U.S. undone by one 'mistake'

ST. PAUL, Minn. -- Is it better to burn out, or to fade away? Team USA opted for the latter in their exit from the World Cup of Hockey, closing a chapter in American hockey in the process.

The American entry that takes to the ice at the Olympics in Italy two winters from now may look dramatically different from the one last seen shaking hands with the triumphant Finns on Friday. That much was revealed just moments after the game when Team USA captain Chris Chelios announced his likely retirement from international hockey.

Even while reveling in their hard-fought victory, the Finnish players tipped their hats to the hard-nosed defenseman who first wore a Team USA sweater at the 1982 World Junior Championships.

"Chris Chelios is a great hockey player," said Finnish forward Teemu Selanne. "It's amazing that he can still do that at his age. He's been a top player for so many years, it looks like he can still play when he's 50."

But while Chelios ignited the sellout crowd in the second period with some intensely physical play, his on-ice leadership wasn't enough 20 minutes later. After what American coach Ron Wilson called "a total breakdown" in the defensive zone, Team USA's 1-0 lead with 15 minutes remaining turned into a 2-1 loss when the final horn sounded.

Asked if, with the game tied 1-1, his team was playing for overtime, Wilson said they were already there.

"The way the game was being played, you're already in overtime," he said. "You're just going to play for a break, and unfortunately, we made a really bad mistake."

Up until that point, when Saku Koivu made the most of being left alone in front of American goalie Robert Esche, the teams had been locked in a style of game generally indistinguishable from a tight-checking regular season NHL contest. The Finns produced just a dozen shots on goal in the game, but played a patient, defensive style and waited for their adversaries to blink first.

"I wouldn't say they were trying to play to force mistakes," Wilson said. "They were hoping that we would make a mistake, and we did."

For the Finns, the come-from-behind victory was a bit of role reversal for a team used to leading then seeing things slip away.

"In the past, we have had so many good games where we were leading by two goals or sometimes four goals, and then we still lost the game," said Selanne. "Maybe it was a good situation that we were down."

Finnish coach Raimo Summanen said this was the biggest victory in Finnish hockey history, and said that the ability to rally while facing elimination against an American team in a building filled with noisy, hungry American fans, was all about mindset.

"It's so much on the mental side -- live or die," he said. "Usually, with the Finnish teams, they usually die. This was a huge step for Finnish hockey, and I'm really proud we believed."

There were believers in the much quieter American locker room, too, who were refusing to hang their heads and shift gears to the expectation of a prolonged impasse between NHL players and owners.

"I really believe in my heart that we did everything we had to do," said Bill Guerin. "It was a game of patience and waiting for your opportunity, and it's tough to play like that."

Asked about the contentious negotiations for a new collective bargaining agreement, set to expire on Sept. 15, Guerin, a member of the NHLPA's executive committee, sounded like a man without hope for the future.

"I know what's going to happen. We're going to get locked out," he said.

Asked if he had any optimism for a settlement, Guerin was blunt: "No. None. I'm sure it'll be a long time."

If that's the case, Guerin and his teammates will have time, perhaps too much time, to ponder how their defense of the World Cup won by Team USA in 1996 fell short. Doug Weight, who scored the Americans' only goal, sad that they knew the tournament's end would likely mean the end of an era for Team USA.

"It's sad, but we weren't trying to focus on that during the tournament," Weight said. "We wanted to win it, and we expected to win it."

The fact that the Americans fell just short of a trip to the championship game, after a lapse by a veteran defensive corps that has been labeled as "over the hill" by some, may have been a sign that wholesale roster changes are not only impending, but important for the future of American hockey. While praising Chelios and his veterans for their contributions over the last decade, Wilson cast an eye toward the horizon and said he likes what he sees.

"Look at what's coming," he said. "Our junior team won the gold medal at the World Championships. ... There might be a few jars missing from the cupboard, but I think we're going to put them all back pretty soon."

Jess Myers covers college and pro hockey for ESPN.com affiliate insidecollegehockey.com and for the Twin Cities bureau of The Associated Press.