Miracle on Ice: Game That Shaped a Nation

This Sports Illustrated cover told it all – there was no need for words.

Hard to believe, but it was 30 years ago today that the United States hockey team upset the heavily favored Russians in the Winter Olympics at Lake Placid.

Most Americans old enough to remember the Miracle on Ice can recall exactly where they were when they  first heard the news — that a bunch of amateurs and college kids from the United States had beaten the vaunted Russians, a team that had won four consecutive Olympic gold medals and was universally considered the best hockey team in the world.  That same Russian team had embarrassed the Americans in an exhibition match at Madison Square Garden barely a week before — a game that wasn’t as close as the 10-3 score indicated.

What most Americans don’t remember was that the Miracle on Ice was on tape delay by ABC — it was actually played on a Friday afternoon since the Soviets vetoed a later start that would have meant a 4 am face-off in Moscow. The game was aired in prime time that evening across America.

Before the game, coach Herb Brooks  read his players a statement he’d written out on a piece of paper, telling them that “You were born to be a player. You were meant to be here. This moment is yours.”

Avoiding the Score
In those days, decades before the era of instant communication, it was still relatively easy to avoid hearing a score if one wanted to watch a taped telecast “live.” My buddy and I avoided the Fort Lauderdale bar scene that day, only to find out the US team won when the cashier at a Wendy’s drive-in window greeted us with…. “Did you guys hear the US won 4-3.” Then she passed over our cheeseburgers and fries.

Oh well, we still watched the game, cheered Jim Craig’s acrobatic saves and Mike Eruzione’s winning goal, below, and counted down the final seconds as Al Michaels made his famous call….”Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”

That night the clubs along A1A on Fort Lauderdale’s famous strip were hopping, like New Year’s Eve, Mardi Gras and spring break all rolled into one.

Another aspect of that famous game that few Americans recall is that the win over Russia was not for the gold medal. Team USA still had to beat Finland two days later to capture the gold.

Before that Sunday afternoon game against the Finns, this one televised live nationwide, Brooks warned his players “If you lose this game you will take it with you to your graves.”

 Comeback for the Gold
And the Americans, as was their habit throughout the 1980 Olympics, trailed after two periods before scoring three goals in the final period to beat Finland 4-2 for the gold..

Some 30 years later, grown men and women still tear up when thinking back to that famous weekend that forever changed the way Americans viewed their country. Following the tumultuous times of the 1960 and 1970s, known for race riots and peace marches and assassinations and the hostage crisis in Iran, Americans needed a reason to believe in their country again.

Perhaps that revival began in a tiny skating rink in upstate New York, where chants of USA, USA filled the air and Americans had a reason to celebrate the red, white and blue.

So now, in 2010, America is a much different place, strengthened by patriotism and fueled by the tragic events of 9/11. An African American man is now President, something few would have thought possible during the racial turbulence of the 60s.

Seldom if ever has a sporting event influenced an entire country like Team USA’s victory over Russia in 1980.

Post Script: The American hockey team is on a roll in the 2010 Winter Olympics, especially following last night’s 5-3 victory over Team Canada, America’s first win against its northern neighbor since the 1960 Olympics.

Team USA is in contention for a gold medal this year, but the stakes are so much different. Professional players, many from the NHL, are playing in the Olympics nowadays — we no longer see the matchups of amateur against professional.

A gold medal would be nice, certainly, but there will never be another Miracle on Ice.