Germans, Belorussians seek respect, fun

WEST VALLEY CITY, Utah -- For months, the preliminary round's survivors have been listed in the post-NHL shutdown Olympic bracket as "Qualifier 1" and "Qualifier 2."

Now that we can be a little more specific -- Belarus and Germany will be moving on -- it seems more apparent that ever that the designations could have been: "Sacrificial Lamb 1" and "Sacrificial Lamb 2."

It is going to get ugly. They are going to be shorn.

For both the Germans and Belorussians, it is likely going to be three losses in the round robin, a No. 4 seed in the crossover quarterfinal games against group winners -- and out.

But so what? They have audaciously and brazenly crashed the party. "In a sense, it already is a victory," said Belarus coach Vladimir Krikunov. "However, there still is lots of work ahead ... I hope we don't look like extras on a (movie) shoot in those games."

Belarus emerging from Group B -- despite its 2-1 loss to disappointing Switzerland on Wednesday -- wasn't a shock. It's a repeat for the nation, since Belarus won a preliminary-round group at Nagano four years ago.

On the other hand, the Germans coming out of the preliminary round is the Mighty Ducks sneaking into the playoffs and winning the Stanley Cup.

It's a mira ...

OK, we won't go that far.

Yet after the Slovaks' Shuttle System failed, and Latvia's Arturs Irbe couldn't steal one for his nation on Tuesday, those gritty Germans know it's all going to be the Olympic downhill from here -- and they don't even mind.

Those determined Germans -- such as Mark MacKay, born in Brandon, Manitoba; Wayne Hynes, who hails from Montreal and played major junior for the Medicine Hat Tigers; and Leonard Soccio, who comes from St. Catharines, Ontario -- understand that they shouldn't start thinking about where they could put their Olympic medals.

Marco Sturm of the Sharks, who was able to play only one game in the preliminary round, will be on the roster and most likely on the ice. (That is, unless an Eastern Conference team calls NHL Commissioner Gary Bettman and protests that Sturm should be rested for the Sharks' intraconference games the rest of the season.) The Oilers' Jochen Hecht also will be available. And goalie Olaf Kolzig of the Capitals is recovering from a knee injury and might be able to play as soon as Sunday against Canada. Former AHL goalie Marc Seliger was staunch in the preliminary round. Yet that was against the Slovakian Shuttle, against Austria and against the Latvian team that would have been far more formidable if it could have used both Sandis Ozolinsh and the Wild's Sergei Zholtok, who were available for a combined total of one game.

So let's face it: The Germans' disciplined, defense-first system will be ineffective from here on out, and if Kolzig plays, he might end up wondering if he's playing in the NHL All-Star game.

As with Belarus' players, the Germans' "medal" is the right to keep playing when the "real" portion of the Olympic tournament begins Friday. They will hang their heads (often) after giving up goals, they will glower as they come off the ice, and they briefly will go through the motions of acting disappointed. The melancholy will have a short shelf life -- or roughly until the helmet is placed on the shelf above the locker.

Soccio has played in Germany since 1983 and has become a dual German-Canadian citizen, yet he also returns to a home in Niagara Falls in the offseason. This is far from watching an Italian Olympic team with a bunch of guys from Boston and Toronto, or watching the French enter Olympics with skaters whose major qualifications are that they have eaten croissants and have at least one grandparent who bought Jean-Paul Belmondo and Claudine Longet albums. The core of the team is genuinely German, and the point is, they aren't going to do enough after the preliminary round to be scrutinized by the cynics.

"That was the hard work," Soccio said after the Germans beat the Latvians to clinch the spot in the round-robin's Group C with Canada, Sweden and the Czech Republic. "Now comes the fun part. It's unbelievable for us. We're in the medal round and we get to play against the top players in the world."

Stefan Ustorf, who had one of the goals against Latvia, played 54 games with the Capitals over two seasons in the mid-1990s, and otherwise is a minor-league journeyman with tours of duty in both the IHL and AHL. He returned to Germany this year, where he plays for the Mannheim (Steamroller) Eagles.

"We as a team knew that if we played our style, which might be a little boring to watch, if we stuck to that, we could play with any team here," Ustorf said of the prelimimary round.

What now?

"I think we are aware of what we've accomplished here," he said. "But the tournament's not over here, we're not going to lay down, roll over and let everybody walk over us. Obviously, I don't expect to win a medal here or anything like that. We're going to try and play as hard as we did in the first three games and have some fun out there, too."

Belarus was outscored 14-5 in the three round-robin games at Nagano, then lost 4-1 to Russia, its arch-rival and fellow former Soviet Republic, in the quarterfinals. A reprise is virtually guaranteed.

"This is an important step, to move out of the group," said Belarus goalie Andrei Mezin. "As far as what's ahead? Whatever God will send."

Terry Frei of The Denver Post is a regular contributor to ESPN.com. His feedback address, for email signed with names and hometowns, is ChipHilton23@hotmail.com.