The '69 Mets will tell you. The vexing thing about miracles is that they cannot be reproduced on demand. Or just ask the U.S. Olympic hockey team, which for the second straight quadrennium has failed to duplicate the Miracle on Ice, that 1980 gold medal performance at Lake Placid.
Four years ago coach Lou Vairo was criticized for fielding a team that was too young and too small and for prepping it for the Sarajevo Games with a schedule that was too easy. Last week it was coach Dave Peterson's turn to break out the old flak jacket.
A gruff, jowly former Minnesota high school coach, the 57-year-old Peterson took heat after his charges twice kissed away three-goal leads in a 7-5 loss to Czechoslovakia and then, two nights later, lost by the same score to the Soviet Union. And when Team USA was eliminated from the medal competition following a 4-1 loss Sunday night to a West German team with five Canadian expatriates, it was open season on the Yanks.
Peterson, the critics shouted, had selected a squad of one-way players—all offense, no defense—who were ill suited and ill prepared to succeed in the international arena. That was certainly true. Complicating matters, Team USA lacked a dependable goaltender; there was no Jim Craig on this team to play hero. Worse yet, the young and essentially inexperienced U.S. skaters had played a far too soft schedule coming into the Olympics, one oversaturated with weak college teams. The bottom line: Team USA simply didn't have the right stuff—on the ice, behind the bench or in the front office.
February 29, 1988
So Team USA limped into the consolation round, its heart as heavy as its goals-against average, an ungainly 5.4 after three losses and two wins in five games. Among other nations joining the U.S. in the international version of the NHL's Norris Division was Poland, which tied defending world-champion Sweden 1-1 in the tournament's biggest surprise. These same Poles, whose national program is short of equipment, reportedly were bartering tickets to Olympic events in Calgary for skates and sticks to take home. Then there was Austria, a team with half a dozen native Canadians on the ice and a Czechoslovakian defector, Ludek Bukac—the same Bukac who coached the Czech national team in Sarajevo—behind the bench. And, of course, France, whose starting goaltender, Patrick Foliot, had godawful lateral movement, a shaky glove hand and a bad sunburn on the back of his neck.
What brought things to such an ugly pass for the U.S.? "You people [the media] have decided that we're a poor defensive team," said Peterson after the Czechoslovakia Choke. Indeed, the U.S., which gave up a total of nine goals in its victories over Austria and Norway, plus 18 in its three losses—that's 27 in all, or 19 more than the Poles gave up in four games—had no D.
Art Berglund, the U.S. team's general manager, insisted that his defensemen had plenty of talent, adding that at least five of them have futures in the NHL. In fact, one defenseman, captain Brian Leetch, will sign a million-dollar contract with the New York Rangers after the Olympics and will probably skate right into their lineup. But at this stage potential NHL star defensemen such as Leetch and Greg Brown and Scott Young are strictly offensive defensemen, unskilled in the ways of clearing rival players from in front of their own net.
However, as a point of reference, a young American defenseman named Chris Chelios played much the same way, if not worse, at Sarajevo in 1984, and one year later was a standout with the Montreal Canadiens and played in the NHL All-Star Game. Said Berglund, "We"—by "we" he presumably meant true patriots—"don't criticize our defense."
In the heat of battle the U.S.'s young rear guard tended to damn the torpedoes, leaving goaltenders Dave Richter and Chris Terreri to stare down dozens of 3-on-2 and 2-on-l break-ins. Vladislav Tretiak couldn't have bailed out Team USA. "You and I both know what our real problem is—goaltending," said one Team USA official. "But what do you want us to do, stand up and say that, and leave those kids twisting in the wind?"
If only the U.S. defensemen had been so compassionate. In the opening game against Austria—the U.S. was originally supposed to open with the Czechs, but the IOC switched opponents at the request of ABC, which, for the sake of ratings, desperately wanted the Yanks to start these games with a win, preferably a romp—the Americans had a nice rout going. They were ahead 9-3 with 9:05 to play when Peterson pulled Richter in order to give Terreri some playing time. The Austrians, however, shattered Terreri's confidence by scoring on three of their next seven shots. "That wasn't Chris's fault," said forward Tony Granato. "We didn't buckle down in our own end."
Nor did they two nights later when they blew 3-0 and 4-1 advantages against Czechoslovakia, which had been upset by West Germany 2-1 in the opening game. Early on, the Americans looked like the Edmonton Oilers, scoring on their first three shots and sending goalie Dominik Hasek to the bench in disgrace. But no one in the Saddledome crowd thought for a moment that this game was over. As one NHL scout put it, "This U.S. team will need at least six goals to win." Instead of protecting their lead, the Americans endangered it by continuing to play in the only gear they knew: fast forward. Peterson had taught them to attack, but not to defend. "Coach likes us to come up, get in the play and provide a fourth attacker," said defenseman Jeff Norton.
Sure enough, the Czechs repeatedly took advantage of Team USA's defensive disarray and pulled into a 5-5 tie midway through the third period. The U.S. was on the power play when Czech forward Dusan Pasek broke down the right boards with Leetch covering him. Pasek was no threat to score, but U.S. defenseman Young—a converted forward with little defensive acumen—skated over to give Leetch unneeded assistance. This left Igor Liba uncovered through the middle, and Pasek flipped a pass onto his stick. It was Liba against Richter mano a mano, and Liba's forehand wrist shot over Richter's glove won the game. That goal did more damage to the Americans' medal hopes than any of the 26 others they gave up all week. Peterson chalked up the lapse to "our youthful enthusiasm. No one told you we're as wise as we'd like to be."
Why had Peterson not circled the wagons with a three-goal lead? "We're going to play the way we're going to play," he said.
One way to cure Team USA's quadrennial problem of international inexperience would be for the U.S. to field a standing national team instead of throwing a squad together willy-nilly two weeks before the world championships each spring or six months before the Olympics. Why not maintain a team that plays together year-round, year in, year out. Canada, the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia do it that way, and all qualified for the medal round.
Peterson favors the idea. But his boss, Bob Johnson, former University of Wisconsin and Calgary Flames coach and now executive director of the Amateur Hockey Association of the U.S., cites two major problems: insufficient cash and insufficient bodies. "Who would play on an ongoing national team?" says Johnson. "You think Young or Leetch or Craig Janney is going to be around to play for a national team next year? They're going to the NHL." As for the funding such a program would require, Johnson says he has a difficult enough time "raising money to send a midget team to a Christmas tournament."
The Yanks covered some of their expenses by barnstorming around the country from September through January, taking on primarily college teams. On the one hand, this format gave Team USA—and hockey—some excellent exposure. On the other, the Olympians were too good for their own good. In going 19-0-1 against varsity sides, Team USA won by an average score of 10-3. It was 2-7 against NHL squads, and those teams were stocked largely with players who would soon be released or dispatched to the minors. While Canada was beating the Soviet national team and other international powers at the Izvestia Cup in Moscow, the U.S. was mopping up against the Soviet Selects, a roster of has-beens from the Leningrad Army Team.
Richter was particularly critical of the U.S. preparation for the Games. "I know we got a lot of money from the colleges, but sometimes you have to wonder which Olympics we were preparing for, '88 or '92," he said. "We were beating teams 15-0, getting away with horrible mistakes. That carries over. These little weaknesses are exploited in a huge way when you play a team that's good and experienced. The Russians let you know what you're doing wrong. All of a sudden we're in the Olympics, we're scrambling and saying, 'This has never happened before!' I'd rather play a tougher schedule."
Meanwhile, Canada, which made the medal round despite having none of the firepower of the U.S. team, survived close scrapes with Poland and Switzerland before being upset by Finland. "Our schedule was quite demanding," said Canadian coach Dave King. "We got a lot of rehearsals for this. There is a real payoff for those rehearsals."
For his part, Johnson was making noises about having the 1992 U.S. and Canadian Olympic teams both play one game against each of the NHL's 21 teams, with the results to count in the standings. But NHL president John Ziegler, who was in Calgary to negotiate the release of Soviet players to NHL teams for the 1988-89 season, wasn't waving the flag. "We've always done what we could to help the national teams," he said, "but I don't think that's going to happen."
For all their problems, the Americans had one golden moment in the Games, a time when flags were waving and ABC was ready to jump back on the bandwagon. Trailing the Soviets 6-2, the Yanks seemed to be foaming at the mouth when they came out for the start of the third period. Lane MacDonald scored, then Scott Fusco, then Todd Okerlund, and it was 6-5. ABC, which had cut away from the hockey to catch the country up on figure skating compulsories, hastily returned to the game, and Jim McKay babbled on about believing in miracles. The U.S. owned the puck—the Soviets couldn't touch it for minutes on end—and there was Leetch's slap shot blazing past goaltender Sergei Mylnikov for the tying...no, it clanked off the post. Thoroughly rattled, the Soviets called a quick timeout. Coach Viktor Tikhonov gathered his troops and read them the riot act. When play resumed the Soviets grimly hung on and eventually scored an insurance goal for their 7-5 victory.
"The U.S. team plays with fire and soul," said Soviet assistant coach Igor Dmitriev, a man not often moved to praise.
Thanks, Igor. Maybe in '92 soul—and more than a little D—will keep Team USA out of the consolation round.