"He started as a goalie because he was so darn small," the father said of his son, the hockey hero, the man everyone wanted to mob first today after the U.S. Pluckies won the Olympic gold medal.

Moments such as this -- shortly after a team causes a great deal of the sporting world to throw back its head in astonishment -- become unique for deeply personal relationships, like the one Don and Jim Craig have with each other.

You may have noticed Jim Craig skating slowly -- appararently in a daze -- minutes after the U.S. beat Finland and his teammates pummeled him in joy. Someone had draped a flag over his back; three players were chugging champagne; the others were hugging and tripping wildly about the ice.

Craig would have none of it. He was totally oblivious to the celebration, to the champagne on ice, until he caught his father's eye. And knew that both were sharing the same thought.

"His mother was the hockey nut," said Don, 61. who gave up his job as director of food services for a Boston-area junior college to be closer to the family when she died two years ago. "She was the one who sharpened the skates, things like that. After Jim found out that she had just six months to live, he had to play in a tournament.

"You can check the record. He was anever beaten that year. And a couple of months ago, during (Olympic) training, he called me up and said: 'When you talk to mom, tell her to pray for me.'"

His hockey life was not going well at the time. There had been so much travel, so many games and so much doubt from others about his ability to face the sort of unimaginable pressure the Olympics carry.

"He played (at Boston University) all last year," Don said, "then took 11 days off and went to Colorado Springs and made the U.S. national team. He toured Europe and came back, then left 11 days later for Colorado Springs again.

"He tried out for the Olympic team and made it -- and then even more travel began. He started a year ago August and hasn't been off the ice since.

"Today it ended."

For much of the game, it seemed possible that ending would be a sad one, that the Americans were so drained after the stunning victory over the Soviets Friday that a fine Finland team would turn gold into silver. Or bronze. Or tin.

The U.S. had a chance both to win everything and to lose everything this morning. An the crowd was surprisingly uninspired, as though it was enduring a boring sermon instead of watching a special team scratch for improbable glory. Don Craig, though, was hanging on every moment.

"The worse thing in the world is to be a goalie's father," Don said. "You can't enjoy the game. Each time Jim's hand goes up, I flinch. And when that first one went by, I nearly fainted. I'd seen him catch shots like that a thousand times.

"But one of the reasons he's a successful goalie is that he doesn't let things like that bother him. He's his severest critic, but when one gets in he's all the more determined not to let another one in.

"I like to see him give up one early, because I know he'll be really tough then. Today was another indication."

Craig did yield another goal. But with 12 1/2 minutes left in the game and the U.S. ahead by 3-2 Craig went through hockey hell and didn't melt. He survived almost four continuous minutes of a Finnish power play, flicking aside blur after blur.

"I spent $4,000 on the basement, put up a net and covered it with a sheet with slits on each of the four corners," Don said later. "The youngest (Danny) doesn't leave till he smacks 10 shots through each of the slits. The concrete floor's as smooth as glass from all the shots hit off it.

"But Jim got most of his practice outside, at one end of the driveway. I paint one side of the house every year, that one side (where his brothers and other hockey junkies took shots at Jim). If I had a dollar for every broken window and lost puck, I'd be driving a Lincoln."

Shots that once caroomed off the side of the Craig house slammed off Craig's pads today. Or nestled inside his glove. A few gallons of paint is a nice trade for Olympic gold (and isn't there a paint of that name just oozing to be endorsed?)

"You see them in Pee Wees," the father said, "and you never figure on anything like the Olympics."

Don was standing outside the arena now. Jim had found him and handed his stick, which the second youngest son, Kevin, 19, was holding nearby. A moment before, Kevin had said: "We got eight kids in this family four girls, three other brothers -- and one star."

His father looked at Kevin and said: "He was the best player I had. Jim says he still hasn't faced anyone with a heavier shot. But the door to the penalty box got left open accidentally once and he was checked into it. Broke his back. He's lucky he's alive."

With the exception of Don Jr., the family Craig was on hand to see Jim in his supreme test. Don spent $50 per ticket (the going rate was $67.50) for each of the four grandchildren. He had commuted from their home near Boston for the other six tournament games.

"When his mother died, Jim kind of took charge," Don said. "Only the two younger boys are still at home. And when he got time off during all this, he'd go to school himself to check the marks of his brothers. He wouldn't let 'em pull anything."

Perhaps an hour later, after Craig had met the nation's press for a dizzy half-hour session he finally met Don and the family. With little more than red longjohns on, he tended a door and verified each member for a suspicious guard.

"Brother. . . brother. . . sister. . . sister. . . sister . . . niece . . . nephew . . ." They all tropped past.

And so did one interloper.

The brief reunion was mostly business. Pads and sticks has to be packed, and his jersey separated from all else because he wanted it for the U.S. Olympic team's trip to the White House Monday.

When someone objected to the work, Jim Craig snapped, not so gently: Hey, you got a gold medal winner here."

"He's totally exhausted," Don said later. "And Atlanta wants him to report Tuesday.

So the Olympic life ends and reality sets in, for Craig and all the others. Craig will sign with the Flames, presumably with at least two more zeroes in his contract than he might have expected before all this. The rest of the team will weigh pro dollars against collegiate sense.

But they will never be so special as today, when they were children living a fantasy and searching for parents. Few beyond family had believed in those dreams and fueled them. Few beyond family would be allowed to experience the joy.

Craig was the first U.S. player to receive his gold medal, skipping ever so slightly before he took the step to the highest platform. He stooped, had the medal placed about his neck and then walked down the waiting line of teammates, kissing and fondling the piece of gold that had taken so much to achieve.

Later, as he and team was walking toward midrink, the medal suddenly dropped from his neck. All that affection has forced it off its ribbon and the precious medal went rolling along the ice. It was a fraction the size of a hockey puck, but the world's most famous goalkeeper at the moment had no trouble with this one last save.