I remember where Ann and I were exactly 22 years ago today, February 22, 1980. It’s one of the most memorable days of my life. But then, most Americans remember that day: the Miracle on Ice day when the seventh-seeded 1980 U.S. Hockey Team (Team USA) met the mighty top seed legends from the USSR in that forever famous semifinals-round match. When they learned who won (or, if they were really patient and waited to see the tape-delayed broadcast of it), almost every American alive then can tell you where they were at that exact moment. In 1999, ESPN.com users voted it the greatest game of the century.
I know Ann and I will remember where we were. I know we’ll never forget. We were two of the 7,000 fans screaming in delirium inside the Lake Placid Olympic Arena. Ann and I were lucky to be there, to say the least. Her mother had always wanted to go to an Olympic Games. And since her Dad did not share that dream and has a legendary aversion to flying, Ann, her siblings and I got to accompany Harriet to her first-ever games. (But not her last, as she’s in Salt Lake City today and has been to many, if not most, of the winter and summer games since 1980. In other words, she has a heck of a pin collection.)
We were part of a package tour group that met up in New York City on Wednesday, the 20th, in front of a hotel in the east 50s.
There, we joined a bus full of fellow-fans, including, as we learned later, several relatives of Linda Fratianne, the American figure skater who won the silver medal 22 years ago last night. A bus took us to our motel 100 or so miles from Lake Placid.
In 1980, the Olympics were big, but not BIG by today’s standards. It was the 1988 Los Angeles summer games in which Peter Uberoff created the modern corporate-sponsored mega-event. Lake Placid was a one-stop-light village much smaller than even Park City, Utah. I’m sure there was commercialism everywhere, but the only corporate presence I can recall is a guy handing out free cans of Copenhagen smokeless tobacco. I passed on the offer.
On Thursday morning, we took a two-hour bus ride to the mountain where the men’s slalom was being run. The course was near the top of the mountain, and unfortunately, the line waiting for the ski lift up to the course was backed up a half mile or so. So Ann and I joined others in a hike up the mountain. Now this was before I had taken up skiing and had I known what I know now about ski apparel and such, I would have avoided the next hour and a half of unforgettable pain and agony. Without going into detail, let me just say, if you’re from Tennessee and just wearing bluejeans and hunting boots, don’t go hiking up a mountain in three feet of snow.
We made it to the top of the mountain in time to see Phil Mahre win a silver medal. At least we were told that speck sking down the course a few hundred yards away was Mahre. Ann and I were more thrilled with the small heated building we found in which we could regain some feeling in our hands and feet. I don’t recall how we got back down the mountain, but I’m sure it involved some more frost bite.
While the details of the rest of the day are still foggy, I believe they included seeing the medal ceremony in which Eric Heiden was awarded his fifth gold medal and later that evening, having a comfortably warm seat at the women’s figure skating finals. Since by then, we were close chums with the Fratiannes, we were disappointed when she didn’t make it to the top podium (obviously a victim of an eastern block judging conspiracy). I believe we attended a ski-jump event on the morning of the 22nd, but by then we were focused, like all Americans, on the hockey game that afternoon. I recall there were rumors that ABC had tried to get the IOC to change the hockey game for the later, night slot so that it could be shown in the U.S. during prime time. There would have been a riot in the streets of Lake Placid had that happened, as the tickets were not for a specific game but for a specific time-slot. In other words, our tickets were for the late afternoon semifinals game on Friday. It was sheer luck of the draw that our tickets turned out to be tickets to THE game.
Like everyone that year, Ann and I had grown more and more wrapped up in the games during its first week-and-a-half. And eventhough I did not understand off-sides or icing, I still got caught up in the Team USA mania. The often explained context of the Olympic Games that year can’t be overstated: We Americans were gripped with self-doubt and fear. We were in the midst of an oil-shortage and recession, ballooning inflation and interest rates, the Iranian hostage crisis and the invasion of Afganistan by the USSR.
Jimmy Carter was not helping things as he had declared that he would not leave Washington while the hostages were being held, a move that seemed naive at the time and even more ridiculous today. He seemed like a wimp and it made Americans fear we were all turning into wimps.
But then Team USA appeared. The new chant “USA, USA” started up that first week of the games. The guys who were later to be named Sports Illustrated sportsmen of the year were all unknown college kids at first, but then we started to learn who they were. Jim Craig, the goalie, and his relationship with his father, became overnight mythology. Mike Eruzione, the team captain, became as recognized as Michael Jackson. Coach Herb Brooks’ quote, “”Gentlemen, you don’t have enough talent to win on talent alone,” became one of the best known statements ever made.
While we were all excited as we made our way into the arena, I recall vividly that I was not at all hopeful that Team USA would win. I thought, however, that it was just exciting to think that they may win a medal and that I was going to get to watch them play the legendary Soviet team. Our seats were in the upper level of the arena, which was still nearly rink-side compared to today’s nose-bleed seats. Remember, the Lake Placid arena only holds about 7,000 spectators. As I recall, they did not have enclosed press boxes or any type of suites which meant that ABC’s hockey commentator Al Michaels (who also got famous those two weeks) was perched on a temporary stand built over some seats about 15 yards from where we were sitting. I could look over and see him screaming.
Ann and I screamed our heads off as Team USA stayed close to the Soviets, never taking the lead, but never being out of reach. Then, with ten minutes left in the third period, Mike Eruzione scored a goal to put us ahead 4-3. Ten minutes. Ten of the longest minutes of my life. Ten minutes in super slow motion. Screaming and jumping and screaming, I still felt it could not be possible for the U.S. to win. Surely, those communist supermen would find a way to score in the final moments.
But they didn’t.
The fans all sat there in shock. Screaming, but in shock. We didn’t know what to do. We didn’t want to leave the arena, but soon the celebration poured out onto the main street of Lake Placid. I couldn’t talk for 24 hours.
The victory did not insure the gold medal for the USA. A 4-2 victory on Sunday against Finland nailed that. We were watching that game on a television a few blocks away when Jim McKay announced that anyone who was in Lake Placid could come to the arena for the awards ceremony. We took him up on his offer and went back to the arena where we screamed our heads off once more.