Thirty-five years later, I still get chills, a lump in my throat and, yes, a sentimental tear when I remember Feb. 22, 1980. For on that Friday in Lake Placid, N.Y., an underdog team of college kids from Massachusetts, Minnesota, Michigan and Wisconsin shocked the best hockey team in the world.
United States 4, Soviet Union 3.
What a thrill to have covered that historic upset at the XIII Winter Olympic Games for The Providence Journal. Everybody knows about the Miracle on Ice now, the top sports story of the 20th century, according to Sports Illustrated. We’ve read the newspaper and magazine accounts. We’ve seen the video clips on You Tube. We’ve watched the Kurt Russell-as-Herb Brooks movie and the ESPN specials.
But for those of us who were there -- 8,500 spectators packed into every seat and standing five deep in hallways of the Olympic Fieldhouse, one element of the Olympic Ice Center constructed by the Gilbane Building Company of Providence; hundreds of media from around the world; officials from various Olympic Committees; coaches and players -- the result was completely unexpected. Nobody, except Brooks, the U.S. coach, would have predicted a Team USA victory that day. The Russians -- technically the Soviets, but we referred to them as the Russians -- were four-time defending Olympic gold medalists, undefeated in Olympic competition since 1968, conquerors of mighty National Hockey League all-stars, and just 13 days earlier, in a Feb. 9 exhibition at Madison Square Garden, 10-3 victors over the U.S. Olympic Team.
10 to 3!
What chance would Team USA have if they played the Russians again? None, it seemed. On Feb. 9, the American kids skated in awe of the Soviet men. On Feb. 22, they didn’t.
In Lake Placid the U.S. surprised a lot of people with a 4-0-1 record in the preliminary round of the 12-team tournament. The Americans played Sweden to a 2-2 draw in their first game in the Blue Division, scoring their second goal with 27 seconds remaining. Then they defeated Czechoslovakia, Norway and Romania by a combined score of 19-6 and completed the round on Feb. 20 with a 4-2 victory over West Germany. Impressive, yes, but the Soviets scored 51 goals in five games and swept the Red Division. They whipped Japan, 16-0, The Netherlands, 17-4, and Poland, 8-1. Who could stop them?
The U.S. and the Soviet Union faced off at 5 o’clock on that Friday. The schedule had been approved the previous September, and the Soviets rejected a request to move the start to 8 o’clock, which is why ABC taped the game for a delayed prime time telecast.
Emotions were running high that winter, and more than a hockey game was at stake that day. America’s psyche was bruised. Iranian rebels held Americans hostage in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan in December. The Cold War simmered, and the U.S. economy sputtered. President Jimmy Carter, desperate for solutions, threatened to boycott the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow.
The press box was too small for the media contingent so many of us sat in the stands. Two rows in front of me were a half-dozen Russian officials in heavy coats and fur hats. They looked like brown bears.
The Russians scored first and were about to leave the ice with a 2-1 lead at the end of the opening period when Mark Johnson gathered a rebound and fired a 20-footer by Vladislav Tretiak with a second to play. Tretiak was the best goaltender in the world, but so incensed was coach Viktor Tikhonov that he benched his star for the rest of the game. He admitted later it was the biggest mistake of his career.
The Soviets dominated the second period and scored a power-play goal for a 3-2 lead. They held the U.S. to two shots while peppering goalie Jim Craig with 12. The only surprise at this point was the one-goal margin. I remember thinking it was just a matter of time before the Russians broke the game open. But Johnson tied the score with a power-play goal at 8:39 of the third period, driving the partisan, flag-waving home crowd into a frenzy. The Americans were still in the game!
Still in the game? Eighty-one seconds later, the captain, Mike Eruzione came over the boards, got his stick on the puck in the slot, used a Russian defender as a screen and beat the backup Soviet goalie Vladimir Myshkin with the most famous goal in Olympic hockey history.
The crowd went crazy. Instant bedlam. “USA! USA! USA!” caromed off the rafters. Fans waved flags and homemade posters. We couldn’t believe it. The Americans were ahead. We were AHEAD! Surrounded by pandemonium, those Russian fur hats in front of me did not budge an inch.
But there was a small problem. Ten minutes remained, and they became the longest, most emotionally draining 10 minutes of any game I covered before or since. It felt like an eternity. The Russians attacked. They fired shots. They hit the post. They missed the net. Craig made saves. As the final minute ticked away, the crowd standing and cheering so loud it was impossible to think straight, Craig deflected another slap shot. Somehow, the Americans cleared the puck. And then it was over.
Celebration doesn’t begin to describe the scene on the ice and in the stands. While the American players mobbed Craig, and defenseman Jack O’Callahan fell to his knees over Mike Ramsey and flashed a giddy gap-toothed grin, spectators hugged each other, cheered themselves hoarse and waved the Stars and Stripes. They spilled into the village streets understanding full well they had just witnessed an epic. The Russian fur hats got up and left quietly, disbelieving their team of professionals had lost to students.
By the 11 o’clock news that Friday night, after ABC’s prime time telecast, the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team had become national heroes, the Boys of Winter, as Wayne Coffey wrote in his 2005 retrospective. They joined the likes of the 1967 Impossible Dream Boston Red Sox and the 1969 Super Bowl champ New York Jets in the pantheon of American underdog sports teams. Eruzione’s game-winning goal immediately ranked with such memorable blows as Bobby Thomson’s pennant –winning home run for the New York Giants in their 1951 playoff with the Brooklyn Dodgers and Carlton Fisk’s 12th-inning home run in Game 6 of the 1975 World Series between the Red Sox and Reds. And broadcaster Al Michaels’ call in the last five seconds -- “Do you believe in miracles? YES!” -- became a sportscasting classic with Russ Hodges’ “The Giants win the pennant!” in 1951 and Johnny Most’s “Havlicek stole the ball! “ in 1965.
But the 4-3 victory was Team USA’s penultimate game in the medal round-robin. Eruzione and mates had to return to the Olympic Fieldhouse at 11 a.m. on Sunday, Feb. 24, to play Finland. They needed a victory to win the gold medal. A loss and they might have returned home without any medal. Once again they rallied in the third period, erased a 2-1 deficit with three goals and secured their place in hockey history. I can still hear the chants of “USA!” and can still see Eruzione turning and waving his teammates to join him on the podium after the playing of the national anthem.
It was a beautiful sight, for sure, but nothing like the euphoric scene that had unfolded in Lake Placid on Feb. 22, 1980, 35 years ago today.
All these memories came flashing back earlier this month when I received an email from Richard Benedetto, a retired White House correspondent for USA Today. In 1980 he was a reporter for the Gannett News Service team covering the Olympics. We met and drank beers together with other media types after deadline. He had a seat in the Olympic Fieldhouse that Friday afternoon because I gave him a ticket that I had found on the floor of a bus. What luck! On Feb. 6 USA Today published his account of his own miracle on ice.