U!S!A! U!S!A! U!S!A! The chant resounded throughout the arena, deafening exclamation points to the most exciting week in American hockey in 20 years. U!S!A! U!S!A! U!S!A! Flags waved as the seconds ticked down on Team U.S.A.'s preposterous 7-3 win over Czechoslovakia Thursday night, which came 48 hours after the Americans had pulled out a dramatic 2-2 tie with Sweden in the closing seconds of their opening game, and 48 hours before they defeated Norway 5-1. But 7-3 over Czechoslovakia? It was a numbing margin. Here were fuzzy-cheeked college kids, who five months ago had never played together, swamping Czechoslovakia—Olympic silver medalist in 1976, world champion in 1976 and 1978, the only team mentioned in the same breath with the Soviets. But the U.S. kids were playing to their potential—perhaps beyond it—and the crowd, which had been partially responsible for spurring them to that point, sensed it. U!S!A! U!S!A! U!S!A! It was a good sound.
There was nothing fluky about the U.S. win over Czechoslovakia. True, the Czech goalie, Jiri Kralik, had been unimpressive—a sieve, really—but a much more important factor had been that the U.S. players had succeeded in channeling! their emotions in such a way that it elevated their play. They proved that they not only had speed but heart and brains, too. As Coach Herb Brooks put it, "We had our minds going fiat-out and our legs under control."
International hockey is played on rinks 100 feet wide (pro rinks are only 85 feet across); this means there is more open ice, and breaking to open ice is the basis of the U.S. offense. It is also the basis of the Czech, Swedish and Soviet offenses that have proved superior to the static, traditional NHL concept of staying in lanes (left wing on left side, right wing on right side, center in center). Brooks decided a long time ago that he'd rather switch to the European style than fight it. "Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me," he says. "We had to cram two or three years of experience playing this way into five months of exhibition games."
Because past U.S. Olympic hockey teams tended to play together for a few weeks and then disband, more or less forever, American successes usually have come because of a hot goaltender. An unconscious goaltender. Remember Jack McCartan, who led the U.S. to the gold medal in 1960 at Squaw Valley? And Mike Curran, who paced the U.S. to the silver at Sapporo in 1972? Early last week Brooks acknowledged he would need a superb performance from Jim Craig, the former Boston University goalie, but he also cited a few "intangibles."
One was the American temperament. "The Americans and Canadians will bite the bullet to find a way to beat you," Brooks says. Strange but true. The Swedish team, on the other hand, is deep and skilled but lacks a special quality—heart, if you will. Another intangible was the youth of the American team—average age: 22. There is nothing quite so idealistic as a young athlete's belief in himself; in a way, the U.S. skaters had so little international experience that they didn't know they weren't good enough to beat the top European teams. That, of course, is half the battle.
"People talk about our inexperience," said Brooks, "but we hope to use that to our advantage. We're going to rely on our intuition, on our broken-field running. The thing we have to avoid is making mistakes that will beat us."
The last and perhaps biggest intangible was the home-ice advantage. The crowd, Unfortunately, there were some 4,000 empty seats in the 8,000-seat Olympic Fieldhouse for the game against Sweden; the unused tickets were either unsold or belonged to the bus-stranded thousands. In the game's first four minutes, the U.S. forwards served notice of things to come by busting through the Swedish defense for two clean breakaways, but it wasn't until 19:32 of the second period that the Americans finally scored, Right Wing Dave Silk taking a pass from Mark Johnson, breaking in alone and beating Goalie Pelle Lindbergh to tie the score at 1-1. (Back in Madison, Wis., Johnson once centered a Peewee League line that had a pokey right wing by the name of Eric Heiden.)
In the third period the Swedes took a 2-1 lead on a goal by Thomas Eriksson and then went into a defensive shell to protect it. With a minute remaining, Brooks pulled Craig and sent out Forwards Johnson, Silk, Mark Pavelich, Buzz Schneider (the sole holdover from the 1976 U.S. Olympic team) and Defensemen Mike Ramsey and Bill Baker. The puck went into a corner in the Swedes' end, and Schneider dug it out, passing it along the boards to Pavelich, who slid it toward the slot. "The pass was for me," Johnson said, "but one of the Swedes was interfering and I couldn't touch it." Instead, the puck slid at just the right speed—a much too delicate speed for the frantic final seconds—into the deep slot, about 35 feet from the goal. Baker skated in and blasted it. Lindbergh moved about four seconds after the puck flew past him and into the net. There were 27 seconds to play.
The Czechs were expected to be smarter and stronger than the Swedes, though not as fast. Silk, the burliest of the American forwards, noted that the Czechs had "Russian muscles," meaning massive triceps that could hold a defenseman at bay when one broke around him. A native of Scituate, Mass., Silk has become something of an authority on the stereotypical traits of nationalities, picking up his material in the Olympic Village game room. The Italian athletes, Silk claims, are not unlike their countrymen back home, whistling obscenely at the women, while the Chinese prefer to spend their time playing electronic Ping-Pong. Most disquieting, he says, are the habits of the East Germans and Soviets. "They spend their time playing a game called SUBMARINE, picking off American battleships," Silk reports. "Geez, you ought to hear them carry on when they get one."
Hoping to wipe out any underdog mentality among his players, Brooks didn't mince words in his talk before the game with the Czechs. Brooks told his charges, "You go up to the tiger, spit him in the eye, and then you shoot him." There is no ready translation for such folk wisdom, but the general drift is that it's best to thumb your nose when entering the Valley of Death. Which is exactly what the U.S. players did.
From the opening face-off, they skated and worked and busted toward open ice, playing what Brooks likes to call "sophisticated pond hockey." The game plan was to forecheck the Czechs from the top of the face-off circles in and then get back and clog up the middle of the ice. It worked. Led by the Schneider-Pavelich-John Harrington line, the Americans forechecked the Czech defensemen silly, and because of their speed, they still were able to get back in time to cover the wings. The Czechoslovakian offense is based on counterpunching—catching the other team up ice and breaking out 3 on 2 or 2 on 1—but against the U.S., the Czechs were in 3-on-3 situations all night. This clearly frustrated them. European offenses are geared toward finding the open man and hitting him with a pass; they evince no inclination for the kind of improvising that sometimes enables one man to beat two defenders. Indeed, they simply never try it. And the more the Americans sensed the frustration of the tiger, the stronger they came on, until it was the U.S. that ended up getting all the 3 on 2s.
After falling behind 1-0, the Americans scored six of the next seven goals. The U.S. led 4-2 entering the final period, but instead of holding back and going on the defensive, as a more experienced team might have done, it came out flying, icing the game with two goals in the first four minutes. And suddenly, instead of watching a colt on a romp, the crowd was seeing that rarest of occurrences: a team that was coming to believe in itself right before their eyes.
Afterward, Brooks was asked if it had been the biggest American hockey win since 1960. "No, that one's still to come," he said.