30 Miraculous Years

Some people mark time by wedding anniversaries or children’s
birthdays. Others tend to note how long it’s been since some one graduated or
since someone died. My increment is a bit different. Every year, when February
rolls around, I raise a toast to the moment in time known as the Miracle on
Ice.

It’ll be 30 years this week since they took Coach Herb
Brooks’ words seriously and realized each of them was “born to be a player” and
was meant to be there that night in 1980. They took a one-goal deficit into the
third period against the greatest hockey team ever assembled and managed to
poke not one, but two goals past Vladimir Myshkin. In defeating the Soviet
Union (Russians, Communists, whatever), 4-3 en route to the gold medal, they
provided a flagging country with a lift that could never be equaled.

For me, they solidified an understanding that nothing is
impossible.

If you watch the game in replay (oddly enough, the way we
all saw it at the time; ABC couldn’t get the 5:30 start time moved up to 8
eastern, so decided to tape delay the broadcast.), it’s a game that still can
make you tense. The game was played almost entirely in the American zone, so
much so, the ice almost looked different on the opposite ends of rink. The
Americans mustered only 16 shots on goal that night, compared with 39 by the
Russians. Goalie Jim Craig turned away 36 of those, in what would be his
signature performance.

After Mike Eruzione’s 25-foot blast that gave the Americans
the lead, the tension got even worse. Craig noted years later that he wished
they hadn’t scored so early in the period. “It’s like banging a bees’ nest,” he
explained. “All we’re going to do is piss them off.” Sure enough, the Russians
pummeled Craig immediately with multiple shots, including one that clinked off
the post and a second on a wide-open net that Alexander Maltsev couldn’t quite
cash in.

By the time that the game had closed in on two minutes to
play, the crowd was on its feet and the roar was deafening. In completing his
movie “Miracle,” director Gavin O’Connor tried to blend Al Michaels’ original
“Do you believe in miracles?” call with the dialogue he’d written for the film.
It was exceptionally difficult, not because Michaels had aged so much, but
rather because the roar of the crowd was almost overriding the original audio.
The celebration that followed as the clock hit 0:00 was one of those moments captured
and replayed for all eternity. Pure joy, spilling out of every pore of everyone
who desperately needed that team to do what it did.

Years later, I still can’t watch, read or think about
something Miracle-related without tearing up. It’s one of those things you
can’t explain, like why Mom always cried when she got a beautiful card.

I’ve spent years tracking players and buying memorabilia,
and I’ve never regretted it once. One year, Dad and I went to Vegas for a
gambling junket and happened across a sports card place. The guy said he had
everything, so I asked if he had the 1980-81 Topps hockey set. “I already sold
the Gretzky rookie,” he explained, like he knew what I was after. I didn’t care
about that. I wanted the six guys who were MOI guys. That year, the set flagged
Jim Craig, Mark Johnson, Neal Broten, Dave Christian, Robbie McClanahan and Ken
Morrow with USA logos. Couldn’t pass that up.

When I finished my time at the student newspaper, Athenae
got me the best present ever: A 16 x 20, hand numbered, autographed image of
the moment the team realized it won. Every player and the coach touched that
photo as they signed their names. It’s one of those things that if the house
catches fire, I’m running in to save first.

My passion is one of those things that could be problematic
if the people who are the object of my affection weren’t so understanding. What’s
nice about this is that most of the guys on that team understand and at the
very least tolerate our national obsession with them. It always pained me when
I saw athletes or singers or actors who had one fantastic moment and grew to
resent it. I could understand it, but it was sad because so many of us would be
willing to do anything to have that singular moment in time in which we meant
so much to so many people.

I got to meet the Magic Man, Mark Johnson, who pocketed two
goals in that win. Athenae and I ended up at a Team Cheerios breakfast with him
about 15 years ago and not only did he willingly don the ugly jersey they’d
brought for him, but he posed for pictures and signed autographs. I sent him a
copy of the 8 x 10 we took together, along with a letter thanking him for all
he did for us, both that day and the spiritual sense. He sent it back with a
personalized autograph a few weeks later.

We also met Bob Suter, the hard-nosed defenseman who once
spent 50 minutes of a 60 minute game in the penalty box, according to John
Powers’ epic “One Goal.” Suter was willing to sign a puck for each of us when
we stopped by his hockey shop. He was also willing to put aside a couple
tickets for us at a charity game in Buffalo later that year. A friend of mine
called in a favor and Suter was happy to oblige. He was a fantastically nice
guy but he still had the look on his face of a guy who would be happy to run
your ass over if it meant winning the game. In fact, that night in a “no
checking” game, Suter followed an elderly opponent into the corner and flattened
the guy. When we met him later and asked him about it, he just grinned.

Over the summer, I got a chance to meet the man Bill Simmons
once called “America’s houseguest.” Mike Eruzione took to the links at a
charity golf event near where my folks live, so we trekked out to the 14th hole
and waited for him to come by. Eruzione, of all people, gets the fact that he’s
been blessed. He often heard from his friends that if the puck he chased down to
score that winning goal had been “3 more inches to right, you’d be painting
bridges.” Instead, he plays golf, serves as a good-will ambassador for hockey
and works out of his alma mater’s sports department at Boston University.

In person, he was as nice as I had always imagined him.
Charming, funny, personable and wiling to accommodate everyone who wanted to
relive that moment in time.

The guy signed something for me, something for Athenae and
almost anything else we presented. He was happy to do it and kept looking
around for more people to shake hands with or take pictures with. I honestly
believe that if a flasher had come rushing out of the woods and opened his
trench coat in front of him, Eruzione would have grabbed the guy by the dick,
pulled out a Sharpie and asked, “So, who do I make this out to?”

And in my mind, that’s what makes him great.

These guys will be forever trapped in my mind as college
kids, average age of 21 and trying to accomplish the impossible. They’re in
their late 40s and early 50s now and I’m no spring chicken either. We grew up
together in a way, like a motivating older brother and a younger one, drawing
inspiration from that sibling. Now, their kids are probably older than they
were when they took to the ice all those Februarys ago.

And yet, they remain a symbol of what can be done when you
are too tough, too prepared, too optimistic, too persistent and too naïve to
believe that failure is an option.

For that reason, and many others, they endure as the Boys of
Winter.

16 thoughts on “30 Miraculous Years

  1. Dan says:

    Great post Doc. One thing that gets overshadowed by the drama of that final period is the throwaway goal the US scored at the end of the 2nd. The Soviets let down their guard thinking nothing else would happen, but Mark Johnson gave them an unbelievable lift going into the last 20 minutes.Enjoy:

    The Soviets will have nightmares about this game for a long time, particularly about Johnson’s goals.
    His first, tying the score at 2-2, came as a result of sheer hustle, and just in time, as well. The clock was winding down when Dave Christian took a long line that Tretiak kicked out with his pad.
    But Johnson never gave up. He streaked through the two defenders, and slammed in a point-blank shot. Officials huddled for 30 seconds before the goal was allowed and the Soviets put in a mild protest that it had not been scored in time.
    But afterwards, the Soviet assistant, Vladimir Urzinov, said at a press conference, it was a correct goal.”

  2. Sandman says:

    I concur with Dan–excellent post, Doc. I was 11 years old in Feb. 1980. I watched “Nightline” report on the Iranian hostages and believed my parents when they told me Jimmy Carter was a terrible president. I lived in fear of the Soviet Union and their arsenal of nuclear destruction, and I believed that Ronald Reagan would make America great again. In a few years, none of these things would ever be true again for me except for the joy of the Miracle on Ice.

  3. Robert Earle says:

    It was a very Wisconsin-centric (or even Madison-centric) Olympics in 1980.
    The US won six golds – five by Madison’s Eric Heiden, along with the Mark Johnson hockey team. They won four silvers, two of the four in speed skating by Leah Poulos-Mueller, who while being from suburban Chicago, was married to Madison speed skater Peter Mueller. And two bronze, one by Eric’s sister Beth Heiden, also in speed skating.
    So, 12 medals total, nine of them having a Madison connection.
    (In the weeks leading up to Lake Placid, there were reports that the speed skating track/facility might not be ready in time. The backup plan was to have held the speed skating events in West Allis. Then it *really* would have been a Wisconsin Olympics.)

  4. Athenae says:

    We were THE biggest sports dorks on the planet that day, with the Cheerios.
    You know what I love about that story, what I’ve loved about it since you first told it to me on the phone in college? Those kids weren’t bigger and they weren’t faster and they weren’t even objectively better. That Russian team was INSANE. But Herb Brooks beat the living shit out of them in practice every single day for weeks. For weeks he did this.
    Because the only way to win when your opponent is bigger and stronger and faster is to be able to take more punishment than that fucker can and keep on going.
    A.

  5. Doc says:

    Robert-
    Don’t forget Bobby Suter, who was on the hockey team and was a Badger and still lives in Madison. That olympics ruled…

  6. Marc says:

    Wasn’t Peter Mueller from Mequon, WI? [I grew up next door in Cedarburg and I swear they named a skating rink (aka frozen pond in a park off of Hwy 57) after him.]
    Either way – still very Wisconsin-y.

  7. Marc says:

    Sorry, in my nit-picking I forgot to say Great Post!! Thank you.

  8. pansypoo says:

    i do miss jim mckay.

  9. Robert Earle says:

    Marc –
    Wikipedia says Peter Mueller was born in Madison. Early childhood in Madison. Moved to Mequon at some point.

  10. Kalkaino says:

    Sorry to be Grinchish, but I recalling hearing fairly plausible speculation that the Russians had been ordered to tank the match (but make it look good) so as to stoke American fervor for things Olympic, and thus to preclude our boycott of the Moscow Summer Games. It didn’t work, of course.
    It’s possible our boys beat them fair and square, but it has always seemed a little too storybook for me.

  11. Swoosh says:

    A documentary on this a few years ago included a player saying if they’d played 100 games, the Russians would have won 99.

  12. Doc says:

    Kal-
    The boycott had already been announced in Jan. 1980 and there was no indication that we’d be going back on that. Conspiracy theory also said this was about the exporting of wheat to Russia.
    I tend to chalk most of that up to latter-day “birthers” crap.
    Doc

  13. pansypoo says:

    i was too young to really hate the soviets.

  14. Robert Earle says:

    “…but I recalling hearing fairly plausible speculation that the Russians had been ordered to tank the match…”
    Do you know how ridiculous that is? How hard it would be to actually do, convincingly?
    They “tanked” the game by outshooting the US 39 to 16, because they knew Jim Craig would be able to stop all those shots? Tretiak stopped the shot at the end of the period, but gave up the rebound, knowing that Johnson would be able to get it past him a fraction of a second *before* the end of the period, and not a fraction after the end? Taking a 3-2 lead in the 2nd period will allowing the US only *two* shots on goal the entire period was part of the “tanking” plan?
    Wow. The Russians really were the best hockey players ever; to be able to do all that, right on cue, and fool us all!

  15. Linkmeister says:

    Fromthe current issue of Sports Illustrated:

    Two things about that call you may not know. One, Michaels says that if he had thought of that line beforehand, he would not have said it. The line just came out—the nine-year-old inside him shouted it. That’s what made it great. Two, Michaels stayed around afterward to call the Finland-Sweden hockey game. And so while the whole country was riveted by the game (which was shown by ABC on tape delay), Michaels was working hard to keep all the Erikssons straight on the Swedish team. When he left the arena, he saw people waving flags and going mad. At the hotel someone came up to him and said, “Wow, that was incredible what you said.”
    And Michaels, for a second, thought, What did I say?

  16. The Other Sarah says:

    Doc:
    Right on.
    Down with birthers and their CT BS.
    I blame Fox for this — Jack Bauer’s writers cannot let anything not be a conspiracy.

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