AMERICA KEPT FAITH 1980

CALGARY, Alberta — The bodies were all over the ice, the crowd screaming madly, and the puck — the puck! — was just sitting there, between the legs of Soviet goalie Sergei Mylnikov, who was sprawled, face down, in the crease. Todd Okerlund saw it, reached for it, flicked it in and followed for good measure, his whole body in the net, and for one moment, one brief, loud, but glorious moment, everything seemed possible again. How far back had the Americans been in this Olympic hockey game? Trailing, 6-2, at the start of the third period, even the ABC network had broken away. And then, suddenly, something unbelievable. A U.S. goal. Another. And then that flick by Okerlund with 10:52 left and, look out! The pace was so furious, so electric, surely the ice would melt from the heat.

“ONE MORE GOAL!” the American fans screamed at the Olympic Saddledome.

“ONE MORE TIME!”

One more time. Of course. That’s mostly what we wanted out of this ice hockey rematch, the first time the Americans and Soviets had met in an Olympic rink since the 1980 miracle at Lake Placid. Oh, sure, the final result would be unhappy, a 7-5 defeat, the new dream snuffed by the new reality, a wrist shot goal by Soviet captain Viacheslav Fetisov with 2:01 left to clinch the game.

But such a comeback! Such frenzy! So greased were our memories, that for those 10 minutes in that third period — which has to be the most fun yet of these Winter Olympics — we were ready to believe anything.

It was a weird game,” said Chris Terreri, the U.S. goalie, when it was all over, and the defeat — the Americans’ second in three games — began to set in. “It seemed like we just couldn’t get a break. We had chances to tie it and they didn’t go.”

Chances? You bet. You probably remember them from the number of times your heart came to your throat. This young U.S. team, with no player older than 25, was chomping at the Russians as if they were honey-coated. “We forgot that here in North America teams fight to the end,” said Soviet assistant coach Igor Dmitriev, whose team almost blew a four-goal lead. “We thought we had done what we set out to do.”

Understandable. Remember what had transpired before that final, crazy period. The Soviet goals had been going in again and again, each followed by a siren, until the Saddledome recalled the scene of a crime. A long slap shot. Good! A feed on a breakway. Good! A pass from behind the net for a quick Russian stab. Good! Sirens everywhere. Trouble everywhere.

“It was discouraging, obviously,” said Terreri, who had been named the starter in this game, his first start, because he can be brilliant or horrible but only brilliant would give his team a chance on this night. “Some of them I should have stopped — some I never saw.”

What was predicted was coming to pass. Not that much should have been expected. Only our devious minds made this a contest. The United States, its defense vulnerable to counterattack, was really no match for the Soviets, not on paper anyhow. Team USA had surrendered 13 goals in its first two games — a win over Austria, a loss to Czechoslovakia — and the Soviets, undefeated, must have seen that and licked their chops.

“Was there a reason you had so much trouble with them?” someone asked U.S. assistant coach Ben Smith afterward.

“Yeah,” he said. “We were playing one of the best teams in the world.”

True enough. Which is what made that comeback attempt even more special. Offense? This U.S. group plays hockey the way most teams play basketball. Shoot, shoot — if you can’t stop them, outscore them. So they never gave up, they made that third period a sabre, rattling the confidence of the mighty Soviets and clanging the network right back where it belonged. Wasn’t everybody watching? Wasn’t it that dramatic?

OK. There was another reason: 1980. Who knows how long the ghosts of Lake Placid will keep singing that siren song, keep luring us back for another dose of maybe-magic? Even with the loss, there were moments Wednesday night when the beer was spilled and the popcorn was overturned.

And in the end, it was still a defeat. The sad truth is that the Americans are one loss from elimination. With a 1-2 record, they are on the edge of missing the medal round. It seems almost unfair after Wednesday night, doesn’t it? As if they should have gotten some points, half a win, for what they did.

“I think if we had tied it up, we could have won it,” Terreri said. That’s a common sentence. Wednesday night it seemed true.

So a defeat, yes, but something else, too. We haven’t really been fair to our Olympic hockey teams, holding them up to that blinding Lake Placid light. Perhaps what we needed was a new memory, something fresh to talk about in this rivalry. It may be a loss, it may be a death knell, but for a while there Wednesday, the heartbeat of America could be heard all the way over the Canadian border. That should be worth something all by itself.

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