Briefly, sweetly, the U.S. Olympic ice hockey team turned back the hands of time last Friday night with a rollicking, spine-tingling 5-4 victory over the Soviets in Lake Placid. "It was a storybook game," Defenseman Chris Chelios said afterward. The whole evening was reminiscent of that fairy-tale night in 1980 when the U.S. beat the U.S.S.R. 4-3 in the same arena, but for very different stakes. The accoutrements were identical—the day of the week, the weather, the patriotism and, finally, the pandemonium when Chelios and Captain Phil Verchota teamed up on the game-winning goal with 1:18 left in a contest that seemed to have slipped away.
Forget the stakes, which were nil, for a moment. Forget that this was not the Soviet Olympic team that will play in Sarajevo, but the Selects, a group of talented second-stringers. Forget that there were still five games left in a six-city tour. (The Soviets evened the series Sunday night with a 6-1 win over the U.S. in Bloomington, Minn.) Friday's was a game to put out of perspective, and if the 1984 Olympic hockey team (SI, Dec. 12) never wins another, it had at least given the 9,110 fans in attendance, the millions more watching on television and the players themselves, a glorious flashback to the way things had been four years before. "It was almost like you were there," said Forward Steve Griffith, who assisted on the first U.S. goal.
The hero, in storybook fashion, was the 26-year-old Verchota, the only U.S. player left from the 1980 team after John Harrington was sidelined Dec. 1 with a broken wrist. Verchota, called the Old Man by his teammates, thunderously answered the question of who was going to provide the 1984 team with its on-ice leadership by scoring both the first and last U.S. goals, killing penalties and generally elevating the team's level of play with his poise under pressure. And don't think that because this was an "exhibition" there wasn't pressure. The hoopla leading up to this so-called rematch with the Soviets was akin to what the U.S. team will face in Sarajevo.
Coach Lou Vairo tried hard to keep the game low key for his players, fearful that they might emotionally peak two months before their first Olympic game. He saw the series as an opportunity both to evaluate his players and to prepare them for the high level of competition at Sarajevo. "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. "They're probably one of the top six teams in the world, and it's going to give us a chance to see what kind of condition we're in and how our goalies will react when the puck starts being passed around like crazy and the shots start flying. I'm an optimist. I'm going to tell my guys what Custer said before the Battle of the Little Bighorn: 'Don't take any prisoners, men.' "
The young U.S. players were having none of this low-key stuff, however. How could they? The entire town was going bonkers before their eyes as game time neared. Across the street from the U.S. Olympic Training Center, where both the Soviet and U.S. teams were staying, a highlight film of the 1980 game was playing over and over again in a store window. Horns honked, American flags were peddled and kids with red-white-and-blue-painted faces chanted, "U!S!A! U!S!A!"
Inside the arena, the din grew ever louder. "I didn't start getting nervous until I got out there," said Forward David A. Jensen, 18, who played last season at a small private school in Massachusetts. "I'm used to playing in front of about 30 people. I never did stop shaking the whole game."
Surprisingly, the nervousness of the U.S. players didn't manifest itself in sloppy play, in part because of the stabilizing influence of Verchota. The Selects took a 1-0 lead into the first intermission, but the U.S. showed that it was as fast and as disciplined as the competition, fore-checking aggressively and carrying its share of the play. Verchota tied things up early in the second period off a beautiful centering pass from Gary Sampson. Then the teams traded goals, and the score was 2-2 going into the third.
So it remained, the tension mounting, the pace picking up, for more than 14 minutes of the final period. Then, suddenly, the game exploded. Scott Bjugstad put the U.S. ahead for the first time when he picked up his own rebound and backhanded it over fallen Soviet Goalie Aleksandr Tyzhnykh, who had trouble staying on his feet all night. Just 29 seconds later Tyzhnykh was on his back again, and Chelios nudged in a loose puck to give the U.S. a 4-2 lead with only 5:09 remaining. Pandemonium.
But the Soviets, as the U.S. soon learned, don't quit. Goalie Marc Behrend allowed a low-angle shot to beat him 48 seconds later, changing the momentum, and at 18:21 the game was tied 4-4 when U.S.S.R. Captain Mikhail Varnakov was allowed to whack away at a rebound unimpeded. "To tell the truth, I looked up at the scoreboard, saw it was 4-3 and sort of drifted off," confessed Forward Ed Olczyk, who was on the ice when the tying goal was scored. "How couldn't you? The fans were chanting, 'U!S!A! U!S!A!' waving flags around. I had seen that 1980 tape of Al Michaels counting down the minutes so many times. It was like I was living a dream."
That dream was fast becoming a nightmare. Vairo put out Verchota's line for the ensuing face-off, and Chelios yelled to the Old Man to watch for a long pass. In the 3½ minutes it had taken the Soviets to tie the game, Chelios had noticed that the U.S.S.R. defensemen were pinching in much more aggressively. Verchota had seen it, too. When Chelios got the puck, Verchota took off up the right wing, and Chelios hit him in full stride at the moment he was crossing the blue line. It was a clean breakaway, and Verchota converted with a low shot just inside the post on Tyzhnykh's stick side. More pandemonium, this time for keeps.
"To let in two goals at the end like that and then have your team get you another shows a lot of heart," Behrend said afterward. "Let's keep this in perspective. We didn't win a gold medal tonight. But it's nice to beat [the Soviets] in Lake Placid. It's good for everybody, not just our team, but everyone in the country. It's nice to beat the Soviet Union. You don't do it that often."
But the feeling lasts.
With the puck on the heel of his stick, Verchota gets ready to fire the winning shot.