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As the first step in selecting the team, Brooks sent letters to every coach of NCAA Division I and II schools and got back a list of 400 possible prospects. This crowd was pared down to 68 players who performed in a four-team tournament at the U.S. Olympic Committee's Sports Festival in Colorado Springs last summer. Brooks and his nine-man committee culled through the prospects and came up with 26 players—a roster that will be cut to 20 when the first Olympic game is played on Feb. 12. Despite the plethora of Minnesota players, Brooks says, "We all agreed on 90% of the choices."
The team is funded with a $700,000 budget: $150,000 from USOC funds, $200,000 from private contributions and $350,000 from gate receipts. Under the International Olympic Committee's increasingly liberal attitude toward play-for-pay Olympians, the team members are paid generous living expenses—$7,200 per man over a six-month span with the team. Mark Johnson, 22, the leading scorer and the son of the Wisconsin coach, says, "Well, you can't run out and buy a car or big stereo set, but you don't have to scrounge around for beer money like you did in college, either. You can get a nice sport coat or take a girl out to a good dinner without worrying about going broke. But no one feels exactly rich."
Most of the players could be doing better financially if they had become true professionals. Walter Bush, vice-president of the Minnesota North Stars and for two decades a leader and adviser to Olympic hockey teams, says, "This team is the best, man for man, that we've "had in 20 years, but they are making a sacrifice to do it. Any one of the better drafted players would be making $15,000 for the season with a minor league pro club. And if any of them went right up to an NHL team, the pay would be between $60,000 and $80,000, not counting a signing bonus."
Perhaps the best pro prospect on the Olympic roster is hulking (6'3", 190 pounds) Defenseman Mike Ramsey, a calm, blond 19-year-old who graduated as an honor student from Minneapolis' Roosevelt High School in 1978 and played last season for Brooks' NCAA-champion Gophers. Ramsey was drafted No. 1 by Buffalo last spring—the first American ever to be a first-round choice in the NHL draft. Sabre Coach and General Manager Scotty Bowman has said that he expects Ramsey to be the cornerstone of Buffalo's defense in the '80s. Several other Brooks-coached Minnesotans have gone high in NHL drafts, too: Center Neal Broten, 20—whom Brooks picked (over Ramsey) as "the best freshman ever to play at Minnesota"—was the North Stars' No. 2 choice in '79; Center Steve Christoff, 21, was the North Stars' second pick in '78; Defenseman Bill Baker, 23, was Montreal's No. 3 in '76; and Wing Rob McClanahan, 21, was Buffalo's No. 3 in '78.
Despite the crowd of Gophers, the team's leading scorer is a Minnesotan who played for Wisconsin—Johnson, a No. 3 Pittsburgh draftee in 1977. One expert says, "Mark was the best college player in the country last year. If hockey had a Heisman Trophy, he would have won it." Brooks doesn't disagree, saying, "When Mark Johnson goes, we really go." A quick skater and clever stickhandler, Johnson has 23 goals and 32 assists for the Olympic team, with Christoff runner-up with 21 and 14. The player with the most glittering Olympic heritage is Dave Christian, 20, of North Dakota University, Winnipeg's No. 2 choice in 1979. He is the son of Bill Christian, the co-owner of a hockey-stick manufacturing firm but far better known as the Olympian who slapped in the goal that beat the Soviets 3-2 for the 1960 gold medal in Squaw Valley. Two of Dave Christian's uncles have also played on U.S. Olympic teams.
However well the '80 team may skate and score, the ultimate fate of the U.S. Olympians will probably rest on the shoulders of the goalie, Jim Craig, 22, of Boston University. Historically, when an American team has done well in an Olympics, it has been buoyed by a heroic performance by its goalkeeper—remember Jack McCartan in '60? As of last week, Craig, a fourth-round Atlanta pick in 1976, boasted a stunning 15-4 record with the Olympians, and a 2.12 goals-against average. He will have to be equally impressive at Lake Placid for the U.S. team to excel.
International hockey is a more intricate and wider ranging game than so-called "North American" hockey. It is played on a far larger rink and thus demands better skating and passing skills, and somewhat less roughness. Because of this, Brooks has instituted what he calls a "more positive" approach that incorporates "the best of European and the best of North American style of play." Brooks is trying to de-emphasize the brute checking and fire-away-and-hope shooting that NHL teams tend to favor. "We are trying to emphasize puck possession," he says, "preaching that we do best only if we control the puck. We emphasize lots of passing to keep possession, a conservative kind of game instead of the all-out aggressive attack—the dump-the-puck-up-the-ice approach of the North American pro leagues. We try for high-quality shots that we have worked to get for ourselves, instead of waiting for and working off what we hope will be the other guy's mistakes. We have three or four set patterns, but beyond that it is all improvisation, an intuitive process that you might call controlled innovation. International hockey is a more subjective game, and it requires good skaters and good thinkers. Overall, it accelerates people's skills, makes them better stickhandlers and calls for a much more subtle physical game. I think it combines the best of both worlds."
Besides installing a demanding new system of play, Brooks has also had to deal with the fact that any U.S. Olympic team is, by definition, an aggregation of would-be prima donnas. "Everyone has been No. 1 on his own team, and now he has to learn to mesh with a whole rink full of other No. Is," says Brooks. To help instill a sense of teamwork and togetherness, he has introduced slogans intended to encourage selflessness. Such as: "The way you move the puck is an expression of yourself within a framework of friends." Or: "Passes come from the heart, not the stick." Hokey? Yes. Nevertheless, Brooks feels that inspirational appeals have limited value these days. "Mom and America and apple pie are nice to talk about," he says. "But that isn't what motivates these kids. They want to win for its own sake, and they are also building their own esprit, their own pride in the team."
Logistically, the life the Olympians lead is in almost every sense—including the paycheck—that of true professionals. They have been on killing road trips—five games in five cities in seven days. They get up in the morning and go to work, for the U.S. Olympic team. Yet there is also an intangible buoyancy to their hockey lives, something that is both collegiate and patriotic, a spirit that seems to lift them beyond mere hockey-playing workmen. As Craig says, "We have it both ways now: we do the job as if we are pros—going to work every day, putting in long hours, having no other real responsibility but hockey. But we also have that 'up' feeling, that esprit of being the Olympic team for this whole country. We generate our own rah-rah and our own special sense of pride that I can't imagine real pros ever feel."
Indeed, the only talk of "sacrifice" seems to come from outsiders. Ramsey says of his decision to play in the Olympics instead of the NHL, "This is the opportunity of a lifetime. I don't feel I'm sacrificing anything. You can only play in an Olympics once. I knew I'd do this even before I was drafted. Then when I was drafted so high, I never doubted my decision for a minute. Nothing can compare to the rewards you get in an Olympics."