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Miracle on Ice unmatched in capturing American spirit

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By HUBERT MIZELL, Times Sports Columnist

© St. Petersburg Times
published February 10, 2002


This morning, Utah has a Mama Lode of skiers, sledders and skaters. Winter Olympics are more complex, expensive, commercial and risky, but the goals are still to identify who's best at doing difficult stuff on ice and snow.

Duing a frosty Salt Lake fortnight, there will come a golden avalanche of stories of triumph, tragedy and human effort. But no matter how memorable the ski-sled-skate occurences, there will not be -- ever -- another Miracle on Ice.

Twenty-two years ago, because of unique circumstances, athletic as well as political and emotional, another Winter Olympics on American cool blessed us with history's highest-impact sports happening.

In a little upstate New York ice house, with no live TV, the United States beat the Soviet Union 4-3 in a hockey semifinal. Oh, such oversimplification. It was bigger than any World Cup, Super Bowl or World Series, triggering optimum passions among millions who follow no sport of any kind.

Because of combustible political principles, diverse athletic principals and a global backdrop in turmoil, the shocking Lake Placid outcome of 2/22/80 triggered incomparable reactions.

In sports, nothing else is close.

Extreme disbelief drained blood from faces of Russian sporting souls. It was like Tiger Woods losing in golf, to me. But more than that. Boundless, universal delirium gripped America; patriotic ramifications stirring multitudes who didn't know a puck from a doorstop.

In 1980, to most U.S. eyes, it was easy to tell good from evil. Less complicated than now. More defined. We Americans saw ourselves as red, white and blue goodness. Soviets were widely viewed as mysterious, scheming and scary.

For the jock factor, so-called USSR hockey amateurs were, in fact, pros widely accepted as the universe's best. Listed as students and/or soldiers, the Russians embarrassed all-stars from the NHL and seemed more unbeatable than any of coach John Wooden's untouchable UCLA basketball national champions.

America's kids arrived in Lake Placid as unknown, uncelebrated collegians who seemed hopelessly overmatched. In a Madison Square Garden tuneup a few days before the Olympic flame was lit, the Yanks experienced a 10-3 embarrasment against the Soviets, who included talents with names like Tretiak and Vladislav.

As a nation, we hurt for reasons far more serious. We cringed as nightly TV newscasts showed our flag repeatedly torched, and protesters in many lands shouted hatred for the American way. It was difficult not to sense a U.S. downslide.

Few of us knew much of Afghanistan, but we were offended when Soviet troops invaded, bullied and plundered a near-defenseless country. We've come a long way since, or have we?

Five months after the Lake Placid Olympics, the Summer Games were held in Moscow. Political heat kept intensifying. President Jimmy Carter ordered a U.S. boycott. Russia was snubbed. Our athletes, by Washington proclamation, stayed home.

Still, the idea of that U.S. hockey team striking a positive blow was high in the fantasy heavens. Even when the Yanks performed better than expected in early Olympic rounds, the prevailing thought among the American media contingent -- and most realists -- was a bronze medal would be incredible. In a matchup with the USSR it would admirable if our men could lose by only three or four goals.

Along came that afternoon of exotic destiny. My friend, David Israel, then a Chicago Tribune columnist, now a Hollywood screen writer, stood on an arena seat addressing U.S. newspaper writers. "Gentlemen, there will," he roared, aiming to violate an old bylaw of our profession, "be cheering in the press box."

And there was.

Before faceoff, we murmured about our U.S. nobodies maybe catching the Russians dozing, scoring a goal or two. Or would it be worse than the 10-3 rehearsal in Manhattan? We didn't realize some of the anonymous Americans were a bit more gifted than we thought; a few matured into solid NHL players.

After the puck dropped, astonishing things happened. Yanks hit harder than ever, passed with more sharpness, standing stick-to-stick with the Moscow manhandlers.

It stayed close. We rubbed eyes. There was a U.S. lead. When would the Russians kick into gear? When the dead-even match reached the third period, I looked around, seeing Israel and everyone in the media corps in a collective gasp.

Americans who were thought to have zero chance were playing the game of their underdog lives. Reaching higher than any realistic outsider would've believed. Anxiety, even fear, appeared on USSR faces.

It happened. Most phenomenal upset in sports. With meaning that went so much further. Taping for ABC-TV, Al Michaels soon was uttering his unforgettable declaration, "Do you believe in miracles?"

Professionalism be damned. I cheered. We media roared. I cried. I felt fabulous. Proud. Before long, my entire homeland was sharing the glory. A month ago, HBO did a special on the Miracle. I watched, I wept again after 22 years.

Ninety percent of Americans, in recalling 2/22/80, remember it as a gold-medal whipping of the mighty Russians. Nah, it was a semi. Our wonderkids came back for another challenge, downing Finland 4-2 in the final.

For months, years, even now, you could hear Americans proudly recount that magical afternoon. Saying what it meant, so far beyond mere Olympics or hockey or a gold medal.

Good had stunned evil, as we saw it. Mightiest of favorites being chopped down by the most outlandish of underdogs. Never been anything like it. Never will again. Even if the coach of those Lake Placid kids, Herb Brooks, is again U.S. hockey boss for 2002.

Famous professionals from the NHL rule Olympic hockey today. Superb talents but there's no chance of coming within a quadrillion American heartbeats of the stirring romance that was Lake Placid.

-- To contact Hubert, e-mail mmizell02@earthlink.net or mail to P.O. Box 726, Nellysford, VA 22958).

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