Last Friday night, after the U.S. hockey team had lost to Canada and Czechoslovakia, Phil Verchota and John Harrington were finishing a Bosnian dish of grilled mushrooms and sausages when the owner of the Brodac restaurant waddled over to pay his respects. This massive specimen was the locally famous Sultan, a former Olympic wrestler. Upon learning that Verchota and Harrington were captain and alternate captain, respectively, of the American team, the Sultan settled his 380-pound frame beside Verchota and made an effort to communicate.
"Kanada! Da!" he said, pretending with one hand to shoot a puck. Verchota smiled. "Czechoslovak! Da!" the Sultan continued, shooting again. "Amerikans? "The Sultan paused, leering at Verchota and Harrington. No shot this time. He took a swig of beer. "Touristes!" he said with a laugh. Then, fearing his joke had been missed, he took one giant paw and placed it over an American flag on the table, blocking the flag from view.
What a difference from four years ago, when Verchota, Harrington et al. were the toast of Lake Placid rather than the roasts of Sarajevo. The gloating Sultan was one more disturbance in a very disturbing week for the U.S. team, a week that began with the highest of hopes but brought the worst of performances. On Tuesday, Feb. 7, in a dismally lackluster effort, coach Lou Vairo's charges lost their Olympic opener to Canada 4-2. Two days later the Czechs defeated them 4-1. Then on Saturday, in the grimmest performance of all, the Americans had to scramble to gain a 3-3 tie with Norway, which had lost 16-2 to Finland in its previous game. That defeat fulfilled the Sultan's prophecy that, come the medal round, the American players would indeed be tourists. "I don't think we can get any lower than we are right now," said forward Scott Fusco, fighting to hold back the tears after the Norwegian embarrassment.
The U.S. hockey troubles began back in America and intensified some 19 hours before the first puck was dropped when the IOC issued a ruling that allowed Canada to use goalie Mario Gosselin and winger Dan Wood, who had both signed NHL contracts. Finland, with U.S. support, had filed a protest accusing 10 players from five countries of being pros. The IOC waffled, the rhetoric got heated and, finally, the night before the U.S.- Canada game, the IOC issued a vaguely worded statement that was intended to say that only a player who had both signed with and played for an NHL team was a pro. The Canadians lost two of their players, forward Mark Morrison and defenseman Don Dietrich, but gained an edge.
"Everyone's high in the dressing room, and morale's great," said Morrison shortly before game time. "It's a bit of a boost to find that even two of us can play." In fact, Gosselin, who has signed with the Quebec Nordiques, had been told by coach Dave King at 7:30 the night before that he was ineligible. An hour later King called back and said he might be eligible. Gosselin went to bed with the matter unresolved but was awakened at 11:30 p.m. by a call from a radio talk-show host in Montreal, who told him he was playing.
None of which should have mattered a whit to the U.S. team. Canada had won only two of its previous 19 games, and one of its losses was an 8-2 drubbing in Milwaukee at the hands of the U.S. Olympians. "We gave them something to think about," crowed Vairo before the start of the Olympics. Did they ever. The Canadians stewed and fumed. "They kind of stuck it in our face [in Milwaukee]," said Canada's outstanding defenseman, James Patrick, a North Dakota All-America last season. "They were laughing on the ice. There's a difference between cocky and confident."
What Vairo failed to do, it seems, was give his own team something to think about—i.e., that the 65-game exhibition season meant nothing, that the season began in Sarajevo and that it would last, at the longest, seven games. Six months of preparation was on the line. An ABC production assistant had made available to Vairo a highlight film of the 1980 miracle in Lake Placid—a show that has insurance salesmen spitting fire—but Vairo had turned him down, saying that this was a new team with a new identity. Fair enough.
But, referring to the team's level of intensity as the game with Canada approached, defenseman Mark Fusco said, "We had already played them twelve times this year [and were 5-4-3]. It was like, Oh God, Canada again. Another stop in another rink on a long road trip."
Events continued to go badly for the Americans when the team bus got held up in traffic en route to the game. The players arrived at the Zetra Arena 30 minutes late and had to hurry to dress. Every team has its pregame rituals, its time to joke and taunt and psych—ways of gradually building into something approaching a common state of preparedness—but now, with the rush, the ritual was disrupted.
Things then went from bad to worse. The charged-up Canadians scored on their first shot of the game. It was a clean tip-in by Pat Flatley, a Wisconsin All-America in 1982-83, after just 27 seconds. The goal seemed to turn the knees of U.S. goalie Marc Behrend to goo, and for the rest of the game he fought the puck. His uncertain play appeared to spread through the entire U.S. squad. Ed Olczyk, 17, and David A. Jensen, 18, the wings on the Diaper Line, teamed up to tie the score, but Canada regained the lead on a power play with the first of Carey Wilson's three goals. The first period ended with Canada ahead 2-1.