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A look back at a 'Miracle': U.S. shocks Soviets

Monday, 10.02.2006 / 7:29 PM / History

By Russell Levine - NHL.com, V.P. Digital Production

Hard to believe, but it's been more than 20 years since the "Miracle on Ice" at Lake Placid.

More than twenty years since a group of American college kids captured the nation's attention, beating the best hockey team in the world by a 4-3 score on Feb. 22, 1980 on their way to capturing the gold medal in the Winter Olympics.

More than twenty years since ABC's Al Michaels shouted the immortal question, "Do you believe in miracles? Yes!" as the seconds ticked away towards the final buzzer in the U.S. victory over the Soviet Union.

For some of the men who played in that game, those 20 years have probably gone by a lot quicker than the last 10 minutes of that contest - the 10 minutes that followed the goal by team captain Mike Eruzione that gave them their first lead of the game.

"We had the lead. That's the first thought that came to my mind," said Eruzione when asked his recollections of the goal that made him a household name. But Eruzione had enough experience in international play to know how much danger still lurked on the opposing players' bench.

"Let's get this clock going and let's get this game over with," he said of his thoughts during the final, frantic minutes. "We've got a one-goal lead. I've played against the Soviets many times where, heck, they can score five goals in three minutes. So all my thought was let's just keep playing the way we're playing."

How improbable was the upset? Three days before the Olympics began, the U.S. faced the same Soviet team in an exhibition at Madison Square Garden. The final score was 10-3.

"They were just a superior team," said U.S. team member Neal Broten. "In that game, we were just standing around in awe with chins hanging on the ice. We couldn't believe how good they were."

When Broten speaks of the Soviets, the awe is still evident in his voice. Although it's uncertain whether it is awe over how good the Soviet team was, or awe of the U.S. achievement.

There are few people associated with the sport of hockey that are more intelligent than Ken Dryden, the former standout goalie for the Montreal Canadiens and currently the president of the Toronto Maple Leafs.

"The U.S. never really has the feeling of being the 'little guy.' This was one of the few occasions, and the little guy jumped up and punched the big guy in the nose." -- NHL great Ken Dryden, who provided commentary for the ABC telecast

Dryden, who in 1980 was recently retired from the NHL, worked as the color commentator on the ABC telecast. He spent a lot of time with the U.S. team leading up to the Games, and he knew them inside and out. What chance did he give them against the Soviets?

"Going into a game like that, the only chance you've got is the chance you always have in sports: Someone has to win, and someone has to lose."

After all, that's why we watch, right? To see the underdog who always has the puncher's chance against the overwhelming favorite. But this game had an added twist, according to Dryden.

"It was so unexpected," said Dryden of the U.S. upset. "You don't feel that way when the U.S. team wins a gold medal in basketball, or when an underdog baseball team beats a favorite to win the World Series. The underdog always makes it feel special. But this was an international competition against a Cold War rival.

"The U.S. never really has the feeling of being the 'little guy.' This was one of the few occasions, and the little guy jumped up and punched the big guy in the nose."

Perhaps coach Herb Brooks had a sense of the bigger picture surrounding the game when he told his team that morning, "You're born to be a player. You're meant to be here. This moment is yours."

So many factors went into creating that moment. In February of 1980, the U.S. was a lagging superpower. The Cold War with the Soviets was still plenty heated. A boycott of the Summer Games in Moscow loomed because of the recent Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. U.S. hostages were held in captivity in Iran. The economy was a mess. In short, the nation was in need of a shot in the arm and the U.S. as a whole was feeling very much like an underdog.

Those factors are what combined with a scrappy young hockey team to capture the country's attention. In the heartland, people who had never watched hockey before, much less understood the rules, tuned in and cheered until they were red, white and blue in the face.

But if Brooks understood the overall significance of the moment, he did a terrific job of convincing his players that the only thing that was at stake was a hockey game. He kept them so totally focused on the task at hand that they didn't realize the impact their feat was having beyond the walls of the Olympic field house in Lake Placid.

"We didn't realize the impact of what was going on, because we were kind of held away from interviews," said Broten. "We had no idea of the enthusiasm and the reaction from the American people that we got after we got out of Lake Placid and started traveling around a little bit. I still hear stories today where someone will say to me that they were at such-and-such a place and they'll always remember that. It makes you feel good. They'd probably never been hockey fans before. And that's what happens. You've got a team, a U.S. team that kind of connects with the country and is a Cinderella story and people support you. It's a fantastic feeling being part of that with 20 or 22 guys."

When 1980 Olympians like Broten and Eruzione talk about their accomplishment, they speak about it in hockey terms, not in terms of the impact it had on the nation. That is perhaps the greatest tribute to the coaching job that was done by Brooks.

But Dryden, who observed from outside the confines of the team dressing room, is able to put things into perspective. He played in the Canadian equivalent of the "Miracle on Ice," the 1972 Summit Series against the Soviets, so he knows all about being approached by strangers who want to tell you exactly where they were when a certain event took place. According to him, it's why those events will live on in our sporting consciousness for eternity.

"What's so fabulous about [the U.S.] win is so long as there are first-hand memories and vivid second-hand memories, it will continue to exist as the touchstone example of that sports axiom - there's always a way to win, and there's always a way to lose. There's no better example of that.

"If the U.S. could win a hockey gold medal in 1980, then that proves it. And if the Soviets could find a way to lose the gold medal in 1980 ..."

Perhaps surprisingly, the accomplishment brought mixed emotions for some of those that were closest to it.

When the U.S. completed its shocking run with a gold-medal-game victory over Finland two days later, Broten didn't exactly know what to think.

"Then again, it was a little bit disappointing or depressing too, because guys were very emotional that day, because guys were flying back to Boston, flying back to Minnesota, not to see your teammate that you played a year with for maybe a year, two years," he said. "You don't know when you're going to see them again. So it was really emotional."

Dryden, too, had mixed emotions.

"It was different for me, because we were as close to the U.S. team as you could be without being a team member," he said of observing the upset of the Soviets. "We had followed them leading up to the Olympics. About 20 or 30 seconds after the final buzzer, there was great excitement and hollowness. The great excitement was obvious. The hollowness came from feeling that no matter how close you come to an experience like this, it's not what it is when you're a player, and I'd never have that again."

For Broten and others, the time since 1980 has passed quickly. Now that he and his 1980 teammates have all retired from the NHL, he's looking forward to getting together to celebrate their achievement again.

"It's fun bringing back good memories," he said. "This is a pretty special time for us."

And it's a special time for all of us, too. A time to remember how 20 years ago, a overachieving team of 20-somethings picked up an entire nation and made its collective spine tingle. How we all wept when we saw goalie Jim Craig, draped in an American Flag, searching the stands for his father. How we all still get chills every time we think of the chant that rang out at those games, "U - S - A."
 

Quote of the Day

I just think about how much it hurts. The feelings aren't going to go away, probably never. It's just something that sticks with you for a long time.

— San Jose forward Logan Couture to The Canadian Press on the Sharks' first-round loss to the Kings after taking a 3-0 series lead