winter Olympics, and its hockey team does something wondrous (Squaw Valley in 1960, Lake Placid in '80). In Salt Lake City, against the backdrop of the Wasatch Mountains and the events of Sept. II, there's a growing sense that flag-waving fervor could help the Americans win the hockey tournament in these patriot Games.
"With everything that's gone on in our country the last five months, it's going to be even more meaningful for U.S. athletes to do well," says right wing Bill Guerin, who like all 22 of his teammates is an NHL player—in Guerin's case with the Boston Bruins. "We'll be more driven because of that."
While the Americans will indeed have the home ice advantage, the ice itself will work to their disadvantage. The Olympic ice surface is about one condo larger—3,000 square feet—than cozy NHL rinks. The geometry of the international game, because it's played without the red line, is different, too. Europeans grow up playing on big ice and Canadians have proved adaptable, but the U.S. looked flummoxed by the open spaces during the 1998 Games in Nagano, playing with none of the discretion needed to excel on the larger surface.
"We had a decent team [in Nagano], but we were poorly prepared," right wing Brett Hull says. "We tried to play a wide-open style, like the 1980s [Edmonton] Oilers, while every team in Europe on big ice plays the neutral-zone trap. Why would the Europeans, who skate so well and are so skilled, play a trap if that's not the way you have to do it? We were giving up three-on-ones every shift. We played the wrong system. There was a lot of frustration, and it showed."
Herb Brooks, the mastermind of the U.S.'s gold medal winners in 1980 who's coaching this year's team, prefers an attacking style, but he'll have to gently tap the brakes of a group of forwards as formidable as any. (Through Sunday the 13 American forwards were averaging slightly more goals per NHL game in 2001-02 than their counterparts on the Canadian team.) Traditionally U.S. teams have been built from the goal out, but since the emergence of dashing center Mike Modano in the early 1990s, the Americans have been able to match any country razzle-for-dazzle. The defense is less imposing, an intriguing mix of older stars who have resurrected their careers, like Brian Leetch, Chris Chelios and Phil Housley, with a dollop of stay-at-home toughness in Aaron Miller. The key to the defense and power play could be unsung Brian Rafalski, a deft puck-mover who played professionally for four seasons in Scandinavia before joining the NHL.
However, in the eye-blink of a short tournament, goaltending—as the Czech Republic's Dominik Hasek proved in 1998—is likely to be the decisive factor. A year ago it appeared to be America's soft spot, but first-stringer Mike Richter is healthy again after undergoing knee surgery last February. Richter can steal a tournament, as he did in the 1996 World Cup, or help give one away, as he did with a middling performance in Nagano. His solid work behind a porous New York Rangers defense this season augurs well for the U.S., but Richter is 3-5 with a 3.63 goals-against average in his two previous Olympics.
Like the U.S. team, he's a riddle wrapped in an enigma—wrapped in a flag.