In France, it is hard enough to get a Coke on ice, much less a miracle. So while U.S. hockey tans were still waving Old Glory, while U.S. hockey players were still conjuring old glories, while the hills were still alive with the sound of organ music at the chalet-style arena in Mèribel, someone should have run this notion up the flagpole: Perhaps the U.S. hockey team had already given its gold-seeking countrymen the only glimmering commodity they really needed—namely, hope.
Hope was very much alive for the U.S. following Monday night's 3-3 tie with world champion Sweden, which gave the surprising Americans a 4-0-1 record for the preliminary round. For while anyone can get a hamburger on French bread here, only the U.S. had found a goalie on a roll. American hopes, entering Tuesday's medal-round game against France, remained pinned to the chest protector of a minor league lifer and factory worker who, nevertheless, gave his daughter the middle name of...Hope.
Twenty-seven-year-old father of two Ray LeBlanc—the very surname suggests that destiny would deliver him, par avion, to stardom both in France and as a goalie—Leblanked two teams in the preliminary round and held the other three to a total of seven goals. "It's been a thrill," he said all but inaudibly last week. "But I haven't thought about being a hero."
Still, that is precisely what he became—instantly, as though he had just fallen to earth in the French Alps. After LeBlanc stoned Poland 3-0 last Saturday night, a Polish hockey coach spoke of him as though he were a visiting head of state. "I have to say," said Jerzy Mruk, measuring his words carefully, "that the U.S. goalkeeper is one of the highest professionals in his field."
Speak softly, carry an oversized, puck-steering, goalkeeper's stick: While backing up a team composed largely of Boston-bred players, LeBlanc, a native of Fitchburg, Mass., has quietly provided the backing for the U.S.'s improbable and endearing swagger, or its "big attitude," as an admiring Finnish coach so aptly described the American players' demeanor. The team and its 'tude had become the many-tongued talk of this ski-resort village. Never mind that the U.S.'s pre-medal-round pool included neither Canada nor Czechoslovakia nor the Unified learn from the former Soviet Union. "The U.S. team is the big surprise of this tournament," said one of Sweden's assistant coaches, Curt Lundmark, last Thursday. "It has a very good spirit, a good will, a very good heart for its nation." Which is in marked contrast to 1984 and '88, when the U.S. teams finished seventh, playing as though they were not Olympians but subjects at a pair of chronic-fatigue-syndrome symposia.
"When someone makes a mistake, we know that Ray's gonna be right there to make the big save," said U.S. forward Tim Sweeney last week. "Knowing that gives us a lot of confidence." And it frees forwards to forecheck, forage in the corners and flap their bleeding gums at any skater not packing a navy-blue, eagle-embossed passport.
By winter LeBlanc is ordinarily a member of the Indianapolis lee, which is either the world's most pallid rap group or a team in the International Hockey League, the NHL's equivalent of Double A. By summer LeBlanc labors in what he calls the "post-premix area" of an Indianapolis Pepsi plant, pumping soda pop into bladder-busting, five-gallon steel canisters for commercial use.
The canisters are the caffeinated equivalent of the oxygen tanks that fortified both benches as the U.S. and Germany faced off in Mèribel (elevation: 4,700 feet) on Feb. 11. The U.S. came in having won six of its previous seven games, including its Olympic opener two days earlier, a shaky 6-3 come-from-behind defeat of Italy. Germany, meanwhile, was peopled with some of the same players who had Handi-Wiped the U.S. by a score of 4-1 in Calgary in 1988.
"There was a lot of discussion of that in the locker room before the game," said 31-year-old U.S. defenseman Moe Mantha, who wasn't in Calgary.
Mantha, an 11-year NHL veteran on loan from the Winnipeg Jets, had already lighted a small fondue flame beneath the hindquarters of his teammates when he appeared at the center of a shoving match in the handshake line following a game against France four days before the Games opened. Phlegmballs were allegedly exchanged on both sides, though no punches were thrown.
Likewise, the only thing thrown against Germany last week was the first Olympic shutout by an American goalie since 1964. Here was the 5'10", 170-pound LeBlanc, behind a mask that can only be called Knievelesque, stopping 46 shots—20 in the first period alone—and seeming to hit his knees on all of them, as though in prayer. In fact, he likely was in prayer for much of the third period, when he was protecting a 1-0 lead, the U.S. was being outshot 15-6, the crowd was chanting his first name, and he was making saves that can only be called...Knievelesque.
Then, with 8:02 remaining, Ted Donato finally got the U.S. a second goal, and LeBlanc remained razor-sharp for the rest of the period—as befits a man nicknamed Razor who shaved his mustache for luck on the eve of the Olympics. The story line could be summarized in three sentences. "Raymond held us in there so we got out of the first period nothing-nothing," said U.S. coach Dave Peterson. "We played the second pretty well. In the third Raymond stole two or three shots that were ticketed for the goal."
As the American players awaited their game two days later against a strong Finnish team, they were hoping that their miniroll would snowball. "Remember, many of these players are little kids throwing snowballs at each other," said Mike Eruzione, captain of the—you knew this was coming, didn't you?—U.S. team that won the gold in Lake Placid a dozen years ago. "This is a lark for them. They're too young to understand what's going on."
Indeed, some of the U.S. players idled away off-day time on a footbridge that crosses a public ski slope running through the athletes' village in La Tania, shouting "Bonjour!" down to unsuspecting skiers before riddling them with snowball fire. Others ascended the slope themselves, tugging absurdly tiny sleds behind them.
But even at this elevation, the breathing wasn't heavy enough for some. Hours before facing the U.S. last Thursday, a fourth-line Finnish forward was beefing about the airtight athletes' village, where all the hockey teams were staying. "We'd like to see more girls," said Keijo Sailynoja. "We cannot even use the condoms that are provided."
Pity. Still, the afternoon game would go on as scheduled, the U.S. versus the Finns, a team stocked with such gristled NHL veterans as Mikko Makela and Petri Skriko. American forward Scott Young, a holdover from the '88 Olympic team who played last season with the Stanley Cup-champion Pittsburgh Penguins, opened the scoring with 1:16 to go in the first period. The Finns, however, answered with a spectacular shorthanded goal by Makela.
Feeling violated, LeBlanc slung the puck from his goal in disgust, his 110-minute, 57-second scoreless streak, dating back to the second period of the opener against Italy, having ended. The goal was all that would stand between him and three consecutive doughnuts. Sweeney, defenseman Scan Hill and Young, again, added goals, and the Americans went on to win handily, 4-1. "They played a hell of a game," Makela said afterward. "They played their own game—gave 100 percent in the defensive zone, 100 percent in the offensive zone. They're a good team, there's no doubt about that."
The Mikk-meister was asked if, before the Games, he had ever heard of Ray LeBlanc. "No," he responded, and then went on to add that "anyone can score goals at this level," thus suggesting that he still didn't know that Ray LeBlanc was a goalie.
"May I ask which one you are?" the woman who moderates the hockey press conferences asked LeBlanc after last Thursday's game.
"I'm Ray LeBlanc, goalie," replied Ray LeBlanc, goalie. LeBlanc then deftly handled the increasingly intense media barrage as though he were taking slap shots with the glove hand.
Q: "Where do your parents live, Ray?"
A: "They live in Rindge, New Hampshire."
O: "Where is that, Ray?"
A: "It's in New Hampshire."
"I don't think that he enjoys all of this attention," says Sweeney. "To tell you the truth, I think he just likes to play the game." Yet last Friday, Peterson let slip that he was thinking of depriving LeBlanc of that pleasure and might rest him for the next day's game against winless Poland.
That would have been a bad idea. The Poles, many of them playing with sticks wrapped in some kind of green gaffing tape, came out pumped. So did the U.S. crowd, if not its hockey team. By Saturday, the 6,100-seat Patinoire Olympique had become a flag-waving Pat Buchanan rally for U.S. games, the American fans shouting down the few Polish spectators and singing "Hey, Hey, Hey, Goodbye"—a trifle unnecessary, don't you think?—when America's Team had finally and sloppily prevailed 3-0.
Luckily, LeBlanc had been in goal. "We've got a goalkeeeper on a roll," said Peterson afterward. "Basically that's why we went with him."
Twenty-four hours later the Unified Team beat Canada 5-4. When members of the U.S. team awoke on Monday morning to heavy snows that left the trees in the athletes' village looking as if they had been dipped in white chocolate, the Americans had the best record in the tournament. Later in the day, LeBlanc's wife, Julie, arrived from Indianapolis with their three-year-old son, Raymond Jr. Their daughter, Mary Hope, 1, remained in the States. Subsidized by a U.S. Postal Service program, Julie could afford to attend the Olympics for one week only, and long ago chose the second half of the fortnight. "If they go all the way," she said, "I would have felt guilty if I had to come home early."
Going all the way. It at last appeared eminently possible after LeBlanc's performance for the first 46 minutes of Monday's game. As the U.S. built a 3-0 lead, LeBlanc was a ninja in red, white and blue, alternately kicking, punching and snatching pucks out of the air with all available appendages. He stopped 45 shots altogether, many of them in ridiculous fashion. "He is a very small goalie," Lundmark would say afterward, "but very, very big."
And though the inexorable Swedes scored thrice in the final 13:39, the tying goal coming with their goalie pulled and 21 seconds left in the game, the American team clearly emerged as the winner. The U.S. had won its pool, won over Stateside fans and even outshone the abominable behavior of Peterson, who refused to shake hands with Sweden's coaches and withheld his players from the press after the game: These Olympics, after all, were for those players.
"People are patting them on their backs, telling them, 'Way to go,' " said Eruzione. "That didn't happen in '84 and '88. The U.S. hockey team is on the front page of the papers again. When's the last time that happened?"
Is there anyone who doesn't know the answer?
DAVID E. KLUTHO
In a 2-0 win over Germany, Keith Tkachuk and his mates avenged an '88 U.S. loss.
DAVID E. KLUTHO
Against Finland, LeBlanc missed another shutout but satisfied his thirst for victory.