Remembering The Miracle On Ice

Friday, Feb. 22, 1980. At 4 p.m. a scalper in front of the Country Kitchen restaurant on the main street in tiny Lake Placid, N.Y., held up two tickets.

``U.S.-Russia!'' he cried. ``This is the one you've been waiting for. How much is it worth to you? C'mon, c'mon.''

Hundreds of people choked the sidewalk. One of the spectators stepped forward and said, ``$150 apiece.''

The scalper shook his head and said, ``Nope. Not good enough.'' The spectator shrugged his shoulders and turned away, unaware of the ``Miracle on Ice'' about to unfold in this little corner of the world.

At 4:15, I walked across the street to the Olympic Arena, a spider-legged building that looked as if it would leap into the air at any moment.

The snow scrunched under my feet. For those not accustomed to the tundra climate of upstate New York, walking could be a complicated chore. We were dressed in several layers of clothing and large boots we called ``moon shoes.'' We didn't walk, we waddled.

I showed my ticket ($67.20 if I had paid for it) to an usher and looked for my seat: Section 21, Row N, Seat 7. Also looking for their seats were the Soviet gold medal pairs skaters, Irina Rodnina and Alexandr Zaitsev. They were wearing long Siberian fur coats. Belligerent American spectators, recognizing the two, taunted them by yelling, ``Get out of Kabul!'' The Soviets ignored the shouts.

Down in the U.S. locker room, one wall was covered with telegrams wishing the team luck. Herb Brooks, the U.S. coach, was reading from a crumpled piece of yellow paper: ``You were meant for this moment. You were meant to be here. So let's have poise and possession of ourselves.''

The day before the game, I had spotted U.S. goalie Jim Craig near the security gate to the Olympic Village - the athletes' living quarters - waiting for a ride into Lake Placid. We talked.

``Maybe it's history in the making,'' he said, kicking at the snow. ``We might all be making history. You never know. When I watched them play Canada (two days earlier), I found myself rooting for the Russians. If anyone is going to beat them, I want it to be us.''

This was not just one more Olympic hockey game. Given the tenuous world political climate at the time - American hostages in Iran, the Soviet intervention in Afghanistan, a threatened boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympic Games in Moscow by President Jimmy Carter - it was us against them. It was World War III on skates. The daily reports from Iran were disheartening. All of the United States desperately needed a lift.

At 5 o'clock, the Soviet team skated onto the ice. It was a team considered so superior that kings and queens and all of the National Hockey League could do no more than bounce off its armor.

They were 20 Merited Masters of Sport from the Motherland who had crushed the U.S. squad 10-3 in an exhibition game 13 days earlier at Madison Square Garden in New York.

The Soviet hockey system was a machine, grinding the opposition into ice chips with five Olympic gold medals, 16 world titles and 19 European championships. Six of the Soviets were playing in their third Olympics. Several were in their mid-30s.

Brooks took 20 American kids who came from such places as White Bear Lake, Minn., and St. Claire Shores, Mich., and made them into a team. They were the kids next door. They were the underdogs, seeded seventh among the 12 Olympic teams. They were Huck Finn. They were altar boys. They stayed out all night at the senior prom. They were America.

Brooks psychologically manipulated them. He questioned their pride. He pushed, prodded, insulted. They questioned his militaristic approach. He wasn't always popular with them. Behind his back they poked fun at his Brooksisms:

-- ``Passes come from the heart and not the stick.''

-- ``You've got a nickel brain and a million-dollar pair of legs.''

-- ``You looked like a bunch of monkeys kicking a football.''

They came along to Lake Placid for the ride. They didn't know how good they were. Who did?

They tied Sweden, beat Romania, West Germany, Czechoslovakia, Norway. The victories kept coming. It was after the victory over the Czechs, a longtime world power, they sensed that the ride they were on was picking up speed. They heard Brooks tell them, ``You reload, spit in the tiger's eye and then you shoot him.''

The players nicknamed Brooks' merciless wind sprints - from red line to red line and back again - ``Herbies.'' But in the seven Olympic games they played they outscored their opponents by 16-3 in the third period.

Dave Silk was one of four U.S. players from Boston University. Thirteen were from Minnesota.

``We didn't know what it would be like with all those Minnesota guys,'' Silk said. ``We thought the coach (Brooks is a Minnesota native) was a creep and then we found out the Minnesota guys thought so, too.''

Eight sets of parents of the U.S. players were crammed into a rented house close to the arena. They called it Hostage House. There were two bathrooms for 16 people, and one was out of commission for a while.

``My mom was in a room with seven other women. The bathroom was a fire drill,'' said Mike Eruzione, whose name would become a household word.

With 10 minutes left in the third period, Eruzione blasted a 20-foot wrist shot past Soviet goalie Vladimir Myshkin to put the United States ahead 4-3.

The tension of the final moments was incredible. The U.S. team played keepaway while the Soviets frantically tried to storm Craig.

``Every second seemed like an hour,'' said USA's John Harrington.

The Soviets began changing lines every 45 seconds in an attempt to wear down the U.S. players. It was a foolhardy ploy. Herbies, remember?

Everyone was watching the clock. Over the public address system came the announcement: ``Two minutes to play.''

The crowd was alternately chanting ``USA!'' and peeking at the clock.

-- Forty-eight seconds to go. Vladimir Petrov misses the net.

-- Thirty-eight seconds remaining. Petrov misses again. The crowd is screaming.

-- Twenty-seven seconds left. Valari Kharlamov's shot flies wide past Craig. American flags are waving. Craig, hunkered like a cat, is saying to himself, ``Make them earn it.''

The crowd begins to count the seconds: ``Four, three, two, one ... ''

It's over. The United States has done the unthinkable. The United States has beaten the mighty Soviets 4-3. In the ABC-TV booth, broadcaster Al Michaels asks: ``Do you believe in miracles? Yes!''

The arena was shaking to screams of ``USA!'' Amid the din, U.S. players threw their sticks in jubilation, danced with each other on the toes of their skates and then fell on the ice in a heap. There was pandemonium.

At center ice, the Soviets stood in disbelief, chins resting on their sticks, watching the Americans exult. They had not lost a game in Olympic competition since 1968, when the Czechs beat them by a goal in Grenoble, France. That summer the Soviets invaded Czechoslovakia.

Finally, the U.S. players moved to their locker room and did what any red-blooded American boys would do.

They sang ``God Bless America.''

Proudly. In full voice, until they forgot some of the words and had to hum parts of it.

Later, Craig said: ``Fate. That's all I can say.''

Outside the arena, the scene was unforgettable. It was Times Square on New Year's Eve. It was Mardi Gras. People were running for the arena. State troopers were crying. People were singing and dancing. They were climbing on cars and buses and shouting ``USA!'' and waving small American flags. Everywhere, the flags.

Fifteen minutes after the game ended, the dark skies over Lake Placid were ablaze with fireworks. They were the finishing touches to the award ceremony at Mirror Lake for the medal winners earlier that day.

The timing was chilling. It made you wonder if this night of nights wasn't destiny. In the 1960 Winter Games, when the United States won its only other gold medal in hockey, it had to defeat the Soviets on U.S. soil to do it. Bill Christian knocked in the winning goal in a shocking upset that came to be known as he Miracle of Squaw Valley. Christian was in Lake Placid to see history repeated - this time with his son, Dave, on the U.S. team.

Craig put his arms around his father and said, ``I wish mom could have been here.'' His mother died two years earlier, when he was a freshman at Boston University.

We heard stories of how drivers had pulled to the side of the road and honked their horns when the 4-3 score was announced on car radios. An American ship, a sentry vessel in the Atlantic, had flashed the score to a Soviet sub. Strangers danced with each other. A basketball game in Kansas City was interrupted and spectators sang ``The Star-Spangled Banner.''

Eruzione knew why the win caused such hysteria. ``We aren't pros. We aren't rich. We put on our hard hats, we pick up our lunch pails and we go to work. I can see how America might be loving us. We were nobodies and now we're somebodies.''

A telegram arrived for the U.S. team. It said: ``Congratulations for kicking the Soviet butts. What's your secret? The Afghan Rebels.''

Tass, the Soviet news agency, reported from Moscow that ``Carter ordered the Americans to win.''

At 11 a.m. Sunday, the United States met Finland for the gold medal. The Americans broke through a stubborn Finnish defense with a three-goal barrage in the third period - Herbies, remember? - for a 4-2 victory wrapped in red, white and blue. And, of course, gold.

They made all of America forget the frustrations of Iran and Afghanistan.

Brooks said after the gold-medal game: ``As the years go by, remember these people. They are deserving of so much in view of their age and the things they accomplished. I love this team.''

Ten years later, we do remember. It was a gift they gave to each of us, an Olympic moment. A Miracle on Ice.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)