by Kent Sterling
I remember February 22, 1980, for two reasons. The least important is that it was my 18th birthday. America remembers it because that was the day the U.S. Olympic Hockey team defied overwhelming odds to beat the best hockey team in the world 4-3. No one under the age of 35 remembers it, but it was a day that America awakened from a malaise that began with Watergate and ended with the election of Ronald Reagan as the country’s 40th president.
Unemployment, inflation, the Iran hostage crisis, and out of control interest rates has the country feeling less than proud of itself, and in need of something positive to buoy the collective mood.
For a reason I have never been exactly sure of the U.S. Olympic Hockey Team built momentum and popularity prior to the game against the Soviets. This was an anonymous but exciting and physical team that seemed to have a palpable collective spirit that made them compelling. It wasn’t like America suddenly discovered this time an hour prior to this game. There was enormous hype prior to the game – not like today with seven-hour pregames – but sportsfans knew this was going on. Because of all of the issues listed above, Americans were tired of being ambivalent about their country. There had been so little about which to be proud. There was a sense that this group of kids didn’t take any crap, and we were tired of taking crap ourselves so we latched onto them.
Mike Eruzione, Dave Silk, Mark Johnson, Neal Broten, Jim Craig, and the rest of the team selected and led by Coach Herb Brooks gave us a legitimate reason to cheer “U-S-A” and sing The Star Spangled Banned” out loud for the first time in years. Earlier I wrote that the internal malaise began with Watergate, but it was probably the Vietnam War that started that queasy feeling that America was no longer the carrier of the lantern that illuminated all that is best about humanity. The hockey team reflected America as we dreamed we might be again. At least that’s the way I saw it in 1980.
Why is it that 30 years later, many (including me) still tear-up when we see the highlights of the game against the Soviets? Why would millions go to the theater in 2004 to see “Miracle” the film based up the team’s adventures? Why does NBC devote so much time to the recollections of Al Michaels, who should drop to his knees every morning to thank God for putting him in the booth that night for one of the great signature calls in the history of broadcasting, during a Olympiad 30-year after the fact?
Because more than any sporting event in history, the game and team were purely and innocently joyous. There aren’t many displays of pure collective joy that any of us witness in our lives. The birth of our children qualifies, but that joy isn’t shared. When Eruzione waves his teammates onto the podium built for one, and they miraculously (there’s that word again) fit perfectly, clinging to each other as though if one fell, they all would, it is impossible not to be moved. When Brooks throws his fist in the air and then leaves the arena to allow the players to enjoy their moment, he set an example more coaches should follow and gives us a glimpse behind the stoic curtain surrounding his soul. When Craig, draped in the American flag, searches the stands for his Dad so they can share the moment and remember his late Mother, we see the perfect moment between a father and son.
The whole Soviet team stands watching the Americans celebrate as they must have wished they would have before they became the world’s greatest hockey machine, for whom winning was as routine as breathing, gave us a glimpse into their sense of wonder and loss. The crowd that had dared to believe because the team obviously did, went crazy. It wasn’t in a effort to be outrageous or be shown on Sportscenter, but just because they had no choice because their joy was so complete.
Herb Brooks dared to believe, and when he expressed it, his team dared to believe, and when we watched them, we dared too.
Sports is rarely perfect, as life is rarely perfect. It’s messy and filled with selfishness and so many impossible to script spontaneous moments that allowing ourselves to believe in pure motives and goodness is almost impossible. The 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team gave us a reason to believe and then delivered on their promise. I hope everyone under the age of 35 gets to see that happen just once. Then they’ll get it, not because of some old farts telling tales or a movie, but because they felt it resonate in the core of their souls like we did 30 years ago today.
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