This is the tale of a team you don't care about.
Admittedly, it's an unconventional way to kick off a story. But the sentiment is true. Unless you're some sort of hockey savant, and your walls are covered by posters featuring the likenesses of David Volek and Jim Dowd and Guy Carbonneau, you haven't given a thought to this topic since Feb. 15, 1984, the day the United States Olympic team wrapped up an absolutely miserable run of seventh-place sub-adequacy at the XIV Winter Games in Sarajevo.
Oh, millions upon millions of Americans still recall the glorious 1980 Miracle on Ice, when a ragamuffin band of overachievers shocked the mighty Soviet Union (and then Finland) to capture the gold at Lake Placid. Go ask Grandpa if he remembers where he was when Al Michaels bellowed his gilded, "Do you believe in miracles? Yes!" Go ask Dad. Mom. Aunt Leah. They'll all be able to recollect something. A moment. A feeling. A sensation. A state of sustained euphoria. A fluttering flag. Tears of joy. Squeals of delight ...
But 1984? "Nothing," says Lou Vairo. "Most people remember nothing. I get it."
The words are stated without a sigh or even the slightest hint of remorse. They are simply a fact, in the same way the sky is blue and the rain is wet. Four years after Jim Craig and Mike Eruzione and Herb Brooks became household names, Vairo — perhaps the most unlikely head coach in the history of unlikely head coaches — guided the youngest team in U.S. Olympic hockey history (average age: 20.7 years old) on a quest to defend the un-defendable. "First off, we only had two guys on our roster who played in 1980, so we weren't actually defending our gold medal," says Vairo. "And second, it was an impossible task. What the 1980 team did was unmatchable. They shocked the world, they beat the Soviets during the hostage crisis, and they did it on American soil at Lake Placid. There was no possible way we could match that. Impossible."
"It was an impossible task. What the 1980 team did was unmatchable."Head coach Lou Vairo in 1984. (Getty Images)
The sentiment makes sense. The sentiment has always made sense. And yet, no matter how many times Vairo uttered such thoughts (and he uttered them repeatedly), nobody seemed to care. From the day he was hired (June 12, 1982, to be exact) to fill Brooks' Bob Lanier-sized shoes, Vairo told anyone who would listen that 1984 was not — under any possible terms — 1980. "How can you replicate that magic?" he says. "You can't."
That's not, however, what people wanted to hear. Before the Lake Placid Games, hockey in the United States was an Off-Broadway production, often played before half-empty stadiums and covered on page C6 of the sports section. It was a sport, but with the exception of a few cities, such as Boston, not one that registered on the radars of most Americans. "Then the 1980 Olympics happened," says Larry Johnson, the general manager of the 1984 team, "and people began to care." It wasn't merely about the hockey, or even mostly about the hockey. The Miracle on Ice came to symbolize patriotism, and the spirit and willingness of a nation devoted to freedom and liberty, and how a group of plucky amateurs, utter underdogs, could defeat a monstrous, militaristic dictatorship, seemingly through will alone. The game against the Soviets happened while 52 Americans were being held hostage in Iran, and emotions were bubbling over. There was a beauty in toppling the U.S.S.R. in its own sport; in watching "our boys" play with passion and spirit and panache. As soon as the Games ended, and the 19 other members of the Miracle team joined Eruzione on the gold-medal platform, the national hunger kicked in for more. More hockey. More glory. More joy. More miracles.
He made no sense. Absolutely none. Herb Brooks, coach of the 1980 squad, had been born in the hockey hotbed of Saint Paul, Minn., and between 1960 and 1970 played on eight U.S. National and Olympic teams. He coached the University of Minnesota to three NCAA titles. Bob Johnson, the coach of the 1976 U.S. Olympic team, was also born in Minnesota, and guided the University of Wisconsin to three NCAA crowns. Murray Williamson, the coach of the 1968 and 1972 U.S. Olympic teams, was born in Winnipeg, and starred as an All-American at the University of Minnesota before coaching the U.S. national teams in the World Hockey Championships for three years.
Vairo? He was a 37-year-old Joe Schmoe from — inexplicably — Brooklyn, N.Y.; one whose accent oozed B&G Pickles with a side of slaw. Hell, he had never even laced up a pair of ice skates until shortly after his 21st birthday. Growing up in the Bayview Housing Projects in the borough's Canarsie section, Vairo fancied himself a future member of the Brooklyn Dodgers. On hot summer days he would wake up at 6 a.m., head over to a vacant lot, kick away the glass shards and sprinkle flour to create baselines. "Man, I loved baseball and stickball," he says. "Just loved them."
When the Dodgers departed in 1957, however, the nearest professional sporting venue became Madison Square Garden — home of the NHL Rangers. "We'd take the No. 42 Rockaway Parkway bus and transfer to the Canarsie Line subway," Vairo once told The New York Times. "We'd take the subway to 14th Street and transfer to the uptown line and get off at 50th Street, at the Garden. Carfare was 15 cents each way. Then for 50 cents we could use our G.O. card from school to get into the side balcony, but we had to get in line early. My parents would give me a dollar, so that left a dime for a soda." Vairo still remembers attending his first game. New York beat Boston, 4-2. Don Head, the Bruins goaltender, slashed at any opponent who dared skate past. "Hockey had an excitement to it that captured my imagination," he says. "There was no boredom to it. It had a combative excitement."
A local exterminator named Ed Eskanazi introduced Vairo to roller hockey, and he purchased his first stick for 75 cents, then put friction tape on the handle. He spent two years in the Army, and when he returned to Brooklyn at age 20, a friend brought him out to the World's Fair ice rink in Flushing Meadows, Queens. He was roped into refereeing a game, but found himself holding onto the boards for dear life, his thin metal blades slipping out from beneath his feet. Still, there was an immediate bond between man and ice. Vairo began working as a fill-in coach for a midget team (he initially presumed all the players would be dwarves) and was surprised when Emile Francis, the Rangers coach at the time, allowed him to sit in during practices and take notes. "I learned a little about how and when to change lines and other stuff," he says. "And then I began reading up. Hockey changed from a hobby to a career."
His was a meteoric - and unprecedented - rise through the hockey ranks, one even Vairo would not have predicted.
In 1972, at age 27, Vairo used his life savings and a $3,500 bank loan to travel to the Soviet Union and attend a hockey seminar featuring the national team's coaches at the Institute of Sports and Culture. Over three and a half weeks, the kid from Brooklyn found himself eating, sleeping, dreaming and loving all things hockey. He felt a particular kinship with Anatoly Tarasov, the country's legendary coach who is often referred to as "the father of Russian Hockey," and gravitated toward the freewheeling, highflying European style of play Tarasov espoused. Back in the United States, Vairo coached junior teams in Brooklyn and the Bronx, and won multiple league championships and a state title. In 1975, itching to improve his hockey stock, he learned of a vacant coaching position with the Austin Mavericks, a Junior A team. Vairo was excited by the prospect of moving to Texas ... before learning Austin was Austin, Minnesota. For a whopping $4,000, he took the gig — then shocked everyone by guiding the team from worst to first in the U.S. Junior Hockey League. "I also drove the bus," he says proudly.
Vairo went on to spend five years as coaching program director for the Amateur Hockey Association of the United States (AHAUS). He also coached the American entries at the Junior World Championships between 1979 and 1982, and was an advance scout for Brooks in 1980. His was a meteoric — and unprecedented — rise through the hockey ranks, one even Vairo would not have predicted. "Not in a million years," he says.
When it came time for Walter Bush, the president of the U.S. Olympic Hockey Committee, to select a coach for the 1984 team, he possessed a long list of desired candidates. The first choice, Bob Johnson, decided to instead take the head job with the NHL's Calgary Flames. The second choice, Yale coach Tim Taylor, declined. "There were a bunch of terrific coaches with much more experience than I had, and they were approached," says Vairo. "They all came up with excuses — family, another commitment, school. Truth is, the real reason was simple: Who would want to follow? Talk about a thankless job ..."
When Bush broached the subject to Vairo, he, too, brushed it off. "Then one of my closest pals asked me, ‘When are you going to get a chance like this again?'" says Vairo. "I'm a patriot. I love America. I couldn't say no."
⋆ ⋆ ⋆
What ensued was nothing short of, well, pick a word: Weird. Amazing. Wacky. Unpredictable. Fascinating. In June, 1983, 80 of the nation's top amateur ice skaters came to Colorado Springs to participate in the National Sports Festival, which served as an Olympic trial. The players were split into four teams, with Vairo and his assistants seeking out skills past American coaches tended to overlook. To hell with physicality — this edition would be based upon the Soviet model Vairo had learned long ago. He wanted speed. And precision. And more speed and precision. The 1984 team would weave and pass and set one another up. Vairo termed it "sophisticated pond hockey," and nary a goon was allowed.
Pat LaFontaine tapes his stick before a Canadian junior game in 1982. He finished his NHL career with over 1,000 points and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2003.(Getty Images)
One by one, many of the most rugged men on the ice were shocked to find themselves on the next bus home. Those who stuck often looked more like junior high kids than international hockey participants. There was Pat LaFontaine, a water bug-quick, 18-year-old center who had recently been drafted third overall by the New York Islanders. LaFontaine spent the previous season scoring 234 points in 70 games with the Verdun Juniors of the Quebec Major Junior A Hockey League, and was considered by many to be the American answer to Wayne Gretzky. There was David A. Jensen, a junior at Lawrence Academy in Groton, Mass., whose blinding speed caused Vairo to check his stopwatch, then check it again and again. There was Ed Olczyk, a tough 16-year-old kid from Chicago who chugged up the ice like a fullback, but shot the puck with glass-shattering strength. "I was turning 13 when they won in 1980, and it was my dream to be a part of something like that," Olczyk says. "But I was thinking 1988, not 1984. I was so young and naïve ..."
There was also controversy and, in the locker rooms, anger and angst. Before 1980, American's youth hockey programs were thought by the NHL to be second-rate, usually worth rummaging through only as a last resort. After the miracle, however, the NHL reconsidered. On June 8, 1983, the league held its annual draft, and three of the first five players selected were Americans. Brian Lawton, a center from Rhode Island, went No. 1 to the North Stars. LaFontaine was chosen third, by the Islanders, and goaltender Tom Barrasso was selected fifth by the Buffalo Sabres. Because the Olympic team needed as many top-shelf players as possible, guaranteed roster spots were promised to approximately 15 players in the weeks and months before tryouts. Hence, while men like Lawton, Barrasso and University of Wisconsin defenseman Chris Chellios went through the motions (while keeping their mouths shut) and played all the games, they were — secretly — locks (though Lawton ultimately decided to turn pro instead which then disqualified him from Olympic competition.)
That meant the 80 invitees were battling for only 10 or so spots. "When I found that out, I was pretty upset," says Ed Lee, a defenseman from Princeton who survived multiple cuts before being let go. "There was an agent who was pretty influential, and some real unfairness. I'm not bitter about it — I loved the guys I played with — but was it fair? No."
On July 4, 1983, at the conclusion of the National Sports Festival, Vairo gathered all 80 aspirants inside a room at the Olympic Training Center. One by one, in alphabetical order, he read the names of the 26 players who made the cut (five more would be cast off over the ensuing year.) "He went in alphabetical order," says Olczyk. "And when he said ‘Edward Olczyk' — I couldn't believe it. First, no one ever calls me that unless I'm getting my driver's license. And second, I was on the Olympic team. Man, oh man ..."
Chris Chelios in a 1984 exhibition against Sweden. He went on to play more NHL games than any American-born player and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2013. (Getty Images)
Vairo's roster was a quirky mix of youngsters who'd never sniffed a beer and college juniors and seniors who knew their way around a rink.
Vairo's roster was a quirky mix of youngsters who'd never sniffed a beer and college juniors and seniors who knew their way around a rink. There were two David Jensens (David A., the high school kid; and David H., a gritty defenseman from the University of Minnesota), a pair of brothers (Mark and Scott Fusco from Burlington, Mass.,), five teenagers and three goaltenders — Barrasso, Marc Behrend from the University of Wisconsin and Bob Mason from the University of Minnesota-Duluth. The humble LaFontaine was immediately nicknamed "Franny" — short for "Franchise." Chelios, a star at Wisconsin, was the biggest talent on an iffy defense. Perhaps most noteworthy, two players from the 1980 squad — forwards John "Bah" Harrington and Phil Verchota — stuck (most of the other members of that team either turned professional or retired from the sport.) "I was 27, and I just wasn't ready yet to get a full-time job," says Verchota, who scored the tying goal against Finland in the 1980 gold-medal game. "The NHL didn't interest me — in my analysis of the cost-benefit, the cost outweighed the benefit. But I still loved hockey, and I wanted one last spin."
Because he had lived the 1980 experience, Verchota presumed much would be the same this time around. As was the case four years earlier, USA Hockey pieced together a lengthy, grinding pre-Olympic schedule consisting of 65 games against college, minor league, NHL and foreign teams that would take the players and coaches on a dizzying national and world tour. "That's good — it's the way it should be," says Verchota, who was named the U.S. captain. "You want to bond as a team, get used to one another, play a lot of hockey. In 1980, it worked great. We'd go into towns, play, grab a bite to eat, sleep and leave the next morning. No big deal."
That was then.
Beginning with its first game, an Aug. 22, 1983 face-off against the Soviet (a touring Russian ice hockey club) in Fairbanks, Alaska, the 1984 U.S. Olympic hockey team was treated as if it were the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team. In nearly every city, town and hamlet, there was a pregame meeting with a mayor, or a city council member. There were clinics with elementary school children and visits to nursing homes and banquet halls and baseball stadiums to throw out first pitches. There were nonstop interview requests — with AM radio stations and cable television networks and seemingly every weekly newspaper sports editor the planet could muster. "Wherever we went, we were mobbed," says Mason. "We were the circus coming to town."
Bob Brooke, a forward with the team, later penned a piece for The New York Times about the experience: "We rode the crest of a media wave all year," he wrote, "basking in the sunshine of little boys and girls tugging at our coattails for autographs, drinking in the prospects of appearing in commercials and [on] posters."
After most games, the players would be treated to the finest in rubber chicken banquet food, and be forced to listen as some mid-level political figure spewed inane puns about blue lines and checking and icing — words the speaker often did not understand. Bob O'Connor, an assistant coach and the team's video coordinator, carried his camera everywhere, and later pieced together a two-hour documentary titled "USA Hockey: From Sports Festival to Sarajevo." The footage is often jaw-droppingly painful — in one squirm-worthy moment, the players sit at long tables eating what looks to be a tuna-and-fruit salad medley as an elderly man at a podium begins, "A lot of you might not know that Kalamazoo was founded in 1830 by ..."
"We were all hockey players, and we loved hockey. We had fun. Lots of fun. But it beat on us."
Johnson was responsible for putting together the schedule, and he sent the team to some of the nation's most yawn-inducing locations, ranging from Soldotna, Alaska (home of the Soldotna Historical Society Museum) to Warroad, Minn., (the temperature dipped to 20 below zero the night of the game.) Vairo's minions played two games against each Central Hockey League team, which meant trips to Tulsa, Salt Lake City, Indianapolis and Billings. They faced a bevy of top-level college squads, including Wisconsin and Minnesota, as well as NHL matchups with six different teams. "It was really exhausting," says Scott Bjugstad, a forward from the University of Minnesota. "We were all hockey players, and we loved hockey. But there'd be a dinner, then a game, then another dinner. Then you'd go to the next town, and it'd be the same thing. We had fun. Lots of fun. But it beat on us."
"It was all USA Hockey's idea," says Johnson. "I was just the GM — I had nothing to do with all the PR commitments. I was pissed, but they needed to make money to support the program, and they also wanted to build on the momentum of 1980. I understood. But I wasn't happy. We wore those kids down."
Worse than the travel was the awkward position the participants often found themselves in. Despite never having won an Olympic medal of any sort (with the obvious exceptions of Harrington and Verchota), the players were feted upon as if they were returning champions — not developing hopefuls. On one commercial flight, for example, O'Connor captured a pilot speaking over the PA system: "You may not be aware, but we have the U.S. Olympic hockey team on board. You may want to wish them luck, though they may not need it. I'm sure they're skillful enough to win it again this time." O'Connor flashes to several team members, who look as if they'd like to leap from the plane.
On Sept. 29, five months before the Olympic opening ceremonies, the team was hosted at the White House by Ronald Reagan. Resplendent in identical blue blazers, with American flag patches stitched above their hearts, the players stood in line as the president went man to man, shaking hands and nodding as they introduced themselves. Verchota was asked to the podium, and he presented Reagan with a red, white and blue Olympic jersey. The team captain said something softly to the president, who cracked, "Just got an offer to play tomorrow night."
The players chuckled heartily. What else were they supposed to do? Verchota then handed George Bush, the vice president, a small team pendant, which he accepted with the enthusiasm of a 10-year-old finding tube socks beneath the Christmas tree. Harrington followed by giving Reagan a hockey trophy (one that looked, quizzically, like a gold-painted bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken), and the president closed by shooting a puck past Behrend into a makeshift net.
"In 1980, we didn't meet the president until after the Olympics," says Verchota. "We had to earn the honor."
⋆ ⋆ ⋆
Around the same time the hockey team was establishing itself as an American phenomenon, movie theatres across the country were showing "Rocky III." This time around, Rocky Balboa is the reigning heavyweight champion, softened by success and accolades and myriad commercial opportunities.
Unbeknownst to the pugilist, his people have been feeding him creampuffs — one soft opponent after another. When it's finally brought to his attention that the fighters have been selected for their mediocrity, Balboa is incredulous. "What do you mean?" he says to Mickey, his manager. "They was hand-picked? Set-ups?"
"No," Mickey replies. "They weren't set-ups. They was good fighters. But they weren't killers."
U.S. fans celebrate in Lake Placid. (Getty Images)
Yet the schedule convinced many that this team was not only great, but potentially greater than the 1980 edition.
In the course of its 65-game lead-up to the Olympics, the U.S. Hockey did not face many creampuffs, per se. Yet the schedule — intentionally or not — convinced many that this team was not only great, but potentially greater than the 1980 edition. The final record (39-18-8) suggested a unit at the top of its game. But numbers didn't equal reality. In the matchups against NHL clubs, for example, the pace was fast and the intensity real — but only so real. Checking was kept to a minimum. The notable size and strength advantages enjoyed by the pro teams were not fully utilized. The last thing a Red Wing or North Star or Capital wanted to be known for was breaking the shoulder of a golden boy like LaFontaine or Olczyk. Goons — staples of play in the NHL of the 1980s — were kept in check. Hence, when people tuned in to the evening news, the images were often of American players soaring unencumbered toward the goal like bald eagles in flight. There were no forearm shivers; no pointed elbows; no groin shots or broken teeth.
Though the NHL encounters generated great buzz, the most anticipated confrontations came against the Soviet Union. Thanks in large part to Vairo's warm relations with the nation's hockey officials, the U.S.S.R. agreed to send its players to America for a six-game, six-city series that opened in (of all places) Lake Placid on the evening of Dec. 9, 1983.
Were one to believe the headlines and the hype, he would have thought this was a rematch of the Miracle, featuring Craig in goal and Brooks behind the bench and a Soviet squad loaded with greats like Viacheslav Fetisov and Boris Mikhailov. The town of Lake Placid (population: 2,524) was awash in red, white and blue. Across the street from the U.S. Olympic Training Center, where both teams stayed the night, a highlight video of the 1980 game ran on an endless loop in a storefront window.
When Verchota's game-winning shot trickled past goaltender Aleksandr Tzyhnykh with 1:18 remaining in the third period, sealing a 5-4 triumph, the overflow crowd of 9,110 exploded into cheers, then the familiar chant of USA! USA! Thirty years later, many of the American players still consider it the landmark moment of their hockey lives — a merging of patriotism and accomplishment, encased in the perfect venue.
Shortly after the final horn sounded, Vairo was in the dressing room, congratulating his players, when the telephone was passed his way. Ronald Reagan was on the line, calling to congratulate him on such a "miraculous" victory.
Truth be told, while certainly thrilling, there was little miraculous about it. First off, the 23-member Soviet team arrived in Lake Placid on the night before the game, following a 10 1/2-hour flight, then a five-hour bus trek. Second, the actual squad was assembled by coaches and officials only four days earlier — a collection of not-ready-for-prime-time-hockey players who, as a whole, were considered to be merely good, not Olympic-caliber. The actual Soviet A team was in Moscow, preparing for the Games. "The Russian Selects are going to be as good as any team we'll see in the Olympics except for the Russians themselves," Vairo said beforehand. "They're probably one of the top-six teams in the world." That sentiment, in hindsight, was incorrect.
That the Americans proceeded to take the six-game series (three wins, two losses, one tie) only raised expectations. The team was the subject of back-to-back "Nightline" segments; was featured in Time and Newsweek and Sports Illustrated; played before one sellout crowd after another. The U.S. split 12 games with the (real) Canadian Olympic team and — once again — American sports enthusiasts were talking up the dream of another medal.
Bob Mason, who became a key piece of the '84 roster after Tom Barrasso left the team. (USA Hockey)
People who grasped the intricacies of the sport realized that Vairo's club faced legitimate troubles.
Behind the scenes, however, people who grasped the intricacies of the sport realized that Vairo's club faced legitimate troubles. At the conclusion of the National Sports Festival, the one thing coaches knew was that, in Tom Barrasso, they possessed a potentially elite netminder. Though only 18 at the time of the tryouts, the Stow, Mass., native possessed the flexibility of a gymnast and the self-confidence of a bullfighter. The Buffalo Sabres had recently tabbed him with the fifth overall pick in the 1983 NHL Draft, but Vairo was satisfied when, at the festival, Barrasso assured him of his Olympic participation. Less than two weeks later, while the U.S. team was in Anchorage for an exhibition against the Soviet Wings, Seymour Knox, the Sabres owner, asked permission to visit with Barrasso. According to Vairo, Knox made clear he simply wanted to meet his team's top draft pick — nothing more. "Tommy played for us that night against the Wings, and played well," says Vairo of the 3-3 tie. "Well, come the next morning Knox flew Tommy out on private plane, and took him to Buffalo. I never heard from either guy again." Barrasso went on to win the Vezina Trophy later that season as the NHL's best goaltender and Vairo found himself without a top-shelf goaltender. "The guys we had were very good," he says of Mark Behrend and Bob Mason. "But just look what Tommy went on to accomplish ..."
The other major issues were experience and leadership. Or, in truth, lack thereof. Throughout the exhibition season, much was made of America's "Diaper Line" — the highly productive first line of LaFontaine, 18, Olczyk, 17, and David A. Jensen, 17. All three were teenagers, all three were quick and smart and savvy and skilled, all three played well together ... and all three had limited international experience. Still, in the six games against the Soviets, LaFontaine, Olczyk and Jensen scored 11 of the team's 20 goals, and a phenomenon was born. "I don't know about the nickname," LaFontaine told the Associated Press in January 1984. "I outgrew my diapers a long time ago."
"I don't particularly like the diaper bit," added Jensen. "But it's something you have to live with."
Although Verchota was considered the team's leader, he was (unlike Mike Eruzione, the 1980 captain) understated and reluctant to speak up. Vairo, meanwhile, was a coach who, behind his back, suffered from a lack of respect with some players. Early on during the exhibition season, Chelios — the team's best defender — was arrested in Anchorage for snatching a woman's purse, and spent the night in a local jail. According to one American player, who witnessed the scene, Chelios was drunk, and had escorted the woman into a hotel room. "He was wasted, and he came staggering in with her," the teammate says. "I jumped up and said, ‘What the hell is going on here?' He handed the woman some money, then he ran after her outside the hotel to grab her pocket book to get the money back. A police officer was walking by at that exact moment.
"Any other player gets kicked off the team. We were the U.S. Olympic team. You can't do stuff like that. But he stuck. I thought it was pretty weak." (Chelios failed to respond to an interview request.) There were also questions about Vairo's ability to strategize on the fly and grasp the inner-workings of a game he'd never played competitively. He was an awful skater, and members of the team (Verchota in particular) took delight in mimicking his "Weeble's wobble but they don't fall down" antics. "I like Lou, and he knows his stuff," says Bjugstad. "But I'm not sure he was experienced enough to handle everything that came with a really difficult job."
"We had a coach who never played hockey," adds Lee. "Great guy, but never played. That's tough."
"I liked Lou a lot," says Tim Thomas, a University of Wisconsin defenseman and the final player cut from the Olympic roster. "He's genuine, and he has a big heart. But he was a textbook coach. He was a bad skater, and he had a lot of assistant coaches giving him a lot of opinions at the same time. At times, the team would go one direction, then an entirely different direction. You can't help but like him as a man. But as a coach? I'm not sure he was ready."
⋆ ⋆ ⋆
After all of the hype, and all of the exhibitions, and all of the handshakes and meetings and interviews and practices and tape sessions and autograph requests and flights and bus rides, the Olympic Games finally arrived.
And then — snap — the Olympic Games ended.
Like that. Truly — snap — like that. It's a weird phenomenon, the way these things often work. You spend so much time preparing for an event, building it up as the pinnacle of an existence — and then the event underwhelms. Think about a year's worth of planning for a four-hour wedding, or all those Torah lessons to partake in a Bar Mitzvah that runs the length of "Les Misérables."
"That," says David H. Jensen, "was the 1984 Olympics for us."
In a strange bit of scheduling oddness that — three decades later — still perplexes members of the team, the U.S. was slated to play its first game on Feb. 7, the day before the opening ceremonies were to be held in Kosevo Stadium. America was placed in Group B, alongside three teams (Czechoslovakia, Canada and Finland) widely thought to be its superiors. In order to advance to the medal round, the U.S. would almost certainly have to beat the Canadians in the opener or the Czechs two days later. "Both were great teams," says David A. Jensen. "Especially the Czechs. They were, in my mind, as good as the Russians. And the Russians were the best team in the world."
"I think we all believed we'd win that game. But then, bad things started to happen ..."David's Jensen's two goals against Canada.
On paper, Vairo's team matched up well with Canada. Having faced off a dozen times over the ensuing four months, there were few remaining secrets to be uncovered. In their final meeting, in Milwaukee two weeks before the Olympics, the U.S. cruised to an 8-2 demolition. The Americans then wrapped up their exhibition schedule with 9-2 and 9-3 routs of Austria. Canada, meanwhile, had won only two of its last 19 contests, and would be playing without two key performers, center Mark Morrison and defenseman Don Dietrich, who were withdrawn for eligibility issues. "We were rolling along," says Mark Fusco. "I think we all believed we'd win that game. But then, bad things started to happen ..."
The Canada-United States contest was to be played at 1:30 p.m. inside the Zetra Arena, a brand new $32 million facility located in the heart of Sarajevo. Wanting to make sure the team had plenty of time to prepare, Johnson asked that the bus leave the Olympic Village three and a half hours beforehand. The vehicle arrived on time, and the players and coaches boarded. "Everything from that point on went wrong," says Vairo. "Not some things. Everything." According to the coach, the man driving the bus was intoxicated, and made multiple wrong turns en route to the arena. Then, as soon as the bus was headed rightly, it ran into traffic. Thick traffic. Unyielding traffic. The type of traffic that hits a place like Sarajevo once in a lifetime — during the running of the Olympic torch through the city's streets. "We were, literally, stuck behind the torch bearer," says Johnson. "We could only go as fast as he could go. I can't remember how far it was from the Village to the stadium. It wasn't too far but, God, we were jammed."
The sense of anxiety among the Olympians was palpable. The bus was largely silent — all nervousness and fear, no glee and laughter. Most good teams have one of two players who exist to break the ice, crack a joke, fart, burp, something. The U.S. did not. It hardly helped that, earlier in the morning, Bud Kessel, the team's 56-year-old equipment manager, suffered a heart attack in his room and had to be rushed to a hospital. Or that LaFontaine woke with a 103-degree fever. Or that the previous evening's Ćevapi and Pljeskavica — Balkan fried sausages and burgers — didn't go down well. "A bunch of us were sick with food poisoning," says Mark Fusco. "The food at the Olympics was beyond belief in how awful it was. The Italians brought their own cooks and food, and we'd wait for them to go through the line, then we'd scoff up what they left behind."
By the time the bus pulled up to the arena, it was 12:55. Players rushed into the dressing room, yanked off their street clothes, pulled on their pads and jerseys. Bjugstad, a key U.S. forward, was dismayed to learn that his sticks - manufactured by Christian Brothers — had been left behind in Minnesota. "I was stuck using Titans," he said. "Not an excuse — but ask any player about using sticks he's not used to."
Two days earlier, an ABC production assistant offered Vairo a highlight video of the 1980 Miracle on Ice, in case he wanted to use it as a pregame locker room motivator. Vairo declined, insisting this was a new team with a new identity. So, instead of preparing to the sounds of Al Michaels, the Olympians dressed in silence. "Our guys were young, and they were nervous," says Vairo. "That's on me. I'm the coach."
In O'Connor's documentary, one can watch the Americans walk from the dressing room, up a green staircase and onto the ice. The sight brings to mind a funeral procession — straight faces, little emotion. "My God, our guys were scared to death," says Johnson. "I didn't really see that coming."
If Eruzione's game winner against the Soviets at Lake Placid was the highest moment in U.S. hockey history, perhaps the lowest took place exactly 27 seconds into the game. That's when Canada's Carey Wilson unleashed a 20-foot slap shot toward the net. Behrend positioned himself for the save but Pat Flatley, the star right wing (and Behrend's teammate at Wisconsin) tipped the puck into the goal.
"I really thought I had it," says Behrend. "It was a low shot on my catching glove side, and went just off my glove and in. It's hard for a goaltender to give one up that quick in a game. As a goaltender, each game you go out, and the first period is so important to jump out on right foot. That was pretty demoralizing."
"That first goal was a really strong psychological factor," Vairo said afterward. "It seemed we were skating uphill all day."
"I was so mad that I wanted to tear that room apart."
America tied the score on David A. Jensen's goal at 10 minutes, 10 seconds of the opening period, but two minutes later Wilson pushed a back-hander past Behrend and into the net for a 2-1 lead. The first period ended with Canada holding the advantage, and Vairo was furious. Where was the aggression? Where was the passion? They were superior to the Canadians — he just knew it. "I was so mad that I wanted to tear that room apart," Vairo told Sports Illustrated's E.M. Swift. "Really rip into them ... get mad at somebody. That was my gut feeling. We weren't skating, we weren't passing, they were beating us to loose pucks. But then I thought about how young our team was. I didn't want to panic them."
This, several members of the team now agree, was one of Vairo's two mistakes. The other blunder — the bigger one — was his inability to match wits with Dave King, Canada's coach. While the Americans hadn't concealed any secrets from the Canadians during the 12 exhibition contests, King held back his key strategic plan. Throughout the game, Dave Tippett, a 22-year-old left wing who had once starred at the University of North Dakota, was assigned to serve as LaFontaine's shadow, something he had not done in previous matchups. Wherever the American star went, Tippett went, too. One week earlier, in a game against West Germany, Tippett practiced the tactic by attaching himself to Erich Kühnhackl, the legendary center. He was held scoreless. Now, so was an increasingly frustrated LaFontaine.
Throughout the game, Vairo did little to free up his star. He juggled the lineup but one time. "Could Lou have made some more adjustments?" says Olczyk. "Could he have strategized differently? Sure. But it's easy to say in hindsight."
The teams traded goals in the second period, but the United States never played with a sense of urgency. "The players," wrote Sports Illustrated's Swift, "looked like zombies." The 4-2 final reflected a game that was neither particularly close nor exciting. "It was like they threw their jerseys out on the ice and said, ‘We won in 1980, so we'll win it this year,'" said Eruzione, who was on hand providing commentary for ABC. "I've said it before and I'll say it again. Our team won on character, not talent. No one cares if you lose. Better teams than them are going to lose. But they didn't lose playing the way they're capable of."
⋆ ⋆ ⋆
The United States had one day to recover from a seemingly unrecoverable setback. The Canada game was the one they needed to win — and the players knew it. Unless something truly odd were to transpire, a team with two loses would not advance out of Group B and into the medal round.
The Czech club that awaited the Americans was superior in, literally, all aspects. They were stronger, faster, tougher, better coached, better prepared and more experienced (Coach Stanislav Nevesely's men surely also had some revenge in mind — four years earlier they fell to the U.S., 7-3.) In their '84 Olympic opener, they debuted with a 10-4 pounding of Norway, during which the team attempted a ridiculous 66 shots on goal. "I remember watching the Czech team practice and thinking, ‘We'd better play good against these guys,'" says Bjugstad. "The way they played was absolutely scary. They never missed a pass."
Following the Canada defeat, Vairo's players repeatedly heard of their listlessness and apparent apathy. In a classic example of Overcompensation: 101, the Americans came out behaving more like Andre the Giant than Paul Andrea. Despite having a man advantage, they fell behind at 12:23 of the first period when Czechoslovakia's Igor Liba stuffed the puck past Behrend. Seconds later, most of the arena's lights shut off, and the darkness resulted in a nearly half-hour delay. When action finally resumed, the U.S. tied the score on a Mark Kumpel slapshot, and for a fleeting second there was hope of life.
And then it died.
The overaggressive Americans committed one senseless penalty after another, and the results were disastrous. David H. Jensen was called for hooking — and the Czechs scored on a power play for a 2-1 lead. Chelios was called for cross-checking — and the Czechs scored on another power play for a 3-1 lead. The final score, 4-1, was ugly, but not as ugly as the game. Nevesely rightly accused the U.S. of playing without class or dignity; of playing more in the name of nonsense machismo posturing than sportsmanship. There were an estimated 7,000 fans in attendance, and as the game reached its conclusion, many chanted not USA! USA!, but USA Goodbye! USA Goodbye!
"We were a very good team," says Mark Fusco, "that didn't cut it."
⋆ ⋆ ⋆
And that was pretty much that.
For many players, the Czech setback ended any real interest in Olympic hockey. There were professional contracts to sign, NHL teams to join, lives to live, schools to attend. They were tired and defeated and anxious to get home. "You have pride as a hockey player," says Verchota. "But it's hard to stay motivated once you're knocked out of contention. For a lot of the guys, the remaining games could have been used as auditions for pro hockey."
On Feb. 11, the U.S. tied lowly Norway, 3-3 — a new benchmark in American awfulness. A 7-3 victory over Austria followed, then a 3-3 tie to Finland and a 7-4 win over Poland to decide seventh place before, mercifully, the team ran out of games.
The players were branded "disappointments," "slackers," and "overrated." (USA Hockey)
"We were all ready to move on," says Scott Fusco. "It's hard to maintain focus once you have no hope."
Although members of the team were sheltered by a continental divide, the reaction on the mainland was not good. ABC went from devoting itself to hockey to — after the Czech loss — behaving as if the sport no longer existed. The players were branded "disappointments," "slackers," and "overrated." In a scathing piece for the Dallas Times Herald, columnist Skip Bayless wrote, "It wouldn't have been quite so embarrassing if our kids had been half as good as their hype." Vairo, in particular, caught most of the heat. He was in over his head. He was no Brooks. His style was too basic. He was an amateur. "I can tell you it didn't hurt," he says. "But it did. Of course it did. I'm human."
On the afternoon of Feb. 20, the United States Olympic hockey team returned to America, landing at Minneapolis' international airport following a 30-hour journey. One by one, the players and coaches walked off the plane, where they were greeted by, according to the Associated Press, no more than 50 people. There were no signs or banners or kids seeking out autographs. Most were relatives or friends. "The return was pretty depressing," says David A. Jensen, who — two days later — appeared in a game for Lawrence Academy, his high school. "It's like, ‘It's all over? Just like that?'"
In the ensuing three decades, members of the team have traveled divergent paths. LaFontaine and Chelios were inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame after stupendous professional careers. Behrend has devoted much of his life to working as a firefighter in his hometown of Madison, Wis., and Verchota is a veteran banker. Vairo spent a couple of years as an assistant coach with the New Jersey Devils, and works as the director of special projects for USA Hockey. "I've had a wonderful life," he says. "Hockey is still a passion."
Every so often, somebody broaches the idea of a reunion. Nothing fancy or official; just a bunch of old hockey players reminiscing over beers and wings and memories of gold-deprived days that, in hindsight, still feel golden. Nothing, regrettably, has ever come of it. Generally speaking, sports reunions are for teams that win championships. Not for those that placed seventh.
"It would be great to see those guys, because we all experienced something remarkable together," says David A. Jensen, who played 69 NHL games and now runs a youth hockey center in Foxboro, Mass. "I know we didn't meet expectations, and I know some people would view that as a failure. But I don't see it that way. A gold medal would have been great. But that was the year I became a young man. That was the year that's given me so many amazing memories. That took me around the world.
"How can anyone complain about being an Olympian?"
About the Author
Jeff Pearlman is a former Sports Illustrated senior writer and the author of five books, three of which are New York Times best-sellers. He blogs regularly at www.jeffpearlman.com and can be followed on Twitter at @jeffpearlman.