Ryan Miller will never be Jim Craig
Jim Craig's undistinguished NHL career highlights the true miracle of Lake Placid
Craig, still frozen in time and flag-draped, is asked about Lake Placid every day
Ryan Miller is a future Vezina Trophy-winner, and a U.S. gold will not be a miracle
VANCOUVER, British Columbia -- Because nostalgia isn't all that it once was, Team USA rummaged in the closet of memory and took the ice on Sunday in replicas of the jerseys worn by the 1960 American gold-medal team in Squaw Valley. The Americans beat Team Canada back then and whipped it again this time, a reminder that clothes might not make the man but a goaltender like Ryan Miller can make a team.
The 5-3 U.S. win over the Olympic hosts was routinely described by some feverish typists as a minor miracle, which is absolute rubbish unless a) you missed the Swiss' near-miss against Canada earlier in the preliminaries; or b) you consider the Minnesota Wild beating the San Jose Sharks a minor miracle. This is hockey. Shifts happens.
While Canada certainly was favored on home ice heading into game, the Americans and Canadians had the same number of scholarship players, you know? Unfortunately, Lake Placid 1980, encapsulated brilliantly by ABC's Al Michaels in the most memorable words in American sports broadcast history, is so engrained in the DNA of this country that any small, delightful victory becomes a riff on Team USA beating the Soviet Union once upon a time or Moses parting the Red Sea.
The way every scandal gets "-gate" tagged on it, miracles now come fast and furious in sports because of Michaels.
(Incidentally the highest level of hockey ever played by Americans came not on Feb. 22, 1980, in Lake Placid -- happy birthday, Miracle on Ice! -- but in the final of the 1996 World Cup against Canada. If only Canada had made like the old Soviet Army and bothered to invade Afghanistan in the preceding months, we might really have had something.)
Jim Craig is in Vancouver now. The goalie who made 36 saves to blunt the fabulous Soviets 30 years ago attended the American win the previous night. Monday morning he was feted at USA House, a U.S. Olympic Hall of Fame tribute sponsored by Allstate Insurance. He is far removed from the 22-year-old out of Boston University, anxiously scanning the stands for his father.
Craig is frozen in time, of course, a flag draped over his shoulders after the gold-medal clinching win over Finland. (Running down the most memorable flag moments in the history of the United States -- Fort Sumter, Iwo Jima, Fort McHenry -- does Craig's make the top 10 list? The top 20?) He's still boyish even if his hair is somewhere between gray and graying, and he speaks in a practiced cadence. If the guy next to you on the airplane spoke like this, you would be craning your neck in search of an empty seat. Of course, people don't run away from Craig -- you probably already guessed that he gives motivational speeches for a living --they flock to him because he helped construct a miracle.
Maybe Craig should have gone the Mike Eruzione route. He could have departed Lake Placid and strolled immediately down the narrow walkway of history. (Rulon Gardner left his wrestling shoes on the mat in Athens and retired. Could Craig have left his mask?) But Craig said Monday that he always had wanted to play in the NHL, so he went to Atlanta where he had to meet more microphones and wary teammates on a club that already had two established NHL goalies. He played four games with the Flames after the Olympics, another 23 with Boston the following season.
Until I looked it up just now, I had no memory of Craig playing for the Minnesota North Stars: three games in 1983-84. His undistinguished NHL career -- 11-10-7 -- underscores how stunning the victory over the Soviets really was.
Craig and Miller each faced nervy, eternal moments -- Craig after the U.S. scored the fourth goal with 10 minutes to go against the Soviets, Miller when Canada buzzed his net for a solid 80 seconds late in the third period on Sunday night -- but Craig, unlike Miller, was never going to be in best-goalie-in-the-game conversations. He was a one-off. Miller is a future Vezina Trophy-winner, a marvelous athlete who stoned Team Canada with positioning and athleticism.
But then Miller is not Craig and he never will be, even if Team USA rides him to a gold medal next Sunday. Of all the links in the chain of American goaltending -- from Jack McCartan to Craig to Mike Richter and now to Miller - Craig's remains the strongest because there can never be a hockey victory to match.
There is not one day in a blessed life when someone doesn't mention Lake Placid. Even Mick Jagger gets a day off from singing "Satisfaction."
"When somebody talks to me about it, it's, you know, 'When we won,'" Craig said. "It's always great because it's always about the country. It made a lot of countries happy. A lot of people were against Communism. And (these people) remember something great about what they were doing (when they watched the game). I get to hear a story about somebody else's life, so it's not the same thing ever."
And an American hockey gold medal in Vancouver won't be the same thing, either. There is a one-miracle limit per customer.