We all remember where we were when tragedy happened. No one can forget where they were when John or Bobby Kennedy or the Reverend Martin Luther King Junior was assassinated. Likewise few can forget where they were when the Space Shuttle Challenger blew up or the events of September 11th 2001. However, in spite of the fact that good news is not always as memorable as tragedy there was a sentinel event by a group of unknown US college hockey players that if you were around back then you have likely never forgotten and probably remember exactly where you were and what you were doing when it took place. Of course I am speaking about the victory of the US hockey team, Team USA over the Soviet team at the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid New York.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CGACsSW4Iqw&feature=related (Al Michaels Call)
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fztlLwgSFCg (highlights and live call)
Thirty years ago today I was a college sophomore in California. I had grown up with hockey, when we were stationed in Oak Harbor Washington as a child from 1965 through the end of 1969 I grew up with the weekly broadcast of “Hockey Night in Canada” on the Canadian Broadcasting Network. When we moved to Long Beach my dad would take my brother and me to see Los Angeles Kings games and then when we moved to Stockton to see the California Seals in Oakland. While in Stockton I played in a youth hockey league for a couple of years playing defenseman, occasional right wing and for 4 games goalie when our goalkeeper was injured. As a goalkeeper I went 2 for 2 in those four games and can tell you that there is almost nothing as frightening as having a 2 on 1 or one or two man breakaway coming at you full bore. Goalies are a special breed and I don’t think that I would want that kind of pressure on me to make a living, combat and life and death is hard enough…I don’t need that.
So hockey to a lesser extent than baseball has been a part of my life for a very long time. I remember watching my first Winter Olympics when I was in Stockton back in 1972. Back then Team USA was nothing more than a bunch of American college kids playing teams of Warsaw pact professional all-stars from powerhouse teams such as the Soviet Red Army team. The Soviets dominated the game in the since 1956 and with the exception of the US Gold Medal team of 1960 had won every Olympic gold and in 1980 were once again expected to win Olympic Gold.
Back in 1980 times were tough in the United States, double digit inflation 20% interest rates a gas crisis, recession, residual effects of the Vietnam War and the humiliation that the Iranians were inflicting on the United States on a daily basis following the seizure of the US Embassy in Tehran by “students” and the seemingly unending hostage crisis. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was yet another thumb in the eye of the United States. As the United States prepared to host the Winter Games at Lake Placid New York there was not much to cheer about. The country was mired in political crisis as the sitting President Jimmy Carter was continually at odds with his own Democratic Party and to all appeared weak in dealing with the Soviets, their satellites or the Iranians. When he made his “malaise” speech in July 1979 I was in the UK touring as a spotlight tech with a Christian singing group and the reaction by the Brits and other Europeans was ridicule of the President and pity for the United States. The United States had hit bottom.
When it came to the hockey team no one expected much with the exception of head coach Herb Brooks. Brooks and his collection of college players, a number of whom would later become stats in the NHL, began their time together inauspiciously conducting a 61 game exhibition tour against teams from around the world. In the final game on February 9th 1980 the Americans faced the Soviets at Madison Square Garden and were handily beaten by a score of 10-3 by the Soviet team. The Soviets on the other hand had enjoyed nothing but success against NHL teams with Soviet teams going 5-3-1 against their NHL counterparts. The previous year a Soviet team had shut out an NHL All-Star team 6-0.
When the Olympic completion began the Soviets as was expected dominated their opponents in the preliminary round going 5-0 and outscoring their opponents 51-10. The United States surprised everyone tying Sweden 2-2 with a last minute goal and then stunning a highly favored Czech team 7-3 before defeating Norway, Romania and West Germany to advance to the medal round. Brooks practiced the team hard as they prepared for the Soviets who they were scheduled to meet in the opening round of the medal competition. A loss for the Americans would force them to play for Bronze and no one expected the Americans to defeat the Soviets. Yet when the day came the Lake Placid Field House was packed with 8500 fans decked out in Red White and Blue, American flags displayed everywhere and the crowd spontaneously singing “God Bless America.” Unfortunately because the Soviets refused to allow a later start time the game was not televised live nor broadcast live on the radio in the States.
On February 22nd I had finished work making and rolling pizza dough at Shakey’s Pizza in Stockton, went home showered and then got in my car to head over to Judy’s house. On my way over I was listening to the radio when ABC radio broke in to air final few seconds of the game live, as Al Michaels made the famous call “Eleven seconds, you’ve got ten seconds, the countdown going on right now! Morrow up to Silk. Five seconds left in the game. Do you believe in miracles? YES!” I could not believe it and was screaming in the car, as soon as I got to Judy’s I went in and told her and her parents When the game came on I watched it with undivided attention and to this day I cannot forget that night. The Americans had beaten the vaunted Soviet team 4-3 and would go on to defeat Finland in the Gold medal game 4-2. The next day they were guests at the White House and after that the team broke up. 13 players would go on to NHL careers, Brooks would lead the 2002 Team USA to a Silver in 2002 before being killed in a car crash in 2003.
The Soviet people and their news media were stunned by the loss and the fact that the Soviet Team won Silver by defeating Sweden 9-2 the team had lost its luster. While it remained dominant until the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1990 it was the end of an era. Today many Russian players star in the NHL and live in the United States even after their careers.
Thirty years later the triumph of Team USA against all odds on that night is remembered as an event nearly unequaled in sports history as well as contemporary American history. That game actually marked a return of pride to the country after a decade of discontent, defeat and discouragement. That team and its members did something that no one expected in defeating the Soviets and going on to win the Gold medal against the Finns. No one could have expected the effect on the country either. It was a miracle, a miracle on ice.
I don’t know about you, but I still believe in miracles.