Born on the Fourth of July, the 1984 U.S. Olympic Hockey team saunters into our expectations. Two brothers from Harvard, two members of The Miracle, a Yalie and Brooklyn-born coach who learned his hockey on roller skates and asphalt.
Only in America.
Everywhere they go and everywhere you look on their sweaters, their blue satin jackets, USA, USA, without the exclamation points. It's written all over them. The sponsors want it that way.
Wherever they go, wherever they play (and they'll be at Capital Centre Friday night to play the Capitals), whatever the score: USA! USA! "It gets almost a little embarrassing," said Phil Verchota, the new captain. "Let a dead dog die."
It won't die. USA! USA!
"People want to relive that feeling of euphoria and at least right now, that's unattainable," said Mark Fusco, a defenseman from Harvard who was the NCAA player of the year last season. "You just can't feel the same way that everybody felt four years ago. It could be. But it won't be because we'll be so far away. It's not like being in Lake Placid. It'll be across the ocean (in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia), which makes it different and more difficult."
Different and difficult describe the task the players on the 1984 team have inherited. They are defending champions and underdogs. They will take no one by surprise. Four years ago, when the team was named in Colorado Springs, the press conference was held in the penalty box. This year, on July 4, they needed a banquet room. The difference, said Verchota, who was there four years ago, is the "general ballyhoo."
They say it is unfair to expect another miracle on ice because miracles, by definition, are hoped for but not expected. The head coach, Lou Vairo, says it is an insult to make comparisons with that magical 1980 team because all the new team has done so far is succeed them. But the comparisons and the pressures are inevitable.
"You do think about it," said David A. Jensen, an 18-year-old forward who was the No. 1 pick of the Hartford Whalers in this year's National Hockey League draft. "You get scared, nervous that maybe you can't fill the shoes."
By beating the Soviets and winning the gold medal, the 1980 Olympic hockey team destroyed forever the inferiority complex that gripped American hockey. These young men, average age 21, with their clear eyes and Norman Rockwell faces, seem undaunted. "We want them to be almost naive," said Vairo. "Be naive enough to believe they can beat anybody. Then you can. Then you can get upsets and longshots can win."
Vairo is the personification of an upset. He was the second choice to succeed Herb Brooks (Bob Johnson turned it down). He never has coached in college or in a major junior league. When he was named the coach of the national team last year, it was his first coaching job after five years of desk jobs in amateur hockey. He had come perilously close to packing it in and opening an Italian restaurant.
He teaches cooking without recipes. He taught himself hockey without preconceived notions. "Born in East New York, raised in Carnarsie, moved to Bensonhurst," he said. Then he took himself to the Soviet Union to learn their kind of hockey.
He was a right wing in roller hockey and did not play on ice until he was 21. "I'm fed up with people when they say you never played the game. I played the game. I just played on asphalt with a roll of tape as a puck and a stick. Every principle is the same, every check, every pass, every bump and bruise."
David Poile, general manager of the Capitals, said, "Like his players, Lou has a tough act to follow."
Last week, they took their act to Lake Placid to play Brooks' team, the New York Rangers. "It was weird going back to where it all started," Jensen said. "I was looking around, checking out every wall and every place, even in the town, you wonder what it was like to beat the Russians."
"I expected to see a plaque in the middle of the ice: 'Here is where the U.S. won the gold medal,' " said forward Kurt Kleinendorst. "But it was just another game. Just another rink. That's what Lake Placid ended up being."
They play that swooping, swirling, weaving style perfected by the Soviets and suited to the larger international ice. In Lake Placid, they outskated, outswooped and outweaved the Rangers, 7-3. "Too many young legs," Brooks said.
Craig Patrick, the Rangers general manager who was the assistant coach in 1980, said that at this time four years ago, they knew they had a medal-winning team but no one would have dared to say that and no one would have been listening, anyway. "We have a medal-winning team," Bob Brooke, the Yalie defenseman, said flatly.
Undaunted but not unaffected. The budget is $1.2-1.4 million compared to $700,000 in 1980. The players each receive $1,500 a month in living expenses. "We're respected now," Vairo said. "I think we got some players we wouldn't have gotten and by the same token we probably wouldn't have lost some of the players we lost."
They do not have Bobby Carpenter of the Capitals, Phil Housley and Tom Barrasso of the Sabres or Brian Lawton of the North Stars, all of whom have gone to the NHL.
They have 15 players who have been drafted by the NHL, including Pat LaFontaine, who set 10 scoring records in the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League last year and was drafted first by the Islanders (third overall). They have Ed Olcyzk and Al Iafrate, two 17-year-olds Poile says may be among the top players drafted next year.
The 1980 Olympians were 0-4 against the NHL. This year's team is 2-1, 7-4-3 overall, including a win over the Soviet Wings. Patrick's scouts told him that this team may be more talented than the 1980 team. It has speed but lacks experience. A six-game series against the Soviets, canceled after the Korean airline crisis, will cost them $850,000 (the Ranger game generated $500,000) and a wealth of experience.
Four years ago, the U.S. team lost to the Soviets, 10-3, in Madison Square Garden just before the Games. "You expected them (the Soviets) to come out and take warmup in red, white and blue with S's on their chests," said Dave Silk, who now plays for the Rangers.
"By the time we got over the awe of being on the ice with them, it was 7-0," said John Harrington, one of the two returning veterans of the miracle.
LaFontaine turned 15 the night the Americans beat the Soviets. He remembers when "Mike Eruzione skated across the blue line and let a shot go that went under Myshkin's arm and that was the 4-3 goal that did it."
Back then, in Michigan, it was a dream that "seemed untouchable." This summer, when he had to choose between the Islanders and the Olympics, he remembered that feeling. "After watching the 1980 Olympics, any kid fortunate enough to be picked can't pass up that opportunity," LaFontaine said.
Brooke was a freshman at Yale when they won the gold medal. "My roommates were waking up from a Saturday night party, hung over in the living room, slouched around on the coach watching a black and white 12-inch TV," he said. "It was just another Sunday."
It didn't make an impression until later and then it changed his life. Before 1980, he never considered a hockey career. The Olympics made hockey visible, desirable, if not always likable. "It would be easier to tell you that sometimes I just hate hockey," he said. "Picture getting in an already wet bathing suit that has got a little mold on it. After the games, you've got bruises and scrapes and cuts. And somehow it's exhilarating. You can't sleep because you're all wound up. And somehow it's still okay.'"
Verchota and Harrington, who are the wily veterans at 26, don't talk about 1980 very much, "which is really good," Fusco said. "We hear enough garbage about '80. We don't need it from inside."
Their medals are back home with their memories. They insist upon living in the present tense. After the Olympics, Harrington tried out for the Buffalo Sabres, went to Europe, got married, had two children, taught physical education. He is playing "because of the dream of having a chance to do it again."
Verchota never wanted to play in the NHL and has retired more times than Muhammad Ali. But, he says, "Just because you catch a really big fish, a world record fish, doesn't mean you quit fishing."
They are the conduit to the emotion of that moment in 1980 and a reminder of the hard work, the endless, grueling, windsucking sprints they called Herbies, that made it happen.
"What's a Herbie?" LaFontaine said.
Verchota smiled. They're called mountains now.