By Dan David, newyorkrangers.com
Thirty years ago today, Anders Hedberg
, the highest-scoring European player in New York Rangers history, was pacing the 1979-80 Blueshirts with 53 points in 55 games.
Hedberg and Rangers teammate Ulf Nilsson
were among a small group of elite Swedish forwards starring in the NHL at that time. They were joined by Kent Nilsson of the Atlanta Flames and Thomas Gradin of the Vancouver Canucks. All four were world-class players and rank among the best players in Sweden's hockey history.
|Mats Naslund, who went on to an NHL All-Star career as well as a Stanley Cup championship with Montreal, was one of 20 players on the Swedish squad that Team USA tied 2-2 on Feb. 12, 1980. |
But on this date 30 years ago -- Feb. 12, 1980 -- anyone who had ever played in the NHL or signed with an NHL team was completely barred from participating in the Olympics, which were reserved for truly amateur athletes. When the hockey tournament opened at the XIII Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid, N.Y., Team Sweden was in the same skates as the Canadians and Americans -- forced to look outside the NHL for its Olympic hockey players.
In Team USA's case, the inability to use NHL players such as Rod Langway, Mark Howe and Joe Mullen would turn out to be a good thing. USA Hockey put together a squad of college players and former college stars who had never turned pro. Those 20 players would go on to become part of American history as the "Miracle on Ice" gold medalists -- although no one could have dreamed that when the tournament opened 30 years ago today.
In Sweden's case, however, going without their four superstar forwards, plus NHL defensemen Borje Salming of the Maple Leafs and Stefan Persson of the Islanders, was hardly a positive. Although the Swedish hockey officials and fans respected the International Olympic Committee's strict rules defining amateurism and Olympic eligibility, they were quick to refer to their 1980 Olympic squad as the "B Team".
The Swedes sent a collection of several young up-and-comers to Lake Placid, mixed in with Swedish Elite League veterans who had never crossed the Atlantic to the NHL. All 20 players on the Swedish roster were in the Elite League at the time, and seven of the younger players would go on to have NHL careers after the 1980 Olympics.
Sweden also had the misfortune of drawing Team USA for its first game at the Olympics. The Americans came into the game eager to erase the memory of a 10-3 exhibition loss to the Soviet Union just three nights earlier at Madison Square Garden. Amid heavy security and concerns about anti-Soviet protests, some 11,241 fans had come to MSG for that Feb. 9 exhibition in which the Russians humiliated the young All-American team coached by Herb Brooks.
In the wake of their loss to the Soviets, Brooks had told his players that they would have to win or tie at least one of their first two Olympic matchups in order to have any chance at reaching the medal round. Those two games would come against the two favorites in the Blue Division -- the Swedes and Czechs. Ironically, the first game, played vs. Sweden 30 years ago today, would be the only game at the 1980 Olympics that the USA did not win outright.
If it is ever possible to look back at a hockey game and say that a tie was just as good as a win, then that game would be the one played on Feb. 12, 1980, between the U.S. and Sweden. The Americans were so focused on winning that they were willing to try just about anything that day, including having USA Hockey's own Lou Vairo, a Brooklyn native who had coached for years in the Rangers-initiated Metropolitan League, go up into the stands to do a little in-game scouting.
|DID YOU KNOW? |
• Team Sweden ended up winning the bronze medal at Lake Placid.
• Team USA's Ken Morrow and Team Sweden's Tomas Jonsson were rivals in the Olympics but later became teammates with the Islanders, where they won two Stanley Cups together.
• Team Sweden had a player named Lundqvist -- 29-year-old Per Lundqvist of MoDo Ornskoldsvik, one of the top scorers in the Swedish Elite League.
• Team Sweden had seven future NHL players and two future All-Stars (Mats Naslund, and Pelle Lindbergh) and five of the seven players reached the Stanley Cup Finals in their careers (Naslund, Jonsson, Lars Molin, Thomas Eriksson and Lindbergh).
• The Swedish team was coached by the late Tommy Sandlin, who would go on to coach Sweden to the 1987 World Championship gold, breaking a 25-year run of World golds won only by Soviet or Czech teams.
Wireless technology has improved quite a bit over the past 30 years, but Vairo had no problem handing a "walkie-talkie" to U.S. assistant coach Craig Patrick, the grandson of Rangers legend Lester Patrick and a future Blueshirts coach and general manager, for Patrick to use on the bench during the game. Vairo, meanwhile, sat in the stands with his own walkie-talkie, telling Patrick what he was seeing in the Swedes in terms of both strategy and line combinations. Patrick would relay helpful information to Brooks, and there was no IOC rule preventing him from doing so.
The Lake Placid field house was only half-full for the USA-Sweden game, which is utterly unimagineable by today's Olympic hockey standards. About 4,000 people were there to see Sweden's 30-year-old veteran Sture Andersson put his team up 1-0 at 11:04 of the first period. Andersson beat U.S. goaltender Jim Craig off a centering pass from future Vancouver Canuck Lars Molin for the first period's only goal.
Undaunted, Team USA came back to tie the score at 1-1 when Rangers draft pick Dave Silk
scored off assists from Mike Ramsey and Mark Johnson with only 28 seconds left in the middle period.
During the 1980 Olympics, Silk, selected by the Blueshirts in the fourth round of the 1978 NHL draft, was the only Rangers prospect on the U.S. team, although three other members of the team would later become Blueshirts. Silk had given up his senior year at Boston University to play in the Olympics and look to turn pro with the Rangers following the Games.
Sweden went ahead 2-1 at 4:45 of the third period, when 20-year-old Thomas Eriksson, a future Philadelphia Flyers defenseman scored to push the Americans' backs to the wall.
In 1980, there was no overtime in Olympic hockey, and any game outside the medal round could end in a tie. With less than a minute left in the third period, it appeared that the U.S. would lose the opener to the Swedes. But that was exactly when the "Miracle on Ice" squad realized its first miracle.
Brooks pulled Craig from the net for an extra attacker, and the move paid off. Defenseman Bill Baker
, a University of Minnesota graduate who had put his pro career on hold for a year to play with the U.S. Olympic squad, took a feed from returning 1976 Olympian Buzz Schneider and rifled a 55-foot slapper from just inside the blue line past Swedish goalie Pelle Lindbergh, a future NHL All-Star, with only 27 seconds remaining in the game.
Today, most Rangers fans might best remember Lindbergh for his years with the Flyers in the 1980s and his tragic death in a Nov. 10, 1985, auto accident. But on Feb. 12, 1980, Lindbergh was a 20-year-old kid who let one of the biggest goals in U.S. hockey history get past him.
Similarly, Rangers fans might best remember Baker for his role on the 1982-83 Blueshirts team that was coached by Brooks. But on Feb. 12, 1980, Baker truly began the march to the gold medal. If the Americans had lost this game instead of tying it, they might not have had the momentum needed to win their next six games. FEB. 12, 1980
USA 2, SWEDEN 2
1. Sweden -- Sture Andersson (Lars Mohlin, Per Lundqvist), 11:04
USA -- Mike Ramsey, 13:34Second-Period Scoring
2. USA -- Dave Silk (Mike Ramsey, Mark Johnson), 19:32Second-Period Penalties
Sweden -- Mats Waltin, 5:20Third-Period Scoring
3. Sweden -- Thomas Eriksson (Harald Luckner), 4:45
4. USA -- Bill Baker (Buzz Schneider, Mike Ramsey), 19:33Third-Period Penalties
Sweden -- Tomas Jonsson, 5:32
USA -- Mike Eruzione, 7:45
Sweden -- T. Eriksson, 7:45
Sweden -- Lundqvist, 12:17
USA -- Ken Morrow, 14:15Shots on Goal
USA -- 7-12-10 -- 29
Sweden -- 16-11-9 -- 36Goaltenders:
Jim Craig (USA, 34 saves) and Pelle Lindbergh (Sweden, 27 saves)