by | Feb 22, 1992 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

MERIBEL, France — Twenty minutes before the curtain came down, when the world was still young and the score was still tied and anything, even beating the Russians, was possible, the American hockey players came clodding through the tunnel to an explosion of raucous applause. Flags were waved. Banners hoisted. What seemed to be the entire U.S. Olympic roster was in the upper deck, screaming its lungs out. Talk about team spirit! Lugers. Skiers. Biathletes. The figure skater, Paul Wylie, was hopping up and down, leading cheers. Athletes yelling for athletes. Mostly for one athlete. “LET’S GO RAY! LET’S GO RAY! . . . WAY TO GO, RAA-AY, WAY TO GO! . . .”

Across the arena, Julie LeBlanc held her baby son’s hand and tried to find the words. It was her husband they were singing about, her husband Ray LeBlanc, who was even less than an unknown last month. He was a never-was, a career minor- leaguer, a truck stop goalie, 27 years old, and now, suddenly, her husband was a storybook figure on a storybook team. Ray? They were yelling for . . . Ray?

“I never expected him to become a hero,” she said, flashing a smile and lifting her baby to her arms. “I mean I still don’t know what all this is about . . .”

She wore Ray’s team jersey and Ray’s team jacket and she had a wonderful look on her face — she looked as if she had been plucked from a house in New Hampshire and dropped magically into all these clothes and into this tiny French ski resort, zappo, just like that! At their best, the Olympics can leave you just this way: bemused, bedazzled, a whole new world opening up before you.

It would been have nice to freeze that look, as the third period was about to begin and the United States was within a blessed goal of going for a gold medal, and the upper deck of the arena was singing about Julie’s husband, Ray, they were singing about Ray . . . The clock caught up with them

But you can’t freeze anything. Second period turns to third period, and a better team eventually finds a way to beat its opponent. And that, in a nutshell, is what you saw if you stayed home from work Friday to watch The Game, the 12-year anniversary of the Miracle On Ice in Lake Placid, N.Y. Us vs. Them. The players of the Commonwealth of Independent States — still “the Russians” to hockey fans — were too good. They were all over the place, dipping and twisting, fast-breaking for a 5-2 victory. It was like watching the LA Lakers during their Showtime years. To make matters worse, the U.S. team was called for all those penalties, so one by one, the little Indians kept disappearing into the box, and all that was left was Ray LeBlanc to hold off the army.

He tried. God, he tried. He stopped eight shots in the first period and 20 shots in the second period and 22 shots in the third period, so by the time the final horn sounded he would have stopped 50 shots — catching the puck, falling on the puck, taking it off his legs, chest, arms, mask — and it still would not be enough. The team without a flag just kept coming at Ray LeBlanc.

The CIS players put a puck past him when his defensemen fell down. They put a puck past him after he had blocked it twice in three seconds. They put a puck past him on a triple play — this guy to that guy to that other guy, shoot! And meanwhile, the American skaters, when they had it, could barely keep the puck in the CIS zone. They were rebuffed and rebuked, only 18 shots all game.

Finally, when the scoreboard read 5-2 and the announcer said “last minute of play,” the fun was done. The gold medal was gone. The U.S. team could play for the bronze, that was all. Good night. The U.S. section stopped cheering. Paul Wylie sat down. Up in the family section, Julie LeBlanc pulled on Ray Jr.’s jacket, and looked around as if to say, “Now what do we do?” Parting is such sour sorrow

The hardest part of an Olympic journey is saying good-bye. You put in so much time, so much sweat, so many phone calls and interviews and sleepless nights and then, suddenly, it’s over.

Some handle it better than others.

Down in the tunnel, U.S. captain Clark Donatelli, who is sincere and also a hothead, was blaming the referee. “That guy (Sven Erik Sold, a Swede) killed us. We spent the last 10 minutes of the game shorthanded. How can he do that? How many chances do you get to play for a gold medal?”

Upstairs, his coach, Dave Peterson, was nodding. “I don’t want to comment on the referees, but it is not a coincidence that we got a Swedish ref.”

Hold it. Stop. This is no way to exit the Olympics. The fact is, the penalty on Moe Mantha (tripping, not slashing) which left the U.S. short-handed for the CIS go-ahead goal was indeed a penalty — Mantha couldn’t have tripped the guy more if he pulled the ice out from under him. And if the other two penalties that followed were questionable, well, the outcome was not. The former Soviets were a better team. If not for LeBlanc, it could have been 10-2.

No. Better to concentrate on the story this became, some former NHL bench guys, some career minor-leaguers, some Boston College and Harvard kids, stirred together like stew and winning and winning, getting to the semifinal Olympic match without a defeat. “Hey, we had people in Florida and California and places like that watching us today,” Ted Donato, one of the Harvard kids, said in the hallway. “You think about all the guys who play hockey and never have a chance to play with the eyes of America on them. This has been an unbelievable thing.”

Someone asked about LeBlanc. Donato paused. His voice choked.

“That guy stood on his head for us. He made some saves we’re gonna watch on tape years from now and say ‘I can’t believe he did that.’ How can you not feel bad for him? The road he took to get here? . . .” Suddenly in the spotlight

Upstairs, Julie LeBlanc, who took that same road, who has never been out of the country before, who came here with Ray Jr. last Sunday and got to spend maybe three hours all week with her husband, just telling him she loved him, keep up the good work, was now staring at the empty ice. Most of the crowd was gone. Someone asked if she ever expected it to go this far.

“Oh, I expected them to win the gold medal,” she said. “But . . . Ray played his best. He couldn’t do more. People saw him. That was important. People saw him.”

People saw him, all right. The way they never saw him in Flint or Saginaw or Indianapolis, all those forgotten nights in minor-minor leagues. People will remember Ray LeBlanc because he was the best kind of story: A guy who thought maybe he was too old to be this young, and suddenly, he was taking on the world, holding off Swedes and Finns and Germans.

It was a real Olympic thing. And so was this final game between America and Used-To-Be-Russia. The world has changed. The Soviet Union has collapsed
— and with it, its sports machine. This 1992 group is terrific, but it might be the last senior class in a school that has closed its doors. Without government support and funding, the level of Soviet play will slowly deteriorate. Their best athletes will one day be in the NHL or NBA, and the super-power rivalry that once defined these games will be gone.

So this hockey game was one to be cherished, for what the Olympics used to be — and for what you hope they always are. Nice kids, going further than expected, and a goalie from nowhere, his wife in the stands, forcing a smile and saying, “When I see Ray, I’m just going to hold him. That’s all. Just hold him. I know he’ll feel bad, but he shouldn’t. He did his best. They saw him shine. People got to see him shine.”

That’s why we’re here, isn’t it?


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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