The Night the Best Panicked
By Ken Denlinger
Washington Post Staff Writer
February 23, 1980; Page D1
LAKE PLACID, N.Y., Feb. 22, 1980 If you want to feel even more tingly about this special American hockey team, keep in mind that when they walked from the arena tonight after beating the best team on earth, firecrackers were exploding. Bright colors burst overhead. A march could be heard off in the distance.
It was a coincidence. The U.S. just happened to beat the Soviet Union about the time medals for the slalom were being presented across Mirror Lake. But how wonderfully appropriate. One of the players, Jack O'Callahan, put it even better than President Carter:
"Sometimes you gotta get a little regional."
He meant more than Americans feeling better about themselves because their hockey team the essence of amateurism had beaten a team that digests the sport nearly every waking moment of every day and had whipped the best NHL pros last year.
This was personal. O'Callahan was honing in on the best moment after the 4-3 miracle had been accomplished, when he and three others grabbed the hero goalkeeper Jim Craig and had a Boston University hug and cheer session.
BU surely must be the official college of these Games. Their Mike Eruzione, the U.S. captain, scored the winning goal; their Jim Craig was spectacular in goal. The Soviets threw 39 missiles at him; 36 stayed outside the net.
Like so many others, Craig's first act after leaving the dressing room was to search the adoring mob for his father. He was indifferent to everyone the slaps, the questions until he saw his father and hugged him. Then he was open enough to offer something no American with an ounce of hockey knowledge would expect to hear from an American goalkeeper.
"We frustrated 'em. For the first time, I think they panicked. They skate better than anyone in the world; they pass better than anyone in the world. But in the last few minutes tonight they just threw the puck forward. And we were in a zone.
"They were hoping we'd be uptight. But they were throwing it in and hoping someone would run into it."
Craig was the key to any chance the U.S. had against the Soviets. There were whispers he had a habit of melting under the pressure-game spotlight, that the U.S. goal might be defended by an icicle-sized keeper after a few minutes.
That had not escaped his attention.
"I said to myself in the last period: 'If we're gonna lose' and I've seen the comeback a thousand times 'it's gonna be on a good goal.' Nobody's gonna say I was nervous, or this or that. Or that I couldn't play the big games.
"All I wanted was to get off the ice and see my family.'
Craig felt responsible for making the team feel comfortable in the beginning.
"I like to think they see how I'm playing and react from that," he said. "If I'm going good, they'll get confidence."
By the end of the second period, he was impregnable. The Soviets had 30 shots on goal; the Americans had 10. The Soviets had a 3-2 lead.
"We told ourselves we were just down one tonight, when we'd been down six after two periods last time we played them [a 10-3 loss in Madison Square Garden 13 days ago]," said John Harrington, whose pass from the corner led to Eruzione's goal.
"We'd played 40 minutes, they were just one ahead but we were younger. We wanted to take it to 'em. I think I looked at the clock every second of those last minutes. We kept thinking if we put out harder than ever it'll work out."
"Well, when Guy Lafleur and company get beat by 'em, what can you say?" asked defenseman Mike Ramsey. "But it was one game. And here we are. Unbeaten now [but with a tie with Sweden].
"It kinda gives us a high on life."
Over and over, Craig kept saying: "I just wanted to keep us close."
Perhaps the first groupie of his athletic life kept intruding, shouting answers to questions before Craig could open his mouth.
What are his feelings"
"He feels like king of the mountain," she said.
"What was the question?" Craig said.
Later, when she began to search out other players, Craig said: "I felt comfortable the whole game, although the start of each period is difficult.
"I'd had some ear problems earlier in the week. I wasn't sharp the other night [against West Germany], because I'd take a penicillin shot. Tonight I didn't. I said I just won't believe I'm sick."
Did he ever in his wildest dreams imagine something of this order happening to him? He has an expressive face and an honest attitude. He is only one of several U.S. players who needs to shave regularly, one of the few willing to speak his mind.
"Sure I did," he said. "Everybody dreams."
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