Saturday’s exciting 3-2 shootout win for the United States over Russia was a great hockey game that will have its place in both our collective memory and Olympic lore. But hearing some members of the media dub it “The Second Miracle on Ice” (1010 WINS radio in New York) or a “Miracle on Ice Sequel” is not only a cliche, but it’s very wrong.
What happened in Sochi was a great hockey game, no doubt about it. The United States managed to beat Russia on Russian ice with Russian dictator Vladimir Putin on hand to witness the proceedings.
But that’s where the comparisons have to end.
We can start with the fact that the game at Sochi was an opening-round contest while the 1980 meeting was in the medal round. But there’s a lot more to it than that.
In 1980, we were still in the thick of the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union. There was a lot of tension between those nations that had two competing economic and political systems battling for power and influence throughout the world.
Just months before the start of the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan. The United States would boycott the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow as a result. The Soviets came to Lake Placid anyway.
Things were not looking up in the United States in 1980. Runaway inflation and high interest rates decimated the economy. We had hostages being held in Iran and seemed powerless to do anything to get them out. An O.P.E.C. oil embargo meant much higher prices at the pump and often long lines at gas stations. Within the past decade, the United States had suffered through the confidence-shaking Vietnam conflict and Richard Nixon’s criminal behavior in the Watergate scandal.
On the ice, the Americans and Russians didn’t field teams full of NHL stars. Even if they had, there were only a handful of American-born NHL players in 1980. There were no Russian players in the NHL. They were still stuck behind the Iron Curtain and couldn’t come to North America to play hockey.
Instead, the Americans fielded a team full of college hockey players and minor leaguers. Only the most dedicated hockey fan in the United States had heard of players like Mike Eruzione, who had not been drafted by an NHL team. The eventual captain of Team USA had split the previous season playing for teams like the Toledo Goaldiggers of the IHL and the Philadelphia Firebirds of the AHL.
American coach Herb Brooks put together a group of players from rival colleges that few people were familiar with and molded them into a team.
Meanwhile, the Soviet Union was universally recognized as the best team in hockey. In 1979, a team of Soviet all-stars beat the best players in the NHL in a best-of-three series known as “Challenge Cup ’79.” The same team dominated international hockey. While the USSR touted that these players were “amateurs,” they were technically employed by the Army and did essentially play hockey full-time for a living. Fifteen players that beat the NHL All-Stars in 1979 would be on the roster for the 1980 Soviet Olympic team. They included goalie Vladislav Tretiak and great Soviet stars like Valeri Kharlamov and Boris Mikhailov.
The NHL All-Star team those players beat just a year earlier included future Hall of Famers like Ken Dryden, Denis Potvin, Tony Esposito, Guy Lafleur, Marcel Dionne, Lanny McDonald, Bobby Clarke, Mike Bossy, Guy Lapointe and Serve Savard. If those players couldn’t beat the Russians, how could a bunch of college kids?
Yet, somehow they did. That’s why 1980 was described as a “miracle.” Herb Brooks got his team into tip-top shape and got them to play what was then a very different style of hockey than what NHL teams played. They managed to pull off an upset for the ages.
If the Soviets and the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team played 100 times, the Russians probably would have won 99 of them. Just a week before the Olympics started in Lake Placid, the Soviets decimated the Americans 10-3 at Madison Square Garden. But that doesn’t really matter. The fact is, the one time it counted, the Americans pulled off their miracle.
Two days later, the Americans beat Finland 4-2 to win the gold medal. It was a badly needed confidence boost for a country suffering from what President Jimmy Carter called a “malaise.” In a time where almost nothing seemed to be going right in this country, the hockey win delivered some proof that our way of doing things could still work better than the Communist system.
Was this year’s win over the Russians a great hockey game? Absolutely, but it was just a hockey game. The “Miracle on Ice” transcended sports and lifted a country. There is no comparison between the two.