Posted by: Mike Cornelius | February 23, 2020

Still Miraculous After All These Years

A NOTE TO READERS: Since today’s post looks back to an earlier time, it seems an apt moment to note that it was ten Februarys ago when On Sports and Life first found its little corner of the internet. Happy anniversary to me and thank you all for a decade of support!

It was a very different time. That is the impression that stands out above all others when thinking back to that February evening forty years ago. Telephones had cords rather than IQs. There was no publicly available internet. Typewriters rather than PCs sat on office desks. The Cold War was still very real, and while then as now there were armed forces mired in Afghanistan, in 1980 they wore Russian uniforms.

One obvious continuity is that the country was in the early stages of choosing a President, but even that process differed markedly from the seemingly perpetual campaign costing untold sums of money that now passes for democracy in action. If not quite like 1960, when John Kennedy didn’t even declare his candidacy until January of the election year, at least in 1980 the candidates were still camped out in New Hampshire by late February, with the first primary not scheduled until the very end of the month.

Yet even in the snows of northern New England, on Friday the 22nd Granite State voters set aside their diligent work of choosing between Carter and Kennedy, or between Reagan, Bush, Anderson and the rest, to tune into ABC’s primetime coverage of the Winter Olympics. Just a few hours drive west, in the tiny upstate New York village of Lake Placid, the ancient battle between David and Goliath was being renewed, this time on skates.

While everyone remembers the medal round game between the United States and the Soviet Union, including for many incorrectly recalling it as the gold medal game, what is largely forgotten is that the U.S. team, a collection of college players, wasn’t assured of even advancing past the round-robin stage of the Olympic tournament. Since winning gold at Squaw Valley in 1960 the U.S. had won just one medal in hockey – a silver in 1972.

Based on records in international play, Team USA was ranked seventh of the twelve teams in the tournament, most notably behind both Sweden and Czechoslovakia, teams grouped in the same division as the U.S. for round-robin play, from which only two countries would advance. But the U.S. skaters gained confidence with an opening tie against the Swedes, and the Czechs wound up losing to both Sweden and the Americans. That sent Team USA on to the medal round and a date with the Russians.

The two squads had played an exhibition match during the runup to the Games, in which the Soviets had toyed with the Americans. The 10-3 rout was, as the saying goes, not as close as the score indicated. The U.S. team was the youngest ever assembled for the Olympics, with an average age of just 22. The Russians were professionals, nominally Red Army soldiers in a cursory nod to the amateur requirements then in effect at the Games, but in reality a full-time team that had won four straight gold medals and would have been competitive with any NHL franchise. Against the Soviet juggernaut it seemed the Americans and their fans who packed into the tiny bandbox of an arena could do little more than hope.

But hope is the blood that that courses through the veins of every sports fan. Before the contest U.S. coach Herb Brooks told his skaters “you were meant to be here.”  The game was played in late afternoon, and shown on TV during prime time, a delay that surely generated a vastly larger audience as news of the outcome began to spread. The score was 2-2 after one period. U.S. goalie Jim Craig steadied after a shaky start, and the Americans knotted the score with one second left when Russian goalie Vladislav Tretiak allowed a long rebound on a slap shot from center ice and Mark Johnson pounced on the sloppy error and drove a shot past the diving netminder.

The Soviet skaters dominated play during the middle frame, but despite outshooting the Americans 12-2 the Russians could only move on top by a single goal, a power play score early in the period. Then almost midway through the final twenty minutes the U.S. got its own power play opportunity, and Johnson tied the score at 3-3 at the very end of the man advantage. Scarcely a minute later Boston University’s Mike Eruzione was left open in the high slot. Teammate Mark Pavelich found him with a pass, and Eruzione buried the shot that gave Team USA its first lead of the game, 4-3.

There were exactly ten minutes remaining. It seemed more like hours, or even days, for U.S. fans. Time and again the Russians sought to penetrate the American defenses. By the end the Soviets had taken 39 shots on goal to the Americans 16. But Craig and his defenders met the challenge, and at last the clock wound down to the final minute. Decades later, those final seconds remain alive, as if they were ticking away right now.

With 50 seconds to go, the puck is centered from behind the net, and a point-blank shot goes just wide, partially deflected by goalie Craig. The two teams scramble for the loose puck, and it’s eventually fed back out to center ice, with 43 seconds to play. ABC’s Al Michaels reminds viewers of the countdown, “38, 37 seconds left in the game.” From just outside the blue line, Russia’s Vladimir Petrov sends a long slapshot in on goal that Craig easily turns aside. The deflection bounds off the near boards and slides all the way back out to center. “The crowd going nearly insane,” Michaels says, as the unrelenting din grows even louder. The puck is once again dumped into the American end, and now the clock is superimposed on the top left corner of the screen, and just 19 seconds remain. Johnson sends the puck across the ice along the back boards, where Mike Ramsey fights off a Soviet forward. Rob McClanahan swoops in and sends the loose puck back the other way, and the clock ticks inexorably toward the impossible. “11 seconds, you’ve got 10 seconds” shouts Michaels, barely controlling his excitement. The Americans control the puck, and suddenly everyone on the ice, every person in the arena, every viewer at home, knows that it’s going to happen. The skaters dressed all in red finally relent, even as those in the white and blue sweaters over the red shorts play one last game of keep-away. “Five seconds left in the game,” shouts Michaels, who could not possibly have planned his next words.

Down the years the iconic call echoes, still capable of sending chills down the spine of any sports fan. “The thing came out of my heart,” Michaels said in a recent interview. The “thing,” as the now 75-year-old sportscaster referred to it, was a question as old as sports. It is the query posed by the faithful of every underdog, one that is usually answered by harsh reality. But there is always a reason why they play the games. His voice rising to a shout, Michaels asked “Do you believe in miracles?” On that long-ago February night, there could only be one answer.

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