They inspire more dread than 5:30 a.m. wake-up calls. They inflict more pain than the high sticks the Soviets were getting away with in Ohio last week. They are even worse, members of the 1988 U.S. Olympic hockey team say with a shudder, than the sadistic drills devised by conditioning coach Jack Blatherwick. What are they? Obligatory luncheons.
Take the one they endured in Cincinnati last Friday. Please. On Thursday night in Cleveland, Team USA had thrashed a jet-lagged Soviet select squad 8-5 in the first game of an eight-game series. Except for two outbursts in which they struck for five goals in six minutes, the Soviets—a B team with only one or two players who have a chance of making it to Calgary with the Soviet Olympic outfit—looked lethargic. After the game the U.S. players snatched three hours of sleep and caught a 7:30 a.m. flight to Cincinnati, arriving just in time for an 11:30 lunch at a hotel ballroom.
"They're stuffy, they're boring, but you've got to go to them," said goalie Chris Terreri. "Comes with the territory," said center Tony Granato. They were right, of course. Corporate sponsors foot much of the bill for the U.S. Olympic hockey program, and lunches with the players are the payback on their investments.
On this day the Olympians are introduced with a special twist: As their names are called, the players descend a plush staircase into the main ballroom, like so many debutantes. There was backup goalie John Blue, suppressing a smirk. Blue, a native of El Toro, Calif., may be the only surfing goaltender in Olympic history. Left wing Clark (Barney) Donatelli, whose face and frame remind his teammates of The Flintstones' Barney Rubble, covers his embarrassment by fairly barging down the steps. Center Scott Fusco descends with the dignity befitting a man with a Harvard economics degree. Defenseman Brian Leetch draws the most applause. The day before, Leetch was named team captain. He celebrated with a goal and two assists against the Soviets. Burly leftwinger Kevin Stevens steps down in his brand-new white bucks. His teammates have been riding him mercilessly about the shoes. Says Stevens, "Are they great, or what?"
December 21, 1987
Local dignitaries are introduced. Members of a veterans group present the colors. Please rise for our national anthem. Sit. Luncheon is served. Luncheon is consumed. Plates are cleared. More dignitaries are called to the podium. They speak. At length. Coffee, sir? Lights are dimmed, several videos are screened.
Through the seemingly interminable function, Team USA coach Dave Peterson can be seen on the dais, chafing like a middle-aged Tom Sawyer in church. Called on to speak, he does—for all of 110 seconds—and then abruptly concludes his remarks with, "Right now we are not good enough to win a medal. But we do work hard, and we are anxious to get to practice. Thank you." In a flash, Team USA is out of there.
"This is good for hockey," Peterson tells one of the organizers of the luncheon, "but it's not good for my kids."
The following night, Dave's Kids lost the second game of the Soviet series. Trailing 5-3, Team USA showed grit, scoring with a minute left. The puck was somewhere under Soviet goaltender Aleksander Tyznyh, so Corey Millen jammed the goalie, puck and all, over the line. But the Soviets held the Americans off, scored an empty-net goal with :02 left and won 6-4.
Afterward Peterson was grilled by the press. Was it the officiating (the Soviet referee, Vladimir Osipchuk, had not only been abominable but also had skated all three periods with his fly undone)? The chippy ice? Who, or what, could they blame?
"They're a very skilled team," said Peterson, barely disguising his irritation at the questions. "They made a few great plays. There are not always big answers to these questions. Sometimes the answer is very simple."
Peterson is a retired schoolteacher" and career hockey coach from Minneapolis Southwest High. After 27 years of teaching business courses, he left to become an assistant to Lou Vairo, coach of the U.S. team at the 1984 Olympics in Sarajevo. Loyal to his players, Peterson will criticize them only face-to-face, in private. A similar loyalty—to Vairo—prevents him from comparing his program with Vairo's.
The '84 U.S. team lost its first two games, to Canada and Czechoslovakia, and failed to make the Olympic medal round, a jolting comedown after 1980's Miracle On Ice. Team USA general manager Art Berglund likens the star-crossed '84 squad to Jim Ryun. "They were a good team that had a bad week," he says.
Because of the U.S. team's lowly showing at Sarajevo, expectations this time around are more realistic, although Peterson seems to be increasing the pressure on himself when he says, "People have a right to expect a gold medal. If we didn't think we could win this thing, we'd be out fishing somewhere, sitting watching the bobber." But ABC-TV, for one, isn't taking chances. During the '84 Games the U.S. team's untimely exit left the network with a programming vacuum. To ensure that the country would never again be subjected to such an unhealthy excess of John Denver, ABC persuaded the International Hockey Federation to expand the medal round from four teams to six. That means Dave's Kids could lose to the U.S.S.R. and Czechoslovakia and still skate into the finals by beating Austria, West Germany and Norway, the other members of their division.
Just because Peterson is reluctant to talk about Vairo's methods doesn't mean he necessarily agrees with them. Much is different with this team. Gone is the entourage of assistant coaches and assistant general managers, video analysts, traveling secretaries and the like. Peterson prefers an uncluttered shop. He has only two assistants—Ben Smith from Boston University and Blather-wick, the fitness fiend. As Vairo's bunch mirrored his personality—emotional, hot-and-cold—so does the '88 team reflect Peterson's style, which is unglamorous, even-keeled and, so far, effective. The 1984 Olympic team had the Diaper Line—teenagers Pat LaFontaine, Ed Olczyk and David A. Jensen—on which it relied for the bulk of its scoring. Through Sunday night's 13-2 win over the Soviets at Long Island's Nassau Coliseum, which raised Team USA's exhibition record to 24-13-4, 11 players had 30 or more points, a handsome distribution of the means of production, as the visiting Soviets might say.
Peterson, who has yet to decide on his four lines, welcomes such balance. "You're always going to run into a checking line," he says. "If they clap your scoring line, you're in trouble."
On Thursday night Fusco and Steve Leach erupted for seven points between them. Donatelli kicked in a goal—inadvertently, so it counted.
"Some scoring here, some there—that's fine with me," says Peterson, who values versatility and views his players as interchangeable parts.
Scott Young, Donatelli's erstwhile BU teammate, the Hartford Whalers' top pick in '86 and a shining talent at forward, has been volunteered by Peterson for duty as a defenseman. He had two sparkling assists in Saturday's loss. Donatelli, who was a sniper at BU, has also been assigned a different role on his new team, that of penalty killer, mucker and pest. After playing on a high-scoring line with Craig Janney and Brad Jones, Kevin Miller has lately been taking the ice with Dave Snuggerud and Al Bourbeau.
To give the U.S. and Canadian Olympic teams a boost, the NHL recently decided to let them borrow a limited number of players from the bottom half of NHL rosters, provided the chosen players and their teams agree. Team Canada coach Dave King is expected to use the pros. The host Canadians, embarrassed at their failure to win a single Olympic hockey medal, not even a bronze, since 1968, are under intense pressure to end the drought.
Thanks, but no thanks, said Team USA to the NHL. "The only exception is if we're decimated by injuries," says Peterson. "Otherwise, this is the club." Peterson is not the only one who thinks highly of the players he has in place. Eleven of the 24 team members are first, second-or third-round NHL draft picks. Some experts expect that Leetch, 19, eventually will surpass LaFontaine, now a star with the Islanders, as the best U.S.-born player ever.
Berglund, who with Peterson put the Olympic contingent together, is an irrepressible, excitable man. Upon the team's arrival in a city, any city, Berglund is wont to proclaim: "Today, this is Hockeytown, USA!" He proudly points out that for the first time most of the players on the roster have been groomed for an Olympics. The team is young but more experienced in international play than the '84 squad. "Dave has coached a vast majority of these guys on national or national junior teams," he says. "They've worn the [USA] jersey, they've played on the international-sized rinks, they've won a [junior world championship] medal. Besides, the Olympics are for youth. Let's bring on the new!"
Although Team USA has outscored the 15 college teams by a combined 141-35, those numbers are deceptive. Most of the collegians had just started practicing when they played the Olympians. And with Boston College, Minnesota and BU, each of which gave up at least two players to Team USA, the games were akin to a man's clubbing himself over the head with his own arm.
Peterson was surprised by the toughness his charges showed in nine NHL exhibitions early this fall. Team USA defeated St. Louis and Detroit and suffered one-goal defeats to five other teams. The Americans have also split their games with Canada, 2-2-1.
Without sacrificing speed, the team is more muscular than its '84 predecessor, featuring bruisers like Stevens (6'3", 215 pounds) and Snuggerud (6'2", 190) and a couple of defensemen, Guy Gosselin and Peter Laviolette, who win most collisions. Says Granato, "We'll play you nifty or play you tough along the rail."
The team has become close. While in East Lansing to play Michigan State, Miller had his teammates over to his home for lasagna. At Thanksgiving the squad played the Canadian Olympians in Los Angeles, and John Blue's family in Garden Grove invited the Americans for dinner. The hungry boys devoured three turkeys and two hams.
"We're a loose team but not loose in a frivolous way," says Leetch. "We know when to get serious." Before Saturday night's defeat, the sound of Perry Como Christmas songs filled the locker room. During the "Seven swans a-swimming" verse of The Twelve Days of Christmas, several Olympians glided swanlike across the room, flapping their arms.
That night's loss to the Soviets did not deflate the team or its boosters. "They can skate with anybody," said Mike Eruzione, who scored the winning goal against the Soviets in 1980 and now does TV commentary. "When you can skate with a team, the game comes down to other aspects—who has the hot goal-tender, who gets the right bounces. Tonight the Russians got the bounces. That doesn't mean they'll get 'em in Calgary." At least by then, Team USA will be finished with obligatory luncheons.