It's Us vs. Them, just like in 1980 -- only different

JOHN EISENBERG

February 21, 1992|By JOHN EISENBERG

MERIBEL, France -- Everything is different this time. It is just a hockey game this time. Just a life-sized hockey game. Not some monolith rising to the clouds. Not an ideological Super Bowl. Not a miracle in the making.

Everything is different this time. The lines of the plot were so distinct on that starry, starry night in 1980. Americans against Soviets. Them and us. The lines are all blurred now. The American goalie has a Russian tutor. There is no such thing as a Soviet. The players in red represent not a country or a way of life, but an ephemeral concept called the Unified Team.

It is 12 years minus a day since the Americans beat the Soviets in Lake Placid, in a game that became a defining moment of American spirit. Now, the teams are playing again today. In the Olympic semifinals again. On a Friday afternoon again. At 5 o'clock again. Incredible, such coincidences. But the similarities die there. Die much as the Soviet Union died last year.

The Soviets who lost that night were hockey's Big Red Machine, the world's best, their silent, elegant teamwork a sporting testimony to putting the fatherland ahead of all else. These Unifieds are a collection of eager-eyed, independent Russian kids, eager to demonstrate their rough English, but mostly eager for a chance to play in California or New York. Anywhere but where there are bread lines.

Bread lines. Blurred lines. Everything so different than on that starry, starry night.

"It is harder to coach them now than before the changes," said Igor Dmitriev, the team's longtime assistant coach. "They are looking more for themselves now. They are looking for professional contracts."

So different. The best Soviet players were in uniform that night in 1980, professionals posing as Olympians, with no choice but to be there. Now, the best are wearing National Hockey League uniforms. They are free. They make big money. They watch the Olympics on television.

Funny. Now it is Russian kids in the Olympics, much as it was American kids in 1980. And now the Americans are the ones with the professional Olympians, minor-leaguers and end-of-the-liners such as Moe Mantha, Ray LeBlanc and Clark Donatelli, getting their chances because the Games are open now.

Funny. The starting Soviet goalie on that starry, starry night was the legendary Vladislav Tretiak. Long retired, he was hired by the Chicago Blackhawks to teach fundamentals to their prospects. To such prospects as Ray LeBlanc.

So different. Such blurred lines.

"The Russians just aren't the Russians anymore," Mantha said yesterday.

He didn't mean that literally. He meant they no longer were The Machine, that they showed imperfections. "We've seen them," Mantha said, "and we know we can beat them. We aren't afraid of them. That's different than 1980. It wouldn't be a miracle this time."

No. The Americans are older than the Unifieds this time. The Americans are a tough, physical collection of hard hips, black eyes and elbows. They aren't sweet innocents in with wolves, as was the case in 1980. It was indeed a miracle that night. The Soviets had given the Americans a 10-3 beating just before the Olympics in an exhibition game in Madison Square Garden. It was a superb Soviet team. An insane upset.

"When they lost to us," said Mike Eruzione, the captain of the 1980 American team, here as a CBS commentator, "it was seen as an embarrassment for their whole country. If they lose this time, I think the only person who will be embarrassed is the coach."

Ah. The coach. His name is Viktor Tikhonov. The last vestige of the Machine. They call him the world's last Communist, a silver-haired, imperious autocrat who favored the old politics because they worked for him. They made him. He had pros in the Olympics. Everyone else had kids.

Now, his system is collapsing around him. His players want out. They don't listen to him as much. That he is still the coach means his players will handle their sticks with grace, control the puck and skate like Kristi Yamaguchi. The Unifieds are a fine team that probably should beat the Americans today. But it's just not the same.

There is no drumbeat of communism in the shadows of the arena. No silence and mystery. "I've been to Russia five times as a scout and coach," American coach Dave Peterson said. "I know them as friends and competitors. They aren't mysterious. They're a lot like us."

They aren't playing for politics anymore. They aren't even playing for a flag here. If they win the gold medal, they will climb onto the victory stand, listen to Beethoven's "Ode to Joy" and salute the Olympic flag. They won't insinuate a damn thing. Neither will the Americans if they win today. So different.

"What happened in 1980 will never happen again," Eruzione said. "The circumstances will never be the same. No one hates the Russians anymore. They aren't the end all like they were. Now, the game everyone wants to see now is America against Iraq."

In lieu of that, there will be a game today. A big game. But just that. No rocket's red glare. No reds at all. Just opponents who could well end up as teammates in the NHL. Just a stern old man standing behind the Unified bench. A stern old man keeping alive a flickering flame. His days are numbered.

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