Goalie's hot hand holds U.S. medal hopes LILLEHAMMER 94

February 13, 1994|By Mike Preston | Mike Preston,Sun Staff Writer

LILLEHAMMER, Norway -- Hot American goalies usually win Olympic medals.

Jack McCartan was brilliant in 1960, and the Americans won the gold. Jim Craig gave up only 15 goals in seven games in 1980, and the United States had another gold and "The Miracle On Ice."

It's that simple.

Or is it?

The nation will be watching America's newest heir today in Mike Dunham, 21, who is expected to start in goal for the United States when it begins Olympic play against France.

And Dunham isn't bothered that he is the most visible player, who will get most of the credit or the blame.

"This is as close to one person winning the game in a team sport as it gets," said Dunham, from Endwell, N.Y. "If I'm not on, it hurts us. If I'm on, we're tough to beat.

"Do I want this pressure, a national television audience and a packed field house? You bet. I've been waiting all my life for it."

Dunham always has played big in big games. Practices don't excite him, however, and that's one reason U.S. coach Tim Taylor had toyed with the idea of starting Garth Snow before naming Dunham to play today.

If Dunham plays well against France, the plan is to bring him back for Tuesday's game against Slovakia. Then, Snow would face Canada on Thursday and Dunham would come back for Sweden next Saturday. Snow played especially well against Canada and Dunham excelled against Sweden during the pre-Olympic schedule.

Snow is better with the puck, but Dunham is quicker. Snow can create more offense, but Dunham is always in position, never having to scramble or flop for a block.

Dunham also excels at international play. He played for Taylor on the 1992 and 1993 U.S. national teams. He also was on the U.S. Select 16 and Select 17 teams and helped the United States win a bronze medal at the 1992 Junior World Championships.

Hot? Right now, he's burning.

Dunham, after a monthlong slump, had 41 saves against the Sweden B team last weekend, and 23 against Sweden on Wednesday night.

But, by going with two goalies, it would seem that Taylor is going against his earlier statements -- and against history. The only two times the United States won gold medals, it went with one goalie: Jim Craig in 1980 and Jack McCartan in 1960. In 1992, Ray LeBlanc carried the Americans to a surprising fourth-place finish.

"There's nothing fancy or unique about it," Taylor said last week. "In a short tournament, your goalie has to be hot. He can't have an off night. Any American team that has done well internationally has always had a sensational goalie."

Yesterday, U.S. goaltending coach Joe Bertanga said: "It's kind of a different age. Goalies are used to alternating."

Before the 1992 Winter Games in Albertville, France, Dunham thought he would be the United States' starting goalie, but former coach Dave Peterson elected to go with Ray LeBlanc.

Dunham was down.

"Any competitive person would be," said Dunham.

But not out.

"Ray was on a hot streak, and he shut out two opponents going into the medal round. We finished fourth," said Dunham. "It just added to the theory about having a hot goalie. There was never any doubt that I could play there. I was more determined than ever, and now it's here."

It's a moment Dunham has replayed in his mind numerous times. He was 8 when Craig led the Americans to gold. He later put up an American flag in his room. He remembered the chants of "USA! USA!"

"It didn't hit me being that young, how much influence the 'Miracle On Ice' had on the whole country and what a mark it made," said Dunham. "Now, I'm in this position to help someone dream."

Dunham learned the game at age 1, from his mother, Missie.

When Dunham was a toddler, his parents and another couple purchased season tickets to the Broome County Dusters, a minor-league team in Binghamton, N.Y. Missie became so captivated by the game that the Dunhams bought a second set of tickets so she could see every home game.

Mike's father, Ron, officiated basketball games, so Missie frequently took her son.

"She's my No. 1 fan, and she tells me I would just sit there and watch the games, watch the players go up and down," said Mike Dunham. "She says I was mesmerized."

Dunham got his first skates at age 2, played his first game at 4 and began dreaming about the Olympics at 8.

After his freshman year, Dunham transferred from a public school to Canterbury Prep in New Milford, Conn.

He -- and Snow -- later helped Maine win an NCAA championship, and was the New Jersey Devils' fourth choice in the 1990 NHL entry draft.

"We're not talking about a good goalie, but one of America's best," Taylor said of Dunham.

But only if America earns a medal will Dunham join the honor roll with McCartan and Craig.

"It's there for me," said Dunham. "I've got to be the hottest thing in the cold town of Lillehammer."

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