This post is written by Mr. P.
“…11 seconds, you've got 10 seconds, the countdown going on right now! Morrow, up to Silk. Five seconds left in the game. Do you believe in miracles?! YES!”
Perhaps the most famous TV sports words in history were screamed out by Al Michael’s, ABC TV’s ice hockey play-by-play man, during the closing seconds of the USA-USSR hockey game in the semi-final round of the 1980 winter Olympics at Lake Placid, NY. Remarkably, this was only his 2nd first being a game between the USSR and Czechoslovakia in the ’72 Winter games in Sapporo, Japan. He got the assignment because he was the only person on ABC’s staff that had ever called a game before! And after the USA-USSR game, he remained in the booth to call the Sweden-Finland semi-final game shortly thereafter just as my wife Shelly and I remained in the arena to watch that game. More on that in a bit…
It only seems fitting that on the eve of tomorrow’s (Saturday) ice hockey game between Russia and the USA that I share with you what it was like to be in Lake Placid for the Olympics that year, and especially the memories of that last weekend of ice hockey. We spent the final week of competition in Lake Placid and came back with memories forever imbedded in our hearts and souls. There were so many amazing performances that year and it wasn’t just from the ice hockey Gold medal.
Eric Heiden of the USA won an unprecedented 5 Golds in speed skating and despite his sudden thrust to fame, could not get a ticket for the USA-Russian game. He ended up in the arena standing behind the announcers on a small platform in the corner of the rink. Sweden’s Ingemar Stenmark was the men’s alpine skiing icon with two golds and Hanni Wenzel took two golds and a silver in women’s alpine skiing for her country, Liechenstein. It seemed as if each day brought us a new record performance or brilliant comeback and the village had a certain buzz about it that is reserved only for events that are truly special.
The first thing we noticed upon our arrival to the little village was the colors! It was rainbow of red, blue, white, yellow, green, and black parkas, sweaters, and ski jackets as far as the eye could see. What was pretty cool was that in 1980, we did not have security threats like today and the athletes mingled with the fans as if one. Every place you went to eat or have a drink, you might end up sitting next to some Swedish hockey players or Norwegian skiers, both male and female. Many of the athletes stayed for the duration of the Olympics rather than to return home after their event and many of these same athletes partied hard taking the spirit of the Games to new levels! There was multi-language singing, dancing, and laughter into the late evening every night. Strangers walked arm–in-arm sharing world class camaraderie and the feeling of joy enveloped the town for two full weeks!
We had purchased our tickets 6 months in advance on the day they went on sale. I was familiar with the USA men’s ice hockey program and roster and felt that they had a chance to be in the Final 4, and that if they held up their end, they would meet the almighty USSR team in a semi-final game on Friday night. Our tickets arrived to us in the mail and we had seats for the Friday night, 830pm game, 10 rows up from the ice near center ice. Pretty close to perfect seating!
The Russians blew through their competition to easily reach the Final 4. When the USA team tied Sweden in the last minute of their first game, then beat the Czechs, things were looking very promising for the USA to hold up their end. In 1980, there were no Russian players in the NHL. Their top 20 players played for their national team and their Stanley Cup was the World Championships held every spring. Every fourth year, they got to flex their muscle in the Olympics as well. With a roster stacked with future Hockey Hall of Famers including the best goalie in the world, Vladislav Tretiak, the Russians appeared unbeatable.
In fact, the week before the Games, they played Team USA in NYC and hammered them 10-3. Nobody gave us a chance including probably our own players, as our team was comprised mostly of recent college grads or college kids with no pro experience and an average age of 21. When we finally beat West Germany 4-2 in the last preliminary round game, we clinched a spot in the Final 4 vs. USSR. Game on!
Shelly and I were thrilled to be holding a pair of center ice tickets for this game. People were getting up to $1000 a seat on the street for a ticket. But then we were thrown for a loop…it turns out the 8:30pm game was going to be the Sweden-Finland semi instead of USA-USSR. American politicians pleaded with the Russians to swap times with Sweden-Finland so it could be broadcasted in “prime time” here in the US, but the Russians were not our best friends back then and refused. It was to be played at 5:30pm…arrrggghhh….fortunately, I had a cousin who worked for ABC up there and he was able to get us into the arena for the game and we got to view it from the control room where the director was watching 20- something monitors from cameras inside the building right next to the ice. So we did get to watch the game live in the building.
As the game went on and we tied it at 3-3 in the 3rd period, the noise built to a deafening roar. When Mike Eruzione scored with 10 minutes to go, the anticipation and noise level was off the charts! For the game, the Russians outshot the USA 39 to 16 and it seemed as if most of those shots came in the last few minutes. Our goalie, Jim Craig, made one acrobatic save after another while our players sacrificed their bodies to block as many shots as they could get in front of.
Then finally, the “countdown” from Al Michaels and then it was over! Total bedlam throughout…hugging, kissing, jumping up and down at once, 8500 people, less the Russians in attendance, went berserk! Everyone spilled into the streets of the village and the chant “USA, USA” echoed through the cold, dark evening air for hours and hours. It seemed to electrify an already electric scene and the clubs and restaurants quickly filled with ecstatic revelers. Shelly and I remained behind to watch Sweden tie Finland in a dull 3-3 game, at least dull compared to the game we had just witnessed. We did join the celebration after our game was over .
On Sunday morning, with Shelly and I sitting along the ice behind the goal, we watched Team USA come from behind to defeat Finland for the Gold medal 4-2. It was a dream tourney if there ever was one!
Here’s a few interesting tidbits about that USA-Russian game:
- Perhaps the biggest coaching mistake in hockey history was when the Russian coach yanked Tretiak with 1 second to go in the first period and replaced him with his backup, Vladimir Myshkin, after Tretiak gave up a soft goal. The USA kids were intimidated by Tretiak and this gave our kids the boost needed to help them get over the top. Tretiak did not return to the game after he was pulled.
- The game was broadcasted on tape delay to the USA at 8pm. Most people thought they were seeing it live and had no idea it had already been played.
- Most people underestimated our team, but virtually all of them played in the NHL after the Games. A few were all stars with long careers, so this was not just a bunch of kids thrown together for two weeks of hockey.
- The Russian team was the equivalent of an NHL all star squad that averaged in their late 20s, the primes of their careers.
- The USA team did not play a North American style of play, but instead, adapted the wide open Euro style with some body checking tossed in. Coach Herb Brooks trained our kids to be able to outskate any team in the third period and it was that strategy that won it for us.
- Ken Morrow, one of our defensemen , went from Team USA after the Olympics to the NY Islanders of the NHL, where he won the Stanley Cup 3 months later. What a year for that kid!