OSLO – They used to be the Ugly Americans of the Olympics, the bad boys of international hockey. They’d take on all challengers, throwing elbows and swinging sticks and talking trash with the best – or worst – of them.
Those days are over.
“The only thing physical about the way we play,” United States hockey coach Tim Taylor says, “is our reputation.”
The fast and free-wheeling U.S. team practiced Tuesday in Oslo and will finish its exhibition schedule Wednesday night at Goteborg, Sweden, against Sweden’s Olympic team.
In 1992, the Americans solidified their rough-house reputation in two bone-jarring games against Sweden.
Pushing and pounding the Swedes all over the ice, the U.S. team won its final pre-Olympic tuneup. The teams then played to a tie in a bloody Olympic battle – which included Mats Naslund’s cheap-shot check of American defenseman Greg Brown, a dozen other altercations, and U.S. coach Dave Peterson’s refusal to shake hands with Swedish coaches.
Last weekend, after Sweden’s “B” team beat the United States in an exhibition at Rouen, France, Sweden was still accusing the Americans of overly physical play.
“They played as they always do. They hit you everywhere,” said Par Marts, the “B” team coach and a Swedish Olympic assistant. “They tried to scare us a little bit.”
The always-serious Taylor rarely laughs. But he chuckled when he heard that one.
“We don’t scare anybody,” he said. “We’ve got maybe one guy who body-checks, John Lilley. I wish we took the body more. I thought they out-hit us and were stronger on the puck. We were certainly bouncing off of them more than they were bouncing off of us.”
U.S. center Peter Ciavaglia, one of only two Americans playing in the Swedish Elite League this season, said the United States’ rough-house reputation endures in Europe.
“When I came over, they said, `We don’t think of you as typical,’ ” the 5-foot-10, 175-pound Ciavaglia said. “When the Swedish players talk about Americans, they say things like, `Very aggressive, bigger, rugged.’ They talk of a dump-it-in, checking style.”
They certainly aren’t talking about these Americans.
The 1994 U.S. team, which plays its Olympic opener Sunday against France, is young and small, built on speed rather than power.
“If you’re gonna have guys who go a million miles an hour, then they’re probably not gonna be physical players,” said Ted Drury, the only skater to return from the ’92 team. “We’ve got some big defensemen – Matt Martin, Brett Hauer, Barry Richter – but we’re not intimidating. Our best body-checker is probably the smallest guy on our team, John Lilley.”
Said Lilley, a 5-foot-9, 170-pounder: “I knew if I made the team it’d be as a checker. My main role is to go out there and shake things up.”
It will be interesting to see if Lilley and the rest of the Americans try to shake things up Wednesday … or if Sweden, which meets the United States again in the Olympics’ fourth game, sets the tone.
“There’s a history factor. If it hadn’t been for the events of the last Olympics, we wouldn’t have any concern at all,” Taylor said. “I don’t know what Sweden’s approach will be. This is a different U.S. team. We’ll just play our game. I’m relying on our ability to keep our cool.”