On the train to Gettysburg a few seasons back, Abe Lincoln wrote notes for a speech on whatever scrap of paper he could find. It was a nice speech, long remembered. Today a hockey coach, Herb Brooks, scribbled his pep talk on the back of an envelope. And when the coach's young Americans beat the mighty Soviet Union -- beat the very best hockey team on earth, 4-3 -- the telephone rang with a call from the man who now lives in Abe's old house.
"President Carter said we made the American people very proud," Brooks said after the United States' improbable victory ended the Soviets' 21-game winning streak in the Winter Olympics. "He said he reflected the ideals of what we stand for. He invited us to the White House for a couple cases of Coke on Monday."
Before that, the Americans play Finland in their final game of the Olympic tournament Sunday morning. A victory will earn the United States its second hockey gold metal ever, 20 years after the first. Whatever happens now, the Americans -- college stars put together last summer and trained on a 60-game exhibition tour -- are assured of a hockey medal.
Who would imagine an American victory over the Soviets? The Soviets are their nation's pride. They have challenged the world and won. They have beaten Canada's best professionals, an all-star team representing the National Hockey League. For the Soviets, a position on this hockey team is a guarantee of the best life available back home.
Who might imagine that the United States, beaten by the Soviets, 10-3, in an exhibition 13 days ago, would set a thousand Old Glories waving in celebration? Only a fevered zealot could imagine that after this game the U. S. players would rock their locker room with repeated renditions of "God Bless America."
Herb Brooks imagined it.
He held up his envelope and read from it.
"I told the players, 'You were born to be a player. You were meant to be here at this moment. You were meant to be here at this game. Let's have the poise and possession of the puck.'"
Keeping the puck on American sticks was, in the last minutes of the game, in those three or four minutes that only took forever to play, those precious minutes when chants of "U. s. a. . . . U.S.A." stirred all but the dead and the communist in the standing- room-only crowd of 8,500 -- keeping the puck against the pressure of a great hockey team was an accomplishment to be long remembered.
On a goal by the son of a part-time bartender, the United States went ahead, 4-3, with 10 minutes to play. Mike Eruzione scored from 20 feet out, knocking the puck past a Soviet goaltender who last year shut out the National Hockey League of all-stars.
A one-goal lead is nice against the Soviets. A 10-goal lead would be nicer, for the Russians can score goals quicker than you can spell Afghanistan. And from his spot on the bench, Brooks saw in his charges the thing he worried most about. He had seen it in every team that managed to get ahead of the Soviets in this tournament.
He saw a retreat.
"Play your game," Brooks shouted time and again. He saw panic. He saw his college kids trying to win without playing. He saw them ahead of the Soviets and not believing it. What he wanted was for them to relax.
"God couldn't have come down and got us relaxed," Eruzione said.
Had the Creator taken time off to pay a calming visit to Olympic Center, it would have been a very busy trip. The American hockey players were not alone in their anxiety for those last three or four minutes to fly by. "Skin Those Bears," said a banner flapping off a balcony. A man came dressed in the American flag. Another came as Uncle Sam. Heaven doesn't have enough Valium to calm down the folks cheering for the U.S. of A. tonight.
Check one fellow's notebook, for instance. This is a fellow who in his newspaperman's notebook wrote these entries . . .
"3:53 to go -- How come so many of them & so few of us?
"2:31 -- USA, USA, USA -- is this happening?
"1:29 -- USA. USA -- this is like a college all-star football team beating a team from Mars who beat the Steelers.
".47 -- Soviet miss.
":32 -- Another miss.
"U. S. throw sticks in air, gloves, coaches running on ice, Russ players watching, no emotion, goalie head down, Craig last off ice, place going wild."
Craig is Jim Craig, the American goalie. He turned away 36 Soviet shots. The Soviet goalies stopped only 12 shots. When it meant the most, Craig was at his best, as were all the American players (the Soviet coach criticized all his men, especially the starting goalie, who was described as "nervous."
As good as the players were, so too was the partisan crowd. This was sport at its purest, played energetically by both sides, never once less than an artful demonstration of how atheletes -- even athletes from democracies and totalitarian governments -- can make sport a beautiful demonstration of what men can be.
"It was just a hockey game for the players," said Brooke, who was asked if the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan and the threatened U. S. boycott of the Moscow Olympics were important to his players.
"The crowd was an unbelievable big help to us," the coach said. "The fans displayed excellent sportmanship, even though we have different ways of life and different government. There was no politics on behalf of the Russians and no politics by us. I don't think the fans were an ugly lot. They were positive."
Including the fan at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.