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Ugly Americans hang it up Loss to Finland caps nightmare

TURIN, Italy - The 2006 Winter Olympics have been nothing but fun, so it was better to search for something encouraging rather than be dragged down by the embarrassment known as the United States hockey team. Wednesday felt more like a holiday, anyway, because it marked the 26th anniversary of the Miracle on Ice.

The Americans celebrated with a quarterfinal loss in the Winter Games, but at least they'll be well-rested when the NHL resumes its regular season. Their performance here might even go undetected. For every person who watched them get humiliated, three were immersed in "American Idol." Let's call their Italian experience what it was: a vacation.

And at least they can find solace in not having played for Canada.

Finland advanced to the semifinals with a 4-3 victory over the United States in the sparkling new and half-full Palasports Olimpico. Or was it half empty? The Yanks headed back across the Atlantic toting a loss that looked much like the others during the Winter Games, in which they produced a 1-4-1 record. Thanks for coming, boys.

Now, can someone pass the beer nuts?

Tickets were going for about $4 outside the arena, leaving the people here with a very difficult decision. They could have either watched a quarterfinal men's hockey game or have a glass of Italian wine. Judging by the crowd, about 6,000 intelligent spectators chose the wine over the whine offered by Mike Modano.

Modano called for changes at the top of USA Hockey, claimed the organization needed some new blood. It should start with him. He was a poster boy Wednesday for how Team USA played in this tournament. He waltzed through the first two periods, spent the third on the bench and blamed external forces for the performance.

"USA Hockey could be more of a welloiled operation," Modano said. "It's frustrating. We put a lot into it, and we've come a long way. You want things to run smooth behind the scenes. Part of it goes back to families being over here.

"Basically, we were on our own as far as arrangements - hotels, flights, tickets. Normally, that's something you don't have to think about. It's something that should be taken care of so we don't have to worry about it."

The poor guy. They actually expected him to dial a telephone, book a flight and make hotel reservations - by himself? No wonder he didn't have enough energy for hockey. He certainly didn't use any during the first two periods against Finland.

Ville Peltonen buried a one-timer through Rick DiPietro's stars-and-stripes pads for the first goal. Sami Salo scored a short-handed goal on a 25-foot slap shot after rudely interrupting defenseman Brian Rafalski's afternoon nap while stealing the puck. In the end, the Finnish players finished, and the Americans were finished.

"I wanted to come here and at least come away with a medal," winger Brian Rolston said. "It's a matter of regrouping as USA Hockey. We have to do better."

Gee, you think?

The United States was outworked, outplayed, outclassed and outgoalied for most of the tournament. Its problems didn't start in Italy. It began sliding in December when General Manager Don Waddell and coach Peter Laviolette decided they were better served without their best goaltender, one Ryan Miller.

Miller's injury made for a difficult decision, but it was a no-brainer after Robert Esche complained about his backup role the day before he left. Esche should have followed his own instincts and stayed home. He was roughed up for five goals on 21 shots against the Russians in his lone appearance.

It was another sign the United States wasn't very united. Team chemistry has been an issue since the 3-3 tie against - who? - Latvia. The Americans were outscored, 17-16, in the six games. But look at the bright side. They did beat Kazakhstan. And they were kind enough to gift-wrap Latvia its only point.

You can't blame the entire American team. Scott Gomez played well along with New Jersey Devils teammate Brian Gionta. Chris Drury hustled the way Western New York has come to appreciate. But they can't be Team USA's best players. Too bad most of their teammates woke up Wednesday with about four minutes remaining and a two-goal deficit.

"It's really disappointing right now to be going home so early," Drury said. "Hopefully, there are better days to come for USA Hockey. This isn't too good right now."

Here's a suggestion: No matter what the NHL decides about its players participating in the Olympics, USA Hockey should build its team with select college kids and junior players and send them to the Winter Games. It should spend months developing its team and building unity. They would have a better chance of winning while restoring the integrity of hockey at the Winter Games and the NHL.

USA Hockey determines who belongs on the team, not the NHL. The Yanks needed more Phil Kessels in this tournament and fewer Keith Tkachuks. The St. Louis Blues winger had this to show for his Italian getaway: six games, no points, minus- 5. America would have been better off sending the University of Minnesota.

What, they're worried about getting spanked in the Olympics?

And it's not just the Americans, either. I'll say it again: NHL players didn't belong here. Finland and Slovakia have played well, but the North American teams have held a clinic in sloppy hockey. Canada slinked home after failing to score in 11 of its last 12 periods, which combined with the Wayne Gretzky mess explained the long lines in Ontario pharmacies.

The Americans insisted the effort was there, which illustrates their lack of cohesion and talent. There's no telling what Miller would have meant to this team. He certainly would have helped them play more aggressively rather than spend most of the game skating backward. Now, they can backtrack all the way home.

e-mail: bgleason@buffnews.com

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