US hockey Olympians glide quickly into pros

Six US Olympians, including star goaltender Jim Craig, are already playing in the National Hockey League with a high degree of early success, and others are sure to follow, although Captain Mike Eruzione says he won't be one of them.

Craig's much-publicized debut in Atlanta Saturday night got the most attention. The former Boston University All-American, who had backstopped the United States to its "Impossible Dream" gold medal in Lake Placid less than a week earlier, turned back 24 shots in leading the Flames to a 4-1 victory over Colorado. Perhaps even more important from the standpoint of the struggling Atlanta franchise, his presence helped attract a sellout crowd of 15,156 to the Omni despite an ice storm raging outside -- a crowd far in excess of anything that could normally have been expected for a game against such a lowly opponent even on a perfect night.

Therein, of course, lies the reason for the precipitous signing and suiting up of all these new young national heroes. Obviously their fame and drawing power are at a peak now, and thus everyone involved -- the players as well as the teams that held the rights to them -- figured to make money if they seized the moment. So within less than a week of the fabulou triumph in Lake Placid, the White House meeting with President Carter, and all the rest, Craig had signed with Atlanta; star center Mark Johnson with Pittsburgh; defenseman Ken Morrow with the New York Islanders; forward Dave Christian with Winnipeg; and forward Steve Christoff and backup goalie Steve Janaszak with Minnesota.

All saw action right away, too, and despite having virtually no time to practice with their new teammates or get acclimated to the NHL style, they acquitted themselves most creditably.

Craig, whose hectic week of celebrations and appearances left him very little time for rest, faced perhaps the most pressurized situation for many reasons -- the big buildup in Atlanta, the fact that he had become a virtual folk hero as one of the central figures of the Olympic drama, and the fishbowl existence any goaltender leads as the last line of defense. But just as he had against the Soviet Union and Finland the previous weekend, he rose to the occasion.

With his father and brother on hand from Massachusetts to watch his debut, and with thousands of fans waving miniature American flags and chanting "USA, USA," Craig stood up to several tough tests including a sustained offensive barrage midway in the second period and a power play in which he stopped five chances in the third.

"I thought he did a real fine job," Coach Al MacNeil told reporters after the game. "He handled the pressure real well. He looked poised in there and had a lot of composure. He never got panicky or worried or looked awkward at all."

Johnson, the high scorer on the US team and considered all along one of its top pro prospects, made his debut with the Pittsburgh Penguins and was also considered at least partly responsible for the larger-than-usual home crowd -- 14,879 -- that watched them battle the New York Islanders to a scoreless tie. Johnson took turns at center and left wing, and drew the praise of the two coaches as well as players on both teams.

"He played heads up. He's eager to learn, and he showed he's not afraid of anyone," said Gary McAdam, who played on the same line with Mark.

"We knew he'd be a spark," New York goalie Chico Resch put in. "I'm glad to see he can play. He'll be an asset to the league."

Pittsburgh Coach Johnny Wilson said he thought Johnson "handled himself real well," and needed only a couple of more practices to become effective offensively, while Islander mentor Al Arbour said he thought the presence of all the Olympians constituted "a great boost for the league."

Arbour has one himself in Morrow, who already has two games under his belt.

Christoff was actually the first of the Olympians to see NHL action, playing for Minnesota on Thursday, Feb. 28 (just four days after the Olympic final), as the North Stars dropped a 6-3 decision at Montreal. Janaszak, who served as Craig's backup throughout the Olympics but did not get in any games, also signed with the North Stars and played goal Sundary night, making 26 saves in a 2-2 tie with Buffalo.

The most spectacular debut, though, was that a Christian, who scored his first NHL goal -- and the first for any of the Olympians -- just seconds after coming onto the ice for his first shift with Winnipeg. He did no further scoring, however, and the Jets eventually lost to Chicago, 3-2.

Most of the other Olympians also figure to be in the NHL sooner or later. Defenseman Jack O'Callahan has already signed with Chicago, though he has not yet seen action. Mike Ramsey was the No. 1 choice of Buffalo in last year's draft -- the first American-born player ever selected in the first round. Rob McClanahan, who scored the winning goal in the gold medal-clinching game against Finland, also belongs to the Sabres, as does Eric Strobel. Bill Baker and Mark Wells both were drafted by Montreal, Dave Silk was picked by the New York Rangers, Bob Suter by Los Angeles, and Neil Broten and Phil Verchota by Minnesota.

Another prominent member of the US team, Buzz Schneider, who was the only holdover from the 1976 Olympic squad and who tied for second-high scoring honors this time, appears more likely to play in Europe.

And then there is Eruzione, the inspirational leader who seemed to carry his teammates along on his own great drive and enthusiasm, and who rose to the occasion himself by scoring the winning goal in the 4-3 victory over the Soviet Union. At 25, Mike is older than most of the others; he already had a couple of trials with NHL clubs (the Rangers and the Rockies); and he played the last two seasons in the International Hockey League. Now, if for no other reason than his gate appeal, he too could undoubtedly sign with an NHL club, but he indicated over the weekend he preferred to close out his hockey career here and now, at the very pinnacle, and move on to the next phase of his life.

"It's a hard decision to make, but I just don't think I could play in the National Hockey League with the same enthusiasm as I did in the Olympics," Eruzione said during an interview on ABC's "Wide World of Sports."

"I want to be remembered as Mike Eruzione, captain of the US Olympic team. I don't want to be remembered as a guy who played in the NHL for a few games and then got sent to the minors."

Eruzione said he had accepted some offers for commercial endorsements, TV appearances, and travel -- and he joked with interviewer Al Michaels that he might become an announcer and "go after your job."

But as for hockey, he said, "What more can I do? To me the gold medal is the greatest thing that can happen to an individual. . . . I don't want to be remembered as a struggling hockey player. I'm going out on top."

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