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Men's hockey gets interesting as teams ready for quarterfinals

Posted: Wednesday, February 20, 2002

WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah -- Chairs and fire extinguishers were tossed about at the 1998 Nagano Olympics men's hockey tournament. This time, they're throwing insults.

Wayne Gretzky accuses the whole world -- well, at least everyone not in the Great White North -- of hating Canadian hockey. Czech forward Martin Rucinsky responds by saying the Canadians don't impress him a bit.

Even grandfatherly Herb Brooks, showing he hasn't lost a step when it comes to sending a message, took a verbal swipe at Germany's machismo as his U.S. team pursues its first hockey medal since 1980.

Hey, you didn't think the tough-guy hockey players would allow all the fussing, name-calling, backbiting, insult-hurling, accusation-making and controversy in Salt Lake City to be limited to figure skating, did you?

By winning its four-team round-robin pool, the United States was rewarded with a quarterfinal game Wednesday against relatively weak Germany, which was 0-3 in group play and would seem to have little chance of pulling off an upset.

The other quarterfinals Wednesday match Sweden, the only team to sweep its pool, against Belarus; Canada against Finland and, in the glamour matchup, the defending gold medalist Czech Republic against Russia.

Despite the inherent dangers attached with ridiculing an underdog opponent, Brooks got into the insult act after being told German coach Hans Zach welcomed playing the Americans.

''Maybe that's why they lost the Second World War, guys,'' Brooks said. ''So there, I'll draw the line in the sand and you can take that right back.''

Sounds like Brooks has been working on his own power play.

If the United States (2-0-1) wins Wednesday, it will play either Russia, in a rematch of their earlier 2-2 tie, or the Czechs in Friday's semifinals. A victory there would send the Americans into the gold medal game for the first time since 1980 -- a major turnaround from their dismal performance in 1998, when unidentified U.S. players damaged furniture in their Olympic Village rooms after losing three of four games.

''I think it's only going to get better for us,'' U.S. captain Chris Chelios said.

But while the United States welcomed the German game, and vice versa, neither the Czechs (1-1-1) nor Russia (1-1-1) wanted this scenario, where the loser not only goes home without a gold medal, but with no medal at all.

The matchup was expected in a later round, perhaps even in the gold medal game, but certainly not in the round of eight. Yet it came about when the Czechs were tied 3-3 by Canada and Russia was upset by Finland 3-1 on Monday.

''I said even before the games that there would be six or even eight good teams here,'' Russian forward Pavel Bure said. ''I don't think it would matter if we play Canada or the Czechs or any other team in the quarterfinals.''

It certainly will matter in the Czech Republic, where hockey has essentially become the national sport, if the Czechs are eliminated before the medal round after winning the last Olympics and three consecutive world championships.

''You can't hide anymore,'' Rucinsky said. ''It's going to be a tough game. It's anybody's tournament right now but, obviously, the United States and Sweden have a little easier road.''

But what about Canada?

The Canadians have beaten only Germany so far, losing badly to Sweden 5-2 and gaining the tie with the Czech Republic on a late Joe Nieuwendyk goal, but they can gain the semifinals by beating Finland. That's not a given, of course; Finland upset Canada in the bronze medal game in Nagano.

Gretzky, who was given the International Olympic Committee's highest honor Tuesday, lashed out at Team Canada's critics after the Czech game and predicted his players would be ''standing tall'' when the Olympics end despite their horrid start

''We're set up in a much better situation,'' said Gretzky, Team Canada's executive director. ''We kind of control our destiny now.''

Finland has played much better since its opening game 6-0 loss to the United States, but cannot call on a roster filled with NHL all-stars as Canada can. Canada got a boost when Hall of Famer Mario Lemieux, apparently bothered for several weeks by a hip injury, returned to score two goals against the Czechs.

Still, Finland forward Teemu Selanne said, ''Nobody is really counting on us and it's a situation where we have no pressure.''

Sweden is expected to have little trouble with Belarus, an 8-1 loser Monday to the United States, but star Mats Sundin said, ''You want to make sure you keep your momentum going.''



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