Friday, February 12, 2010

30 Years Ago 5: Bill Baker

30 years ago today, at Lake Placid, New York, going into the final minute of an Olympic hockey game between the U.S. and Sweden, things continued to look bad for the American team. After 59 minutes of the 60-minute game had been played, Sweden led by a score of 2 to 1.

Sweden has traditionally been one of the hockey powers of Europe. Interest in the sport cuts a crazy-quilt pattern through that continent. Sweden, Finland, and what, back then in 1980, constituted Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union, were and are the main centers of European hockey. Other northern European countries field national teams, and occasionally see one of their players succeed in the National Hockey League, but their hockey tends to be second-rate.

The 12 teams competing in the 1980 Olympic hockey tournament were split into two divisions. The U.S. would face Sweden and Czechoslovakia within its own division. And if they finished among the top two in their division, they would play two games in the Medal Round, against teams from the other division, which included the USSR and Finland.

Their matchup against Sweden in the opening game was their first major test, and the U.S. team seemed to be failing.

Bill Baker was a 23-year-old defenseman from Grand Rapids, Minnesota. He had been part of two national championship teams at the University of Minnesota, in 1976 and 1979. At 19:33 of the third period, on February 12, 1980, Baker scored a goal against Sweden, to turn a seemingly-certain defeat into a 2-2 tie.

That was Baker's only point (i.e., goal or assist) of the Olympics. But it was a big one. For the first time, things started to look brighter for the red-white-and-blue. They would need to continue to play at a high level, especially in their next game against the powerful team from Czechoslovakia. But, in retrospect, Baker's goal can be seen as the first in a series of miracles.

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