Monday, February 22, 2010

The Miracle on Ice

There are moments in life that are unique.

Sometimes it's obvious. You know when they happen that you will always remember where you were and what you were doing when those moments occurred.

Most of the time, they seem to be moments you wouldn't want to repeat — like September 11 or the JFK assassination. But, from time to time, a moment comes along that is so inspirational, so uplifting that you wish you could experience it again and again.

Today is the 30th anniversary of such a moment. It was on this day in 1980 that the U.S. Olympic hockey team upset the powerful Soviets in Lake Placid, N.Y., and went on to win the gold medal a few days later.

I really thought somebody would show the movie "Miracle" today, but, if it is being shown, I haven't been able to find it in the listings. At the very least, I thought ESPN Classic would show a replay of the game, but that doesn't seem to be the case, either.

Apparently, though, some people are trying to recapture the feeling. Craig Custance of The Sporting News wrote the following about yesterday's victory over Canada in the Olympics: "If the Americans can play the role of favorite as well as they have the underdog, they're a serious threat to win [the gold medal]."

Fortunately, some people kept their perspective. "USA Hockey's win over Canada was hardly 'Miracle 2.0,' " writes Dan Shanoff.

With all due respect to the 2010 U.S. Olympic team and what it has accomplished so far, this is not 1980 and the Canadians are not the fearsome foes that the Soviets were — although, in some ways, the times are similar.

It's kind of hard to explain — if you aren't old enough to remember it — what a shot in the arm that victory was for the entire country. It was more than a game. It was about a beaten and bloodied America bouncing back in spite of the hostages in Iran, in spite of a recession and high unemployment.

Seems like a lot for a bunch of college kids to carry on their shoulders, but that was what those hockey players represented to millions of Americans who wanted to feel good about their country again. That became their mission, at least as far as the American public was concerned. They were standing in for the millions of Americans who had had it up to here, who were mad as hell and weren't going to take it anymore.

After the U.S. hockey team prevailed over the heavily favored Soviets, the accomplishment was dubbed the "Miracle on Ice." Two years ago, when the International Ice Hockey Federation marked its 100th anniversary, it chose the U.S. victory as the #1 international hockey story of the century.

I don't believe that anyone who watched that game could ever forget it — or how they felt as sportscaster Al Michaels counted down the final seconds and uttered his legendary call as time ran out: "Do you believe in miracles? YES!" Just watching the clip at the top of this post brings the memories rushing back, and I feel the same chill run down my spine that I felt on that Friday 30 years ago.

I've never been a hockey fan. Most Americans probably wouldn't call themselves hockey fans. But the members of that U.S. team — Jim Craig, Mark Johnson, Mike Eruzione, coach Herb Brooks and all the rest of the squad — became latter–day American heroes. And, after that game, everyone in America was a hockey fan.

Until the end of the Olympic Games, anyway.

Two days after the Americans beat the Russians, I recall watching Jim McKay talking on ABC as the network prepared to televise the gold medal game. He told the audience about a conversation he had had with his wife earlier that morning. "This will be a first for you," he said he told his wife, "watching sports on TV on a Sunday morning."

He smiled as he recalled her reply: "I know — and to watch hockey!"

How big was it? When Sports Illustrated ran the picture of the Americans celebrating, there was no caption or headline. That's the only time in SI's history that a cover photo did not have any "cover language." "It didn't need it," the photographer said. "Everyone in America knew what happened."

A year later, a made–for–TV film about the U.S. hockey team was shown on the small screen. It was OK, although even casual hockey observers could tell that Karl Malden was more than two decades older than Brooks. If it had anything going for it, it was the way it incorporated actual game footage, giving viewers an opportunity to relive a moment when they not only felt free to dream again but also to hope again.

It wasn't until nearly 25 years later that the story of the U.S. hockey team finally made it to the big screen with a cast that was plausible. I thought the movie was great. But I couldn't help wondering why it took a quarter of a century for someone to make a genuine dramatization of that accomplishment. Surely there were times in the intervening years when America needed the inspiration that hockey team provided the Americans of 1980.

Well, a recession has hammered America in the last couple of years, leaving more people filled with self–doubt than I have seen in my lifetime. Perhaps now, 30 years after that truly amazing achievement, this generation's hockey team will step forward and do the unthinkable — and inspire us to rise above our circumstances.

Beating Canada yesterday was big, but it wasn't really comparable to the win over the Soviets 30 years ago — even if the Canadians were wearing red uniforms.

At the end of "Miracle," some text appears on the screen dedicating the film to Brooks' memory. The film had been completed just before Brooks was killed in a single–vehicle crash at the age of 66.

Brooks never saw "Miracle," the dedication read. "He lived it."

And so did we all.

1 comment: said...

Thirty years later, it’s amazing how hockey’s perception has changed in the United States. The sport is now played in all climates, not just cold ones. The NHL has franchises in Florida, Texas, and Arizona, while minor league teams play in other states that no one would have ever imagined hockey games to take place. The Miracle on Ice victory over the Soviet Union was huge, and changed hockey forever in America.