Sunday, February 28, 2010

Do You Believe in Miracles?

I’m watching Team USA play Canada for the Olympic Hockey Men’s Gold Medal and I’m struck by a realization: It’s been 30 years since the “Miracle on Ice” at Lake Placid, when Team USA beat the Soviets and went on to win the Olympic Gold Medal. 30 years!

The game I’m watching now is a pretty big deal - especially for Canada. Hockey is their national religion. They expect to win and there is even greater pressure for these 2010 Olympic Games as they are on home ice in Vancouver. It’s a fairly big deal for U.S. hockey too. It's also a terrific game. But I’m watching a team of 23 NHL players skate against another team of 23 NHL players. Almost all of them are millionaires and they are all familiar to fans of hockey. When the U.S. met the Soviets in Lake Placid in 1980, there were no NHL players and no millionaires. The world wasn’t so small then. There was real mystery when your nation competed against a foreign team.

It’s difficult to fully appreciate how different things were in 1980. First, there was the sheer magnitude of the upset. Team USA featured a collection of college players (mostly from Minnesota or Massachusetts) while the Soviet team was an experienced machine, universally regarded as the best in the world. The previous winter, the same Soviet team had badly beaten an NHL All Star Team (featuring 15 eventual hall-of-famers) in the Challenge Cup at Madison Square Garden. And only three days before the Olympics opened, the U.S. team played the Soviets in an exhibition game also in the Garden. The Soviets won 10 – 3. Then there was the geopolitical climate in 1980. Jimmy Carter was President. We had an energy crisis, a Cold War and what seemed to be an increasingly more dangerous world. Four months prior to the Olympics, 53 Americans were taken hostage by Iranian revolutionaries. And just three months before the Olympics, Soviet tanks rolled into Afghanistan.

But I was only 11-years-old and the Olympics had completely captured my imagination. I had a vague recollection of the 1976 Winter Games – Franz Klammer, in his banana-yellow ski suit, winning the downhill in Innsbruck. But this time, the Olympics would be in the United States, in New York State even. Practically in my own backyard. In the summer of 1978, I went to a sleep-away camp near the Adirondacks and had visited Lake Placid on a day trip. I remember getting ice cream on Main Street, swatting mosquitoes and walking down to the lake to watch water skiing. Olympic preparations were well underway in town and Olympic posters, decals and flags could be seen everywhere. It was thrilling to consider that this small mountain village, would be blanketed with snow and play host to the world.

I was also just beginning to follow hockey. Those were heady times for hockey in New York. The Ranger team, more famous then for their designer jeans and swimsuit model wives than for their on-ice accomplishments, had just played in the Stanley Cup Finals. My beloved New York Islanders were on the assent to greatness. But these were the days when only amateurs played in the Olympics. There would be no Phil Esposito, no Bobby Clarke, no Guy Lafleur and no Brian Trottier, Mike Bossy, Clark Gilles or Denis Potvin. But these guys were all Canadians anyway. I couldn’t name a single American player and I knew nothing of College hockey. And so I read my Sports Illustrated Winter Olympics Preview issue in order to educate myself. Most of the Olympic hype concerned an American speed skater named Eric Heiden who was expected to compete for the Gold Medal in 5 events. But there was also a short article previewing the hockey. Of course the Soviets were expected to win Gold. Czechoslovakia was picked to win Silver. But, according to Sports Illustrated, the plucky U.S. team, coached by Herb Brooks, had a legitimate shot at the Bronze! I was thrilled. This would be a team worth watching.

The rest, of course, is history. In their opening game, the U.S. tied Sweden, 2-2. The Americans then rolled off consecutive wins against Czechoslovakia, Norway, Romania and West Germany. The leading scorer for the U.S. was Mark Johnson (now coach of the U.S. Women’s hockey team) but their best player was probably goaltender, Jim Craig. ABC, the network covering the Olympics, only showed highlights from these games until the medal round, which pitted the USA against the mighty Soviets. The game was aired on a Friday evening on tape delay.

The greatest thing about sports is that the drama is real. The unexpected sometimes does happen and when it does, it can shock, inspire, fulfill dreams and break hearts. When Mike Eruzione scored the go-ahead goal in the third period and Team USA held on to win 4-3, I was jumping up and down in front of the television. The U.S. would go on to defeat Finland to win the Gold Medal but it was the win against the Soviets that was the one for the ages. Lacking any real political awareness, I had no temptation to attach any political significance or propaganda angle to the win. I only knew the joy of victory. I knew that my team, my country, had beaten the best. I knew that it wasn’t supposed to happen, but it happened. I knew it was a miracle. It remains the greatest thing I’ve witnessed in sports.

But now, I’m again jumping excitedly in front of my television. With the U.S. trailing Canada 2-1, Zach Parise scored for the U.S. with just 24 seconds left in regulation. Awesome! The Gold Medal winner will be determined in sudden death overtime. It’s thrilling -but it’s not like 1980. I shouldn’t compare, but I can’t help it. Don’t get me wrong, in some ways this is better. Certainly the players are better – bigger, stronger, faster, professional. And so is the overall quality of play. But Team USA is only a slight underdog this time, if even that. They’ve already beaten Canada in the preliminary round and going into the playoff round, they had the best record, the best goal differential and the hottest goalie, Ryan Miller. But Canada is still Canada and beating them a second time will take some doing.

Sudden death is tense stuff. Next goal wins. This thing could end with an errant pass, a fluke goal, a deflection. Hockey is like that. But somebody is going to win this thing. And then, somebody does. 7:40 into overtime, Sidney Crosby wins it for Canada. A nation celebrates. I’m happy for Canada. This means more to their nation than it would have meant for ours. And that’s not sour grapes – I'd have loved to see the U.S. win - it’s just how things work in the world of hockey. Canadians will be comparing Crosby’s goal to Paul Henderson’s legendary game winning goal in the Summit Series against the Soviets in 1972. North of the border, there’s both jubilation and relief.

But I find myself wondering, what if the U.S. had won? Would the commentators be comparing it with 1980? You bet they would. So maybe we were spared at least that. To be sure, there are plenty of 11-year-old kids, in both the U.S and Canada, who saw something special and unforgettable. Countless American kids will become fans and even learn to play hockey because of what happened today. Countless Canadian kids have a memory that will last a lifetime. They saw great hockey – better hockey than we saw in 1980. And they saw something dramatic and inspiring. It fulfilled dreams and it broke hearts.

But they didn’t see a miracle.