In France, it is hard enough to get a Coke on ice, much less a miracle. So while U.S. hockey tans were still waving Old Glory, while U.S. hockey players were still conjuring old glories, while the hills were still alive with the sound of organ music at the chalet-style arena in Méribel, someone should have run this notion up the flagpole: Perhaps the U.S. hockey team had already given its gold-seeking countrymen the only glimmering commodity they really needed—namely, hope.
Hope was very much alive for the U.S. following Monday night's 3-3 tie with world champion Sweden, which gave the surprising Americans a 4-0-1 record for the preliminary round. For while anyone can get a hamburger on French bread here, only the U.S. had found a goalie on a roll. American hopes, entering Tuesday's medal-round game against France, remained pinned to the chest protector of a minor league lifer and factory worker who, nevertheless, gave his daughter the middle name of...Hope.
Twenty-seven-year-old father of two Ray LeBlanc—the very surname suggests that destiny would deliver him, par avion, to stardom both in France and as a goalie—Leblanked two teams in the preliminary round and held the other three to a total of seven goals. "It's been a thrill," he said all but inaudibly last week. "But I haven't thought about being a hero."
Still, that is precisely what he became—instantly, as though he had just fallen to earth in the French Alps. After LeBlanc stoned Poland 3-0 last Saturday night, a Polish hockey coach spoke of him as though he were a visiting head of state. "I have to say," said Jerzy Mruk, measuring his words carefully, "that the U.S. goalkeeper is one of the highest professionals in his field."
Speak softly, carry an oversized, puck-steering, goalkeeper's stick: While backing up a team composed largely of Boston-bred players, LeBlanc, a native of Fitchburg, Mass., has quietly provided the backing for the U.S.'s improbable and endearing swagger, or its "big attitude," as an admiring Finnish coach so aptly described the American players' demeanor. The team and its 'tude had become the many-tongued talk of this ski-resort village. Never mind that the U.S.'s pre-medal-round pool included neither Canada nor Czechoslovakia nor the Unified learn from the former Soviet Union. "The U.S. team is the big surprise of this tournament," said one of Sweden's assistant coaches, Curt Lundmark, last Thursday. "It has a very good spirit, a good will, a very good heart for its nation." Which is in marked contrast to 1984 and '88, when the U.S. teams finished seventh, playing as though they were not Olympians but subjects at a pair of chronic-fatigue-syndrome symposia.
"When someone makes a mistake, we know that Ray's gonna be right there to make the big save," said U.S. forward Tim Sweeney last week. "Knowing that gives us a lot of confidence." And it frees forwards to forecheck, forage in the corners and flap their bleeding gums at any skater not packing a navy-blue, eagle-embossed passport.
By winter LeBlanc is ordinarily a member of the Indianapolis lee, which is either the world's most pallid rap group or a team in the International Hockey League, the NHL's equivalent of Double A. By summer LeBlanc labors in what he calls the "post-premix area" of an Indianapolis Pepsi plant, pumping soda pop into bladder-busting, five-gallon steel canisters for commercial use.
The canisters are the caffeinated equivalent of the oxygen tanks that fortified both benches as the U.S. and Germany faced off in Méribel (elevation: 4,700 feet) on Feb. 11. The U.S. came in having won six of its previous seven games, including its Olympic opener two days earlier, a shaky 6-3 come-from-behind defeat of Italy. Germany, meanwhile, was peopled with some of the same players who had Handi-Wiped the U.S. by a score of 4-1 in Calgary in 1988.
"There was a lot of discussion of that in the locker room before the game," said 31-year-old U.S. defenseman Moe Mantha, who wasn't in Calgary.
Mantha, an 11-year NHL veteran on loan from the Winnipeg Jets, had already lighted a small fondue flame beneath the hindquarters of his teammates when he appeared at the center of a shoving match in the handshake line following a game against France four days before the Games opened. Phlegmballs were allegedly exchanged on both sides, though no punches were thrown.