They inspire more dread than 5:30 a.m. wake-up calls. They inflict more pain than the high sticks the Soviets were getting away with in Ohio last week. They are even worse, members of the 1988 U.S. Olympic hockey team say with a shudder, than the sadistic drills devised by conditioning coach Jack Blatherwick. What are they? Obligatory luncheons.
Take the one they endured in Cincinnati last Friday. Please. On Thursday night in Cleveland, Team USA had thrashed a jet-lagged Soviet select squad 8-5 in the first game of an eight-game series. Except for two outbursts in which they struck for five goals in six minutes, the Soviets—a B team with only one or two players who have a chance of making it to Calgary with the Soviet Olympic outfit—looked lethargic. After the game the U.S. players snatched three hours of sleep and caught a 7:30 a.m. flight to Cincinnati, arriving just in time for an 11:30 lunch at a hotel ballroom.
"They're stuffy, they're boring, but you've got to go to them," said goalie Chris Terreri. "Comes with the territory," said center Tony Granato. They were right, of course. Corporate sponsors foot much of the bill for the U.S. Olympic hockey program, and lunches with the players are the payback on their investments.
On this day the Olympians are introduced with a special twist: As their names are called, the players descend a plush staircase into the main ballroom, like so many debutantes. There was backup goalie John Blue, suppressing a smirk. Blue, a native of El Toro, Calif., may be the only surfing goaltender in Olympic history. Left wing Clark (Barney) Donatelli, whose face and frame remind his teammates of The Flintstones' Barney Rubble, covers his embarrassment by fairly barging down the steps. Center Scott Fusco descends with the dignity befitting a man with a Harvard economics degree. Defenseman Brian Leetch draws the most applause. The day before, Leetch was named team captain. He celebrated with a goal and two assists against the Soviets. Burly leftwinger Kevin Stevens steps down in his brand-new white bucks. His teammates have been riding him mercilessly about the shoes. Says Stevens, "Are they great, or what?"
Local dignitaries are introduced. Members of a veterans group present the colors. Please rise for our national anthem. Sit. Luncheon is served. Luncheon is consumed. Plates are cleared. More dignitaries are called to the podium. They speak. At length. Coffee, sir? Lights are dimmed, several videos are screened.
Through the seemingly interminable function, Team USA coach Dave Peterson can be seen on the dais, chafing like a middle-aged Tom Sawyer in church. Called on to speak, he does—for all of 110 seconds—and then abruptly concludes his remarks with, "Right now we are not good enough to win a medal. But we do work hard, and we are anxious to get to practice. Thank you." In a flash, Team USA is out of there.
"This is good for hockey," Peterson tells one of the organizers of the luncheon, "but it's not good for my kids."
The following night, Dave's Kids lost the second game of the Soviet series. Trailing 5-3, Team USA showed grit, scoring with a minute left. The puck was somewhere under Soviet goaltender Aleksander Tyznyh, so Corey Millen jammed the goalie, puck and all, over the line. But the Soviets held the Americans off, scored an empty-net goal with :02 left and won 6-4.
Afterward Peterson was grilled by the press. Was it the officiating (the Soviet referee, Vladimir Osipchuk, had not only been abominable but also had skated all three periods with his fly undone)? The chippy ice? Who, or what, could they blame?
"They're a very skilled team," said Peterson, barely disguising his irritation at the questions. "They made a few great plays. There are not always big answers to these questions. Sometimes the answer is very simple."