U.S. Olympic hockey team is young, quick, eager and according to goalie Jim Craig, "really juiced up about playing in the Olympics." The U.S. Olympic team also is made up of 20 realists.
Saturday night in New York, the defending Olympic champion Soviet Union team embarassed the Americans, 10-3, in an exhibition game at Madison Square Garden. "When Khruschev banged his shoe at the United Nations and said 'we will bury you' I did'nt think he was talking about the 1980 U.S.Olympic hockey team," Herb Brooks, the U.S. coach, said today.
Another U.S. confrontation with the Soviets will not come until late in the tournament, if ever. There are two six-team divisions in Olympic hockey. tEach division plays a five-team round robin, with the top three teams from each division advancing to the final medal games Feb. 22 and Feb. 24.
The Soviets will get there. The Americans may not. The U.S. begins play Tuesday at 5 pm against Sweden, then takes on Czechoslovakia Feb. 14. Those are the best teams in the U.S. division and Brooks says his team -- the youngest in the history of the Games -- must upset one or the other for a chance at a medal.
"The Russians have to be the odds-on favorites for the gold," Brooks said today, "and you have to look for the Sweds and the Czechs for the silver and bronze. There are also four other quality hockey teams -- Canada, the U.S., Finland and West Germany -- who could all be considerd underdogs. I believe we are a legitimate contender, but we definitely are underdogs."
Brooks, 42, head coach at the University of Minnesota, is fielding a team with an average age of 21. The players have been together since late August, playing a 60-game schedule against college, international, minor league and NHL teams. They have complied a 42-16-2 record.
The team was picked with the swifter, wide open international game in mind, for speed, for passing and for skating. That was a major departure from the past, when American teams tried to play an NHL-style game -- dump the puck in their offensive zone and give chase.
Still, there are 18 players on the squad who have been drafted by the NHL, and today it became obvious there is not a man among them who does not believe their team can win a medal.
"We're only underdogs to one team -- the Russians," said Craig, a fourth-round draft choice of the Atlanta Flames. "I wouldn't want to pick a winner in any of the other games in the tournament. We've got the talent, we've got the home crowd, our families are here and if we play well, we'll do well."
"We all believe our biggest game of the tournament is against Sweden. If we can beat them, the Czechs might believe we can beat them, too, and once they start thinking like that, it's all to our advantage."
The Americans also were insisting today that their dismal defeat against the Soviets Saturday meant little, that the team was weary from a long schedule and not really psychologically prepared. And yes, some players admitted, they were in awe of the Soviet players.
"I knew we were in trouble when they introduced the starting lineups and our athletes were applauding the Russians," Brooks said. "I knew it would be a long night. But I'm not worried about beating them."
Neither is Craig, who also admits the Soviets are not his favorite kind of people.
"I might have to fight in a war against these guys," he said in an interview after Saturday's game. "But now I'm playing hockey. I hate them. I don't hate their hockey players specifically, but I hate what they stand for."
Today he elaborated on those remarks. "What I'm trying to bring out is that these guys are great athletes." he said. "Of course, if they weren't playing hockey, they'd be in uniforms marching somewhere.
"I guess I accept them because they really have no choice. If I started thinking about them as Russians, then it might be harder. . .it's not the hockey players you despise, it's the system."
Craig also insists he has not had much time to think about the Russians, if only because he understands how important it will be for his team to do well against the Swedes and Czechs.
"I was turning and tossing a month ago, if you saw me you could say I was a basket case," he said. "Everybody came by when we were home and you start to think that a lot of what happens rests on you. But I'm not nervous now, I've been mentally ready for a long time. I don't want to be thinking every night 'Oh my god, it's all on me.'
"It's really important, though, that I have a good first period against the Swedes. We'll be nervous, I think it'll take five or 10 minutes to get over it. I can't let them get anything early, I know that."
Craig frequently has been compared to Jack McCartan, the goalie for the Olypmic hockey team that won at Squaw Valley in 1960, the last time anyone other than the Soviets has won the Olympic gold.