US hockey team's Olympian task: repeating 1960 upset of Soviets
Lake Placid, N.Y.
Can it happen again? Twenty years ago at squaw Valley, the last time the Winter Olympics were held in this country, a young, unheralded US hockey team upset the heavily favored Soviet Union and went on to win the gold medal.Skip to next paragraph
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Now the stage is set again as the same teams prepare to face off in a similar showdown tonight (Feb. 22) at the olympic Ice Arena here. Realistically, given the state of Soviet hockey these days, the chance of an upset seems much more remote this time.
This 1980 game, after all, sends the youngest-ever US team, mainly a bunch of college kids, against the veteran USSR squad that knocked off the National Hockey League All-Stars on their home ice in New York last year and is now going after a fifth consecutive olympic gold medal. It looks like a classic mismatch, but a capacity crowd here and a huge national television audience will be rootting and hoping just the same.
Even by reaching the four-term medal payoff round, the current US squad has already exceeded expectations. Seeded only seventh on the basis of its finish in the last world championships, the US upset second-seeded Czechoslavakia by a decisive 7-3 score, tied third-seeded Sweden via a dramatic last-minute goal, and won its other three games for a 4-0-1 record and a first-place deadlock with the Swedes in its division.
Now a victory over the USSR would virtually ensure a gold medal, while even a loss would still leave open the chance for silver or bronze depending upon what happens in the concluding round on Sunday.
As usual, the team carrying the US banner in these games is far younger and less experienced thatn the veteran European national teams that make up its principal opposition. The odds aren't stacked quite to heavily against the Americans as in the past, however, thanks to today's more lenient rules defining amateurism plus a more enlightened approach by US officials.
In other Olympic years the US has thrown together a team, given the players a few weeks of practice, and said, "Go get us a medal." Amazingly, given such conditions, those teams frequently played far over their heads -- as in 1972 when they won a silver, and in 1976 when they just missed a bronze in the final game.
Year-in and year-out, however, it has become obvious that US teams can't be consistently competitive this way. In 1975, for instance, the Americans went 0- 10 in the world championship tournament (a record which makes their near-miss at Innsbruck one year later even more remarkable).
For the Olympics, therefore, the US finally decided to play by the rules of the rest of the world, at least to some extent. A team was put together in late August, held a six-day training camp, then, with the players subsidized by the now legal "broken time payments," launched by far the toughest pre-Olympics schedule any US squad has ever undertaken. Over a period of five months the team played 60 games including 10 in Europe, four against National Hockey League teams, several against various Soviet clubs touring this country, and 18 in the Central Hockey League, with results counting in the standings to assure all-out competition.
"We felt than in five months we had to get the equivalent of two or three years' experience," said Herb Brooks, the brillant Universtiy of Minnesota coach who is on leave this season to handle the Olympic team.
Brooks is the antithesis of the "winning is everything" mentality so prevalent today. He doesn't believe in overly harsh discipline, and he feels that obsession with winning (either nationalistic or commercial) tends to corrup sport. He wants his players to be a close-knit group, to develop as persons, and to play as well as they can -- period. His teams over the years have done all this and won a lot of games too, helping to destroy the myth that a modern coach has to be some sort of little Napoleon to succeed.