‘Do you believe in miracles?’ Remembering the historic ‘Miracle on Ice’ 40 years later

FILE - In this Feb. 22, 1980, file photo, the U.S. hockey team pounces on goalie Jim Craig...
FILE - In this Feb. 22, 1980, file photo, the U.S. hockey team pounces on goalie Jim Craig after a 4-3 victory against the Soviet Union in a medal round match at the the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y. The United States upset the mighty Soviets in a breathtaking moment freighted with the tension of the Cold War. After four decades, nobody is willing to stop talking about perhaps the greatest David over Goliath moment in the history of sports. (AP Photo/File)(AP)
Published: Jan. 22, 2022 at 3:06 PM CST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

ST. LOUIS, Mo. (KMOV) - As one gets older, sometimes the memory fades. Sometimes the facts get blurred with reality. And sometimes, stories get exaggerated over the years.

But I can tell you exactly, hour by hour, what I was doing 40 years ago today.

“One game. If we played ‘em ten times, they might win nine … but not this game. Not tonight.”

It was one of those rare Fridays where I actually went to class. It was my final semester before graduation in Carbondale, and even on the pass/fail platform, there were a few dicey issues which demanded my presence. But it was OK. I’d be out of class and on the road by 4 p.m., and home to Litchfield by 7 p.m., right on time to watch the puck drop.

USA vs USSR at Lake Placid.

For those of you who were not alive in 1980, it’s impossible for me to describe what was sweeping through America at that time. All I knew was, I had to be home by 7 p.m.

But even that was a decision. The game was being played at 4 p.m., but the tape wouldn’t be broadcast on television until 7 p.m. Obviously, this sounds absurd today. The game wasn’t even on radio. Oh, for the internet.

But there was a way to cheat the system. Back in the days of newsroom wire machines, KMOX was promising their listeners they would be able to deliver the score after each period.

After each period!

So, do I drive through a snow-covered two-lane highway to watch the big game, or do I give up the thrill, turn on the radio, and wait for a score every hour?

I opted for cold turkey. I would not miss this game. The radio was off.

First stop on route 127 was Murphysboro. The marquee at McDonald’s blared “GO USA” in all caps. Just what I needed. I looked at my watch. 4:15 p.m. The puck had dropped in Lake Placid.

“Tonight, we skate with them. Tonight, we stay with them. And we shut them down, because we can.”

I stopped in Pinckneyville for gas. Snow was falling now. Darkness would be setting in soon. My thoughts were on a sheet of ice a thousand miles and another world away.

This was more than a hockey game. This was the Soviet Union. They had just invaded Afghanistan in a show of power. Meanwhile, the United States had hostages being held in Iran. It felt like the world was on the precipice, with the two powers heading in opposite directions even as they drew closer to conflict. Against this backdrop, a collection of American college athletes would be thrown on the ice against the greatest hockey team in the world, the Soviet Red Army.

The Soviets began sending a national team to the Olympics in 1956. They won the gold that year, and every gold since then, except settling for a bronze in 1960.

Two weeks earlier, the teams played an exhibition game at Madison Square Garden. The Soviets won 10-3. Nobody expected this game to be any different. But nobody even expected the Americans to advance to this game. Then after an opening game tie with Sweden, the wins, nearly all of them upsets, started pouring in. Czechoslovakia and Norway. Then Romania and West Germany.

I walked in to pay for gas. A man in front of me was talking to the lady behind the counter.

“Really?” he said. “That’s not so bad.”

“Yes,” she said. “They just gave the score on the radio.”

I closed my ears, paid, and rushed out the door. What I didn’t hear was that the Soviets scored an early goal. The Americans came back to tie it with a 50 foot slapshot by Buzz Schneider, but the Soviets scored again to take a 2-1 lead.

But then incredibly, with just one second left before intermission, Mark Johnson fired a rebound past Soviet goalie Vladislav Tretiak, and the Americans had come back again, and stormed into the locker room.

The man was right. That wasn’t bad at all. In fact, that was good. Facing snow and darkness now, it was probably best that I did not know what was going on.

“Tonight, we are the greatest hockey team in the world.”

You drive through Nashville and you are struck by the community spirit. High school athletes for the Hornets have their uniform numbers showcased on poles as you wind your way down 127.  But tonight I noticed there were no numbers. They had been replaced by American flags.

As I crossed over Interstate 64 to the quiet town of Carlyle, it seemed there was more traffic than normal. Cars seemed to be everywhere. Must be a high school basketball game tonight. I drove past the high school. Nothing there. Pulled into the Dairy Queen for a milkshake. No drive thru in those days. And as soon as I got out of the car, I heard it.

“Have you heard the score,” somebody hollered across the cars.

“Yeah,” somebody hollered back. “Everybody is coming out tonight.”

They knew something I didn’t want to know. I decided against the milkshake.

“You were born to be hockey players. Every one of you. And you were meant to be here tonight.”

Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov, furious at what happened at the end of the first period, benched his goalie. The move seemed to spark his team, which dominated the Americans in the second period, but only scored one goal. The United States would go into the third period down only a goal, with a chance to stun the world.

It was pushing 6 p.m. now. Home in an hour. I knew the game was nearing an end soon.

I looked at the car radio as I pulled into Greenville. I couldn’t turn it on.

Cars were honking their horns now. I knew something was up. I could see it. I could feel it. I just couldn’t know it. The Americans had only managed two shots on the Russians since the first period. But when Mark Johnson scored on a power play midway early in the third, the game was tied, and Lake Placid was up for grabs. Close your eyes and imagine being in that crowd.

“This is your time. Their time is done. It’s over. Screw ‘em. This is your time.”

It was snowing harder now. By the time I hit Hillsboro, I knew the game was probably over. But there was no need to turn on the radio. Those cars on the street? They were everywhere now. People were everywhere. Flags were everywhere. Signs were everywhere. It was a spur of the moment event played out in cities across the country.

I couldn’t wait any longer, and jumped out of the car and started asking. Was it true? Was it even possible? It was. The United States had somehow defeated the Red Machine in what may forever remain the greatest upset in sports history.

I could have stayed and partied with my new Hillsboro friends. But I had a feeling the same scene was unfolding in Litchfield with my old friends. I jumped back in the car, and this time turned the radio on as loud as I could.

“I’m sick and tired of hearing about what a great hockey team the Soviets have. Now go out there and take it.”

There is a scene in “Miracle” where Brooks is forcing his exhausted players to keep skating the ice.

“Who do you play for” Brooks would scream to the college athletes.

They would answer with whatever college they attended.

Brooks would blow the whistle. “Skate again!”

“Who do you play for?”

They would answer their university name again.

“Skate again!”

Finally, exhausted, barely able to stand, Mike Eruzione of Boston University shouted a different answer.

“I play for the United States of America.”

Brooks got the answer he wanted.  ­­

I arrived in Litchfield just in time to cram with my friends into a bar where there was a small television in the corner. They too had spent the past hour driving through town honking their horns. It was a glorious night. As the clock neared 10 p.m., and the tape delayed the game that we all knew the outcome of neared the middle of the third period, everybody crammed as close as possible to the television. I remember thinking, “This must have been what it was like for the moon landing.”

Eruzione jumped over the boards onto the ice, and fired the shot that gave the Americans a 4-3 lead, and goalie Jim Craig stoned the Russians the rest of the way with one heart-stopping save after another.

In some small way, Soviet aggression had been stopped at the blue line by baby-faced Americans.

And in a much bigger way, Americans of my generation had a memory to last a lifetime.