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U-M students and alums will be skating for their country in the Vancouver games.
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This year's Olympians
February 10, 2010
When the Olympics open in Vancouver this month, former U-M hockey player Jack Johnson will be playing for the United States. It's a great honor, one of the highest any athlete can receive. The tournament lasts only two weeks, but the memories will last a lifetime—for better and for worse.
In fact, just as we were finishing this story, another former Wolverine who had also been named to the Olympic team, Mike Komisarek, suffered a season-ending injury and won't be able to play—an example of how tenuous an Olympic invitation can be.
Only eight Michigan hockey players before them have earned a spot in the Olympics. All of them could give the youngsters some advice about this unique experience.
Make Sure You're on the Right Team
That might sound silly, unless you were named to the 1948 Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) team, as All-Americans Wally Grant and Neil Celley were. They were told the AAU team would represent the United States in the 1948 Games in St. Moritz, Switzerland, but soon learned another governing body, the Amateur Hockey Association (AHAUS) had formed its own all-star team, and claimed to be the rightful representative. Amazingly, IOC and USOC officials failed to settle the issue before both teams traveled to Switzerland. Initially, the IOC ruled neither team would play, but then compromised by letting the AAU team walk in the opening and closing ceremonies, while the AHAUS team would play the games—which wouldn't count in any case.
But Grant and Ceely both saw the trouble coming. "My father said, 'Don't go. Your team's not going to play,'" Grant recalled. "And he was right." They both skipped the trip all together. It's safe to say no Wolverines ever had a worse Olympic experience than they did.
Watch out: The Russians Are Coming
For decades, the Canadians didn't even have to bother to put together an all-star team. They just sent the country's best amateur club, and they were good enough to win gold in six of the first seven Olympic hockey tournaments. (They lost in 1936 to a British team led by Canadian transplants.)
That all changed in Cortina d'Empezzo, Italy, in 1956, when the upstart Soviet Union, which didn't even play organized hockey until after World War II, entered the Olympics for the first time—and crushed all comers, outscoring them 40-9 en route to a 7-0 record and the gold medal. That run included a 2-0 victory over Canada, with Michigan's Bob White on the squad, and a 4-0 win over the U.S., which was led by Michigan's Johnny Matchefts and Willard Ikola.
But perhaps more surprising, the Americans beat the Canadians, 4-1, to capture the silver medal, leaving Canada with the bronze. Those three medals marked the only Olympic medals any Wolverines won in any Winter sport until 1994.
Over the next 32 years, only one Wolverine played in the Olympics: Jeff Norton, for the 1988 U.S. team that finished in seventh place in Calgary. That meant Michigan missed out on the 1960 team's gold medal, the 1972 team's silver and the even more surprising Miracle on Ice in 1980.
But in 1994, the Wolverines looked poised to put three teammates from the class of '93 in the Olympic hockey tournament: captain David Harlock for Team Canada, and Dave Roberts and Pat Neaton for the Americans.
When Roberts heard the coaches call his name after try-outs, he was a little surprised—but far more surprised when he realized Neaton had not made the team. "I was absolutely floored," Roberts says. "Pat was by far our best-skating defenseman. He could fly. I was just shocked, and that's what I told him."
It would not be the last surprising decision Team USA made—but in the short run it didn't seem to matter. The team was loaded, and proved it by dominating Team Canada in their 14 exhibition games, 12-1-1.
Before they left for Lillehammer, Michigan swimmer—and former Olympian—Eric Namesnik gave Harlock a tip: bring earplugs. Because hockey always ends on the Olympics' last day, the players have to stay focused while the other athletes are coming back late, loudly celebrating the day's success.
"One of the best pieces of advice I received," Harlock says. He knew they'd need their rest to play the Americans. "We looked at the U.S. as one of the teams to beat, and a strong medal contender. We were definitely more of an underdog."
But right before the teams left for Lillehammer, the American coaches delivered another surprise, replacing two players who'd been with the team for months with two outsiders, which upset the team's delicate chemistry. When the U.S. played Canada in the third game of the Olympics, the Americans had to fight back just to earn a 3-3 tie.
Get ready for the pressure
After tying Canada, the U.S. fizzled, losing three in a row to finish in eighth place.
Team Canada, however, seemed sparked by the tie to the Americans, and went on to beat Sweden and the Czech Republic. That set up a semi-final match with the high-flying Finns, who "were clearly the team to beat," Harlock says. "They were killing everybody."
The Finns were confident—so confident, they rested their starting goalie against Canada to make sure he was fresh for the gold medal game. "That was such an insult, a real slap in the face," Harlock recalls. "Our coaching staff definitely used that for motivation. We went out and absolutely waxed them, 5-3—and it wasn't even that close."
Suddenly, a team folks back home hadn't expected to go very far needed only to beat Sweden in a rematch for the nation's first hockey gold medal in 42 years. "Hockey plays such a huge role in Canadian culture," Harlock says, "that we really became the darlings of the country."
That gold medal game is now legendary. The teams were deadlocked, 2-2, after regulation, ten minutes of sudden death, and five rounds of a shoot-out.
The pressure in the shoot-out became so intense that two seasoned Swedish players, who'd already won Stanley Cups, refused to take their turns going one-on-one with the goalie. But the pressure didn't get to Sweden's young Peter Forsberg, who daringly tried a one-handed move that ended with the puck sliding over the goal line.
"That was remarkable," Harlock says. "To pull a move like that, with that much on the line—incredible."
The goal was so big, and so impressive, the Swedes put Forsberg's spectacular move on a stamp.
Win or lose, savor the glory
Neither the US nor the Canadian team could make it to the closing ceremonies, which Harlock and Roberts both regret.
For Team Canada, there was a surprising consolation. "We didn't realize the magnitude of what we'd done— even taking the silver—to the people back home until we got off the plane in Toronto, and thousands of people were there cheering for us," Harlock says. "That was really something.
"I still run into Canadians who can tell me exactly where they were when they were watching that gold medal game. The Olympics were the highlight of my career, far and away."
Even Roberts, who still regrets how poorly the U.S. team finished, says, "The Olympics are something I'll always cherish."
If Johnson is lucky, he'll become the first Wolverine to win a U.S. hockey medal in over half a century. But even if he doesn't, years from now he should still be enjoying the memories.