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Albertville At Large: Working Stiffs

February 20, 1992

MERIBEL, France (AP) _ Donatelli’s the leader. Tkachuk’s the joker. Mantha is the old hand and Donato adds some soul.

Who’s that, you ask, the new cast of the Teen-age Mutant Ninja Turtles?

No, it’s the U.S. Olympic hockey team.

Despite a remarkably successful run, it remains a team of relatively unknown hockey gypsies - tough working stiffs whose fates have converged on the chance of Olympic gold.

There are no stars, no flashy personalities. They range from college kids barely 20 to seasoned journeymen who have toiled for years in NHL clubs and farm teams.

No one gave them much of a chance when these games started.

″What people underestimate is the power of a team of individuals to bond together in tough situations,″ forward Ted Donato, a Harvard University alumni, said Tuesday night after scoring twice against the French.

The situation is getting tougher. Team USA plays the Unified Team Friday afternoon. The winner will play either Sunday for the gold medal.

Earlier Wednesday, before the Unified Team beat Finland 6-1, U.S. team members said they wanted to face their old Russian rivals.

″We want to show people what we can do,″ Mike Dunham, an alternate goalkeeper, said as he and other teammates browsed the shops of this ski resort.

Even with their U.S. team jackets and hats reading ″It’s a Great Day for Hockey,″ the players went unrecognized among the Olympic crowd.

Showing what they can do has become a mission for the 23-member team. After a middling exhibition season against NHL teams, the media pundits didn’t give the team much of a chance in the Olympics.

Attention focused on Dave Peterson, the sometimes abrasive high school coach who drew heavy fire for the seventh place showing by his 1988 U.S. Olympic team. Individual team members were hardly mentioned.

″The guys took it with a grain of salt,″ said Guy Gosselin, who played on the 1988 Olympic team and a variety of national and professional teams.

Gosselin said team members had other things on their minds.

″We have a lot of guys coming around for a second time that are real hungry,″ he said. ″They have something to prove.″

Ray LeBlanc is one of them. After six years of obscurity in International Hockey League whistlestops like Indianapolis and Fort Wayne, the 27-year-old goalie has shut out two teams and held two others to one goal each.

″He’s one of those guys who maybe hasn’t had a fair shot along the way,″ Gosselin said. ″It’s not fun to bounce around the minor leagues for years. It’s a tough life style and he’s got a family.″

LeBlanc is the silent man, sitting off by himself in the locker room before a game.

″You leave him alone,″ said Jim Johannson, another 1988 Olympic veteran. ″You don’t talk to him that much during the games and in the locker room.″

″When he’s playing well, no one wants to disturb him,″ Dunham said.

Joe Mantha is another steadying influence. At 31, Mantha has moved around the NHL, playing for five different teams in 11 seasons. He left the Winnipeg Jets in January to join the team.

″He has a lot to say before the game,″ said Joe Sacco, a 23-year-old alumni of Boston University hockey. ″The young guys learn from that and he helps them out.″

Sacco is part of the Boston posse, one of 16 squad members who come from there or who played with one of the college hockey powerhouses in that area. Team captain Clark Donatelli is one. So is 19-year-old Keith Tkachuk, who plays for Boston University.

″Keith’s the joker,″ Dunham said. ″He keeps the team loose, keeps everything in perspective with a lot of one liners.″

Donatelli is a volatile player and a fiery leader.

″The team motto is ’We’re never going to get outworked,‴ he said after an early victory. ″Even if you have to sacrifice yourself, knowing you’re not going to get the puck, it may pay off later.″

Donatelli is an aggressive player on an aggressive team criticized for its brawling. The latest came Tuesday night with France.

Gosselin said such dustups brings the teammates closer.

″If you’re going to be there for one of your buddies when he gets in trouble, you know he’s going to be there for you,″ he said. ″There’s that trust there that’s a big part of playing hockey.″