Saturday, February 12, 2011

February 12, 1980: The first step

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. - A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Or in this case, a single shot.

The faceoff was in the Swedish zone. The United States, trailing 2-1, had an empty net behind them, going with the extra attacker in the hopes of getting that tying goal that would earn them a very important point in the standings. With 41 seconds left, the Americans won the faceoff clean, passing back to the blue line. The original shot was blocked, and the puck was tipped to keep it in the zone. Defenseman Bill Baker stepped up on the blue line to keep it in again, firing the puck back behind the net. In a scramble of yellow and blue sweaters, the puck worked around to the opposite board. Seeing an opening, Baker slipped into the slot...

The 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team had been chosen in 1979 with the explicit goal of compiling a team capable of beating the Soviet Union. The players chosen, the game plan used, even the coaches picked were all done with an eye toward beating the greatest team in the world. Herb Brooks' team had played a year of exhibition matches in order to learn to play together, to develop the cohesiveness and stamina that would enable them to counter the powerful Soviet attack.

But as the 1980 Olympics finally began in Lake Placid, there were worries that all that had been for naught. Despite playing more than 60 exhibition games in the year leading up to the Olympics, the Americans had been crushed 10-3 by the Soviets in the final exhibition game before the Olympics. Even a closer loss would have given the country reason to hope, but a loss that devastating was bad for morale.

Then came the first game of group play. Since the Americans and Soviets were placed in different groups, the Americans would have to advance to the medal round to get their shot at the Soviets. The two teams standing in their way of that goal were Sweden and Czechoslovakia, who happened to be the Americans' first two opponents.

In game 1 against Sweden, the Americans trailed 1-0 after one period, and it looked like that would be the score after two periods, as well, Dave Silk scored with 28 seconds left in the period to tie the score entering the third. Sweden scored early in the third to put the Americans into catch-up mode again.

It took nearly the entire period - and the extra attacker that came after pulling goalie Jim Craig - until they finally broke through. With the puck against the side boards, Mark Pavelich saw Baker slip down off the blue line and into the slot. The pass was perfect, the shot a one-timer. Red light flashing. Tie game.

It was just one shot in the opening game, but Baker's shot helped propel the United States. Now confident that they could play with anybody in the world, the United States went undefeated in group play, setting up their showdown with the Soviets.

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