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.
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.
To be sure, talent is part of the equation, and Brooks does have plenty to work with. Most of the US players have already been drafted by the NHL.
The Americans are very strong in goal in the person of 1979 All-American Jim Craig from Boston Univesity. On defense the US corps includes Mike Ramsey of Minnesota, the first American chosen in the first round of the NHL draft, and his teammate Bill Baker, who was drafted in the third round by Montreal back in 1976 but opted for a college career first. An aggressive group of forwards includes such other Goper stars as Buzz Schneider, Steve Christoff, Rob McLanahan, and Mark Pavelich; a couple of standouts from Boston University in Dave Silk and Mike Eruzione, and high-scoring Marc Johnson from Wisconsin. Dave Christian of the University of North Dakota, in addition to being a fine player in his own right, brings along quite a family tradition to uphold, since it was his father, Bill, who scored the winning goal in that historic 1960 victory over the USSR.
Brook's job was to mold this talent into an effective team that could succeed in international hockey. This meant emphasizing speed, sharp passing, and puck control rather than the North American dump-the-puck-and-chase-it style that depends more on toughness and strength and a bit less on finesse.
TThe lessons obviously took, for the team compiled a 42-16-2 record in its long schedule, and has continued to play well here.
The opening game against Sweden turned out to be by far the toughest preliminary round test, and in truth the Americans were fortunate to escape a loss, pulling their goalie in the final minute, and tying the game on Bill Baker's 40-foot slap shot with 27 seconds left. The next game against Czechoslovakia was close for a while, but the US eventually took charge. Next came relatively easy victories over Norway and Romania and a close one against West Germany, but by then the US had already clinched its spot in the final round along with Sweden and the top two teams from the other group -- the USSR and Finland.
The way the pairings work, the Americans must meet the Soviets in the first round of the finals -- and that is indeed an awesome assignment. One can cite Squaw Valley, but although the Soviets were already strong then, it was nothing to their stature now. This USSR team, including many holdovers from previous Olympic champions, has proved again that it is at least as good as a top NHL club. Another way of illustrating the size of the American task is to point out that, including Squaw Valley, the record for the last 35 meetings of the US ans the Soviets in international competition is 34-1.
The Soviets won all five of their preliminary round games, piling up a 51-11 margin over their foes. Those looking for a ray of light, however, can take note that despite this overall supremacy, they did have a couple of close calls. They trailed Finland before a late three-goal burst produced a 4-2 victory, and they were behind Canada by a 3-2 score after two periods before rallying for a 6 -4 triumph.
So it could happen. The Americans will have all the emotional and psychological advatages -- home ice, a wildly partisan crowd, the role of the underdog, etc. But the Soviets have been in this situation so many times before , they have so much talent, and they play their system so well that extraneous factors never seem to bother them much. They just keep working methodically until the puck goes in the net more times for them than for their opponents -- which sooner or later always seems to happen.