CALGARY, Canada — It is not a rematch in the true sense, nor should it be considered a crusade.
But because of one magical, moonstruck night eight years ago in Lake Placid, N.Y.--a touchstone for a generation of kids on frozen ponds from Massachusetts to Minnesota--it has become more than a hockey game.
It is the United States hockey team vs. the Soviet Union team here tonight. And while it may not be Lake Placid revisited, it will be the first time the teams have crossed sticks on Olympic ice since America clicked its skates together three times and all its fondest wishes came true.
"I know everyone is going to be thinking about it," said Team USA center Scott Fusco, who was a junior in Belmont (Mass.) Hill School when Mike Eruzione scored the goal that beat the Soviets, 4-3, and Team USA went on to win the gold medal in 1980.
"That game, and the whole Lake Placid experience, is probably the biggest reason a lot of the guys are here, why American hockey players dream of playing in the Olympics," Fusco said. "I never thought too much of the Olympics until I saw that game."
Fusco's hopes for a shot at the Soviets were dashed once, four years ago in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia, when Team USA was eliminated from the medal round without playing the eventual gold medal-winners. But the team's oldest player, who holds a degree in economics from Harvard, was willing to place his life on hold at age 25 for a second chance.
"A lot of people in our country are not hockey fans, but they tune in once very four years to see this," Fusco said. "It's not possible to be much more excited than we are now. We're going to have to channel that excitement in the right direction."
While his players are excitable boys, Team USA Coach Dave Peterson is projecting about as much emotion as a snow drift in his native Minnesota. The biggest game of his career?
Peterson shook his 57-year-old schoolteacher's head. "No," he shrugged. "Who knows? How about playing for the state championship in Minnesota before 18,000 people and a five-state television hookup, going into overtime and winning, 1-0? That was in 1970, the only year we (Southwest High in Minneapolis) won it.
"A lot of people think this is a glorified state tournament."
Not Viktor Tikhonov, the Soviet coach, for whom this Olympics may be a last hurrah or a career-ending humiliation. Tikhonov, who is the same age as Peterson, was the man behind the bench when the Soviets lost in 1980, and losses to Sweden in last spring's world championships, to a team of National Hockey League All-Stars in last fall's Canada Cup, and to Canada's Olympic team in last December's Izvestia Cup in Moscow has dimmed the Soviet aura of invincibility.
"I have heard it said that behind Gorbachev, he has the most pressure on him in the country ," said Tore Jobs, a Swede who is the assistant coach of Norway's team.
Jobs laughed. "I believe it to be true," he said.
The Soviets have opened this tournament with easy 5-0 and 8-1 wins over Norway and Austria. Peterson, for one, would like to put the lie to the notion that the Big Red Machine is running down.
"They're still the best team in the world," Peterson said. "They just pick and choose when they play."
There are others, however, like Hall of Fame goaltender Ken Dryden, who are convinced that the Soviets are no longer the surest bet this side of Gorky Street. Dryden, who works for ABC as a hockey commentator during the Olympics, sees Soviet superiority turning to stagnation.
"It's advancing age," Dryden said. "Where do you get the thrill, the satisfaction? When you've won as often as they do, satisfaction is rare. It's more relief that you're looking for.
"Winning isn't a kick anymore. It's more a feeling of being shot at and missed.
"They're a curious team. All you can think of, when you see the same players getting old, people who are great players, you're absolutely convinced that the next time you see them, they'll do it. You think it's a slump, very temporary, but often it isn't. It's the start of a downhill slide."
It is a slide accelerated by the absence of Vladislav Tretiak, the legendary goalie who retired after the '84 Olympics. He is here for the Olympics, but only as a representative on an International Olympic Committee commission.
"In reality, he was outstanding," Dryden said of Tretiak. "But the memory escalates. He gets better every year he doesn't play. It's like chasing a ghost."
The goaltender selected to succeed Tretiak, Evgeny Belosheikin, is only 21 years old, missed the first two games with a sore right leg, and has been eminently erratic. In some ways, he mirrors an equally young and inexperienced U.S. team, which was worn down by Czechoslovakia, 7-5, after holding three-goal leads twice.
"We didn't get outskated," Peterson said. "We got outsmarted. . . . We make mental mistakes. We're young. We do a lot of things.
"But we're a good hockey team. We play hard every time we're on the ice, and I'm not going to apologize for them."