SOCHI: Miracle remembered on eve of US-Russia clash - NBC Sports

SOCHI: Miracle remembered on eve of US-Russia clash
February 14, 2014, 5:00 pm

SOCHI – Thirty-four years have drifted by, and I’ll bet every month since I have thought at least once about the Miracle on Ice. 

Memories of childhood fade in and out – blurry snippets of playground games and classroom boredom, gasoline lines and Rocky movies, Happy Days sitcoms and disco on the radio – but that one Olympic hockey game, the United States against the Soviet Union in February 1980, stays sharp and colorful and so present it almost feels like I could take a step back and live it again.

We sat in our family room on an old sofa with a couple of springs peeking through, and we stared at a Magnavox 21-inch television that had perpetual static. It was a Friday night. I recall snow. My mother had gone out to play cards, so it was a boys club, with Dad and my two younger brothers sitting there. I was 13.  I knew almost nothing about the game. I knew only that we were in a cold war with the Russians – as boys we would cynically calculate how many times each country could blow up the world with nuclear weapons -- and that our U.S. hockey team had no chance to win.

Then Olympic host Jim McKay came on to introduce the game. And behind him, people were screaming, ‘U.S.A! U.SA!” I remember McKay saying that, although the game had already happened, he would not be the one to reveal the score. In retrospect, seeing all those Americans chanting and celebrating probably should have tipped us off.

Instead, I remember my Dad saying: “I wonder if they kept the score close.”

Related: Catching up with Miracle on Ice icon Mike Eruzione

The story is so familiar – at least our American version of the story. A driven man named Herb Brooks had come up with a plan to play with the invulnerable Russians. It was actually a plan to BEAT the Russians, but even Brooks was too timid to fully believe such a thing was possible. The Russians had won the previous four Olympic gold medals. And the talk was the 1980 team was the best of them all.

Brooks had famously been the last person cut from the 1960 U.S. hockey team, which in the first version of the miracle on ice, beat the Soviets and won gold in Squaw Valley. He watched that gold medal game with his father, and when it ended Herb Sr. told his son, “Well, I guess the coach cut the right guy.”

This bluntness, bordering on cruelty, infused the son. Herb Brooks Jr. was obsessed with an idea: Americans playing the Russian style of hockey, beautiful, fast and loose, brisk passes, lots of possession time, five attackers moving as one. The style didn’t come naturally to him; Brooks had won three national championships at Minnesota while coaching exactly the opposite style (physical hockey, lots of dumping of the puck and chasing after it). But he was convinced the only way to play with the Soviets was to play their game.

He handpicked a team of fast and skilled young players he believed could adapt. And he drove them relentlessly. He had this drill everyone called “Herbies,” a back-and-forth skating nightmare that left even the best-conditioned players vomiting. The long training camp was a never-ending series of Herbies. One night, after a bad loss, they skated Herbies even after the arena had shut out the lights. And mind games. And threats. And insults. Behind his back, they called him “Ayatollah Khomeini.”

Put it this way: A few weeks before the Olympics he called in his captain and future American sports hero Mike Eruzione and threatened to cut him.

“Did you believe him?” I asked Eruzione.

“Sure I believed him,” Eruzione said. “We were more scared of him than the Soviets.”

Those intense feelings, for some, did not fade until Brooks died in a car accident in 2003. One year earlier, Brooks did not join the team for the Olympic torch-lighting ceremony in Salt Lake City. He said that he was invited, but he didn’t think it was right to go. “One of them might push me in,” he said, and it wasn’t entirely clear that he was joking.

 The first time the U.S. played the Russians in 1980 – 13 days before the Miracle – they lost 10-3 in Madison Square Garden. It was such an insane mismatch that the actual Olympic game seemed pointless.

Al Michaels was in Lake Placid already to call the Olympics for ABC, but he called that game off a television feed to practice. “All I can tell you is that it was a joke,” he says. “The score was 10-3; it looked like 20-0. That score doesn’t do justice to the game. … I think we all believed the Americans were better than that. But the Soviets were SO good.”

Then, maybe that game was where the magic began. Brooks hinted through the years that the Madison Square Garden game was a bit of a setup, that he did not unleash the open style that they had been working on, and that he did not bother trying to settle down his team when they began to panic.

“Have fun,” he had told his team before the game according to Wayne Coffey’s fantastic book The Boys of Winter, and no player could ever remember Brooks using the word “fun” at any other time.

Whether purposeful or not the blowout did two things:

  • It freed the U.S. team to play with abandon in the Olympic game. There is nothing quite like the freedom that goes with having no chance.
  • It made the Soviets wildly overconfident.

The game itself played out like a dream. There were 8,500 fans crowded into the arena in Lake Placid (including seven-time Olympic gold medalist Eric Heiden and M*A*S*H co-star Jamie Farr), many of them armed with giant American flags. It was a gloomy time in America. There were hostages in Iran, round-the-block gas lines, high inflation and an increasingly cold war with the Soviets that would lead to an American boycott of the Summer Games in Moscow.  The entire nation was ready to explode for something good.

The Soviets scored quickly, and the U.S. team tied the game. The Soviets scored again to make it 2-1 when the game’s pivotal play happened. With the first period running out, American Dave Christian hit a slap shot that the Soviet’s great goaltender Vladislav Tretiak uncharacteristically misplayed, allowing the puck to bounce in front. American Mark Johnson slipped through and slapped the puck past Tretiak for the tying goal. There was one second left on the clock.

There was a huge argument then about whether the goal should count – and lost in the argument was the most shocking move of the entire game. Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov was so angry about the goal and the way the game was going he removed the great Tretiak from the game. Almost no one noticed it until the start of the next period, when there was a buzz on the American bench.

“Oh my God,” the U.S. players whispered to each other. “They pulled Tretiak.”

It has become popular legend that the pulling of Tretiak changed the whole complexion of the game. And the players do remember feeling a jolt of confidence after it happened. But the reality is that the Soviets utterly dominated the second period, out-shooting the Americans 12-2 and controlling the game more or less for every minute. But the Soviets scored only one goal.

“The way (U.S. goaltender) Jim Craig played in that second period, to me that was the whole game,” Michaels says. “The saves he made that period, some of them were ridiculous. If he lets in even one more goal, it’s 4-2, forget it, the game’s over. But at 3-2, there’s a chance for something.”

Then came the miracle. Johnson scored the game-tying goal, and with about 10 minutes left Eruzione took a shot from the slot that beat goaltender Vladimir Myshkin to give the United States 4-3 lead. The final 10 minutes were glorious and agonizing and wonderful as the Soviets peppered away at the American goalie. One shot by Aleksandr Maltsev hit the post. The final two minutes, the Soviets fired wild shot after wild shot.

“We were panicking,” the Soviets’ young defenseman Sergei Starikov would tell Coffey.

And then, at the very end, Al Michaels made the call: “Five seconds left in the game. Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”

And the American team celebrated wildly. Jim Craig was wrapped in the American flag. The team skated around the rink in disbelief. Flags flapped so hard that the entire arena cooled. Herb Brooks went to tunnel to have his own quiet moment.

And in our little house in Cleveland – like in homes all over the country -- we all jumped around like crazy people and did believe.

OK, so that was our point of view. It obviously was different here in Russia. Here, nobody could understand how their great team – the greatest team in the world – could lose to a bunch of American college kids.

“Their team beating our team,” Tretiak would say many years later. “It truly was a miracle. Such a thing will never be repeated.”

Tretiak says that, even then, he could not help but feel admiration for the gritty American team. But he never would understand why he was pulled. “Ask the coach,” he said. Tretiak said he never talked about it with the coach, Viktor Tikhonov. Nobody talked about such things with Tikhonov.

If Herb Brooks was a fierce leader during his time as U.S. hockey coach, Tikhonov was a dictator. He controlled every aspect of Soviet hockey. He made the players live in barracks 11 months out of the year. He made them play exactly the way he wanted them to play. Many have wondered why the Soviets didn’t remove the goalie, play with an empty net and try to attack 6-on-5 in the final seconds of the game. The answer was simple. Tikhonov didn’t play with an empty net.

To an outsider, Tikhonov was the very picture of what was behind the iron curtain. He was grim and severe-looking and seemingly humorless and unapproachable. He had been given the Soviet hockey team shortly after their won bronze at the World Championships in 1977 – the first time in 15 years they had not won gold of silver. His directive was simple: Fix this.

And Tikhonov did fix it the same way Vince Lombardi built the Green Bay Packers and the same way Bill Belichick built the New England Patriots – that is by controlling every single aspect of Soviet hockey. The American players might have despised Brooks, but Tikhonov was such an overwhelming presence in his players’ lives that such mundane feelings as “like” and “dislike” simply didn’t apply.

“He was cold to us,” Tretiak would say. But Tikhonov – marrying the Old Russian style of speed and rhythm with a certain conservatism he carried naturally – built an almost invincible force. At the 1979 World Championships, the Russians beat Czechoslovakia 11-1, then beat Canada 9-2, they crushed Czechoslovakia again 6-1 to win the gold. The 1980 Olympics looked like they would be easy.

Tikhonov was actually ill during those Olympics, though he would never say a word about it. He would come to regret two things. One, he would regret that he could never quite wake up his team after their 10-3 victory over the United States just before the Olympics.  He told them again and again not to be overconfident, not to take the Americans lightly, not to put too much stock in that game. But he could see that his words weren’t sinking in.  “The players told me it would be no problem,” Tikhonov told Coffey. “It turned out to be a very big problem.”

In truth, even he might have been overconfident, which led to his pulling of Tretiak. He was so angry after the goal right at the end of the period that, he said, he let his emotions get the best of him. Anyway LOSING the game never occurred to him. He pulled Tretiak to send a message to his team but he did not think it would matter in the result. “My blood was boiling,” he would say. “It was my worst mistake. It was my biggest regret.”

The rest of the game played out like a bad dream for the Soviets. They would rather not remember. In 2002, when Vlacheslav Fetisov coached the Russian team, we asked him what he remembered from that game. “I don’t remember,” he said. “That was many concussions ago.”

And Tikhonov would say he never saw the game on film. “I saw it once,” he said. “That was enough.”

* * *

Michaels had no idea how big his “Do you believe in miracles” call had become. This is because – and not many people know this – he stayed around after the call to announce the Finland-Sweden hockey game. He says that he and color commentator Ken Dryden did not even have time to talk about the game before having to focus on the next one. When he left the arena, he walked to the hotel and the street was still buzzing. But he still had no idea.

“I remember somebody came up to me in the hotel later and said, ‘that was so great what you said at the end,’” Michaels says. “And I remember thinking, ‘What did I say?’

For weeks and months after the game, Michaels said he would get letters from people. The letters weren’t only about the call. Many of them were heartfelt, tear-stained; people talked about how for the first time in so many years they were proud to be Americans. After a while, Michaels wondered why people kept sending HIM those letters.

And then it occurred to him: He was the one with an address. After the Miracle game, after the U.S. won the gold medal, the team broke apart. Some went to play in the NHL. Some went back to college. Some went to work. There was no more 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, no organization to how much it meant.

So people wrote instead to Michaels, care of ABC on Sixth Avenue.

“I still have many of those letters,” he says. “They were so heartfelt. I’ve often said, that team made it cool to be patriotic.”

* * *

So the United States and Russia play again Saturday, and it has nothing at all to do with 1980. There is no Soviet Union. There is no cold war. Everyone is a professional. The Russian team features Alex Ovechkin, who in his real life is the biggest sports star in Washington.

But it’s still USA-Russia. And there is a player on the Russian team named Viktor Tikhonov. He’s the great coach’s grandson. He grew up in San Jose – his father Vasili was a San Jose Sharks coach – and he sounds utterly like a California guy. Young Viktor is playing for his father, who died six months ago in a horrible fall while trying to fix a broken window screen in his Moscow apartment.

Viktor says that the tragedy has brought him closer to his grandfather. He knows the reputation of Viktor Tikhonov, the ferocious coach who, after the 1980 defeat, led the Soviet Union to the gold at the next three Olympics. He says that he only knows a kindly grandfather. He says he never asked about 1980.

In fact, young Viktor Tikhonov has also never seen that game. He has refused to see the movie “Miracle” about that game.  When asked why, he shrugs. He’s a Tikhonov. The game that still fascinates America all these years later means something very different to a Tikhonov.

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski