by John Furgele
LAKE PLACID—They gathered again to relive that magical time that was 1980 when a group of hockey amateurs pulled the historic upset of the mighty Soviet Union. For those old enough, the date was Friday, February 22, 1980 and the venue was the Olympic Center, a cozy 8,500 seat arena in the center of the small village. If you are old enough, you probably remember exactly where you were when USA won that game.
A history lesson might be needed for many. If you were born in 1972, you were seven or perhaps eight years old when the miracle happened. I’ve always believed that the age of reason for sports fans is eight and that’s from a personal point of view. I was born in 1968, and remember nothing sports-wise from 1975, but everything from 1976 on. It is possible to remember going to a sporting event as say, a four year old, but to remember the details from such an event is unlikely and perhaps impossible.
The hardest part to fathom about the “Miracle on Ice,” is that it took place 35 years ago. Has time passed that quickly? As an almost 12 year old, I remember it vividly. The first game was a last minute tie against Sweden; and then a surprising rout of Czechoslovakia, then three easy victories to get to the medal round. On the other side, the Soviet Union played five games, winning them all to come in to the USA game at 5-0. But, one of those wins was against a feisty Canada squad by a score of 6-4. For the most part, beginning in 1956, the Soviets ripped through Olympic play, so the tough contest against Canada often goes overlooked when documenting the journey taken by Team USA. More on this later.
Finland and Sweden were the other medal round participants and each team carried points into Friday. Because USA tied Sweden, each team brought one point into the last two games. The USSR beat Finland; Big Red had two points, and Finland none. Many believe that USA-USSR was a semifinal game and the winner would advance to the Gold Medal game on Sunday. In reality, that wasn’t true, even though all the Friday winner would have to do was win the Sunday game to get the gold. So, in essence if the USA-USSR winner lost on Sunday, the Gold medal could have been lost, too. Today’s Olympic hockey uses a standard tournament format with a preliminary round and then seedings, and from there, a single elimination tournament used to crown a champion.
On Saturday, the team was introduced numerically starting with #1 Steve Janaszak, the backup goaltender who didn’t play in any of the seven USA games. We did find out that even though he didn’t play, he met his wife, who was working as an interpreter. He spoke at the ceremony for a few minutes and his humble nature drew loud applause from nearly 6,000 people who came to Herb Brooks Arena on a cold and snowy night. He was lauded by his teammates including the guy who had the starting spot, Jim Craig.
Mark Pavelich, the recluse of the team also came back as did all surviving members of the team. Pavelich drove from Minnesota and it was the first time he’d been back to Lake Placid since the games. He was lauded by emcee Todd Walsh for his key plays, including an assist on Mike Eruzione’s game winning goal in the 4-3 win over the Soviets. But, true to his nature, he smiled but didn’t talk.
Some players talked, others didn’t. To nobody’s surprise, the captain, Mike Eruzione was a frequent speaker and his gregarious personality delighted the crowd. John Harrington, to many people’s surprise, also spoke frequently using humor to tell the story that he just might have tipped Eruzione’s wrister midway through the third period. Others did not talk at all, and when you think about it, with a team of 20 players, that means 20 personalities. Naturally, some are hams, some are shy, some are leaders and some are followers.
Walsh took us back to 1979 when the team was assembled under the late Herb Brooks. The players wove tails of Brooks’ brutal conditioning drills, the long 63 game pre-Olympic schedule against college, NHL, IHL, and national teams. Right before the team headed to Lake Placid, they talked of the 10-3 drubbing given to them by the USSR in Madison Square Garden.
The players talked about the relationship they had with Brooks, and for the most part, it was all business. Defenseman Jack O’Callahan wished he had gotten to know Brooks on a more personal level after the Olympics, before he died in a car crash in 2003 at the age of 66. Hindsight is always 20/20 but in 1980, Brooks had to keep a distance from the players and it was that distance that forged the bond that led to the Gold medal.
The 1980 United States Olympic hockey team had more talent that most of us are led to believe. The 20 players on that team totaled more than 1200 games in the NHL. Some like Neal Broten, who tallied 274 goals and 867 points and Dave Christian, with 193 goals and 417 points, had long and productive NHL careers. This team was not devoid of talent, in fact, its win over the Soviet Union was not a surprise to Clare Drake, one of Canada’s coaches. Two days before the USA-USSR game, Canada battled the Soviets to the end, losing 6-4, a loss that Drake said left his team “devastated.” After that game, Drake professed that the speedy USA team would not only hang with the Soviets, they would beat them using not only their speed, but also the “home ice,” that was the Olympic Center.
On that Friday, after the USA’s miracle win, Sweden and Finland played to a 3-3 tie. This left the USA with 3 points, the USSR 2, Sweden 2 and Finland 1. The Sunday USA-Finland contest was not an official Gold Medal game. For the USA it was, but had Finland won, they wouldn’t have won gold. Believe it or not, if Finland beat the USA and USSR beat Sweden (which it did, 7-2), the Soviets would have captured Gold despite their historic loss to USA on Friday. Based on the results, the USA and Finland would have finished with 3 points, and based on head-to-head, the Finns would have received Silver, the Yanks, bronze. And, when Herb Brooks told his troops that losing to Finland (they trailed 2-1 after two periods) would be something that they would “take to their f—- grave,” you now know why.
But that didn’t happen and that’s why after 35 years, there can be a reunion at Lake Placid with 6,000 people in an old school field house. It was an iconoclastic gathering. Some were at the 1980 game, some like me were kids, some were adults and some weren’t even born. The fact that the Olympics were on home soil, in a tiny village in Northern New York only enhances the legend. It might be the only time where people in Mississippi and New Mexico watched a hockey game—on tape delay no less—in its entirety. It was different time, a time where there was great hostility between the USA and USSR and a time where the United States was bruised and battered with high unemployment, 21 percent interest rates and overall self-esteem concerns.
I’ve said this before and I’m not alone, but most Americans recall the Miracle on Ice as the greatest sports moment of the 20th century, which is astounding because hockey is a distant fourth of the major sports in the United States. This was however, the perfect storm. The Superpowers. The fact that the USSR was using professional players, many of whom whipped the NHL All-Stars in the 1979 Challenge Cup and others who participated in the 1972 Summit Series, an eight game series against Canada which the Canadians won 4-3 with one tie.
The USSR was the big bear; the enemy while the USA was the rag tag bunch of youngsters looking to pull off an historic triumph. This was neither a script nor a movie; it was a slice of reality that moved the nation. The ceremony captured the moment with elegance and class. As the highlights were shown on the two big screens, the crowd erupted just like many Americans did in their living rooms in 1980. The only thing was missing was more talk about the Finland game. I know that the ceremony was to fete the USSR game, but wouldn’t it have been great to hear what the players did the day after that game? What did Brooks tell them at the Saturday skate around? As we know, many thought that the USA clinched the gold by beating the Soviets, but what was going through the minds of Mark Johnson, Mike Ramsey, Jim Craig, Eric Stroebel, and Steve Christoff and the others when they woke up Saturday? Here they were hours after the biggest moment of their life and somehow they had to reprogram for a game against a good Finland squad to actually clinch gold.
They only had 2.5 hours to tell the story, which is probably why the Finland game is left off. But, we know how the story ends. It ends with 20 young men draped with Gold medals around their necks, and little did they know that 35 years later, those medals would continue to shine.