Hockey's little Miracle

It was the greatest upset in the history of sport, but do we really understand how big a moment it was?

By BILL LANKHOF, QMI Agency

There are moments in history when time, place and opportunity converge to create magic.

One of those Cinderella events unfolded Feb. 22, 1980, when 20 fuzzy-cheeked college kids pulled off the greatest upset in sports history.

But while The Miracle On Ice is celebrated in American sports folklore, the names of the young men who changed hockey history 30 years ago in Lake Placid are mostly lost in the shroud of history. Everybody remembers Paul Henderson and 1972.

Steve Janaszak, Buzz Schneider and 1980? Not so much.

Now, as they were then, they are if not overlooked, at least marginalized. Just last year George Vecsey, the respected New York Times writer, compared the U.S. soccer victory over Spain in the Confederation Cup to The Miracle On Ice. With all due respect, it isn't even in the same league -- so to speak.

Canada's hockey establishment has its own sacred cows, like the 1972 Summit Series.

In comparison, The Miracle On Ice is often dismissed as a freak moment of sports history. But, it had effects that reached through generations and beyond sports.

When the United States defeated the mighty Soviet Union at Lake Placid, television commentator Al Michaels called it a miracle.

In other words, supernatural: Something incomprehensible, improbable and beyond human understanding. It is a comment meant in the noblest of fashions. But, it has also left a lingering impression that it was a victory not so much earned as one that came like a lucky roll of the dice; like a bolt of lightning from the hockey gods, perchance angered by the smugness of the almighty Soviets and Canadians.

Michaels knew what he was seeing was special. He is in Vancouver, the first time he has been back to the Winter Games since 1988 in Calgary, and the reason is at least partially because this is the 30th anniversary of what he calls his greatest sports memory.

"This is No. 1 by a million miles," Michaels told a conference call earlier this month. "This brought something to our country that was so important and that lives on."

It was the day that hockey came of age in the U.S. American colleges began taking hockey programs more seriously. It was the impetus that helped change the face of the National Hockey League so that today it has 216 American-born players. In 1980, it had a mere handful. It hastened the development of a sport that has allowed the NHL to put teams in non-traditional places such as Dallas, Florida, Nashville and San Jose. It fostered minor hockey programs in every state.

It is the day the sport took root in America and allowed it to grow into one where players -- like their basketball and baseball cousins -- now earn millions of dollars.

Some may argue this is not a good thing, but the point is that it changed the course of a sport and industry that affects the lives of thousands from Minsk to Whitehorse, Oshawa to California.

America's soccer win does not come close to that.

And yet ...

Ask a Canadian for the greatest moment in hockey history and the Soviet-Canada Series of 1972 almost always tops the list.

Henderson scored, of course, to give Canada the Series victory but the Soviets forever upset the notion that Canada alone owned this game. That series changed the way we played the game. Like The Miracle On Ice, it galvanized a nation. But, in the end, Canada, favoured to win, did win.

At Lake Placid, the favoured Soviets, whose domination of the 1979 world championship had been absolute, were beaten.

One other difference: that Summit Series featured professionals on both sides. By contrast, The Miracle On Ice featured a no-budget U.S. team, which played exhibition charity games to pay its costs, against a nationally backed Soviet team that was good enough to beat Canada 8-1 a year later in the Canada Cup (and we had Gretzky, Lafleur, Bossy, Trottier, Potvin, Gainey and Robinson).

And yet ...

Ask a Maple Leaf fan for their greatest upset and they're liable to recall the fabled 1942 team that came from a 3-0 series deficit to beat the Red Wings for the Stanley Cup. Only one other team, the 1975 Islanders, has ever duplicated that feat. But that was a lifetime ago.

The Miracle On Ice is something many of us experienced, felt and were touched by.

And yet ...

The sports landscape is littered with unlikely champs and chumps that fascinate imaginations. Cassius Clay sent shockwaves through the boxing world when he sent Sonny Liston crashing to the canvas. There was the New York Giants unlikely victory over the previously unbeaten Patriots in the Super Bowl. In 1988, the FA Cup final was supposed to be a gimme for Liverpool, the crowning glory in a season which had seen them lift the First Division trophy. But mighty Wimbledon, playing Fourth Division just five years previously, stunned soccer aficionados as Lawrie Sanchez headed home an unlikely winner.

Last summer, 50-1 shot Mine That Bird pulled the biggest upset since Donerail in 1913 to win the Kentucky Derby. People are still trying to figure out how that happened.

All are glorious monuments to improbability. Yet none stand quite so high or carry so much significance as The Miracle On Ice.

And yet ...

There are those who long for new heroes and see it as a tired, worn-out tale.

Denver Post columnist, Mark Kiszla, wrote recently: "While the greatest upset in the history of American sports was sweet, we've seen the movie (twice). Enough already. So let's dance the last dance and stop talking about red, white and blue hockey glory in the past tense. What happened in 1980 is no more relevant today than Donna Summer."

When the teams met that day, there had been no inkling of an upset. The Soviets had won five of nine exhibition games against NHL teams and had walloped the same U.S. team, 10-3. The Soviets had veterans including Boris Mikhailov, Valeri Kharlamov, Alexander Maltsev and Vladimir Petrov while the addition of youngsters like Sergei Makarov and Vladimir Krutov brought a new edge and firepower. Behind them, was Vladislav Tretiak, perhaps the greatest goalie of his generation. This was the team that had stunned an NHL all-star team 6-0 in the Challenge Cup just a year earlier.

The Americans?

They had a high-spirited groups of guys named Tom, Dick and Harry. A few such as Neal Broten and Ken Morrow were drawing interest from NHL teams but the bulk of the roster consisted of amateur and college players. Less then half would pursue hockey as a career.

As such there is a romanticized notion that they were a bunch of scrubs -- the Bad News Bears of Puckville. Great fare for Hollywood. But the notion that they won through sheer spirit and resoluteness is ill-founded. They were smart, fast and coach Herb Brooks spent close to two years putting this team together, using psychological testing that would've got him laughed out of most NHL offices. He played with players' heads, testing their discipline and toughness. He played them against each other and he made himself their common enemy. He told them they weren't good enough. Years later, captain Mike Eruzione would note: "If Herb came into my house today, it would still be uncomfortable,"

Brooks took the team across North America and Europe, cajoling and confronting and developed a myriad of systems. This was not a love-in. There were fights and screaming.

"He messed with our heads," said Mike Ramsey, who would play more than 1,000 NHL games.

There was nothing to suggest that they, like Lazarus, could rise from the dust.

On the eve of the semi-final, columnist Dave Anderson wrote in the New York Times, "Unless the ice melts, or unless the United States team or another team performs a miracle ... the Russians are expected to easily win the Olympic gold medal for the sixth time in the last seven tournaments."

And, then, the miracle happened. Jim Craig had perhaps the best game of his career as the Soviets outshot the U.S. 39-16. Tretiak, after Mark Johnson's goal tied the score 2-2, was pulled. Years later when they played together in the NHL, Johnson asked Soviet defenceman Slava Fetisov why coach Victor Tikhonov yanked Tretiak after eight shots and just 19:59 into the game. Said Fetisov: "Coach crazy."

CLASH

What also set The Miracle On Ice apart from ordinary upsets is that this was about much more than sports. The Cold War was still casting a chill over the globe. U.S. president Jimmy Carter was considering a boycott of the Moscow Games. The Iron Curtain divided the world, the Iran hostage crisis was unfolding and America was still binding the wounds left by the Vietnam War.

This wasn't just a game as much as it was a war of lifestyles; it was capitalism vs. communism, a clash of cultures and societies that had political implications.

Eruzione's goal to put the U.S. ahead came with 10 minutes to play. And, thus was born the chant of "U.S.A., U.S.A!" that has energized and nauseated (depending on your point of view) the world ever since.

When the Americans cleared the puck from their zone, Michaels -- broadcasting the game with Habs legend Ken Dryden -- made the call: "Eleven seconds. You got ten seconds, the countdown going on right now. Five seconds left in the game! Do you believe in miracles? Yes!"

Unfortunately, America didn't hear it. While the game was shown live in Canada, it was on a tape-delayed basis in the U.S. Even then, even at home, they got disrespected. Two days later the Americans beat Finland to seal their gold medal. But the U.S. had lost a chance to wave Ol' Glory in the world's face -- and when can anyone remember that ever happening?

DISMISSING

Only five of the 20 players on that team would have significant NHL careers: Neal Broten played 17 seasons and won a Stanley Cup; Ken Morrow played 515 games winning four Stanley Cups with the Islanders; Mike Ramsey was a five-time NHL all-star; Dave Christian became captain of the Winnipeg Jets and Johnson would score 203 goals over 11 seasons.

Eruzione never played another game of consequence. Today the names of John Harrington, Eric Strobel, Mark Wells are hardly remembered. They lived in the moment -- they accomplished the extraordinary - then returned to the ordinary,

Perhaps that, more than anything, is what makes the story so intriguing. But it also means there is nobody from that team who established himself within the hierarchy of the self-appointed global hockey village of TV talking heads and former NHL executives hoping for gainful employment while moonlighting on your living room TVs.

It allows the hockey intelligentsia to smile and nod and maybe, acknowledge that, "Well, yes, that was cute!" -- then, dismissing Monday's anniversary as just a day 20 kids caught lightning in a bottle. There is nobody since the death of coach Herb Brooks with the profile and ability to be their public face. Just a bunch of bankers, realtors, pilots and blue-collar coaches.

The Miracle On Ice team didn't have any nice Canadian boys from Kingston, so it's unlikely Don Cherry would dress for the occasion. Pity. It was a classic hockey moment that deserves more than grudging admiration.

BILL.LANKHOF@SUNMEDIA.CA

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