The Anti-Climax: The 1984 USA Men’s Olympic Hockey Squad

1984-united-states-hockey-team

They met the President of the United States even before the Olympics began. Before they set foot in Sarajevo, the 1984 Men’s Ice Hockey Team were treated to festive events and meals, honored in so many towns where they played exhibitions as if they had already won the gold medal.

It’s hard for me to recall, but I suppose I and many other Americans had very high expectations for the 1984 squad. Our memories of the “Miracle on Ice”, proclaimed so emphatically by play-by-play announcer Al Michaels, were seared into our mind’s eyes. We can still today see the team throw their sticks and gear into the air, leaping into each other’s arms as the crowd (and an entire nation) exploded in unrestrained glee.

The 1980 team crept slowly into our consciousness with an amazing buzzer-beating goal to tie Sweden in their first game in Lake Placid, an amazing upset of the Soviet Union in the semi-final match, culminating in yet another come-from-behind victory for gold against Finland. This team proved that David could slay Goliath, assuming David was American. So, of course the 1984 team was destined for greatness and glory.

And the 1984 team sported a few great players, now Hall of Famers, like center Pat LaFontaine drafted by The New York Islanders, goalie Tom Barrasso drafted by the Buffalo Sabres, center Eddie Olczyk drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks, and defenseman Chris Chelios drafted by the Montreal Canadiens . They even had two players from the 1980 Miracle-on-Ice team, John Harrington and Phil Verchota.

As Bob Brooke, a forward on the 1984 team wrote for the New York Times, “We rode the crest of a media wave all year, basking in the sunshine of little boys and girls tugging at our coattails for autographs, drinking in the prospects of appearing in commercials and [on] posters.”

But the expectations were too great for the 1984 team. How could they possibly replicate the story of the 1980 team, their rise from nowhere to become a rallying cry for Americans, pained by the beatings they were getting internationally (hostage crisis in Iran) as well as domestically (an economic “malaise”).

Even their coach, Lou Vairo, a virtual unknown who had more experience with roller hockey than ice hockey, thought that equaling the 1980 team’s success would be an even bigger miracle, according to this great article by Jeff Pearlman, called “A Miracle Put on Ice“.

“How can you replicate that magic?” Vairo says. “You can’t.”

Those are not words Herb Brooks, head coach of the 1980 team, would ever have slipped from his lips.

Team Canada
Team Canada celebrate a goal during hockey action against the United States at the 1984 Winter
And yet, Brooks was not there to exhort the 1984 team to greatness. While it’s true the American team was routing the opposition in the exhibition matches leading up to the Sarajevo Games, once the Olympics began, the Team of Great Expectations faded immediately. First, they lost to Canada 4-2. Then to Czechoslovakia 4-1. And that was essentially the end of any Miracle redux. The team fought on, managing a 3-3 tie with Norway, routing Austria 7-3, before finishing weakly with a tie against Finland.

There would be no banquets. There would be no visit to the White House. Instead, there would be scorn, as Pearlman wrote:

The players were branded “disappointments,” “slackers,” and “overrated.” In a scathing piece for the Dallas Times Herald, columnist Skip Bayless wrote, “It wouldn’t have been quite so embarrassing if our kids had been half as good as their hype.” Vairo, in particular, caught most of the heat. He was in over his head. He was no Brooks. His style was too basic. He was an amateur. “I can tell you it didn’t hurt,” he says. “But it did. Of course it did. I’m human.”