February 22, 2005


Today is the 25th anniversary of the "Miracle On Ice".

I am not a huge hockey fan; I'm fairly illiterate about the sport, really. North Dakota, the Sioux notwithstanding, is basketball country once the weather turns (or at least it was when I lived there).

But I am a big history fan. And I remember the win at the Lake Placid games as clearly as can be.

The SI article hints at what the game was about:

Understand the circumstances. Twenty-five years ago, as 20 young skaters prepared for those Olympic Games, Americans were being held hostage in Iran and Soviet troops were marching through Afghanistan. President Carter already had announced a U.S. boycott of the Summer Olympics in Moscow. The U.S. economy was in disarray, with interest rates and inflation soaring.

Professionals were not a part of the Olympics then. There were no Dream Teams of NBA players at the Summer Games, no NHL players at the Winter Games. It was an all-amateur show. At least it was supposed to be.

USA Hockey followed the rules, gathering a squad of college kids and undrafted players and turning them over to Herb Brooks, hockey coach at the University of Minnesota. Brooks was the last player cut from the 1960 U.S. hockey team, which went on to win the gold medal. Every gold after that had gone to the Soviet Union, and there was no reason to believe that would change in 1980.

The Soviets arrived in Lake Placid with a roster of stars. The goalie was Vladlislav Tretiak, who would wind up in the Hall of Fame. The captain was Boris Mikhailov, affectionally known as the Gordie Howe of Gorky Street. The team included a fistful of future NHL players like Viacheslav Fetisov, Vladimir Krutov, Alexei Kasatonov, Sergei Starikov, Helmut Balderis and Sergei Makarov.

But it went deeper than that. For me and, judging by the faces of a lot of moviegoers, a lot of people around my age.

I rarely say this about movies - but last years' "Miracle" did a wonderful job of capturing not only the game itself, but the geist of the zeit. In particular, the opening montage did a masterful job of re-creating the dismal, depressing headlines of life in the US in the half-decade leading up to 1980; stagflation, hostages, WIN buttons, Jimmy Carter, malaise. I have to stop and remember - anyone under 35 has only the most minuscule memories of that era; how can they possibly remember the palpable sense of decline, of national stagnation, that dominated American life before Reagan?

The scene after the US got clobbered in an exhibition game, where Herb Brooks (played by Kurt Russell) drives home in the snow listening to Jimmy Carter's "Malaise" speech, is another essential. As Saint Paul from the Fraters noted after seeing the movie (in a Fraters piece I can not seem to find), a look around the theatre showed a lot of fortysomethings with their jaws dropping, their faces flashing back to the depression of the era; "...damn, it WAS that bad back then. Carter WAS that big of a hamster...."

I think Ronald Reagan would still have won a landslide in 1980 without the victory over the Soviets in the Lake Placid games. But I think that victory did an awful lot to rouse Americans, to tell them that there was another way, that what goes down must - or can - come back up. Lake Placid didn't put Reagan in the White House - but it certainly shook the cobwebs off of a lot of American hearts, hearts that went to the polls nine months later and demanded more of the same.

I'm going to have to rent the various movies on the subject, and watch 'em with the kids this weekend. There's a history lesson in there.

Posted by Mitch at February 22, 2005 08:25 AM | TrackBack

Mitch - HBO did a documentary a couple of years ago called "Do you believe in miracles?" I HIGHLY recommend it - because yes, this was a hockey triumph pretty much unprecedented, but why it was so important is because of the context of the times. The hostage crisis, waiting in line for gas, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan ... "malaise" indeed.

If you surf around on the HBO website, you might be able to see if it's playing this week, in commemoration. It's a great history lesson.

Posted by: red at February 22, 2005 11:17 AM

Although I live in a basketball family now, I grew up in a hockey family. (My brother Bill's memory of playing in the Minnesota State Hockey tournament can be found in the March issue of Minnesota Score magazine) I will remember til I die listening to that Soviet/USA game, live on a faint Canadian transmission, as the US media wanted to show it tape delayed in prime time. The entire family sat around the kitchen table, silent, ears glued to the sometimes hard to hear broadcast. When Erusione scored that final goal, the house erupted like it never had before, and most likely never will again. Watching the movie Miracle, last year, brought tears to my eyes. Not because I got to relive the thrill of victory, but because I first had to be reminded of the horror that was the Carter presidency...

Posted by: Mary Louise Pivec at February 22, 2005 12:58 PM

Ditto Red's comment.

The HBO special was awesome, and makes 'Miracle' pale in comparison (although I thought it was well-done). I taped it, and still get chills everytime I watch it. It has the benefit of actually interviewing the players 20 years later, and showing real clips of each of the games.

Posted by: Kman at February 22, 2005 02:11 PM

I have not yet seen Miracle. I probably will, but I doubt that even a great movie can recapture what the victory meant to me, the United States and the world. Yeah, it's unlikely the victory put Reagan in the whitehouse, but it singlehandedly allowed Americans to believe we were-could be-winners again. Of course, some never learned that, it looks like Carter, despite 20 years to refelct, still hasn't learned it. If faith is a hope in the unseen, this was the proof. God bless those guys, and Herb. Hell, even Al Michaels.

Posted by: Patrick at February 23, 2005 09:37 AM

Last night ESPN Classic aired this historic game. It was edited down a little, but captured most of the action. Between periods and after the game were Q&A sessions with Jim Craig and Mike Eruzione. I knew how the game was going to end, but I was still tense through the 3rd period. I couldn't help but well up as the chants of "USA, USA..." all but drowned out Al Michaels. I was 16 with a strong and growing interest in world events when I first witnessed "The Miracle On Ice". Even then I knew that this was not just a game, that this was the embodiment of the American Spirit. Twenty-five years later the significance of this event has not faded, but in fact has grown.

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