I distinctly remember the moment.
The clock radio went off to wake me for my morning classes. The news came, rapid-fire.
…two helicopters collided…
…dust storm obscured vision…
…eight Marines killed…
…rescue mission abandoned…
…forces pulled out…
My roommate asked, groggily, what was happening.
I responded in one succinct sentence, “We (bleeped) up again.”
That was the prevailing feeling in the country in 1980. We couldn’t do anything right. The United States of America, a superpower that not long ago defeated two juggernaut military powers and had the world’s greatest industrial base, had suddenly become impotent.
The searing memory of Vietnam was still with us — over eight years and 58,000-plus casualties, and all we ended up with was a communist country. Watergate left us disillusioned about a government that was supposed to be for the people by the people. The Cold War was once again at full force. The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan to prop up their puppet government, and there was nothing we could do about it, except meekly threaten to boycott the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow.
The economy was in the toilet with seemingly unstoppable unemployment and inflation, that makes today’s economic problems seem like a boom. Then, as if that wasn’t enough, a two-bit country — where we weren’t able to keep our own puppet government in power — with runaway religious fanatics captured and held dozens of our citizens — and our whole country — hostage.
And, we couldn’t even muster a halfway-decent rescue mission.
Amidst that turmoil and self-doubt, a bunch of young hockey players stepped on the ice in a modest arena in a small village nestled in the Adirondacks in upstate New York. They were destined to transcend sports, and become a metaphor for team — work together, dream together, succeed together.
Many say Herb Brooks’ greatest obstacle was trying to get his team to believe the impossible. Not true. His greatest obstacle was trying to get the team to believe they were even a team at all. Made up mostly of players from the University of Minnesota and Boston University, two regions and two schools that despised each other, they fought, literally, through training camp and the 63-game pre-Olympic tour.
Along the way, however, they learned the only way they were going to succeed was to rely on one another, believe in one another, keep everything in the locker room, and understand that if one player failed, they all failed. Nobody was above the team. They also learned along the way that they had a common enemy — their own coach.
Of course, Herb Brooks planned that all along. It enabled him to funnel that energy towards the real enemy — the opponent on the ice.
As a student at Potsdam State during that time, I had the unique privilege of being able to work as a volunteer at the Lake Placid Olympics. On the first day of the Games, as I was leaving the press center, I saw that Sweden led the USA, 2-1, late in the third. When I got back to my dorm, the USA tied it up with 27 seconds left in the game with their goalie pulled on a goal by Bill Baker.
I have always maintained that goal was the most important goal in the entire tournament for the USA. Not only did it play a significant role in the medal round because of the convoluted system used that year — which meant the Swedish game counted in the second round — it also prevented the USA players from doubting themselves right from the start.
The next game, the USA stunned Czechoslovakia, blowing the Czechs out, 7-3. Then came a victory over Norway, 5-1. Next up was Romania, the first game I attended. It was also the only game in which the Americans scored first, en route to an easy 7-2 win. Lastly, they defeated West Germany, 4-2, after falling behind, 2-0.
Suddenly, the USA was in the medal round. Their first opponent? The mighty Soviets.
There is no question that the Soviet national team was at its peak heading into those Olympics. The year before, they wiped out, and I mean wiped out, an NHL All-Star squad. They hadn’t lost an Olympic or World Championship game in eons. In the last pre-Olympic exhibition, they blew out the USA team, 10-3, in Madison Square Garden. The Soviet team was a professional entity in every sense of the word, except by Olympic rules.
They were conceivably the greatest team in sports history.
I wasn’t in Lake Placid that day, but being in Potsdam did give us a benefit over the rest of the country — we could pick up the Canadian broadcast, which was live, unlike the ABC delayed coverage. (People talk about the Heidi Bowl being the worst mistake a TV network ever made in a sports telecast, but the decision by ABC on the USA-USSR game ranks right up there.)
I had a Potsdam hockey game to broadcast that evening, so we set the equipment up beforehand, then went back to the dorm to watch the game in the TV lounge. Needless to say, it was packed.
As the game got underway, we screamed at the TV every time the USA missed on a good scoring chance. “You can’t blow an opportunity like that!” “The other team is too good to miss chances like that!”
Surprisingly, the game stayed close. Not surprisingly, the Soviets scored first. But the USA came back to tie it up, giving some hope that at the very least, we were going to put up a fight.
The Soviets retook the lead, and then came the most talked-about goal of the game, when the USA apparently caught the USSR sleeping. Mark Johnson banged home a fat rebound with one second left in the first period.
When the second period started, we couldn’t believe what we saw. The Soviets had replaced their goaltender. The mighty, godlike Vladislav Tretiak had been pulled. Were we witnessing a chink in the armor of the Big Red Machine? Were the Soviets running — dare we even think it — scared?
What many don’t remember is that the Soviets took the lead early in the second period on a power-play goal, and held it into the third. The goaltender change, for a while, seemed like a good idea, though the Americans only had two shots on goal that period.
However, 8:39 into the third period, Mark Johnson scored his second of the night. Then, at the ten-minute mark, Mike Eruzione put the USA ahead. Just like that, the lead was ours.
But oh, those ten minutes left on the clock. The Soviets mounted attack after attack with their swirling, crisscrossing, crisp-passing style that would leave a figure skater dizzy. Each time, we would hold our breath, shriek, pull at our hair, cover our eyes, waiting for the inevitable.
Yet, somehow, the Americans thwarted one Soviet blitzkrieg after another.
As each minute slowly … s-l-o-w-l-y … ticked off the clock, we allowed ourselves to feel, maybe, just maybe this was really happening. It was like we were watching a bunch of young idealists beating the Redcoats all over again.
Finally, the buzzer sounded, and we leapt in joy, hugging each other. My broadcast partner and I didn’t have the luxury to enjoy the celebration, as we sprinted from Bowman West to Maxcy Hall. Screaming in celebration, students were hanging out of dorm windows all over campus. We got on the air just as the puck dropped for the opening faceoff.
I have no idea who Potsdam played that night. I have no idea who won the game. I do remember talking about the USA-USSR game all night.
As most hockey fans know, the victory over the Soviets did not give the USA the gold medal under the round-robin rules. There was still a game against Finland, and it was still possible for the USA not to win a medal at all.
I was in Lake Placid that last day, but since our worker passes only got us into outdoor events for free, my roommate and I decided to watch the finals of the four-man bobsled. That ended earlier than expected, so back to the Village we headed.
It was late in the second period. We knew because all the State Troopers had the game blaring over the loudspeakers on their cruisers. My roommate, who could talk his way in … or out … of anything suggested we try to get into the game.
After many failed attempts, we finally did just in time for the start of the third period, with Finland leading, 2-1. Finding a seat was difficult, to say the least. We wound up in the upper level in the press overflow section which had bench seating. They were very accommodating, making room for us to sit.
The Americans quickly scored twice at the start of the third to take the lead, 3-2. Near the end of the game, the USA was called for a penalty, much to the chagrin of the crowd, and the team as well. Despite being shorthanded, the USA was far more aggressive, forcing a turnover deep in Finland’s zone, and converting it for the clinching goal.
Pandemonium broke out. Around us, all the press folks threw their notebooks and recorders into the air. Professionalism be damned. Everybody was cheering in mass delirium.
When we finally left the arena, the site was breathtaking. Nothing but people celebrating all the way down the hill and through the streets. There was a building near the bottom of the hill from the 1980 Arena that I think was a restaurant at the time. It was built into the hill, so you could climb onto the roof with ease from the right direction.
Standing on top of the building was one man waving the American flag. Another was playing the trumpet — the Star Spangled Banner. And everybody was singing along.
By sheer luck in that sea of people, I met up with my sister, who came for the last weekend of the Games. In a display of envy I have never seen from her before or since — coming from a person who only watched hockey when her three brothers refused to change the channel — she shouted at me.
“YOU WERE AT THE GAME?!”
I later learned that back home, my parents had taken the family out for Sunday brunch. My mother, who considers one of life’s pleasures a nice leisurely meal in a restaurant; my mother, who wouldn’t know a backcheck from a pokecheck; my mother rushed the family through a meal out in order not to miss a minute of the Finland game which started at 11 a.m. Eastern time.
There was still a Sweden-Soviet game to be played, followed by the awards ceremony. I actually had tickets for that contest, but either due to good old Jewish guilt or a love for my sister, or perhaps a little of both, I gave her one ticket. I held onto the other one just in case my roommate and I couldn’t talk our way in again. We did, with ease this time.
As it turned out, after the game, they opened the doors for anyone to come in and watch the awards ceremony. There, we saw the last unselfish display of a team in the truest sense of the word. Eruzione, the captain, waved for all of his teammates to join him on the podium to enjoy the moment together.
One Team. One Dream. One Goal. One Success.
I have been to the movies twice in the past month. Both times I have seen the preview for Miracle. Watching the clips on the large screen and hearing the cheers in surround sound gave me goosebumps.
Some criticism has swirled around that fact that the movie was filmed in Canada, instead of the USA. There’s a story that the production crew had trouble getting the local extras into the proper mood to cheer for the USA, so they had someone skate around the ice with a large Canadian flag to get the crowd into the proper patriotic frenzy.
However, from the scenes I saw, it does appear to be a realistic depiction of the events. Some of the players have said that it captures the essence of Herb Brooks. At the very least, it does appear to be a much better recreation than the hacked-together TV miniseries, Miracle on Ice, that came out in 1981.
Also, one item of note — they used real hockey players, most of them collegians, not just as doubles for the skating scenes, but as actors for the characters themselves, adding a touch of realism that only hockey players who have lived hockey and the locker-room scene all their lives can properly convey.
The college players include Eric Peter-Kaiser (Potsdam State) as Mark Johnson; Patrick O’Brien Demsey (Fitchburg State) as Mike Eruzione; Nate Miller (Minnesota) is John Harrington; Kris Wilson (UW-Superior) plays Phil Verchota; Michael Mantenuto (Maine) as Jack O’Callahan; Bobby Hanson (BU) plays fellow BU grad Dave Silk; and Trevor Alto (University of British Columbia) as Neal Broten. (In the most interesting piece of casting; Bill Schneider plays his father, Buzz.)
I will see Miracle the first weekend it is out. I will get chills. My heart rate will be elevated. I will have all the feelings of being pulled back into a time when a disparate group of soon-to-be men formed the proverbial melting pot and taught their country a lesson it desperately needed, but was afraid to believe anymore.
Together, anything is possible.
Miracle opens nationwide on Friday, Feb. 6.