It was over three decades ago and it still stands as our best sports moment, and it probably changed the nation

Today marks the 38th anniversary of one of the few times a sporting event unfolded that not only lived up to the over-dramatic descriptors, but the use of hyperbole may actually fall short. The USA Olympic hockey team defeated the Russians on February 22, and as landmark athletic accomplishments go, this one went well beyond the scope of a game. A nation may have become transformed.

Sports, being rooted in so much emotion, rarely makes sense. Think of the fanaticism we witness with pro sports, where people become deeply invested and passionately entwined with a group of players from other areas (frequently other countries) we will likely never meet and many of whom will be gone within years, all because they play a game near your home town. Jerry Seinfeld summed it up when he reduced it down to, “We’re rooting for clothes.”

But on this date in 1980 a sport most of the country had been apathetic towards managed to draw in the nation. The way it played out, and those who participated delivered so much more to the audience than something as basic as a rooting interest. We literally became a different country because of a sport on the ice normally dominated by other nations.

 

The Mediocrity Before Our Exceptionalism

Understanding why less than two dozen hard-edged collegians had this power requires perspective beyond the winter of that year. Yes, the US and Russia were in the midst of The Cold War, which would have been sufficient to make any matchup between the countries significant. But there was far more going on with our country as a preamble.

 

The dissolution of the Vietnam War was still hanging as a pall, as was the more recent Watergate scandal. However, a new administration did not deliver us from the mire. Inflation had sapped the economy, and we were also enduring the fuel crisis. President Jimmy Carter spoke to the nation in need of a leader, and he instead talked of “A crisis of confidence”. America was less a superpower, and more like a tourist who had been mugged in a dark alleyway.

The Winter Olympics were to be held in Lake Placid, New York and in preparation the summer of 1979 saw the formation of the United States hockey team. It was an exercise in futility. The Russians had flouted Olympic rules of amateur athletes (then the rule of the Games) by forming an ice hockey team comprised only technically of military soldiers. These were among the best players of the era, trained and treated with all manner of professionalism.

Their captain was regarded as the player in the world, and the goalie – Vladislav Tretiak – is regarded as one of the best in the history of the sport. The Russians were four-time defending Olympic champions, and a sign of their dominant nature was seen in the weeks ahead of the Winter Games. The Russians played a three-game Challenge Cup series against the NHL All-Stars, and they humiliated the professionals from North America.

The USA team was built with a crowd of unknown college players who became the youngest Olympic squad ever. Coach Herb Brooks, who won three national championships with the University of Minnesota, was tabbed to run the team. He selected a collection of his own players, a clutch from another college hockey powerhouse, Boston University, and select players from Midwestern schools. The problem early on was a divided locker room. At the time Minnesota and BU were bitter rivals, and there were factions on the roster.

Brooks decided to unify the team by being overbearing and borderline abusive, turning himself into the common enemy. During preliminary months, after a listless performance against Norway,he kept the team on the ice to run gassers. These are sprints done to the blueline and back, then center ice, then the opposite blue line, and finally the entire sheet of ice. Brooks had them skating these — after already playing a full game — for so long they shut the lights out at the rink.

In the Disney movie “Miracle” it showed this to be the point where the team came together but, as pivotal as that night had been, that actual moment was realized later. Just prior to the Games Brooks needed to push the players, so he began using the threat of being cut and replaced. He brought in a squad of new players to try out just weeks prior, showing his team that no one had a secure slot. Defenseman Jack O’Callahan stood up to the coach and told him to knock it off, send the new arrivals away, and to let them prepare for the tournament that next week. That was when Brooks knew the chemistry had become a bond.

These months of preparation were ignored by the country. The economic crisis was enough of a concern, then in November the Iran hostage crisis began. Adding further anxiety the Russians in December rolled into Afghanistan. Global tensions were possibly never higher, and America was in a morass.

Being drained of spirit was a common reality at the time. Even when the Olympics began in New York there was strife, as the transportation systems failed, stranding thousands out in the cold. As sportscaster Jim Lampley described it, “It looked like yet another opportunity for us to get kicked in the teeth — in the way we seemed to be, all over the map.”

 

 

     We Were Hungry For Leaders

The Olympic hockey tournament was a two-round affair. Twelve teams were separated into two divisions, and after the round of 5 games then the top pair from each division played in the Medal Round. While separated from Russia the US had to play Sweden and Czechoslovakia, regarded at the time as the second and third favorited teams. At best the college kids might have been thought of as a distant fourth, among those in the Games.

Two significant events propelled the team into the American consciousness. The early game against Sweden was a thriller when, down one goal in the fading minutes, Brooks pulled goalie Jim Craig for an extra skater. The desperate move worked, as Billy Baker scored with under 30 seconds remaining and gave the US a tie against a better team. A jolt of excitement for the team was encountered by fans.

The next signifier came while playing the Czechs. It became a rout in favor of the US, but late in the game, with a comfortable 6-2 lead, Mark Johnson went down when one of their skaters made a cheap-shot open-ice hit. The television cameras caught something of significance. In a case where normally the players would rise to defend a teammate we instead saw coach Brooks, glowering at the Czech player, and not shying away from delivering invective. “I’ll bury that goddamned stick in your throat!” He was not unhinged, but steely and unwavering. “I’ll make you eat that goddamned Koho, 3!”

For the first time in a long while, we saw something sorely lacking in this country — leadership.

That Brooks would take that stand, and on an international stage, was something we had lacked from our leaders. The country took the team on as its adoptive personality. As Al Michaels, the sportscaster who gave us the legendary “Do you believe in miracles?!” refrain, said prior to the faceoff:

There are many in the building who do not know the difference between a blue line, and a clothesline. It’s irrelevant — it doesn’t matter. Because what we have at hand is the rarest of sporting events; an event that needs no buildup, no superlative adjectives.

Those college kids did not shy from the global stage, and they spit in the eye of the tiger. When they defeated the Russians an intrinsic wave of character spread across the country. It was not mere patriotism. It became a reminder of our greatness; not what we could become, but what we actually harbored within us. Less than two dozen college skaters were not overlooked — they were unknown. But they, and their coach reminded a nation what we were.

 

Gradually our citizenry began to believe in ourselves once again. It led to pride becoming a viable emotion once again. It soon led to us believing in a leader like Ronald Reagan, who led us to what many have called our poisonous jingoism. But we cannot be scorned for exceptionalism without first achieving greatness. This team showed us what greatness was, and what greatness resided within us.

As Captain Mike Eruzione said years later, describing what we went through: “Nobody felt good, nobody felt proud,” followed then, with a faint spark in his eye — “And…we come along!

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