LaFontaine will be able to play in the pros, all right; in fact, expect him to be centering a regular line for the Islanders as soon as he can get from Sarajevo to New York at the conclusion of the Games. Says one of Torrey's rival general managers, "He's the real thing—almost too good to be true. You'd kill to have a guy like that on your team."
"Those hands!" says Olympic teammate Steve Griffith admiringly. "Give me a couple of fingernails from his hands. Some calluses. Anything."
LaFontaine has been playing on a line with Left Wing David A. Jensen (there's also a David H. Jensen who plays defense). David A. was drafted by the Hartford Whalers, also in the first round, and he may be the fastest skater on the Olympic team. Jensen, 18, is a high school senior at Lawrence Academy, a private school in Groton, Mass. Vairo has matched a number of right wings with LaFontaine and Jensen—Vairo has the Olympians playing their off wings, so right wings are lefthanded shooters—and 17-year-old Olczyk seems to complement them best. Olczyk, 6'1", 195 pounds, grew up playing hockey for the Chicago Minor Hawks, but ventured to Stratford, Ont. last season to play at the Junior B level. "I didn't want to be another one of those players—'Oh, Eddie Olczyk, he was good in
' " he says. "The kids playing hockey in Chicago have never gotten the recognition they deserve, and if I can open a few doors for them, that's the mission in my heart." (Chelios also got his start in the Windy City, but his family moved to California when he was 13.) Olczyk is a cinch to be among the top five players selected in the 1984 NHL draft. If Vairo sticks with the trio of Olczyk, LaFontaine and Jensen, it is likely to be the youngest line in Olympic history.
Vairo thinks he can use his team's youth to its advantage. "At Sarajevo, we're going to play on a big rink, where speed and quickness are way more important than physical maturity," he says. "Good conditioning, young legs, youthful enthusiasm—you'd better have those things. When Eddie Olczyk comes down the ice one-on-one against Soviet Defenseman Vyacheslav Fetisov, he's not going to be asked for his driver's license or proof of age. The younger the player, the more the element of naivet�. Is that a real word? Naivet�? In 1980, they were naive enough to believe in the miracle."
"I remember when it was 2-2 against the Russians in Lake Placid," says David A. Jensen, who was watching the game at home in Needham, Mass. "I said, 'Well, it's tied now, but wait till those Reds come out for the next period.' I don't want to sound unpatriotic, but I just didn't believe we could do it. I was a 14-year-old kid who had been brainwashed about how great the Russians were. They're awful shifty, but they can be beaten. It's just one game. I think every one of us believes we can do it. Every one of those '80 guys believed it. Believingness is the thing."
There are two places starry-eyed youth can hurt you, however. Defense and leadership. All the current Olympic defensemen can skate and move the puck with consummate skill. (Vairo doesn't like them to skate with the puck, insisting they pass it ahead to the forwards instead.) But no one has emerged as the rock-steady defensive performer that Morrow was in 1980. That may change. Morrow himself was inconsistent during pre-Olympic play. Chelios, Fusco, 6'4" Tom Hirsch, a junior at the University of Minnesota, and 17-year-old Al Iafrate, a senior at Livonia ( Mich.) Bentley High School, could all fill such a role. "When the screws have to be tightened," says Assistant Coach Tim Taylor, who's on leave from his position as head coach at Yale, "we've got guys with the ability to tighten them.
"And we're still looking for leadership. Right now the whole team sort of reacts the same to everything. When we decide to play well, it's as if the whole team decides to play well. You can sense it in the locker room. We don't have anybody yet who can go around and grab people by the throat and threaten them like a Bobby Clarke would do."
The time you need someone like that is when a team comes out flat, or the goal-tender lets in a bad goal. Mark Johnson was the player who could lift the 1980 team to another level. Says Harrington: "When we're down by a goal this year, you don't see the same intensity that the 1980 team had. There were guys on that team who just refused to lose. And we were down by a goal in six of seven games during the Olympics."
To gain the medal round in '84, the U.S. team will need superior goaltending, Jim Craig-style. Both Behrend and Mason have played solidly thus far. Behrend, who grew up in Madison, Wis., played for the hometown Badgers and was MVP in the 1981 and 1983 NCAA tournaments, both of which Wisconsin won. He has proved himself under pressure. Mason comes from International Falls, Minn. and the University of Minnesota-Duluth. The coaching staff is talking seriously about alternating them in the Olympics. "It wouldn't bother me to play both," says Goalie Coach Dave Peterson, "because you'd always have a fresh guy in goal. But you'd be bucking tradition. It's a nice dilemma, but the question is, will either Behrend or Mason rise to a great occasion the way Jimmy Craig did?"
The question is, will all of them?