They are a boyish-looking bunch, clean-featured and open and given to a little horseplay. And why not? They are members of the youngest Olympic hockey team ever assembled by the U.S.—and almost certainly by anyone else. Yet, more than two months before the Lake Placid Games, they already appear to be more promising than any U.S. Olympic team since the bunch that won a gold medal in 1960, this country's first and last in hockey.
What is perhaps most impressive about this team is that though its players are fresh out of college and still wet behind the ears, it constitutes the best team in the Central Hockey League—by far the best. For those who don't understand the full significance of that, the CHL is a bona fide rugged, hard-checking league of professional teams, a Class AAA proving ground for the NHL.
As of last week, the 1980 U.S. Olympic team had a 6-1 record after a series of real-life games against the CHL's finest. All this is unprecedented in the annals of North American "amateur" hockey, but playing against pros and living like pros and being paid like pros (up to a point, anyway) is about the only way that any U.S. team will ever be able to compete in the patently un-amateur game played by the nonpareil businessmen-Olympians of the Soviet Union, to say nothing of the career hockey players of Czechoslovakia and the highly subsidized Swedes.
The new U.S. style and substance in Olympic hockey are essentially the brainchild and creation of Coach Herbert Paul Brooks, 42, a cool, controlled sports administrator who is more technocrat than evangelist or father figure, a man who has been known to inform his teams, "You're hockey players, and I don't make it a habit to pal around with hockey players." As one Olympian puts it, "Coach Brooks is the field marshal, we are the troops, and we don't treat each other as friends."
Brooks has the credentials for the job: he played on two Olympic teams (1964 and 1968), as well as on five world-tournament clubs, and he has coached at the University of Minnesota, his alma mater, for seven years, starting with a mediocre 1972-73 season (15-16-3), then building and building until his record was 175-100-20 at the end of last season and included three NCAA championships, the most recent being in 1979.
Brooks' initial problem in recruiting players for the 1980 Olympic team was a perennial American dilemma: how to keep the best collegians from skipping the Games to turn pro. Says Brooks, "Unlike the Europeans, whose personnel return year after year, there is no continuity in U.S. teams. Once the Olympics are over—bang!—the best kids turn pro. That's something we'll probably never change. Obviously, the intangible rewards and glory of the Olympics aren't quite enough for some of them. There had to be something more practical."
To inject some factors of practical value into the Olympic equation, Brooks arranged the unprecedented 18-game schedule against CHL teams. In the past, U.S. Olympic teams played a long but soft schedule, mainly against college teams, with some international games thrown in. It was a baby-food diet, and once the U.S. teams tried to digest the nail-eating brand of hockey practiced by the Soviets and the Czechs, they usually found themselves at a loss—after loss after loss. Beyond that, in the steely eyes of the pro clubs, these young hopefuls in effect lost a year of hard and necessary hockey progress, because they were rarely tested beyond the schoolboy levels of the game they had already mastered in college.
But now, given Brooks' idea of pitting the Olympians against the pro-caliber game, even the most pragmatic club manager, as well as the most opportunistic agent, could see that there was much practical experience to be gained from being an Olympian. Perhaps the most important ingredient in Brooks' scheme was his arrangement with CHL President Bud Poile that all CHL games against the Olympians counted in the league standings. "That way, the pros would be doing their best and not dogging it through just another exhibition game," says Brooks. "And I thought that we'd be doing very well to play .500 against them with that proviso. I'm very impressed with what we've done."
Of course, the Olympians aren't actually in the league themselves, but they have played hard—first to prove that, as underdogs, they could at least compete on an even basis, and now to keep up their reputation as overdogs in the CHL. Besides the CHL games, the Olympians played a 10-game tour in Europe in September (where they were 7-2-1). They also have an ongoing series with the Canadian Olympic team (the U.S. is 2-4 to date) and U.S. colleges (5-0). Early in the fall they played four exhibitions with NHL clubs, and lost them all. They are to play a total of 63 games before Lake Placid, and as of last Sunday, they had an overall record of 22-11-1, having won 15 of the last 20.
The bulk of the 26-man team is, not surprisingly, from Brooks' own Minnesota clubs. There are 10 Gophers in all, yet Brooks insists that the squad by no means reflects just his own personal desires, but rather the democratic opinion of a nine-man advisory selection committee that included some of the country's sharpest hockey men, like Bob Johnson, University of Wisconsin and 1976 Olympic coach, Bill Cleary of Harvard, Jeff Sauer of Colorado College and Jack Parker of Boston University. Says Brooks, "I didn't want an I-me-myself operation here; I wanted help. I wanted to get rid of politics and regionalism and have a committee make the choices."
As the first step in selecting the team, Brooks sent letters to every coach of NCAA Division I and II schools and got back a list of 400 possible prospects. This crowd was pared down to 68 players who performed in a four-team tournament at the U.S. Olympic Committee's Sports Festival in Colorado Springs last summer. Brooks and his nine-man committee culled through the prospects and came up with 26 players—a roster that will be cut to 20 when the first Olympic game is played on Feb. 12. Despite the plethora of Minnesota players, Brooks says, "We all agreed on 90% of the choices."
The team is funded with a $700,000 budget: $150,000 from USOC funds, $200,000 from private contributions and $350,000 from gate receipts. Under the International Olympic Committee's increasingly liberal attitude toward play-for-pay Olympians, the team members are paid generous living expenses—$7,200 per man over a six-month span with the team. Mark Johnson, 22, the leading scorer and the son of the Wisconsin coach, says, "Well, you can't run out and buy a car or big stereo set, but you don't have to scrounge around for beer money like you did in college, either. You can get a nice sport coat or take a girl out to a good dinner without worrying about going broke. But no one feels exactly rich."
Most of the players could be doing better financially if they had become true professionals. Walter Bush, vice-president of the Minnesota North Stars and for two decades a leader and adviser to Olympic hockey teams, says, "This team is the best, man for man, that we've "had in 20 years, but they are making a sacrifice to do it. Any one of the better drafted players would be making $15,000 for the season with a minor league pro club. And if any of them went right up to an NHL team, the pay would be between $60,000 and $80,000, not counting a signing bonus."
Perhaps the best pro prospect on the Olympic roster is hulking (6'3", 190 pounds) Defenseman Mike Ramsey, a calm, blond 19-year-old who graduated as an honor student from Minneapolis' Roosevelt High School in 1978 and played last season for Brooks' NCAA-champion Gophers. Ramsey was drafted No. 1 by Buffalo last spring—the first American ever to be a first-round choice in the NHL draft. Sabre Coach and General Manager Scotty Bowman has said that he expects Ramsey to be the cornerstone of Buffalo's defense in the '80s. Several other Brooks-coached Minnesotans have gone high in NHL drafts, too: Center Neal Broten, 20—whom Brooks picked (over Ramsey) as "the best freshman ever to play at Minnesota"—was the North Stars' No. 2 choice in '79; Center Steve Christoff, 21, was the North Stars' second pick in '78; Defenseman Bill Baker, 23, was Montreal's No. 3 in '76; and Wing Rob McClanahan, 21, was Buffalo's No. 3 in '78.
Despite the crowd of Gophers, the team's leading scorer is a Minnesotan who played for Wisconsin—Johnson, a No. 3 Pittsburgh draftee in 1977. One expert says, "Mark was the best college player in the country last year. If hockey had a Heisman Trophy, he would have won it." Brooks doesn't disagree, saying, "When Mark Johnson goes, we really go." A quick skater and clever stickhandler, Johnson has 23 goals and 32 assists for the Olympic team, with Christoff runner-up with 21 and 14. The player with the most glittering Olympic heritage is Dave Christian, 20, of North Dakota University, Winnipeg's No. 2 choice in 1979. He is the son of Bill Christian, the co-owner of a hockey-stick manufacturing firm but far better known as the Olympian who slapped in the goal that beat the Soviets 3-2 for the 1960 gold medal in Squaw Valley. Two of Dave Christian's uncles have also played on U.S. Olympic teams.
However well the '80 team may skate and score, the ultimate fate of the U.S. Olympians will probably rest on the shoulders of the goalie, Jim Craig, 22, of Boston University. Historically, when an American team has done well in an Olympics, it has been buoyed by a heroic performance by its goalkeeper—remember Jack McCartan in '60? As of last week, Craig, a fourth-round Atlanta pick in 1976, boasted a stunning 15-4 record with the Olympians, and a 2.12 goals-against average. He will have to be equally impressive at Lake Placid for the U.S. team to excel.
International hockey is a more intricate and wider ranging game than so-called "North American" hockey. It is played on a far larger rink and thus demands better skating and passing skills, and somewhat less roughness. Because of this, Brooks has instituted what he calls a "more positive" approach that incorporates "the best of European and the best of North American style of play." Brooks is trying to de-emphasize the brute checking and fire-away-and-hope shooting that NHL teams tend to favor. "We are trying to emphasize puck possession," he says, "preaching that we do best only if we control the puck. We emphasize lots of passing to keep possession, a conservative kind of game instead of the all-out aggressive attack—the dump-the-puck-up-the-ice approach of the North American pro leagues. We try for high-quality shots that we have worked to get for ourselves, instead of waiting for and working off what we hope will be the other guy's mistakes. We have three or four set patterns, but beyond that it is all improvisation, an intuitive process that you might call controlled innovation. International hockey is a more subjective game, and it requires good skaters and good thinkers. Overall, it accelerates people's skills, makes them better stickhandlers and calls for a much more subtle physical game. I think it combines the best of both worlds."
Besides installing a demanding new system of play, Brooks has also had to deal with the fact that any U.S. Olympic team is, by definition, an aggregation of would-be prima donnas. "Everyone has been No. 1 on his own team, and now he has to learn to mesh with a whole rink full of other No. Is," says Brooks. To help instill a sense of teamwork and togetherness, he has introduced slogans intended to encourage selflessness. Such as: "The way you move the puck is an expression of yourself within a framework of friends." Or: "Passes come from the heart, not the stick." Hokey? Yes. Nevertheless, Brooks feels that inspirational appeals have limited value these days. "Mom and America and apple pie are nice to talk about," he says. "But that isn't what motivates these kids. They want to win for its own sake, and they are also building their own esprit, their own pride in the team."
Logistically, the life the Olympians lead is in almost every sense—including the paycheck—that of true professionals. They have been on killing road trips—five games in five cities in seven days. They get up in the morning and go to work, for the U.S. Olympic team. Yet there is also an intangible buoyancy to their hockey lives, something that is both collegiate and patriotic, a spirit that seems to lift them beyond mere hockey-playing workmen. As Craig says, "We have it both ways now: we do the job as if we are pros—going to work every day, putting in long hours, having no other real responsibility but hockey. But we also have that 'up' feeling, that esprit of being the Olympic team for this whole country. We generate our own rah-rah and our own special sense of pride that I can't imagine real pros ever feel."
Indeed, the only talk of "sacrifice" seems to come from outsiders. Ramsey says of his decision to play in the Olympics instead of the NHL, "This is the opportunity of a lifetime. I don't feel I'm sacrificing anything. You can only play in an Olympics once. I knew I'd do this even before I was drafted. Then when I was drafted so high, I never doubted my decision for a minute. Nothing can compare to the rewards you get in an Olympics."
Tangible Olympic rewards for Americans have been rather mixed over the years. All in all, the teams haven't done badly, winning one bronze medal (1936), six silvers (1920, '24, '32, '52, '56 and '72) and that amazing gold in 1960.
And what of 1980? If the U.S. gets to the four-team finals, the gold medal is not an impossibility. Lake Placid is home territory, and presumably the crowd will be highly partisan. A sampling of just how effective high-spirited cheering can be was displayed at Lake Placid on the night of Oct. 7. The occasion was the fourth of the four exhibition games against NHL teams; the opponent was the Washington Capitals. The Olympians quickly fell behind 3-0. But the crowd kept roaring encouragement and the Olympians rose to the occasion. Through the second and third periods the U.S. kids came on stronger and stronger, using the large rink to outskate and outpass the Capitals, until, finally, they led 4-3 in the third period. The Capitals tied the score, but the Olympians were so inspired that they held them until the last 34 seconds, when the pros scored the winning goal.
The game was like a tonic to the team. The players felt levitated by the enthusiasm of their fans. "They made us do what we never believed we could do," says McClanahan. "We actually dominated play for two periods—that's impossible against an NHL team."
Could it happen again in February? As the NHL well knows, there is no better hockey team on earth than the one the Soviets will send to Lake Placid. So the odds, of course, are against a second gold medal. As Brooks says, "If we play the Russians, it will be strictly a David and Goliath situation."
But, hey, remember who won that one.