January 14, 2010

America's Golden Goalies

It remains one of the most striking images in Olympic history: goalie Jim Craig, draped in the American flag, frantically scanning the stands, searching through the ecstatic hometown crowd. They were cheering euphorically because Team USA had just knocked off Finland to clinch the 1980 Olympic gold medal in hockey.

At the time no one knew what Craig was looking for. But the triumphant pose screamed "America standing proud."

It was a significant statement made in troubled times, as the American people badly needed a lift. Four months earlier Iranian militants had taken over the US embassy in Tehran and held the Americans hostage and an international political stare down with the Russians ensued. On the home front it was a winter of discontent as inflation and unemployment reached staggering levels.

Yes, the Americans needed some heroes in the worst way. They found them in the United States Olympic hockey team.

The masked Craig was in many ways the face of the team, but never more so than when the goaltender desperately was seeking his father's face in the audience. He wanted to celebrate this glorious moment with his dad.

The 4-2 win over Finland gave the Americans the gold medal, but the actual "Miracle on Ice" happened two days earlier when this band of college students shocked the Soviet Union, the best hockey team in the world and a symbolic figure of the Russian might.

While the 1980 Miracle on Ice has become one of the most celebrated moments in American sports history, a generation of Americans had seen this story before, albeit on a smaller scale.

Back in 1960 the Olympics were held in little known Squaw Valley, California. Another US hockey team had beaten the mighty Soviets, won the gold medal on home ice and rekindle a nation's pride when it needed it the most.

The parallels between 1960 and 1980 are uncanny. Both American teams were serious underdogs, with home ice seen as their only advantage. Both teams had to upset the Soviet hockey team, a seemingly impossible task. Both teams were even connected by family, as the 1960 team starred brothers Bill and Roger Christian, while 1980 saw Bill's son Dave play. Even 1980 coach Herb Brooks was closely connected to the 1960 team, having been the final forward cut from the team prior to the Olympics.

Then there was the goaltenders. Both teams relied heavily on their goaltenders. 1980 of course featured Jim Craig out of Boston University. In 1960 it was Jack McCartan, who played at the University of Minnesota. He stood alone, backstopping Russian pucks, but also saving American dreams.

McCartan was oblivious to the many feelings of anxiousness at the time. Political sparring between the Americans and the big bad communists and fears of nuclear war were far from his mind in 1960. As he himself said "I wanted to beat the Russians because they were the top hockey team at the Games, no because they were our enemy."

McCartan wasn't the first choice though. He had played for the US in the 1959 World Championships, but was released from Olympic tryouts early on. Unsatisfied with their goaltending, the Americans gave McCartan another chance.

It was a wise move, as McCartan was the star of the 2-1 victory over Canada, and then the 3-2 victory over the Russians, stopping 27 shots in the latter game, including 4 on breakaways.

The Americans still had to win one more game, against Czechoslovakia, to win the gold medal. But they were emotionally spent, and struggled to play the 8am (!) game. They were trailing 4-3 after two periods when they got a surprise assist.

Soviet captain Nikolai Sologubov, one of the greatest defensemen in Russian hockey history, visited the American dressing room. Using hand signals to eliminate the language barrier, he convinced the Americans they needed more oxygen, as the games were played at over 6000 feet of altitude. The players found an oxygen tank and obviously woke up. They rallied for 6 goals in the third period, winning the game 9-4 and winning the first ever gold medal in American hockey history!

The victorious McCartan became somewhat of an immediate celebrity, as everyone sought interviews and autographs with the golden puckstopper. He even appeared in Life magazine. But fame was fleeting for McCartan. He would turn pro but aside from 12 games with the New York Rangers he could not stick in the NHL.

Fast forward to 1980. Another American team with another goalie of destiny - Jim Craig. It all happened again.

The Soviets and Americans were still at odds politically, although the threat of nuclear war subsided a bit. Times were tough for the American people though, as jobs were scarce and prices were high.

On the ice the Soviets had improved incredibly in 20 years, becoming the unquestioned best team in the world. They regularly defeated the best professionals the National Hockey League could throw at them.

Meanwhile the Americans were heavy underdogs, as suggested when they lost 10-3 to the Soviets just 4 days before the Lake Placid Olympics began.

The Americans found their confidence with a squeaker of a victory over Sweden before rolling over Czechoslovakia, Norway, Romania and West Germany.

But just as in 1960, the game against the Soviets was the defining moment of the Olympics. The Americans finished the first period tied with the Soviets at 2-2, a minor miracle in itself, especially considering Mark Johnson's last second goal. The Soviet coaches were not pleased, and responded by curiously pulling star goalie Vladislav Tretiak from the game, replacing him with young Vladimir Myshkin.

The Russians seemed to have righted themselves in the second, taking a 3-2 lead into the intermission. The Americans were still happy, to be down only 1 goal after 2 periods was still a major accomplishment.

Something funny happened in the third period. Johnson scored his second of the game to knot the score at 3. Just 90 seconds late Mike Eruzione fired a screened shot past Myshkin to give the Americans a 4-3 lead.

Thanks to Craig's fine goaltending, the Americans hung on, and unthinkably defeated the Russians. Cue ABC's play by play man Al Michaels:

"Do you believe in miracles?" The nation became euphoric, celebrating an Olympic victory in a sport that in many parts of the country was still quite foreign.

Team USA still had to win one more time to capture the gold medal. Like in 1960, the opposition, this time Finland, jumped out to a 2-1 lead after two periods, again setting the stage for an American rally. Phil Verchota, Rob McClanahan and Mark Johnson all scored to secure the gold medal.

Bedlam ensued. Players raced from the bench onto the ice to embrace one another. Fans tumbled onto the ice to wave flags and high five anyone they could find.

And there, in the middle of it all, stood the flag-draped Craig, searching for his father in the stands.

Craig, even more so than McCartan, became a celebrity. He too would try his hand at the NHL, but would not find much success as a pro, either, having played himself out of the league by 1984.

But Jim Craig had bigger callings than NHL glory and Stanley Cup championships. He provided something special for a lot of American people. They had reasons to believe, reasons to be proud once again. Flag waving had never been so embraced. The Americans had defeated the Russians. They had won the Olympic gold medal!

Just like 20 years prior.


Anonymous said...

Greatest goalies???

Are you kidding, or just plain stupid?

Anonymous said...

I will COMPLETELY understand it when you don't allow my question from 30 seconds ago to be published.

But really, who are you trying to impress with this nonsense about 'Greatest goalies'? Most of these people wouldn't make much of an impact in the average 'garage league' in the rest of the world.