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 Shuttles Challenger or Columbia, blew up or where they were during the the events of September 11th 2001.
Tragedy we remember well, but good news not so much.
But, despite the fact that good news is not always as memorable as tragedy there are some good news stories that make a lasting mark.
Back in 1980 there was one of those sentinel events. I am sure that if you were alive back then that you remember it well.
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. Some might be prone to dismiss this as merely a sporting event with little relevance, but the context of an event makes all the difference. English historian and military theorist Colin Gray wrote “Wars are not free floating events, sufficient unto themselves as objects for study and understanding. Instead, they are entirely the product of their contexts.”
I like what Gray said, but I think that we can expand it to other historical events, not just war. If this was just a stand alone hockey game with would have little meaning. There are times when underdogs win championships and defeat heavily favored perennial champions. Most of those times, except for the devoted fans these events pass into relative obscurity and pop-up from time to time on an ESPN special. This event is much more important than a remarkable sporting event.
Back in 1980 times were tough in the United States, recession, double digit inflation, 20% interest rates, a gas crisis, as well as the residual effects of the Vietnam War created a specter of anxiety for many people.
Even as the domestic economic lurched from crisis to crisis the United State was reeling 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 and a seemingly unending hostage crisis. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was yet another thumb in the eye of the United States.
So 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 Cater made his “malaise” speech in July 1979 the reaction around the country and world was I was less than positive. I was in the UK touring as a spotlight tech with a singing group and the reaction of the Brits and other Europeans was ridicule of the President, and pity for the United States. It seemed to many that the United States had hit bottom and was not coming up any time soon.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fztlLwgSFCg (highlights and live call)
In 1980 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 had dominated international hockey since 1956 and with the exception of the US Gold Medal team of 1960 had won every Olympic gold since that time. In 1980 the Soviets were once again expected to win Olympic Gold.
When it came to the American 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 stars in the NHL, began their time together inauspiciously conducting a 61 game exhibition tour against teams from around the world. On February 9th in the final game leading up to the Olympics the Americans faced the Soviets at Madison Square Garden and were blown out by a score of 10-3 by the Soviet team. In the lead up to the Olympics the Soviets toured North America and played against NHL teams. The Soviet team went 5-3-1 against their NHL teams. 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 the last minute of the game live. I was listening 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 with joy and wild abandon 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.
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.
Thirty-five 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.
Some people, especially those on the political right in their Reagan myth, mistakenly give Ronald Reagan the credit for turning around the attitude of the country in the 1980s. I don’t think that they could be more wrong. It wasn’t Reagan or any other politician, it was the 1980 American Olympic hockey team that made us believe again.
That is why this event meant so much more than a a game.
I don’t know about you, but I still believe in miracles.