Last Friday night, after the U.S. hockey team had lost to Canada and Czechoslovakia, Phil Verchota and John Harrington were finishing a Bosnian dish of grilled mushrooms and sausages when the owner of the Brodac restaurant waddled over to pay his respects. This massive specimen was the locally famous Sultan, a former Olympic wrestler. Upon learning that Verchota and Harrington were captain and alternate captain, respectively, of the American team, the Sultan settled his 380-pound frame beside Verchota and made an effort to communicate.
"Kanada! Da!" he said, pretending with one hand to shoot a puck. Verchota smiled. "Czechoslovak! Da!" the Sultan continued, shooting again. "Amerikans? "The Sultan paused, leering at Verchota and Harrington. No shot this time. He took a swig of beer. "Touristes!" he said with a laugh. Then, fearing his joke had been missed, he took one giant paw and placed it over an American flag on the table, blocking the flag from view.
What a difference from four years ago, when Verchota, Harrington et al. were the toast of Lake Placid rather than the roasts of Sarajevo. The gloating Sultan was one more disturbance in a very disturbing week for the U.S. team, a week that began with the highest of hopes but brought the worst of performances. On Tuesday, Feb. 7, in a dismally lackluster effort, coach Lou Vairo's charges lost their Olympic opener to Canada 4-2. Two days later the Czechs defeated them 4-1. Then on Saturday, in the grimmest performance of all, the Americans had to scramble to gain a 3-3 tie with Norway, which had lost 16-2 to Finland in its previous game. That defeat fulfilled the Sultan's prophecy that, come the medal round, the American players would indeed be tourists. "I don't think we can get any lower than we are right now," said forward Scott Fusco, fighting to hold back the tears after the Norwegian embarrassment.
The U.S. hockey troubles began back in America and intensified some 19 hours before the first puck was dropped when the IOC issued a ruling that allowed Canada to use goalie Mario Gosselin and winger Dan Wood, who had both signed NHL contracts. Finland, with U.S. support, had filed a protest accusing 10 players from five countries of being pros. The IOC waffled, the rhetoric got heated and, finally, the night before the U.S.-Canada game, the IOC issued a vaguely worded statement that was intended to say that only a player who had both signed with and played for an NHL team was a pro. The Canadians lost two of their players, forward Mark Morrison and defenseman Don Dietrich, but gained an edge.
February 20, 1984
"Everyone's high in the dressing room, and morale's great," said Morrison shortly before game time. "It's a bit of a boost to find that even two of us can play." In fact, Gosselin, who has signed with the Quebec Nordiques, had been told by coach Dave King at 7:30 the night before that he was ineligible. An hour later King called back and said he might be eligible. Gosselin went to bed with the matter unresolved but was awakened at 11:30 p.m. by a call from a radio talk-show host in Montreal, who told him he was playing.
None of which should have mattered a whit to the U.S. team. Canada had won only two of its previous 19 games, and one of its losses was an 8-2 drubbing in Milwaukee at the hands of the U.S. Olympians. "We gave them something to think about," crowed Vairo before the start of the Olympics. Did they ever. The Canadians stewed and fumed. "They kind of stuck it in our face [in Milwaukee]," said Canada's outstanding defenseman, James Patrick, a North Dakota All-America last season. "They were laughing on the ice. There's a difference between cocky and confident."
What Vairo failed to do, it seems, was give his own team something to think about—i.e., that the 65-game exhibition season meant nothing, that the season began in Sarajevo and that it would last, at the longest, seven games. Six months of preparation was on the line. An ABC production assistant had made available to Vairo a highlight film of the 1980 miracle in Lake Placid—a show that has insurance salesmen spitting fire—but Vairo had turned him down, saying that this was a new team with a new identity. Fair enough.
But, referring to the team's level of intensity as the game with Canada approached, defenseman Mark Fusco said, "We had already played them twelve times this year [and were 5-4-3]. It was like, Oh God, Canada again. Another stop in another rink on a long road trip."
Events continued to go badly for the Americans when the team bus got held up in traffic en route to the game. The players arrived at the Zetra Arena 30 minutes late and had to hurry to dress. Every team has its pregame rituals, its time to joke and taunt and psych—ways of gradually building into something approaching a common state of preparedness—but now, with the rush, the ritual was disrupted.
Things then went from bad to worse. The charged-up Canadians scored on their first shot of the game. It was a clean tip-in by Pat Flatley, a Wisconsin All-America in 1982-83, after just 27 seconds. The goal seemed to turn the knees of U.S. goalie Marc Behrend to goo, and for the rest of the game he fought the puck. His uncertain play appeared to spread through the entire U.S. squad. Ed Olczyk, 17, and David A. Jensen, 18, the wings on the Diaper Line, teamed up to tie the score, but Canada regained the lead on a power play with the first of Carey Wilson's three goals. The first period ended with Canada ahead 2-1.
It had been a terrible period for the Americans, but they had survived. "I was so mad that I wanted to tear that room apart," said Vairo later. "Really rip into them, get them mad at somebody. That was my gut feeling. We weren't skating; we weren't passing. They were beating us to loose pucks. But then I thought about how young our team was. I didn't want to panic them. We had the first period under our belts and were only down by a goal, so I didn't rip them."
Throughout pre-Olympic play Vairo had promised to use the youth of his team to his advantage. Enthusiasm. Abandon. The willingness to dream. Yet now, in the Games, when the team was displaying none of those things, Vairo let them off the hook. They were performing as if they were being judged on technical merit instead of by the final score. Vairo also failed to make tactical changes. Pat LaFontaine, the center of the Diaper Line and the team's leading scorer during the exhibition season, was being effectively shadowed by Canada's Dave Tippett, who had practiced the role the week before against West Germany's great center, 6'5" Erich K√ºhnhackl. Only once did Vairo try to juggle lines to free LaFontaine.
The teams traded goals in the second period, but the U.S. was held at bay for the rest of the game by the goaltending of Gosselin, who finished with 37 saves, most of them on shots from beyond the slot. The Canadians played conservatively in the third period, slowing the pace by icing the puck repeatedly, a tactic that worked because the U.S. lost 65 of 93 face-offs in the game. With 10:19 left, Canada got its final goal, and from then on the U.S. skaters never threatened. "They were fighting us, and they were fighting the puck," said Patrick afterward. "Finally, they just ran out of time."
Mercifully would be a better way to put it. The U.S. players looked like zombies when they emerged from the locker room. This was a game they had expected to win. "It was as if they threw their jerseys out on the ice and said, 'We won in 1980, so we'll win it this year,' " said Mike Eruzione, captain of the '80 team and an ABC commentator in Sarajevo. "There was no emotion out there. I've said it for four years and I'll say it again. Our team won on character, not talent. Better teams than this are going to lose. But our guys didn't lose playing the way they are capable of."
Against the Czechs, the U.S. at least competed with emotion. Too much, perhaps. After saying all year that his guys wouldn't take stupid penalties, Vairo had to watch them take a raft of them against Czechoslovakia, which scored two of its four goals on power plays. If they thought they could intimidate the Czechs, whose upper-body strength is formidable, the U.S. skaters were badly mistaken. This game really looked like a contest between men and boys. "We haven't played like that all year long," said one U.S. team member. "That's not our style. We were just so frustrated from the Canada game."
The Czechs opened the scoring with a shorthanded goal, after which the lights, appropriately, went out in the arena. Twenty-five minutes later they came back on. Mark Kumpel scored an unassisted shorthanded goal for the U.S., but that was it for the night. "In two games we haven't had a bounce yet," said Vairo afterward. "We competed to the final bullet. There were 20 guys in that locker room crying their eyes out just now."
Were expectations of this team too high? Probably. Vairo's club was nowhere near as strong at center as the 1980 bunch, which had Mark Johnson, Neal Broten and Mark Pavelich, all bona fide NHL stars today, at that position. Of the 1984 centers only LaFontaine is in that class. The defensemen in 1980 were better and the goaltending was steadier. Herb Brooks, the coach, is unmatched as a tactician and motivator. The '80 team also had the home-ice advantage, the element of surprise and a large helping of luck. "Everything we shot that year went in," says Verchota.
All season people had tried to get perspective on the '84 team by comparing it with the miracle kids of 1980. In the end this team, for all its promise, redefined just how special the events of four years ago really were. "I don't think we did this team any favors," said Eruzione after the loss to the Czechs. "People don't realize that they're never going to see the likes of what happened in 1980 again."
But, like Vairo, we can dream.