US Ties Sweden_New York Times
Ice Hockey did make the headlines on February 13, 1980, as did so many other pressing issues of the day.

There was the “Miracle” on Ice, 40 years ago. On February 22, 1980, a squad of underdog American university students defeated what is commonly cited as the greatest hockey team of all time – the 1980 Soviet Union Team. When ABC broadcaster, Al Michaels, shouted “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” and the American team won 4-3, my household erupted with tens of millions of Americans across the country.

 

But it was the “miracle” on ice on February 12, 1980, a day before the start of the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympics, that stands in my mind as one of my biggest Olympic memories, and made Bill Baker a household name, at least in my household.

 

I was 17. At that time, my father and two younger brothers were huge New York Islanders fans and I was a New York Rangers fan. My Rangers had lost in the Stanley Cup Finals to the Montreal Canadians in 1979, and the Islanders would go on to end the Canadians 4-year championship reign to win four consecutive cups of their own from 1980. So it was natural for all of us to watch the live broadcast of Team USA’s first match against Sweden.

 

Team USA was ranked #7 of the twelve teams in the Olympic tournament, and they had Sweden (#3) and Czechoslovakia (#2) as the first two matches in their preliminary round bracket. All of America’s and Canada’s greatest hockey stars were playing games for the NHL during the Olympics, while every other national team had most or all of their country’s best players on the ice in Lake Placid.  Team USA coach Herb Brooks reportedly told his team that any chances of a medal were lost if they did not win or tie against the Swedes and Czechs.

 

We watched the ABC broadcast in our living room, although the rest of the country weren’t. The arena at Lake Placid was half filled, and the Olympics hadn’t even officially started – the opening ceremonies wouldn’t happen till the next day. But we didn’t care. We were watching, and we wanted Team USA to win.

 

What would become a trend at the 1980 Olympics, Sweden scored first when Sture Andersson scored midway through the first period. But first evidence of Team USA’s resilience emerged when Dave Silk (eventual New York Ranger) knotted the game with a nifty shot over the shoulder of Swedish goalie Per Lundqvist with only 28 seconds left in the second period….a harbinger of sorts.

 

In the third period, Team Sweden pushed ahead 2-1 when Thomas Eriksson scored early in the third period with a tap in, unchallenged in front of the American goal. Goalie, Jim Craig kept USA close with great saves as Sweden outshot USA in the third period, but despite a number of chances, the Americans remained behind 2-1 as the minutes melted away. And in the final minutes, the Swedes dominated play in the American zone.                                     

 

Finally, Team USA cleared the zone allowing Brooks to pull the goalie, Craig, to give them a one-player advantage, but leaving their own goal empty and vulnerable. The Americans got the puck into the Swedish zone, and after the puck flew into the stands stopping play, the Americans set up for a face off to the right of the Swedish goalie with only 41 seconds left. If they lose the face off, the Swedes could end up clearing the zone and flipping the puck into an empty net. But the Tomizawas in their living room had hope. Nothing but hope.

 

Mark Johnson won the face off, with the puck kicking back to Mike Ramsey, whose slap shot was blocked by a diving defender. Ramsey retrieved the puck and slid the puck to defenseman, Bill Baker, who pushed the puck into the corner. With Americans and Swedes vying for the puck behind the net, Buzz Schneider emerged with the puck and slid a gentle centering pass that Baker stepped into. With a mighty swing, Baker shot the puck between the legs of Lundqvist, with only 27 seconds left in the game.

 

For us in the living room, it was a miracle.

 

“It may be the most important point of the tournament because that one point will make a difference in their medal aspirations,” said the color commentator for Canadian broadcaster CTV at the end of the game.

Of course, the rest is history.

 

Team USA would go on to destroy Czechoslovakia two days later, and unpredictably win every game in the tournament to break USSR dominance and win their first ice hockey gold since 1960.

 

But of all those incredible games, it was the first one – the small-caps miracle on ice – that gives me goose bumps to this day.

1984-united-states-hockey-team

They met the President of the United States even before the Olympics began. Before they set foot in Sarajevo, the 1984 Men’s Ice Hockey Team were treated to festive events and meals, honored in so many towns where they played exhibitions as if they had already won the gold medal.

It’s hard for me to recall, but I suppose I and many other Americans had very high expectations for the 1984 squad. Our memories of the “Miracle on Ice”, proclaimed so emphatically by play-by-play announcer Al Michaels, were seared into our mind’s eyes. We can still today see the team throw their sticks and gear into the air, leaping into each other’s arms as the crowd (and an entire nation) exploded in unrestrained glee.

The 1980 team crept slowly into our consciousness with an amazing buzzer-beating goal to tie Sweden in their first game in Lake Placid, an amazing upset of the Soviet Union in the semi-final match, culminating in yet another come-from-behind victory for gold against Finland. This team proved that David could slay Goliath, assuming David was American. So, of course the 1984 team was destined for greatness and glory.

And the 1984 team sported a few great players, now Hall of Famers, like center Pat LaFontaine drafted by The New York Islanders, goalie Tom Barrasso drafted by the Buffalo Sabres, center Eddie Olczyk drafted by the Chicago Blackhawks, and defenseman Chris Chelios drafted by the Montreal Canadiens . They even had two players from the 1980 Miracle-on-Ice team, John Harrington and Phil Verchota.

As Bob Brooke, a forward on the 1984 team wrote for the New York Times, “We rode the crest of a media wave all year, basking in the sunshine of little boys and girls tugging at our coattails for autographs, drinking in the prospects of appearing in commercials and [on] posters.”

But the expectations were too great for the 1984 team. How could they possibly replicate the story of the 1980 team, their rise from nowhere to become a rallying cry for Americans, pained by the beatings they were getting internationally (hostage crisis in Iran) as well as domestically (an economic “malaise”).

Even their coach, Lou Vairo, a virtual unknown who had more experience with roller hockey than ice hockey, thought that equaling the 1980 team’s success would be an even bigger miracle, according to this great article by Jeff Pearlman, called “A Miracle Put on Ice“.

“How can you replicate that magic?” Vairo says. “You can’t.”

Those are not words Herb Brooks, head coach of the 1980 team, would ever have slipped from his lips.

Team Canada
Team Canada celebrate a goal during hockey action against the United States at the 1984 Winter
And yet, Brooks was not there to exhort the 1984 team to greatness. While it’s true the American team was routing the opposition in the exhibition matches leading up to the Sarajevo Games, once the Olympics began, the Team of Great Expectations faded immediately. First, they lost to Canada 4-2. Then to Czechoslovakia 4-1. And that was essentially the end of any Miracle redux. The team fought on, managing a 3-3 tie with Norway, routing Austria 7-3, before finishing weakly with a tie against Finland.

There would be no banquets. There would be no visit to the White House. Instead, there would be scorn, as Pearlman wrote:

The players were branded “disappointments,” “slackers,” and “overrated.” In a scathing piece for the Dallas Times Herald, columnist Skip Bayless wrote, “It wouldn’t have been quite so embarrassing if our kids had been half as good as their hype.” Vairo, in particular, caught most of the heat. He was in over his head. He was no Brooks. His style was too basic. He was an amateur. “I can tell you it didn’t hurt,” he says. “But it did. Of course it did. I’m human.”