A Hockey Upset More Monumental than Miraculous

The 40th anniversary of one of America’s all-time Olympic feel-good stories is worthy of remembering and celebrating every February, and always will be. Even if the story wasn’t told quite the way it should have been initially.

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Forty years later, the events of Feb. 22 and Feb. 24, 1980 in Lake Placid still resonate as magical.

But the U.S. hockey team’s improbable run to the gold medal in the Winter Olympics has also been, to an extent, misinterpreted, misunderstood and misrepresented.

In retrospect, no Miracle was necessary.

It was an upset, to be certain. But Team USA’s 4-3 victory over the mighty Soviet Union and subsequent 4-2, gold medal-clinching decision over Finland required no intervention from the hockey gods.

As it turned out, the U.S. had the roster and the resolve to pull it off.

The Soviet Union may have been a big, red machine, but the U.S. had something the Soviets hadn’t seen previously – a team that was as capable as it was committed.

“They definitely deserved the goal medal,” former Penguins General Manager Craig Patrick, an assistant to Herb Brooks on the “Miracle on Ice” team in 1980, maintained 40 years later. “It didn’t matter that we beat the Russians, the Finns or whoever we beat.

“They definitely deserved the gold medal due to the effort and time they put in to making it all happen.”

It was the culmination of a seven-month odyssey during which Brooks pushed his collection of hand-picked college players to the physical and mental limit in an effort to prepare them to do what seemed inconceivable on a world stage.

Mission accomplished.

And yet many were just getting started.

Team USA had 14 of its 20 members go on to play in the National Hockey League. Three of those (Dave Christian, Mike Ramsey and Neal Broten) played over 1,000 NHL games. Mark Johnson played in 669 and Ken Morrow 550 (not including the four postseason runs with the New York Islanders that ended with Morrow’s name being engraved on the Stanley Cup).

These guys weren’t over-achievers, they were under-rated in the first place.

“Absolutely,” Patrick agreed. “I had been away from amateur hockey for 10 years, and when we went to the (National) Sports Festival (where the team would be selected in 1979) I was shocked at the talent level that was available to the Olympic team, available in the United States at the time.

“And the group that Herb picked epitomizes exactly how much hockey had grown in that period of time. To look back on it now, they played over 6,000 games in the NHL as a group and scored over 3,500 points as a group. I mean, they weren’t that bad.”

Team captain Mike Eruzione, who scored the goal that beat the Soviets, echoed Patrick’s sentiments during a visit to PPG Paints Arena on Feb. 11 to help the Penguins commemorate the event.

“Absolutely,” Eruzione responded to the suggestion his team had been under-rated. “I don’t even know if we realized how good we were. Who knew Neal Broten, David Christian, Mike Ramsey would play 15, 16, 17 years (in the NHL)? Kenny Morrow, four Stanley Cups with the Islanders, Mark Johnson, our best player and a gifted player, clearly we were a lot better than people thought.

“I saw a stat the other day that I didn’t even know, in the third period during the Olympic Games we outscored our opponents, 16-3. I mean, that’s incredible. We were clearly a pretty good hockey team.”

Ask the Russians.

There might have been a different historical narrative had  Al Michaels’ immortal final call of the game against the Soviet Union been, “Take that you commie bastards!”

Instead, it was, “Do you believe in miracles?”

And the rest is history.

Troubled times might have likewise contributed to a nation seemingly in need of a miracle taking what it could get where it could find it, even a “Miracle on Ice.”

“To us, it was a hockey game,” Eruzione said. “To a lot of people, it was a hockey game. But to a lot more people, I think it was the political climate that made this event so special. The hostages (in Iran), the state of our country, where we were at, the cold war, gas lines, inflation.

“As a country we were looking to feel good about something, and it happened to be us. And of all sports, ice hockey. Hockey wasn’t the biggest sport in the United States, it still isn’t,  unfortunately. But yet, this moment captured the spirit of a country.”

If there truly was a miracle at Lake Placid, it was that.

And that’ll be worth celebrating another 40 Februarys from now.

Categories: Mike Prisuta’s Sports Section