What a difference 30 years makes — in sports, and in politics. Now, as the United States team prepares for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games in Vancouver, do we really care if we beat Russia?
How quaint it all seems now, and yet, how significant — my memories of writing about the baby-faced bunch of Americans who were preparing for the 1980 Games in Lake Placid, New York. Herb Brooks’s eyes narrowed. I sensed he was making a fist. He began to explain to me what it took, what he planned, to defeat the vaunted Soviet Olympic hockey team, the overwhelming favorite to capture the gold. This Herbie was from the Midwest — St. Paul, Minnesota — yet he described himself as “a street kid.” Heck, I’m from Brooklyn. That’s where street kids are from. But he spoke passionately of creating an American style of hockey, a form of sport making use of capitalistic ideals — competition, exuberance, youth.
Forget the past. This was a new era. It could have been a metaphor for an American template. Indeed, it was. He wanted to restore respect to his country, which was being held hostage in Iran. He wanted us to be proud of ourselves, our teams, and he knew that President Jimmy Carter was threatening to boycott the Summer Games in Moscow over the recent Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. I like to think that the downfall of the once evil empire actually began with American hockey. Indeed, the Cold War helped create Soviet superiority in many aspects of sport. The Soviets believed that victory on the playing field, or the rink, would make them the envy of other countries. Somehow, that would be translated into believing the Soviet political system was the better one.
So they tossed out traditional ideas of how to become prolific at a sport. If a coach spotted an 8-year-old with leadership skills, why, he’d be perfect as a center — the decision-maker on a hockey line. They created dry-land training routines, actually using a soccer ball instead of a puck, so that the players learned how to kick with their skates. They were relentless, unemotional. They were the Soviet bear. But emotion, said Brooks, was what it would take to beat the fabled Soviets, who made no distinction between amateur and professional. They had defeated this young American team 10-3 in an exhibition game. Some years earlier, they had shocked Canada’s nervous system by routing its National Hockey League all-stars in the opening game of their fabled series. It led one of the N.H.L.’s best, Frank Mahovlich, to marvel, “Give them a football, and in a year they’ll win the Super Bowl.”
I was touring with the young U.S. hockey team. Brooks was a college coach, a decent enough player as a kid, but not good enough to make the cut on the last U.S. team to win a gold medal, back in 1960. After that, the Soviets had taken the big prize in every Olympics. Now I see that Brooks’s ideas were also a microcosm of capitalist society, and the way it eventually defeated the Soviet Union off the ice.
There were two great hockey-playing centers in the United States —New England, particularly the Boston area, and the colder regions of the Midwest — especially Minnesota and Wisconsin. Brooks played the players from the two regions against each other. He named a scrappy guy named Mike Eruzione from Boston University as his captain. He put players from Minnesota on the ice, then scrapped them for New Englanders, then reversed the order. Brooks had only a few months to put a team together. He made himself the brunt of the team’s anger and annoyance. He felt that would help them coalesce as well. I had to convince Arthur Gelb, the New York Times’s managing editor, to send me to Lake Placid. The paper didn’t think it was worth the money to send a reporter to cover ice sports.
When, magically, the United States scored early upset victories, when the crowd in the tiny, 7,000-seat Lake Placid Arena — which looked like a cock-fighting amphitheater — began chanting “USA! USA!” routinely, the Americans were poised to face the might Soviets. Actually, the U.S. did not defeat the Soviets for the gold medal. The last round wasn’t starting until Sunday, and this was a Friday afternoon game. In fact, the ABC television network thought so little of the public’s interest, that it didn’t even show the game live. It was taped for a later showing.
Meanwhile, I was up in my aerie in the badly ventilated, cigarette-smoke-filled arena. I had a newfangled computer, but it was too big for the press box. Instead, one of our reporters was to file my typewritten copy from the basement. When a game was over, rather than buck the crowds all the way down to the bowels of the ancient place, I had to figure out another way to get in my story. I had my old Olivetti portable. I typed the story. Page one was finished. I then rolled the paper into a ball. On a balcony one floor below, Dave Anderson, our Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, was waiting. I tossed him the paper. He caught it and rushed down the stairs. Then he came up again. I typed Page 2, and sailed it down to him.
It was 4-3 for the U.S. with 10 minutes left. The minutes ticked away, then the seconds. Al Michaels, the play-by-play announcer, shouted into the microphone, “Do you believe in miracles?” Moments later, he screamed, “Yes!” Goalie Jim Craig draped himself in the American flag as he scanned the stands. “Where’s my father?” he repeated. The next Sunday morning the team defeated the Finns and won the gold medal. Some time later Brooks and Michaels were reunited. Brooks said to the announcer about that “miracle” call, “A bit over the top, wasn’t it, Al?” Then Brooks smiled.
Hard to imagine today that a player would wrap himself in his country’s flag, would see a victory as something symbolic, one system better than another. Perhaps, in a way, we’ve made some progress.
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