After gold rush, fame a hard shot to handle

Jim Craig, 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey goalie, found his sudden celebrity to be a double-edged sword.

Hockey

February 24, 2005|By Jeff Barker | Jeff Barker,SUN STAFF

WASHINGTON — "It began when Lord Killanin, president of the International Olympic Committee, hung the medal around Jim Craig's neck. For it was then ... that the ribbon-clasp broke and the gold medal fell into the young hero's hands." - From an unpublished manuscript by Baltimore sports agent and author Ron Shapiro

WASHINGTON - It shouldn't have been hard to recognize Jim Craig. At 47, he still has rugged looks and a slightly sleepy countenance. Like many members of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, he has a pleasantly unsophisticated quality that seems distinctly American.

But seeing him now, as he finishes a motivational speaking event, it's hard not to try to reconcile this gray-haired businessman in a dark suit and yellow power tie with pictures of Craig from 25 years ago today that will be forever stuck in the mind's eye of America.

There he is, seconds after the U.S. team, having stunned the Soviet Union two days earlier, defeated Finland to win the gold medal. A fan has draped an American flag on the unshaven goaltender's shoulder, and he is squinting up at the Lake Placid crowd and asking, "Where's my father?"

Those indelible moments would help Craig win an NHL contract, endorsements and a place in American sports history. But, like so many others who win accolades before they are quite ready to process them, he would be haunted by them, too.

In the years after the Games, Craig came to have a love-hate relationship with his instant celebrity as he endured exhaustion, an ulcer, an uneven NHL career and a car accident on a Massachusetts road that led to a trial after a passenger in the other car died.

Today, Craig, married nearly 20 years and a father of two, says of the immediate post-Olympic period: "There was a lot of learning that went on. I think all the good experiences - and all the hard experiences - have made me what I am today."

He says he never stopped appreciating - even cherishing - the Olympic gold experience, which seemed to bolster the nation's confidence during a post-Vietnam, post-Watergate period in which American civilians were being held hostage in Iran.

But his hero status created expectations, and expectations created pressure and he was 22 years old and everything was happening so quickly.

There was an irony to the sudden celebrity of Craig, one of eight children from North Easton, Mass., who still lives near his hometown. Part of the U.S. team's charm was that the players hadn't been stars. To most Americans they were unknown college kids and huge underdogs to win the gold. Then, just like that, they were celebrities.

In his 1985 manuscript, Shapiro, best known as Cal Ripken's longtime agent, argues that successful athletes like Craig can fall victim to "a cruel system of huge but momentary rewards and huge but unreal fame which all too often leaves the star athletes worse off, when the cheering stops, than they were before they became famous."

Shapiro chronicled Craig's immediate post-Olympic years - as well as other athletes' up-and-down experiences - as part of the manuscript, which he called The High Price of Heroes. The book says that when their careers are over, some high-profile athletes are left with memories of glory but without some critical skills, business and otherwise, they need to succeed on their own.

Though the book was never completed, Shapiro has since finished others, including one to be published this year on dealing with bullies.

Just six days after his Olympic triumph, Craig appeared in goal for the struggling Atlanta Flames, who were looking for a marketing boost and seemed to find it by signing golden boy Craig. A Coca-Cola commercial featuring Craig and his father began appearing that week.

In the frigid, sleet-filled evening of March 1, Jim Craig skated out onto the glittering surface of the Omni, where a packed arena waited to watch him take on the Colorado Rockies, the least effective team in the NHL. Meanwhile, the promotion-minded Flames management was handing out 8,000 tiny American flags; after each blocked shot, the fans could once again be heard chanting the familiar Lake Placid cry: "U-S-A! U-S-A!" - from the manuscript

Craig won his debut that night, 4-1, and found his picture that week on the cover of Sports Illustrated with the headline, "The Golden Goalie Cashes In."

But he never found a comfort level in Atlanta, in part because he had joined the team at midseason and his teammates were virtual strangers. No. 1 goaltender Pat Riggin, who would play nine NHL seasons, took a seat on the bench the night Craig arrived.

"Think of a football team that has two starting quarterbacks and one of them is an All-Star and then you get some kid out of college comes in and takes their place," Craig said in an interview last week. "It doesn't make for good teammates."

Says Craig of that first game: "I didn't even know which end of the rink I was supposed to go at. I didn't know where the American flag was."

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