The '69 Mets will tell you. The vexing thing about miracles is that they cannot be reproduced on demand. Or just ask the U.S. Olympic hockey team, which for the second straight quadrennium has failed to duplicate the Miracle on Ice, that 1980 gold medal performance at Lake Placid.
Four years ago coach Lou Vairo was criticized for fielding a team that was too young and too small and for prepping it for the Sarajevo Games with a schedule that was too easy. Last week it was coach Dave Peterson's turn to break out the old flak jacket.
A gruff, jowly former Minnesota high school coach, the 57-year-old Peterson took heat after his charges twice kissed away three-goal leads in a 7-5 loss to Czechoslovakia and then, two nights later, lost by the same score to the Soviet Union. And when Team USA was eliminated from the medal competition following a 4-1 loss Sunday night to a West German team with five Canadian expatriates, it was open season on the Yanks.
Peterson, the critics shouted, had selected a squad of one-way players—all offense, no defense—who were ill suited and ill prepared to succeed in the international arena. That was certainly true. Complicating matters, Team USA lacked a dependable goaltender; there was no Jim Craig on this team to play hero. Worse yet, the young and essentially inexperienced U.S. skaters had played a far too soft schedule coming into the Olympics, one oversaturated with weak college teams. The bottom line: Team USA simply didn't have the right stuff—on the ice, behind the bench or in the front office.
So Team USA limped into the consolation round, its heart as heavy as its goals-against average, an ungainly 5.4 after three losses and two wins in five games. Among other nations joining the U.S. in the international version of the NHL's Norris Division was Poland, which tied defending world-champion Sweden 1-1 in the tournament's biggest surprise. These same Poles, whose national program is short of equipment, reportedly were bartering tickets to Olympic events in Calgary for skates and sticks to take home. Then there was Austria, a team with half a dozen native Canadians on the ice and a Czechoslovakian defector, Ludek Bukac—the same Bukac who coached the Czech national team in Sarajevo—behind the bench. And, of course, France, whose starting goaltender, Patrick Foliot, had godawful lateral movement, a shaky glove hand and a bad sunburn on the back of his neck.
What brought things to such an ugly pass for the U.S.? "You people [the media] have decided that we're a poor defensive team," said Peterson after the Czechoslovakia Choke. Indeed, the U.S., which gave up a total of nine goals in its victories over Austria and Norway, plus 18 in its three losses—that's 27 in all, or 19 more than the Poles gave up in four games—had no D.
Art Berglund, the U.S. team's general manager, insisted that his defensemen had plenty of talent, adding that at least five of them have futures in the NHL. In fact, one defenseman, captain Brian Leetch, will sign a million-dollar contract with the New York Rangers after the Olympics and will probably skate right into their lineup. But at this stage potential NHL star defensemen such as Leetch and Greg Brown and Scott Young are strictly offensive defensemen, unskilled in the ways of clearing rival players from in front of their own net.
However, as a point of reference, a young American defenseman named Chris Chelios played much the same way, if not worse, at Sarajevo in 1984, and one year later was a standout with the Montreal Canadiens and played in the NHL All-Star Game. Said Berglund, "We"—by "we" he presumably meant true patriots—"don't criticize our defense."
In the heat of battle the U.S.'s young rear guard tended to damn the torpedoes, leaving goaltenders Dave Richter and Chris Terreri to stare down dozens of 3-on-2 and 2-on-l break-ins. Vladislav Tretiak couldn't have bailed out Team USA. "You and I both know what our real problem is—goaltending," said one Team USA official. "But what do you want us to do, stand up and say that, and leave those kids twisting in the wind?"
If only the U.S. defensemen had been so compassionate. In the opening game against Austria—the U.S. was originally supposed to open with the Czechs, but the IOC switched opponents at the request of ABC, which, for the sake of ratings, desperately wanted the Yanks to start these games with a win, preferably a romp—the Americans had a nice rout going. They were ahead 9-3 with 9:05 to play when Peterson pulled Richter in order to give Terreri some playing time. The Austrians, however, shattered Terreri's confidence by scoring on three of their next seven shots. "That wasn't Chris's fault," said forward Tony Granato. "We didn't buckle down in our own end."