1980. US Olympic Men’s Hockey Team. The Miracle on Ice. Jim Craig wrapped in the American flag, looking for his father in the crowd, tears falling on his cheeks. Al Michaels screaming, “Do you believe in miracles?! Yes!”
The late ’70s, early 1980s were the heights of the Cold War. In 1969, we’d won the space race with the first men landing on the moon. Nuclear armament was at its pinnacle until START treaties and talk of Star Wars, which while mocked was a real defense initiative against the Soviet Union.
Today they are Russia, and a half dozen or so other republics, but in the 1980s they were the USSR – the United Socialist Soviet Republic. The Iron Curtain was firmly in place.
Defections from communist countries was happening so often it became a TV trope playing itself out on television from Murder, She Wrote to Mission: Impossible, MacGuyver, The Hardy Boys/Nancy Drew Mysteries, and The West Wing. Russian spies were everywhere too, including our televisions on Scarecrow and Mrs. King, Remington Steele, Murder, She Wrote, and of course, Get Smart. It was all around us and television and pop culture reflected that.
In school, we continued to have drills in case the Russians sent their missiles to bomb us. I’m still not sure how lining up in the hallway or crowding under our desks in the classrooms were supposed to keep us from spontaneously combusting if it did happen.
We couldn’t travel to Soviet bloc countries, including Cuba, a mere 90 miles away from our border. Cubans climbed aboard dangerous boats and attempted to find a new life here. If you could reach the beach of southern Florida, you could be an American, but instead often ended up drowned or sent back.
Not to forget that at the time of the Winter Olympics, President Jimmy Carter was considering a boycott of the Summer Olympics that was to be held in Moscow later in the year. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan, and they were not happy with our threat of a boycott. [We did end up boycotting, and our teams could not go to the Summer Olympics in Moscow, including one of my high school teachers who had been training for competition.]
This was the world we lived in when the world came to the village of Lake Placid, New York for the 1980 Winter Olympic Games.
The Russian Olympians were a powerhouse. They were amateurs in the sense that they didn’t get paid in the traditional sense, but they lived better than most Russians and several were full time military. They didn’t work apart from training and they trained with state of the art equipment and in arenas, and on the world stage they were the best. At pretty much everything.
Our hockey team was a ragtag bunch of scrappy college students and true amateurs (average age 22, the youngest team up until that point) mostly led by the plain-spoken, dour looking Herb Brooks, but Herb Brooks had something else. He had sayings, motivationals that were sometimes cliche, and sometimes corny, and for a long time after 1980, I compiled a list of them that is long since lost. Luckily, Wikipedia kept track:
Brooks’ original expressions were known by his players as “Brooksisms.” According to Olympians John Harrington, Dave Silk, and Mike Eruzione, these are a few. [Herb Brooks]
“You’re playing worse and worse every day and right now you’re playing like it’s next month.”
“You can’t be common, the common man goes nowhere; you have to be uncommon.”
“Boys, I’m asking you to go to the well again.”
“You look like you have a five pound fart on your head.”
“You guys are getting bent over and they’re not using Vaseline.”
“You look like a monkey tryin’ to hump a football!”
“You’re looking for players whose name on the front of the sweater is more important than the one on the back. I look for these players to play hard, to play smart, and to represent their country.”
“Great moments are born from great opportunity.”
“You know, Willy Wonka said it best: we are the music makers, and we are the dreamers of dreams.”
“This team isn’t talented enough to win on talent alone.”
“If you lose this game you’ll take it to your grave … your fucking grave.”
“You were born to be a player. You were meant to be here. This moment is yours.”
“Write your own book instead of reading someone else’s book about success.”
“Boys, in the front of the net it’s a bloody nose alley.”
“Don’t dump the puck in. That went out with short pants.”
“Throw the puck back and weave, weave, weave. But don’t just weave for the sake of weaving.”
“Let’s be idealistic, but let’s also be practical.”
“You guys don’t want to work during the game?”
“The legs feed the wolf.”
“We walked up to the tiger, looked him straight in his eye, and spat in it.”
He pushed this team, and while they weren’t expected to do great, they were still our team.
We watched them beat one team, and then another. When they were matched up against the Soviet team, we knew it was over. We skated a good fight, but we were done. The Soviets had beaten them in exhibition a few weeks earlier by a score of 10-3.
I was huddled around my basement television, lying down on my grandmother’s half green velvet sofa, my legs hung over the single armrest, just like I’d watched baseball the summers before and after.
I know I drifted off to sleep, but woke for the final moments of the game.
Do you believe in miracles?
After this moment, we all did.
We beat the Russians! We beat the Russians!
Not they; WE.
The college trained, Herb Brooks led, no names who became household names had beat what the world called a professional amateur team, the Soviets, who lost at nothing. They had won the gold medal in hockey for six of the seven most recent Olympics. We won.
Most people forget that this game wasn’t for the gold medal. The US Hockey Team still had to go on to beat Finland in the finals, which they did, to win the Gold. But somehow, this was better than the Gold.