- The Washington Times - Thursday, February 23, 2006

TURIN, Italy — Sweden beat Switzerland 6-2 in a men’s hockey quarterfinal at the Winter Olympics yesterday.

But the real score was Truth 1, Diplomacy 0.

Former Capitals star Bengt Gustafsson, the coach of the Swedes, was vindicated after causing what amounted to a minor international incident. That is, he committed an act of honesty, an egregious breach of etiquette among the coaching fraternity.

Earlier this week, Gustafsson, who played nine years for the Capitals and once scored five goals in a game, said his team would be better off losing to Slovakia in the preliminary round because then it would get to play Switzerland instead of Canada or the Czech Republic in the medals round.

“We’re still debating what would be best for our team,” Gustafsson told a Swedish television station, adding that it was like choosing between “the plague or cholera.”

His metaphor might have been a bit over the top, but the point seemed well-taken. Despite upsetting both Canada and the Czechs early in the Games, Switzerland had reversed course. It was the weakest of the eight teams remaining, by far. The Swiss have only three NHL players on their roster, and two of them are goalies. Sweden has a total of 19.

But no one ever says these things aloud. The reaction was as if Gustafsson had blown out the Olympic flame. Fearing a tank job, the International Olympic Committee and the International Ice Hockey Federation sprung into action, issuing stern statements. Others also expressed shock, if not dismay.

After all the talk and hand-wringing, Sweden lost to Slovakia 3-0. The IIHF and the Finnish Hockey Association “monitored” the game and found nothing shady. The IIHF representative said he found no evidence of “a tainted game or foul play.” When Swedish goalie Mikael Tellqvist was asked whether his team gave a full effort, he took it as an insult.

“I give 100 percent,” he said. “What kind of question is that?”

Star forward Peter Forsberg, who played 17 minutes despite nursing a groin injury said, “I play hard all the time.”

In the end, Sweden got to play Switzerland. And Gustafsson was right. Behind two goals from the Toronto Maple Leafs’ Mats Sundin, the Swedes blew the undermanned, tired Swiss back across the Alps.

Afterward, rather than claim his remarks were misunderstood, taken out of context or misquoted entirely, rather than offer a weak apology or try to weasel out of it, Gustafsson remained steadfast and firm.

“I’ll still stand behind my statement,” he said. “If had to pick, I’d pick Switzerland. And nothing changes that situation.”

The Swiss players publicly downplayed Gustafsson’s comments and did not seem offended. Defenseman Olivier Keller said he thought Gustafsson made sense because he was an assistant coach from 1997 to 2001 with Switzerland’s national team and knows the players and the system.

Oh, so that was it. Gustafsson had an out, an excuse. But he refused to take it.

“Anybody that knows hockey, if you put those three teams beside each other, anybody would pick Switzerland,” he said. “And I did, too. So I don’t think I did anything different from anybody else.”

Some of the Swedish players said they believed their coach was kidding, even though he repeatedly made the same remarks. They had no worries the Swiss would be fired up more than usual.

“We knew they were gonna play hard for 60 minutes whether the comments were made or not,” Sweden and Detroit Red Wings defenseman Nicklas Lidstrom said.

“Our team didn’t think about it at all,” said Forsberg, who plays for the NHL’s Philadelphia Flyers.

Swiss coach Ralph Krueger appeared angry during a television interview after Gustafsson made his remarks but was conciliatory after the game and said he refrained from using the comments as bulletin board material.

“We did not speak about it with the team,” he said. “I’m the type of coach to concentrate on what we need to do. I’m not really into using those kinds of things. We build on positive things in our program and that’s the way it was all the way through this process.

“These games are difficult enough, and being angry or being vicious isn’t gonna do much to slow that Sweden team down,” he added.

Gustafsson is considered to be among the best centers in Capitals history and also one of the toughest. He played from 1979 through 1986 but quit for a year after he was deliberately tripped by Denis Potvin of the New York Islanders and broke his leg. Protesting the violence in the league, Gustafsson had to be talked into returning, and he played two more seasons before retiring in 1989.

He said he had “nine great years” with the Capitals.

“Great memories,” he said. “It was a big, big part of my life. I got a lot of positive things from there. Of course, we didn’t manage to win anything. But I really enjoyed my years there. It was a big time and a big experience for me.”

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