By David Mullen
An era-defining milestone in American sports, and in American history as a whole, celebrated its 40th anniversary on Feb. 22. It went unnoticed by many media outlets (save ESPN and NBC), as headlines went to NFL billionaire owners going back and forth with highly-paid players over a new collective bargaining agreement, Major League Baseball displaying little backbone regarding an unprecedented credibility crisis, and more current and former athletes getting arrested for their lawlessness.
Forty years ago, on Feb. 22, 1980, the “Miracle on Ice” occurred. The youngest hockey team in the Winter Olympics, Team USA, defeated the Soviet Union 4-3 in Lake Placid, NY. It represented what team sports is supposed to be all about. The unselfish team play of amateur athletes over the machinelike qualities of paid, full-time professionals. Good over evil. David over Goliath. All for the love of the game and country.
In 1980, Jimmy Carter was president. The Cold War was at full scale. The powerful USSR had invaded lowly Afghanistan. The U.S. recently had a nuclear disaster at Three Mile Island, Pa. The Middle East was in turmoil, as America tried to gain freedom for 63 Americans taken hostage at the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran. Oil prices were skyrocketing, causing gas rationing and long lines at the pump.
Ironically, one of the most popular songs in 1980 was Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive.” But for three short hours, America seemed to forget their troubles, become united and survive.
The U.S. didn’t have a chance against the tough Soviets, winner of the last four Olympic gold medals. In 1979, the Soviet national team had routed a team of the NHL All-Stars 6–0. In an exhibition match on Feb. 11, 1980 at Madison Square Garden in New York City, the U.S. Olympic hockey team was trounced by the Red Army 10-3. Remember, most hockey players skating in the U.S. were from Canada. U.S. born players were still relatively scarce.
The U.S., down two goals in the third period, rallied to an unthinkable win against the USSR. But it was only the semifinals. They still had work to do. Two days later, they defeated Finland 4-2 for the gold. Team USA, led by Massachusetts natives captain Mike Eruzione and goalie Jim Craig, wrapped the U.S. flag around himself as a sign of great patriotism.
In 1999, Sports Illustrated named the “Miracle on Ice” as the top sports moment of the 20th century.
“If you would see the letters that I get in the mail, and I get a ton of letters, it’ll always start out, ‘Although I was not born in 1980, I heard about this,’” Eruzione was quoted. “I watched the movie ‘Miracle,’ [or] my grandfather told me about it [or] I watched the HBO documentary. It’s a shame more Americans didn’t experience the moment.”
The televised game, inexplicably shown on tape-delay in the U.S. by ABC, introduced America to announcer Al Michaels. Loyal baseball fans already knew Michaels from his work on baseball broadcasts with the Cincinnati Reds, San Francisco Giants and ABC, but he was still virtually unknown. On Oct. 21, 1978, I was doing the football broadcast on the UC Berkeley campus radio station KALX. ABC brought in their announcing A-team of Keith Jackson and Ara Parseghian to televise the 5-1 Bears versus the 5-1 UCLA Bruins.
The morning televised college football game, showed on monitors and being viewed by the ABC technical crew, featured Michaels doing play-by-play. “He will never make it,” I remember one of the crew members said while he enjoyed the free press box food. “His voice is too squeaky.”
Michaels’ now storied career is defined by his final call in the 1980 Olympics semifinal game. “Do you believe in miracles?” Michaels yelled, as the game ended. “YES!” Despite not being broadcast live, the 1980 U.S. versus USSR semifinal game remains the most-watched ice hockey game in the history of American television.
Eruzione has a different perspective on Michaels’ signature exclamation. “I thought Al’s best call, which I thought got lost in this whole thing, was ‘This impossible dream comes true,’ when we beat Finland,” Eruzione said. “Because it was an impossible dream.”
“And I think still that message of what makes this country so great is that underdogs could accomplish anything,” Eruzione said. “And can still accomplish it.”
America needs an event that brings the country together, like the USA victory over the USSR, now more than ever. Instead, as an ominous sign of the times, the biggest story in sports today is the Houston Astros cheating to win the 2017 World Series title. But if you believe in miracles, or the impossible dream, maybe it can happen.