Sunday, February 21, 2010

"Do you believe in Miracles?"

Today marks the thirtieth anniversary of the greatest upset in sports and Olympic history that took place right here in the United States. In continuing the special series of Winter Olympic history in conjunction with the 2010 Vancouver Games, it is appropriate to re-tell the "miracle on ice" story that transformed the nation. It took place, not on the battle field, but on an Olympic ice rink between two super-powers, the United States and the Soviet Union. It was more than a simple hockey game but also about national unity and patriotism during a tumultuous period of Cold War history. This posting will be a brief history of twenty college age kids, their disciplinarian coach, and the game that still is recalled in public memory.

In 1974, the International Olympic Committee awarded Lake Placid, NY it's second Winter Olympics since 1932 to take place from February 13 to February 24, 1980. When the Games began, so did the hockey tournament featuring the heavy favorite, the Soviet Union. In a span of 15 years (1964-1979) the hockey team, consisting of veteran players, won 4 gold medals and 11 World titles. The USA Team, however, had only been together for 6 months and played a 60 game World tour under University of Minnesota's Head Coach, Herb Brooks. The American team was made up of twenty college players whose average age was twenty-two, a young team that was not favorite to win a medal in the tournament. Even Coach Brooks believed that they probably would not win a medal before the tournament began knowing that at one point, they would have to face the Soviet Union. He later said, "The Soviets had beaten us 10-3 in an exhibition a few days before the Olympics. They were fantastic and deserved their ranking. I had little hope for a medal. I would have been very happy to have achieved a fourth place finish" but history would say otherwise. (quoted from Bud Greenspan's "100 Greatest Moments in Olympic History")

The hockey tournament was played at the Olympic Ice Center and the first game, the team played Sweden. They started out slow and trailed the Swedes for most of the game until Brooks decided to pull the goalie in the third period. With twenty-nine seconds to go, the team was able to score and the final score was 2-2, a tie. In the second match, Team USA played one of the favorites to medal at the Games, Czechoslovakia. The team crushed the Czechs, 7-3, and many began to take them for real. However, towards the end of the game, Coach Brooks, who had great chemistry with his players ever since the team was formed, became irate when a Czech player took a cheap shot at Mark Johnson, who played at UW-Madison and currently is Team USA's head women's coach in Vancouver. The games against Norway and West Germany both started out slowly but with great coaching the players managed to win 5-1 and 4-2, respectively. Now, it was onto the semi-final game where Team USA faced its biggest test yet in their months of existence. A Cold War showdown with the Soviet Union on a sheet of ice.

Friday, February 22, 1980, the start of the last weekend of the Games, was George Washington's birthday. This day would end as one of the greatest days in both sports and Olympic history as thousands in Lake Placid along with millions around the country united in American patriotism. Throughout most of the game, the US played their hearts out with superb goal tending by Jim Craig but still trailed 3-2 entering the third and final period. Then less then nine minuets into the period, Mark Johnson suddenly scored the tying goal and confidence began to build on the team. With half through the game, team Captain Mike Eruzione would take the shot that was heard around the country as he blasted the puck into the Soviet's net. Now the United States led 4-3, and the Soviet Union attack furiously for the last ten minutes. Finally, with the sound of the buzzer, play by play ABC Sports announcer, Al Michaels (currently hosting NBC's daytime Olympic coverage) screamed "Do you believe in miracles? Yes!" that would summon up the most dramatic upset in all of sports history.

After the game, thousands of the predominately American crowed gathered in the streets of Lake Placid walking up and down, chanting USA, USA, USA, singing the national anthem, America the Beautiful, and God Bless America. This game not only allowed the US Team to advance to the gold medal game against Finland (that they won on February 24) but renewed a sense of patriotism during the tense times of the Cold War. It showed that American amateurs could compete against Soviet professionals. Finally, to many Americans, they would never forget where they were that day when the United States defeated the Soviet Union in the game of all games. Even though I was a little more than a month old, reading accounts of this story renews the reasons that I love this country and the Olympic Games. It simply brings a sense of unity and excitement.

In subsequent years, the state of Olympic hockey changed as more professional players were allowed to compete. In 1998, for the first time in history, the NHL suspended the season to allow the players to participate in their respective nations during the Nagano Olympics and still follows this format today. The 1980 "Miracle on Ice Hockey Team" has been honored through out the years. In 2002 it was picked to light the cauldron at the Salt Lake City Winter Games to the standing ovation of Americans who, for most of them, still remembered that historic day. In 2004, Walt Disney Studios produced the movie, "Miracle" to re-tell the story. Fortunately, to this day, all of the players are still alive and tell their stories. Unfortunately, however, a couple of years ago, their beloved and hard nose Coach Herb Brooks was tragically killed on August 11, 2003 in an auto accident. Finally, I hope everybody enjoys the last week of the Winter Olympics and were able to catch the documentary of the story, yesterday, towards the end of the daytime Olympic coverage on NBC. May the spirit of the 1980 Winter Olympics that produced the greatest game ever, be in all of American hearts.

Some links to footage of the hockey game.

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