They are a boyish-looking bunch, clean-featured and open and given to a little horseplay. And why not? They are members of the youngest Olympic hockey team ever assembled by the U.S.—and almost certainly by anyone else. Yet, more than two months before the Lake Placid Games, they already appear to be more promising than any U.S. Olympic team since the bunch that won a gold medal in 1960, this country's first and last in hockey.
What is perhaps most impressive about this team is that though its players are fresh out of college and still wet behind the ears, it constitutes the best team in the Central Hockey League—by far the best. For those who don't understand the full significance of that, the CHL is a bona fide rugged, hard-checking league of professional teams, a Class AAA proving ground for the NHL.
As of last week, the 1980 U.S. Olympic team had a 6-1 record after a series of real-life games against the CHL's finest. All this is unprecedented in the annals of North American "amateur" hockey, but playing against pros and living like pros and being paid like pros (up to a point, anyway) is about the only way that any U.S. team will ever be able to compete in the patently un-amateur game played by the nonpareil businessmen-Olympians of the Soviet Union, to say nothing of the career hockey players of Czechoslovakia and the highly subsidized Swedes.
The new U.S. style and substance in Olympic hockey are essentially the brainchild and creation of Coach Herbert Paul Brooks, 42, a cool, controlled sports administrator who is more technocrat than evangelist or father figure, a man who has been known to inform his teams, "You're hockey players, and I don't make it a habit to pal around with hockey players." As one Olympian puts it, "Coach Brooks is the field marshal, we are the troops, and we don't treat each other as friends."
Brooks has the credentials for the job: he played on two Olympic teams (1964 and 1968), as well as on five world-tournament clubs, and he has coached at the University of Minnesota, his alma mater, for seven years, starting with a mediocre 1972-73 season (15-16-3), then building and building until his record was 175-100-20 at the end of last season and included three NCAA championships, the most recent being in 1979.
Brooks' initial problem in recruiting players for the 1980 Olympic team was a perennial American dilemma: how to keep the best collegians from skipping the Games to turn pro. Says Brooks, "Unlike the Europeans, whose personnel return year after year, there is no continuity in U.S. teams. Once the Olympics are over—bang!—the best kids turn pro. That's something we'll probably never change. Obviously, the intangible rewards and glory of the Olympics aren't quite enough for some of them. There had to be something more practical."
To inject some factors of practical value into the Olympic equation, Brooks arranged the unprecedented 18-game schedule against CHL teams. In the past, U.S. Olympic teams played a long but soft schedule, mainly against college teams, with some international games thrown in. It was a baby-food diet, and once the U.S. teams tried to digest the nail-eating brand of hockey practiced by the Soviets and the Czechs, they usually found themselves at a loss—after loss after loss. Beyond that, in the steely eyes of the pro clubs, these young hopefuls in effect lost a year of hard and necessary hockey progress, because they were rarely tested beyond the schoolboy levels of the game they had already mastered in college.
But now, given Brooks' idea of pitting the Olympians against the pro-caliber game, even the most pragmatic club manager, as well as the most opportunistic agent, could see that there was much practical experience to be gained from being an Olympian. Perhaps the most important ingredient in Brooks' scheme was his arrangement with CHL President Bud Poile that all CHL games against the Olympians counted in the league standings. "That way, the pros would be doing their best and not dogging it through just another exhibition game," says Brooks. "And I thought that we'd be doing very well to play .500 against them with that proviso. I'm very impressed with what we've done."
Of course, the Olympians aren't actually in the league themselves, but they have played hard—first to prove that, as underdogs, they could at least compete on an even basis, and now to keep up their reputation as overdogs in the CHL. Besides the CHL games, the Olympians played a 10-game tour in Europe in September (where they were 7-2-1). They also have an ongoing series with the Canadian Olympic team (the U.S. is 2-4 to date) and U.S. colleges (5-0). Early in the fall they played four exhibitions with NHL clubs, and lost them all. They are to play a total of 63 games before Lake Placid, and as of last Sunday, they had an overall record of 22-11-1, having won 15 of the last 20.
The bulk of the 26-man team is, not surprisingly, from Brooks' own Minnesota clubs. There are 10 Gophers in all, yet Brooks insists that the squad by no means reflects just his own personal desires, but rather the democratic opinion of a nine-man advisory selection committee that included some of the country's sharpest hockey men, like Bob Johnson, University of Wisconsin and 1976 Olympic coach, Bill Cleary of Harvard, Jeff Sauer of Colorado College and Jack Parker of Boston University. Says Brooks, "I didn't want an I-me-myself operation here; I wanted help. I wanted to get rid of politics and regionalism and have a committee make the choices."