LAKE PLACID, N.Y. - The emotions are not to be denied, no matter how hard the official party tires. And hockey can be such an emotional game: The United States against the Russians in a game that would probably mean the gold medal. For the American players, there may be nothing like it in their lives. For witnesses it will be unforgettable.
It's the feeling that makes a man clutch a teammate, any teammate, and roll on the ice in a special kind of ecstacy. It's the force that makes defenseman Ken Morrow throw his body into the mouth of the cannon to block a shot with his team leading by one goal and the clock ticking so slowly inside the last five minutes.
Of course, more has been accomplished by talent and emotion than by emotion alone, and the U.S. Hockey Team has more talent than it has had in years. Mark Johnson is a wonder of quickness and anticipation, the kind of player who scores what looks like lucky goals until it's understood that there is good reason why he was twice able to tie the score, at 2-2 and 3-3 last night. But they were playing the Russians, the team that has dominated the Olympics since it came to the Olympics in 1956, the team that has held its own and more against the National Hockey League for almost a decade. And the Americans were seeded seventh among the 12 teams here. The Russians are a better team; they have more players with obvious talent. They have been together for years, while the Americans shook hands last fall. Less than two weeks ago they took a 10-3 battering from the Russians in Madison Square Garden in the last pre-Olympics game. But the emotions can make a man, a whole team, play beyond its limitations. It can make a man rubber-legged with fatigue find more of himself. Because the U.S. team beat the Russians, 4-3, last night does not mean the U.S. team is better, it means only that the U.S. team won and that's what the 60 minutes was all about.
Emotion is not part of the public stances of the American coach. The game, as coach Herb Brooks describes it, is "strong side" and "weak side," and the strategy of line changes and matchups. The approach to the confrontation, he said, was "just a hockey game to the players."
In two weeks of undefeated hockey, Brooks has presented the image of a man with a necktie and spray-styled hair sucking a lemon. The dressing room was emotional, Brooks conceded, a feeling of euphoria, "but it subsided quickly. They weren't tearing down doors. They knew they have another game with an extremely fine Finnish team." But only minutes before, Mike Moran of the U.S. Olympic Committee appeared with a walkie-talkie blaring a din from that dressing room. It sounded like so many drunks singing. "God Bless America." It was the second rendition, Moran said.
It must have been pure joy. But the press is not allowed in an Olympic dressing room and Brooks does not permit his players to attend post-game press conferences. He makes a show of his own distaste for attending. Often last night he diverted questions to be answered by assistant coach Craig Patrick. When Brooks was gain pressed about his no-players policy, he got up and started to leave.
His snapped explanation is that he fears singling out stars. He holds up the cult of personality, to borrow a traditional Russian term, as the great enemy and, instead, established his own presence. Brooks is quick to pay tribute to the Soviet dynasty for bringing a new game to hockey, a style that has swept past the National Hockey League. "A breath of fresh air," Brooks called it. Surely it is that. The Russians are quick and disciplined. They pass the puck and make themselves too elusive to be hit. By implication, Brooks pays tribute to himself for bringing that style to his team and beating the Soviets at their own game.
It has been 20 years since the United States beat the Soviets in the 1960 Olympics in Squaw Valley. The circumstances are so similar. Those Americans beat the Russians in the electricity of Saturday afternoon and then had to come back at 8 o'clock the next morning to win the championship game. The difference this time is that they have a day to wait for the championship game. Brooks, it should be noted, was the last man cut from that 1960 team.
He has learned to deal with the emotions, use them and then hide them behind his cerebral analysis. This time the need was not to build emotions, rather to channel them. At a noon meeting Brooks presented a coach's sense of perspective for his players: "You were born to be a hockey player. You were meant to be here. This moment is yours. You were meant to be here at this time. Let's have poise and possession of the puck."
To his credit and theirs, they did not lose their poise. Briefly in the last minutes they had to be reminded not to play into the Russians' hands by departing from the game that had brought them so close. Only in the last minute did they try to sit on anticipation ever since Mike Eruzione's goal had put them ahead for the first time. "For nine minutes on the bench there was constant bubbling," Patrick said. "It was difficult for them to contain themselves. Then when the final buzzer sounded, it all poured out of them."
The emotion of that game was its own reward.