Today, February 22, marks the anniversary of one of the great stories in sports history. Lake Placid, New York. The 1980 Winter Olympics. The Soviet National Hockey team. Team USA. And Coach Herb Brooks.
The US team consisted of 20 college players. It was a time when only amateurs could compete on US teams. The Russians, well, they were older, bigger, more talented and all around the best hockey team in the world. Yes, in the world. They had beaten the NHL All Stars 6-0 in the Challenge Cup one year earlier and had demolished Team USA 10-3 in an exhibition game just prior to the Olympics in Madison Square Garden.
For most baby boomers, singular memories include the assassination of JFK, the first man walking on the moon, and the USA/Soviet hockey game in the semifinals of the medal round in the 1980 Olympics. As a nation, the USA entered the new decade still mired in the malaise of Vietnam, Watergate, stagflation, and the Iran hostage crisis. There had been little to celebrate in the 70’s unless you were a Steelers fan.
Team USA had won Olympic gold only one other time, at Squaw Valley in 1960. Then a player, Herb Brooks found himself 21st on a roster of 20…the last man cut. A fierce competitor and a relentless coach, Herb drove his team physically and psychologically to this moment. Team USA skated brilliantly. Jim Craig was marvelous in goal.
Trailing 2-1 with seconds to go in the first period, Davey Christian took a desperate slap shot from 50 feet which the invincible Soviet goalie Tretiak kicked away. But much like Franco Harris and his Immaculate Reception, Mark Johnson had hustled through two defenders and planted the rebounding puck into the net with one second remaining. Suddenly those of us watching, indeed millions around the world, began to wonder if perhaps a miracle might be in the offing.
The Soviets led 3-2 after the second period, but Team USA was not retreating. With 8:39 remaining in the final period the Americans tied the game. And two minutes later, in the midst of a relentless attack against those they formerly regarded as hockey gods, Mike Eruzione guided the puck past a screen and into the Soviet goal for a 4-3 lead.
The next six minutes were beyond tense as everyone knew the Soviets still had time to tie, and yes even win this game. But it was not to be. As Brooks had told his team in the locker room before the game, “This is your time!”
As the final seconds ticked off, young sports commentator Al Michaels offered the question we would have shunned pre-game, “Do you believe in Miracles???” And as the clock struck zero, he, and we, shouted a resounding, “YES!!!”
How a young hockey team can turn the mood of an entire nation is hard to grasp, even harder if you weren’t there. But Americans began to believe in America again. Later that year they would elect a President who talked of a new “morning in America.”
In my view, that morning dawned February 22, 1980.
Here is the text from Herb Brooks locker room speech. Is now “your time?”
One game; if we played them ten times, they might win nine. But not this game, not tonight. Tonight, we skate with them. Tonight we stay with them, and we shut them down because we can. Tonight, we are the greatest hockey team in the world.
You were born to be hockey players - every one of you, and you were meant to be here tonight. This is your time. Their time is done. It's over. I'm sick and tired of hearing about what a great hockey team the Soviets have. Screw 'em.
This is your time!
Now go out there and take it!"