COURCHEVEL, France -- Ray LeBlanc was 15, an aspiring goaltender in hockey-happy Fitchburg, Mass., when the feats of goalie Jim Craig helped the U.S. Olympic hockey team to a stunning gold-medal triumph at Lake Placid, N.Y. To the impressionable teen-ager, every save made by Craig was an inspiration, every victory a model for him to follow.
"Growing up, I always wanted to do like Jim Craig did," said LeBlanc, who lived about 60 miles from Craig's hometown of Easton, Mass. "That was really something."
Twelve years later, LeBlanc has followed in Craig's skateprints by winning the starting goaltending job with the U.S. Olympic hockey team.
It's far too early to tell whether LeBlanc and his teammates will duplicate the 1980 squad's success, but LeBlanc is on the right path. His capable performance in Team USA's 6-3 victory over Italy Sunday earned him another start today against Germany, an opportunity U.S. coach Dave Peterson knows is appreciated by LeBlanc.
"This is a young man who has labored in the minors for a while," said Peterson, who asked LeBlanc to join the team in November when injuries ruled out playing Les Kuntar or Robb Stauber. "This is his chance to be in the sunshine, and how he does is in his hands."
His hands -- and feet -- were quick enough to help him make 21 saves in Team USA's Olympic win over Italy. He had earned that initial start by compiling a 3.63 goals-against average and .894 save percentage in 17 games, significantly better than Scott Gordon's 4.03 goals-against average and .862 save percentage over 29 pre-Olympic games.
"He handles the puck very well and he's extremely quick," said Peterson, himself a goalie during his playing days. "Mentally, he's fairly tough, too."
LeBlanc has had to be tough to survive eight minor-league seasons and nine different teams since the 1984-85 season. From his junior days in Kitchener, Ontario, through stints with Pinebridge and Carolina of the lowly Atlantic Coast Hockey League and through additional stops in Flint, Saginaw, Indianapolis and Fort Wayne of the International Hockey League, LeBlanc has somehow kept his dream alive.
Along the way, he has acquired a family: a wife, Julie, a 3 1/2 -year-old son and a 1-year-old daughter. Although he has never seen a minute's play in the NHL and is now past his 27th birthday, he has never thought about quitting, he said yesterday after the U.S. team's practice here.
"I always had the feeling, 'Maybe I'll get a chance if I keep working hard,' and things might happen," he said. "It looks good right now."
The invitation from Peterson gave LeBlanc a welcome reprieve from yet another season in the Chicago Blackhawks' minor-league system. LeBlanc's hopes of moving up to the NHL had soared when Ed Belfour, Chicago's top goaltender, sat out training camp and the start of the regular season because of a salary dispute. When Belfour re-signed with the Hawks, though, LeBlanc's hopes evaporated.
"The Olympic team called [Chicago general manager] Mike Keenan and asked if I'd like to try out," LeBlanc said. "I was more or less surprised. I had no intention of playing on the Olympic team and I wasn't expecting to be asked. They gave me two days to think about it, because I have a wife and two children and I couldn't just pick up and go.
"I talked with my wife, and we agreed it would be the best thing for my career. It's worked out great. It's given me a lot more exposure than I would have had in Indianapolis and the hockey's better, so I'm learning more."
Doing well is uppermost in his mind. With his initial jitters having dissipated in the game against Italy, he's looking forward to playing ninth-seeded Germany.
"I was a little nervous," said LeBlanc, who displayed a quick glove hand and could not be faulted on any of the Italian goals. "It's not like you play in the Olympic Games every day of the week. The first couple of saves were the hardest, but after that, I got into the rhythm.
"I'm real happy about the way things are going, but it's only one game and one win. There's still a long way to go."