At 2am in the morning, on Saturday October 27, 1984, Boltic of Sweden met Bagheera of the USA in a round robin match in the World Cup Ljusdal, the bandy world championships for club teams.There was no question that Boltic would win and Bagheera would lose. The only question was how gigantic the margin of victory would be. Would Boltic score more than 25 goals in the 60 minute game? Certainly Bagheera would not score any. A large percentage of the ever gracious Swedish Press predicted 25-0 at least. Regardless ,the game would be a blowout of epic proportion.
Bandy had been a fixture of the culture and heritage of winter Sweden for over 80 years. Sweden held its first national championship in 1907 when IF Uppsala skated past IFK Gavle 4-1 on a frozen river. By the late 1970s and early 80s Boltic had become the dominant bandy team in Sweden and arguably the best club team in the world. Boltic was the 6 time defending Swedish champion. 7 of its players skated for the Swedish National Team which was the defending World Champion. The Boltic players were the best of the best from a generation of Swedish players that learned to skate at the same time as they were learning to walk.
Then there was Bagheera and US Bandy. The most experience Bagheera player had first played bandy in January 1981 at Lewis Park in Edina, MN. The 5 least experienced players had never played bandy till arriving in Sweden 5 days earlier. Every Bagheera player was a former ice hockey player. All were in their 20s. They took 6 days off of school or work and paid their own airfare to come to Sweden. In preliminary games to the World Cup Ljusdal, Bagheera had been beaten 14-3 and 10-0 by Swedish elite teams Falun and Ale Surte. The previous October US team Bandolier had even been beat 3-2 by the Ljusdal Bandy Gymnasium, a team of high schoolers.
Boltic vs Bagheera was thus a recipe for an annihilation, the perfect storm of the best against the least. And the game was being played at 2am in the round the clock tourney. The mood of the Bagheera players was inwardly both of extreme excitement and of disquiet because we knew we were going against the best team in the world and were very aware of the disparity between our two teams. Outwardly, however, we were upbeat and confident. We were prepared to shock the bandy world. There was no talk of losing or how bad the score might be. Both Coach Gunnar Fast and top forward Michael Blessing made sure of this. Gunnar had worked hard to harness our American "fighting spirit" while Michael never played a game in his life that he didn't think he was going to win. He did not tolerate a different mentality from the Bagheera players. We could all look to the "Miracle on Ice" of 1980 when the USA college kids beat the Soviet Union and the rest of the hockey world to win gold. Twelve of those players and Coach Herb Brooks were Minnesotans just as the entire Bagheera team was. We were ready to make our own miracles. Even so there was the reality off the abyss between Boltic and Bagheera which not so funny Swedes likened to the difference on the evolutionary scale between humans and amoeba.
The beauty of sport is not only that even in defeat you live to fight another day. It is also that no matter what the pre game predictions are the game still needs to be played. And so Boltic vs Bandolier began at 2am Saturday October 27th. Tournament Founder and Chairman Bjorn Swartze walked up to the rink with Bagheera's General Manager Magnus Skold. Bjorn was tired and told Magnus he would watch the game until Boltic scored 3 goals. Then he would go get some sleep. He figured to be in bed by 2:30. Five minutes in Boltic had not scored. At 15 minutes Boltic had still not scored. Bagheera was presenting them with far stiffer resistance than they had anticipated.Passes were just off. Shots were just wide. The shots that were on goal were swallowed by Bagheera goaltender Jeff Johnson. Bagheera was also playing a very aggressive game, both physically and verbally. As the game went on with Boltic struggling some of the Bagheera players, including myself, began to verbally goad the Boltic players. It worked as Boltic's individual and team play broke down. I particularly focused on Kjell Kruse, both physical and verbally. Boltic finally scored at 17 minutes when Ola Johansson broke free. 1-0 Boltic. At that point Boltic would need to score goals rapidly to reach the predicted 25. Bjorn Swartze was still not in bed as he and Magnus Skold continued to watch with growing amazement.
Bagheera knew we could not skate with Boltic and our strategy to clear our end and relieve pressure was to either to have me as the Libero/sweeper crank the ball down the ice or have Jeff Johnson throw the ball long. The rules at the time allowed the goalie to give the ball to the Libero in the penalty area and then get the ball back again. Thus the option of throw or hit the ball long and Jeff and I took turns sending the ball down the ice. At the 27 minute mark of the first half Jeff gave me the ball and I sent it in the air down the center of the rink. Somehow the ball made it through the Boltic defenders where Michael Blessing picked it up and went in for a breakaway. As Michael entered the penalty area Bjorn Tommernas tackled him from behind. A penalty shot was called. Dave Reichel, playing in only his 5th bandy game ever, stepped in and buried the shot. Boltic 1 Bagheera 1 which is how the first half ended. The energy and euphoric disbelief on the Bagheera bench during the brief halftime was not just electric, it was nuclear. I can only imagine what was going on on the Boltic bench but I don't think they were discussing how they would score 24 goals in the second half.
From the start of the second half Boltic was on the attack yet the pattern from the first half continued. Everything Boltic did was either off by a little or off by a lot. Jeff Johnson remained impenetrable in goal. Boltic frustration mounted in lock step with the physicality as well as the verbal goading they were receiving from Bagheera. In particular the interaction between Kjell Kruse and myself intensified. Eight minutes into the second half Mats Carlsson scored for Boltic on a corner stroke. Kiel Kruse immediately skated up to me, shook his fist in my face, and shouted from 6 inches away "F*** You". This remains one of the greatest compliments I have ever received in my life. I expect that most of the spectators as well as Boltic expected the floodgates would now open and a torrent of goals would be scored by Boltic. Balance would be restored to the bandy universe. With just one more goal Bjorn Swartze could go home to bed. Twenty two minutes to go and Bagheera held firm. A visible level of panic began to appear in the Boltic players, not only in their demeanor but also in their play. The smooth flowing Boltic bandy machine was breaking down. Bagheera continued to go for the home run goal either through a long ball from me or a long throw from Jeff. Jeff and I, great friends and sports teammates since 7th grade, added another level to the Boltic frustration, particularly that of Bandy legend Bengt "Pinnen" Ramstrom. I stood in front of Jeff with the ball on my stick. Pinnen stood at the top of the circle. "Come on Pinnen. Come get the ball" Jeff and I both called out. Pinnen would then rush in, I would pass the ball to Jeff who then threw it down the ice while the both of us laughed and cheered. Meanwhile the ball would come down among the Boltic defenders with Michael Blessing, Dave Reichel, Chris Halden and Tom Howard on the edge of getting free and scoring the equalizer. For the last 5 minutes of the game Boltic was on its heels, struggling to avoid the upset. They did and the game ended 2-1. Yes this was 23 goals less than predicted.
After the game Ola Johansson was interviewed and asked how this close a game could have happened. Ola stated "We thought we were going to play against a bunch of cones. Then the cones started to move". Meanwhile, as Boltic had been held to 2 goals Bjorn Swartze had stayed for the entire game. It remains the only game Bjorn watched from beginning to end in the 30 years he ran the tournament.
Had Bagheera won or even tied the game I believe it would have stood with the greatest upsets in the history of sport. Even so it remains as the greatest near upset ever. It is the most extraordinary athletic experience of my life.
Bagheera Roster Boltic Roster
Jeff Johnson Anders Bridholm
Chris Middlebrook Mats Carlsson
Dave Reichel Bjorn Tommernas
Mark Reichel Bengt Carlsson
Michael Blessing Lars Angstrom
Chris Halden Lars Clarin
Tom Howard Kjell Kruse
Bill Wood Ola johansson
Dave Harmon Bengt Ramstrom
Kim Mikkelsen Pelle Togner
Ron Carlson Peter Olsson
Sean Turnquist Bengt Andersson
Jeff Turtinen Johan Grundstrom
Tim Pavek Christer Rhose
Mike Baskfield Hakan Larsson
Coach: Gunnar Fast
Trainer: Lars carlsson