Now and then, an anniversary reminds us never to count America out. Heart, courage, and freedom’s hidden depths sometimes turn the tables, when adversaries least expect. Putting aside war and peace, politics and policy, consider a surrogate – Olympic competition. Return with me to 40 years ago this month, Olympic ice, Lake Placid, 1980.
The Soviet Union was running roughshod over half the world, suppressing freedoms across Russia and what are now 15 independent states, then Soviet Socialist republics. The Soviet Union was manhandling eight now-free Eastern European countries.
What Ronald Reagan would soon call the “evil empire,” was at an apex.
Moreover, the Soviets were notorious for cheating at the Olympics, plugging Red Army athletes full of performance-enhancing drugs, professionally training them, steering all the Communist state’s power to an unfair advantage on the world stage.
One more fact: The Red Army ice hockey team – the Soviet Olympic ice hockey team – was objectively rated best in the world. They had won Olympic gold in 1956, the year they crushed Hungary’s revolt, 1964, 1968, the year they crushed Czechoslovakia’s Prague Spring, 1972 and 1976.
They had won the world hockey championships in 1954, 1956, and 1963 through 1979 – unbroken. No team challenged them. They were objectively unbeatable. They were the best, an extension of Soviet oppression – on the ice.
Against that backdrop, a collection of happy-go-lucky, freedom-loving, non-professional American kids – college-age patriots – took the ice on February 22, 1980. Ronald Reagan had yet to win a primary, his first New Hampshire four days later. Most Americans hardly knew Reagan, or Jim Craig – America’s Olympic goalie. Anonymity for both was soon to end.
The Soviets were bear loaded for bears or eagles. Their team was 20 professionals, many holding Olympic gold. Their roster was legendary players; four would later play NHL, ending up in the Hall of Fame.
But this was a day to behold – one that would change Olympic hockey, perhaps setting the stage for other world-shaking events. This was the day wild American boys, raised on simple truths, hard work, and freedom took on the corrupt, indomitable, theoretically unbeatable Soviet State. Neither would forget the experience.
No one gave the Americans one chance in ten of beating the Soviets. Who would? Why should they? The American team was idealistic, “anything is possible” kids. They were the youngest team that year, youngest ever to skate on Olympic ice.
Minnesota’s Herb Brooks assembled the American team. Of 20 players, one had skated Olympic ice. Brooks was a student of human nature, fine attribute of free societies. He pushed, but never too hard. By February, they were one team – America.
Meanwhile, the Soviets had four consecutive golds, never lost a game since 1968. They were uncontested champions. What more needed saying? ABC refused to cover in primetime.
Foreshadowing was minimal. The US drew 2-2 with Sweden, upset Czechoslovakia 7-3, but freaks happen. No one expected much.
The first period was rough. Americans immediately fell behind. Soviets scored at nine minutes, again three minutes after America managed to pull even, making it 2-1. In final seconds, the Americans we took a slap shot from 100 feet, got the rebound, put a second score up – one second left on the clock. Somehow, that period ended 2-2, a minor miracle.
By chance, a friend from my 500-person hometown was present at the game. He pulled an all-nighter, driving from college, came on a whim, gift tickets. He was thrilled, expectations minimal, held a sign that read – “Wayne, Maine.” All knew the score would get worse – it did.
In shocking contrast, testimony to goaltender Jim Craig, the Soviets outshot us 12 to 2 second period – but Craig allowed just one goal.
The second period ended 3-2, US again miraculously holding off the Soviet Bear.
Now came the deluge. Soviets started high-sticking, putting one in the penalty box. The US team managed two shots in 27 minutes. On a powerplay, one American got in the Soviet zone and was instantly knocked to the ice. His teammate never slowed, winced or blinked, got the puck, found the net. Suddenly, America was back in the game, 3 to 3.
The Soviet Army was not easily shamed, shaken, or defeated.
They went down hard, off the ice and on. They had weight, experience, age, and medal advantages. They had half the best players alive. They launched on the Americans.
There is an adage in sports and war – if you have an advantage, press it. Another speaks to surprise. General Patton said success comes to those who “always do more than is required …”
That was Team America, third period. They never let up. Two shifts on, one player found another stepping on ice-free in the slot. One hit two, and two fired past the Soviet goalie. America – for the first time – went up, 4 to 3.
Ten minutes remained. That was a hailstorm. Soviet shots hit the post; others hammered Craig. They would win if it meant crushing the goalie. But again, the Americans did something the Soviets never expected.
Rather than protect their lead – they struck back. One offense, they pounded the Soviet goalie.
Under pressure, the Soviets shot wildly – as one later conceded, “panicking.” In the last minute, they got in the zone and fired – wide. At 33 seconds, they hit Craig, bullet slapshot – kicked away.
Now, the thing went airborne, the crowd chanting a countdown.
Seconds became hours. The Soviets worked to clear, fire, missed. At 20 seconds, the Soviets got in the zone, fought for the puck. Things were crazy. An American got it, tried to clear – Soviets were on it.
ABC Sportscaster Al Michaels could not believe his eyes. “Eleven seconds, you’ve got 10 seconds, the countdown going on right now! Morrow, up to Silk. Five seconds left in the game. Do you believe in miracles? YES!”
That was the day – 40 years ago – that heart, courage, and freedom’s depths turned tables on the Soviet Union. The game ended an era, started another. Those scrappy American, can-do kids outlasted, outshot, outplayed the Soviet Red Army – and won gold. They left their Soviet adversaries stunned.
The victory – enshrined as a “Miracle on Ice” – became iconic, symbolic, highpoint in Olympic sports history. In 2008, the International Ice Hockey Federation named it, best international ice hockey story of the past 100 years.
Maybe it was more. Perhaps it was the sign of things to come. In nine months, Ronald Reagan was America’s president. In nine years, the Soviet Union was gone. Now and then, when you least expect it, an anniversary reminds you – never count America out.