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Old Time Hockey: Unheralded 1983 Team USA set stage for defense of 1980’s Miracle

Jim Craig and a hodgepodge group of Americans got their country to the Sarajevo Games by winning in Tokyo

1980 USA Gold Medal Team v Philadelphia Flyers Alumni Photo by B Bennett/Getty Images

The Miracle on Ice in 1980 is the crowning achievement in America’s long history of play in international hockey and one of, if not the greatest sporting moment of the 20th Century. In addition to the stunning 4-3 victory over the Soviet Union that culminated in a gold medal, thanks to a comeback win over Finland, two days later at Lake Placid. There is also the “Forgotten Miracle” which saw the team win its first Olympic gold in Squaw Valley, CA in 1960, and more recently, the thrilling victory over Canada at the 1996 World Cup of Hockey.

A little known and seldom mentioned win for Team America was the country’s undefeated run at the IIHF Pool B tournament in Tokyo, Japan in 1983.

Why was this victory at a second-level IIHF event in the early 1980s important? Well, for that answer well have to go back a bit.

The United States next foray internationally after winning the 1980 Winter Games came in the 1981 IIHF World Championship. Comprised of the usual, for the time, mix of college players, minor-leaguers and European-based pros, including seven holdovers from the “Miracle” squad, the Americans were placed in Group B with Czechoslovakia, Sweden and West Germany.

There would be nothing miraculous as pool play began with the team getting destroyed 11-2 by Czechoslovakia and doubled up by 4-2 by the host Swedes before they posted a wide-open 10-6 win over West Germany.

The third place place group result meant any chance of a medal was gone, but the United States turned it around in the Consolation Round, going 3-1-1 to finish the tournament in fifth place to remain in Pool A with the Netherlands getting relegated.

Team USA wouldn’t be as fortunate in 1982. The team finished that edition of the World Championship in last place among eight teams, losing six straight games against Sweden, Italy, Finland, Czechoslovakia, the Soviet Union and Canada before earning a tie in its last game against West Germany. Team USA put up a good fight in most of the games, but it was an embarrassing 7-5 loss to Italy that cost the team its spot in the top level.

The poor effort in Finland meant the United States might not get a chance to defend its surprising Olympic gold medal the following year. They would need winning results in 1983 to qualify for the 1984 Winter Games in Sarajevo, Yugoslavia.

As I mentioned above, this isn’t a well-covered topic. If you do find some articles about it, they’ll either wrongly state that the United States needed to win or finish top-two in the 1983 Pool B tournament to make it to Sarajevo, but the task wasn’t quite that daunting. The Americans just needed to finish among the top three in Tokyo to get a chance at a second straight miracle.

The American national team was no stranger to playing in the B Pool. They appeared in the second level tournament in 1970, 1972, 1973 and 1974 prior to being relegated for the third time in 1982. In 1970 and 1974, they won promotion back to the A Pool.

Before heading to Japan, Hal Trumble, Art Berglund and new national team head coach Lou Vairo assembled a squad that included 1980 hero Jim Craig as the starting goaltender. Lake Placid participants John Harrington and Phil Verchota also made trip, as did high school phenom Brian Lawton, who would be the first American player ever taken number one overall in the NHL Entry Draft a couple months later. The 17-year-old Lawton was coming off an effective performance at the 1983 World Junior Championship.

The team also featured experienced defensemen Don Waddell, Ron Wilson and forward Steve Jensen, as well Yale center Bob Brooke, who would go on to play for the New York Rangers, Minnesota North Stars and New Jersey Devils.

Veteran left wing Mike Fidler, who brought 271 games of NHL experience with him, having played for the Cleveland Barons, North Stars and Chicago Blackhawks, was added to provide an offensive boost, and he did just that by producing six goals and 13 points in seven games. Fidler had previously represented his country in the 1978 World Championship.

After arriving in Japan, Team USA was idle on the opening day (March 21) of the tournament, which saw the hosts edge Yugoslavia 3-2 and Norway beat Romania by a 5-3 count.

The Americans opened up play a day later by crushing Yugoslavia 13-2 and followed that up with a convincing 6-2 win over Romania. After a day off, the Yanks posted a solid 5-2 win over Switzerland to move to 3-0.

The level of competition would pick up in the fourth and fifth games as the United States would take on Austria and Poland.

They trailed the Austrians by a goal in the third period before Princeton’s Ed Lee took a pass from from Harrington at center and then crossed the blue line before snapping a shot in off the far post to forge a 3-3 tie to keep the Americans unbeaten.

The second half of the pivotal back-to-back set saw the Yanks meet the Poles, who came into the game with an identical 3-0-1 record. Team USA took control of the tournament with a one-sided 6-2 win.

With three of a possible four points earned against the Austria and Poland, the Americans finished up strong by routing Norway 8-2 and then closed out the tournament with a flourish with a 12-2 hammering of host Japan.

By winning the Pool B tournament in dominant fashion, the United States, which outscored its opponents 53-15, earned promotion back to the A-level. The program also automatically qualified for Sarajevo, along with second place Poland and third place Austria.

With East Germany deciding not send its squad, fourth place Norway would also appear in the 1984 Games after beating Pool C winner Netherlands in a playoff to claim the open spot.

In what turned out to be a last hurrah, Craig, who had recently signed as a free agent with the North Stars, was named goaltender of the tournament. During the 1983-84 season, Craig would appear in just three NHL games with Minnesota, going 1-1, and another 27 with their Central League affiliate, the Salt Lake Golden Eagles, before he retired.

Current NHL Network analyst Lawton would post 31 points as a rookie for the North Stars in 1983-84 and end up playing a total 483 NHL games, while fellow Mount Saint Charles Academy alum Lee would have a two-game cup of coffee with the Quebec Nordiques in 1984-85.

Wilson would go on to have a successful NHL coaching career and Waddell is currently the president and general manager of the Carolina Hurricanes.

Brooke, Harrington, Verchota and fellow forwards Mark Kumpel and Gary Sampson would appear with the United States team that played in Sarajevo, while players like Fidler, Dave Delich, Steven Jensen, Jeff Logan, Steve Ulseth, Ron Griffin, Gary Haight, Keith Hanson, CraighNorwich and Tim Thomas (no, not that Tim Thomas) would soon wrap their respective playing careers.

That 1984 U.S. Olympic team, which also featured the likes of Pat LaFontaine, Chris Chelios, Ed Olczyk, Al Iafrate and David A. Jensen, had an extremely difficult act to follow and could not match the accomplishment of their gold-winning predecessors. They did give it a good go and ended up finishing a respectable 1-2-2 in group play, and in seventh place after beating Poland 7-4 in the Classification Round game. Those Americans wouldn’t have gotten the chance if not for the efforts of the scrappy 1983 team that went to Tokyo and got the job done.