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Thirty years ago, Americans were 'Miracle' men

by Phil Coffey
After 30 years, it still resonates.

"Do you believe in miracles? ... Yes!"

That call, by ABC's Al Michaels, is one of the most famous in sports history, striking the perfect tenor to a moment that was indeed a miracle.

Thirty years ago, on Feb. 22, 1980, a relatively unknown group of American college players knocked off the Soviet Union at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., and suddenly nothing was the same.

The victory energized a country that had been at a low ebb thanks to inflation, a lousy economy, gas shortages and foreign policy setbacks. As bizarre as it may sound, what Herb Brooks and his players did was galvanize a nation.

"I think you can really define it pretty simply -- Herb Brooks was the architect of the single most significant moment in the history of American hockey," USA Hockey Executive Director Dave Ogrean told "His role with that team was clearly one of larger-than-life dominance since we were dealing with players younger than we have now. Herb was the leader, the one who molded them, pushed them and challenged them, and a guy who always insisted on doing things his way. He was never a compromiser, but, at the end of the day, he put his signature on what is the pinnacle moment for hockey in the United States."

The Soviets at the time were, indeed, the "Big Red Machine," a hockey superpower that ground up and spit out all opposition. They were pros to be sure, but still qualified as amateur for big international tournaments like the Olympics.

There were no NHL players at the Olympics back then, so the United States and Canada would send teams of amateurs who would be taken to the woodshed by the Soviets. In the week before the Olympics, the Soviets knocked Team USA all over the ice at Madison Square Garden, winning 10-3, as the Americans looked on in awe.

How good were the Soviets? In the four Winter Olympics after the U.S. team's gold-medal win at Squaw Valley in 1960, the Soviets were 27-1-1 and had outscored the opposition, 175-44. Against the Americans over that span, the Soviets outscored the Americans, 28-7.

In other words, really good. The Soviets' top players would make a wing of the Hall of Fame by themselves. The goalie was Vladislav Tretiak, the captain was Boris Mikhailov, Valeri Kharlamov was one of the top forwards in the world, and in 1980, a young core was emerging in Slava Fetisov, Sergei Makarov and Vladimir Krutov, two-thirds of what would become the legendary "Green Unit" in later years.

So the task was formidable to say the least. But the U.S. team had an unconventional coach in Brooks, who did things his way, picked his kind of players and would not be confused with Mr. Congeniality as he molded a disparate group of college players from across the United States into a very strong team -- emphasis on team.

"Nobody understands the amount of talent that team had," Craig Patrick, Brooks' assistant coach, recalled. "I had been away from amateur hockey for 10 years and it was my first glance at the young American talent that summer in Colorado Springs. I was amazed at the talent level there. A lot of guys not on that team were very talented too. Herb knew a year before who would be on that team, within one or two players."

"We were picked," agreed one of those players, goalie Jim Craig. "It was over four years, he had all the college coaches keeping an eye over (players), it was almost like a scouting combine and he just kept track of all of the players.

"He changed the way things were done, he created a new paradigm," Craig said. "It was never work (for me), it was always a dream, it was always passionate, it was always fun so anytime we got a chance to get on ice. We really looked forward to it."

That's not to say there were moments when any other place in the universe seemed like a better place to be. Brooks' toughness with his players was legendary. He successfully got his players to dislike him so much they pulled together as a team. Talk about a method to the madness!

"Herbie was Herbie, he had his plan and it was like show up and go to work," Craig said. "Herb kind of pulled greatness out of each and every one of us.  I think what we did, we grew to have the right stuff, it was never there right at the start, we grew into it."

"Truthfully, I didn't have a problem with Herb," defenseman Ken Morrow said. "I left him alone and he left me alone. I think he knew a lot of that stuff wasn't going to work on me. I was a very quiet person, and Herb knew what made each player tick. That's what made him such a great coach."

"It was 60 games in four months and that was a lot of work, it was really condensed and a great deal of pressure," Craig said. "We had home ice in Minneapolis, but we didn't have many games there. I think we grew as individuals; we didn't have any experience or any background and didn't know any better, which was great. He cared about all of his players."

And in the process created one of the most unforgettable moments in sport history.

"It's been 30 years and I'm reminded of it almost on a daily basis," Morrow said. "When each Olympics rolls around every four years, I tell people I kind of get famous again. But it's more so just the interviews and the people that want to talk about 1980, and then the rest of the time in between on a daily basis I'm asked about what I went through.

"Believe it or not, to this day I still get letters almost every day from people writing me. They're almost identical, in that when they started out it was somebody telling me they were a kid watching with their father, watching the game on TV, that it was one of the greatest moments of their lives. Now they've turned into 'my kid saw the movie,' and they've heard about it from the dad, and so it's been a great evolution."

One that turned 30 on Feb. 22, 2010
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