40 years ago today, long before Stefon Diggs galloped across the goal line to beat the Saints in the playoffs, I watched a Miracle play out on my television set from cold and frigid northern Minnesota. Even 40 years later, it’s hard to put into words the build up and emotion the ‘Miracle On Ice’ game means to me, and to all Americans who saw it at the time.
But I want to try.
It’s damn near impossible to convey what this meant for the country in the immediate aftermath. If you were alive back then, you know exactly what I’m talking about. And it’s just as difficult to convey the collective depression we felt as a nation as well in the weeks and months leading up to that game. If you were alive, once again you probably understand exactly what I mean.
I understood the geo-political stuff on the periphery, but for me, a 12 year old kid living in East Grand Forks, this team was our team. To America, yes of course, but more so Minnesota’s team, and specifically Northern Minnesota. These were a bunch of mostly Minnesota kids, from places like Warroad, Roseau, Virginia, Evelyth, Richfield, and Duluth, coached by the guy that coached the Gophers.
Some of these players came from towns that that were just a small dot on a map to most people, but some of these towns were a who’s who of the old Minnesota High School Hockey, Section 8. Places like Warroad and Roseau were powerhouses that were always big players in the Minnesota State High School hockey tournament. But come on, man, although they were talented players from strong Minnesota high school and college hockey programs, they were playing the Russians.
The USSR Men’s Hockey Team A was the most professional, powerful and methodical hockey team the world may have ever known. Because the USSR was a communist country, and we were still locked in the Cold War with them, none of them were able to come play in the NHL, at least in 1980. They had won four straight gold medals in the Olympics, seven of the last 10 world championship gold medals, and had they been allowed to compete as a team in the NHL, they would have been a favorite to win the Stanley Cup.
These two teams were the USSR and the USA personified at the time: merciless powerhouse that would seemingly destroy anything in their path against a bunch of free wheeling amateurs that had no business competing with them anywhere, sports or otherwise.
And it was going to be proven on the Lake Placid ice, once and for all.
That Olympic perception was reinforced just a few days before the games got under way. The USSR and Team USA played an exhibition in Madison Square Garden, and the Russians throttled the United States by a score of 10-3. Team USA looked outclassed, outmatched, and they were run off the ice in embarrassing fashion.
Going into the Olympics, the question wasn’t whether or not the USSR was going to win; that was a foregone conclusion. For the United States, a lot of us were thinking we might be good enough that with a little luck and Home Ice, we could maybe get a silver or bronze medal, which would be pretty neat. America hadn’t medaled in either the Olympics or World Championships, since they won the Olympic gold in 1960, and this looked to be their best chance.
Team USA was coached by Minnesota hockey legend Herb Brooks, who was the head coach at the University of Minnesota and had steered the Gophers to three NCAA championships in the 1970’s. Brooks was also the final cut from the 1960 Olympic Hockey Team, the last US team to win the gold medal prior to this team.
Up until this game, America the country had taken a series of body blows, and a lot of people felt we were going to the canvas. It was really a depressing time here, and everywhere you looked, the United States was staggering. Communism was on the march, America had been beaten down after Vietnam, Iran taunted and humiliated us on the world stage daily with the hostage crisis, Inflation was out of control, and the feeling of malaise that folks talk about was so prevalent you could almost taste it.
America, it felt, had been rendered impotent. And if given a chance in the Olympics, the USSR was going to kick dirt in our face and show the world that Communism was going to best America once again.
But then, a team comprised mostly of Minnesota kids (with a little help from Boston kids haha) beat the best damn hockey team in the world. Everyone understood the symbolism of that moment, even a 12 year old kid in East Grand Forks knew. The 1980 Miracle on Ice gave America her mojo back, and it was one of the most unifying moments this country has ever witnessed.
Hey, maybe America wasn’t on the ropes, and that maybe the Russians weren’t all that and a bag of chips. If we can beat those damn commies on the ice, we can beat them anywhere. The overnight transformation Americans held about the country was more dramatic than King Theisen’s when he was freed by Gandalf.
This was, is, and always will be the single greatest upset in US sports history and it transcended sports in a way I think no other game has in my lifetime, because yes, although it was ‘just a game’, it was so much more than a game.
A friend of mine on Twitter said it best. America will always be indebted to Minnesota for two things: The 1st Minnesota at Gettysburg, and the 1980 US Olympic Hockey Team.
He’s right on both.