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No smiles-all-around compromise for U.S. vs. Russia Men's Hockey

Posted: Sunday, February 17, 2002

SALT LAKE CITY -- Was there a French judge in the house?

Here you had an event with Russians on ice, a seemingly superior performance not fully rewarded and, in the end, a tie.

It was almost like figure hockey.

The United States and Russia played an exceptional hockey game Saturday night, when most people at home slept but no one at the E Center blinked.

It wasn't nearly as miraculous as the last game between the teams on American ice. It wasn't particularly momentous, either, just a preliminary game and perhaps only the first of two between the teams in the same Olympics. But it was exciting.

And it was different from the first week of the 2002 Winter Games, when the most noticeable result was negotiated below an arena rather than in one, and also from the abiding image of these teams playing against each other.

NHL professionals on both sides as well as a larger ice surface than they are accustomed to, brought a prettier style of hockey than could be conceived in 1980.

When you look back now, those players seem to be plodding through the most dramatic moment in U.S. Olympic history as if on melted ice. Saturday's game was modern hockey wide open, fast-paced and hard-hitting.

The game has evolved in the last 22 years. It's gotten better, even if the current inclusion of professionals is not a theatrical improvement for the Olympics.

Mike Richter played like an octopus for the U.S., throwing an arm here and a leg there to stop 33 shots. Nikolai Khabibulin had a few remarkable saves as well, until the U.S. tied the game just before the end.

The Americans controlled the first 10 minutes and the last 10 minutes. The middle 40 pretty much belonged to Russia.

And if that seems a little uneven, it was. The Russians weren't strikingly better than the Americans, just better. But they didn't win, the U.S. seemingly buoyed as much by the crowd's plaintive chants and their own veteran pride.

That is one of the great natural qualities of sports.

Upsets happen. The best team doesn't always win. Sometimes, there's a tie.

It's just better when it works out that way on the field and not because some federation says so.

Maybe the men's ice hockey tournament can pull these Olympics off the joke pile. The level of play will be enough to make people start talking sports again instead of technicalities.

Then again maybe it can't.

Look what could happen in the next couple of days, if the U.S. and Russia stay as close as they were through three periods Saturday night. One of them will have to be the first seed out of Group D for the medal round. That's the rule.

And there can't be any safe, smiles-all-around compromises this time like there was in pairs figure skating. This is hockey. People lose teeth, so feelings are not exactly protected.

Somebody will have to come out ahead.

So the first tie-breaker is head-to-head play. That's a wash after Saturday.

Then there's goal differential from each team's first three games and then total goals, both of which could also come out even after the U.S. plays Belarus and Russia plays Finland today.

You know what the fourth tie-breaker is? An emergency shootout.

The teams are convened, put a few shooters on the ice and they decide the most important factor for medal positioning with some rushed, hackneyed imitation of the sport. Just the way soccer would.

Imagine the crying that would go on then.

It won't happen, of course. But if it did it wouldn't be much of a surprise. It would just be another instance of the IOC looking as if it's making up rules as it goes along.

It could be worse, I guess. The teams could just keep holding press conferences until one of them won.

Savannah Morning News sports columnist Tim Guidera is part of a Morris News Service team covering the 2002 Winter Olympics. He can be reached at guidera@hotmail.com.



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