Saturday, September 12, 2009

Miracles On Ice

Anyone who is a hockey fan and is about 35 or older or is in anyway affiliated with the greatest sport on earth, knows the significance of 1980. We’re talking ice hockey of course!

I remember exactly where I was when the game known as “The Miracle on Ice” took place, the day the 1980 US Men’s Olympic Hockey Team beat the vaunted team from the Soviet Union. Ask any in the group that recognizes this feat and they will tell you that it was absolutely the single biggest upset in team sports history. It was certainly the most insurmountable obstacle in Team USA’s road to winning the Gold Medal at the 1980 Winter Olympics held in Lake Placid, New York.

I was living in an off-campus apartment in Corvallis Oregon attending Oregon State University. Oregon was not then, nor is it now exactly what you’d refer to as a hockey hotbed. The game that would become the game for the ages was being played 3 time zones away, back in my home State. There was no cable TV in Corvallis. Fellow Kensingtonite, hockey teammate and Corvallis neighbor of mine Josh Seff, occupied the apartment right next to mine.

As the US Men’s Team progressed through the preliminary rounds, we followed the games as closely as we could, catching a news clip here and there. None of these games had been televised in our part of the country, so for a couple of former hockey players from Kensington, the situation with the men’s Olympic hockey coverage or more precisely, the lack of it, was unbearable.

Josh and I remained hopeful of some TV coverage and of the men’s chances to get some sort of a medal, but we knew that both were long shots. Team USA beat the Russians? Not a chance in hell. The same US team had played an exhibition against the Russian team at Madison Square Garden just a couple of weeks before the 13th Olympiad opened. Final score: Russians 10, USA 1. The Russians had won every hockey Gold Medal since 1960! They had even beaten pro teams from the NHL during their warm-ups for these Olympics. Since then, this powerful juggernaut had won every single game they'd played in Olympic competition.

Well before the new-age Dream Teams and pro athletes being allowed to compete in the Olympics, the Iron Curtain countries had stacked teams. Most players from these eastern-bloc nations were in their military, so technically, these guys were considered amateurs and thus eligible for Olympic competitions.

In the US and other democratized countries, the best athletes went on to play in professional leagues and so our stars were not eligible to compete in the Olympics. Communist countries had no official professional leagues, although their best athletes would surely have been professionals had they lived anywhere in the free world.

The guys playing for the US Team in 1980 were basically the same as Josh and me. They were college students, who played ice hockey and the ones deemed the best at a tryout earlier that year, were picked to play for the team. Average age on Team USA was just 22!

The Iranian Hostage Crisis taking place at the US Embassy in Teheran had become a nightly broadcast of its own, unemployment was lousy and the general mood in our country was very down. In this atmosphere, a mere handful of our peers were about to play a hockey game in a small town in New York's Adirondack Mountains and in doing so, turn our world on end and give our national morale a huge shot of adrenalin.

I think it was a Saturday morning in Oregon and I was in the shower. We hadn’t heard if the USA-Russia game would be televised, but we kept checking our TVs for news. I heard a frantic banging at my apartment door and my wife Beth calling for me. The other familiar, excited voice and the author of the door pounding was my pal Josh. He kept yelling to put the TV on. “The game is on!” “The game is on!” I came stumbling out of the shower with a towel wrapped around my waist, still soaking wet and I made a bee-line for our television.

We were glued to the screen for the duration. It was a back and forth struggle and as time clicked off the clock, the young Americans were giving the Soviets all they could handle and the unthinkable, the impossible, started to creep into our consciousness as a possibility.

The game went to commercial with about 14 minutes remaining. Instead of an add, we were presented with one of those special news briefs. A reporter for the local ABC affiliate popped onto the screen and stated that the US Men's Hockey Team had stunned the world and beaten the Russians in Olympic Hockey, "Details on the six-o'clock news!"

We looked at each other in disbelief trying to confirm if we each had heard the same thing from the voice on the TV. WHAT, did she say? Could it be true? We began to realize that the game we were watching was probably on a tape-delayed broadcast and that just maybe, there was truth in the news report. Holy shit was the emotion of those moments, but the thought was so incomprehensible that we still didn't believe it. We didn't see it, so in traditional hockey-player superstitious mentality, just shut up and let's just get back to the game to see for ourselves!

We watched in disbelief and a few minutes later, USA team captain, Mike Euruzione scored with just 10 minutes left in the third period to break a 3-3 tie! The young Americans held on, as they played one of the most inspired hockey contests I have ever seen. “5, 4, Do you believe in miracles! YES!….” Was the wonderful call made by play-by-play announcer Al Michaels.

David had struck down Goliath, West had defeated East, Democracy had defeated Communism and Good had vanquished Evil...and it all happened in a hockey game! The incomparable celebration had begun. The next day, the American team wrote their final chapter by beating Team Finland 4-2 to lock up the Gold Medal.

I have been coaching hockey for nearly 20 years and I’ve been on the bench from rinks south to Virginia and north to Vermont, Canada and the Mid-west, but I have never been to the Olympic Rink in Lake Placid.

Last week I had a fatherly task to perform. Get my 15 year-old, hockey playing daughter to the US Olympic Training Facility in Lake Placid. She had been invited to spend a few days there with some other very good female hockey players as part of a prestigious women's hockey training program.

Lake Placid is just about a six hour drive north of Brooklyn. We made it to registration on time and Katie got checked in to her assigned room. I actually had to leave and go back to Brooklyn as soon as I could due to work responsibilities. Getting the paperwork done and the room stuff knocked out left little time for anything else. We were instructed to bring Katie's hockey gear directly to the rink. All players were assigned a locker room for this purpose. Katie had to be back for a player briefing in 40 minutes, so we really had to hustle.

We plugged the rink address into our GPS and headed over there. This mind you, is the same rink where the 1980 Games took place. It's one thing to visit the site of the Miracle on Ice game and it's another to be bringing your own kid there to play hockey as part of an invitation only program. With all the running around and driving, the specialness of what was happening hadn't dawned on me until just about then.

We parked in the rink lot and followed the instructions around to the side door. A friendly security guard greeted us at the door and asked, "Which locker room?" "Locker room #6." said Katie. He pointed the way and said, "It's all the way down on the end. On your left."

Locker room six was at the end of a long, quiet hallway under the stands. When you're in a place like that, a narrow, ill-ventilated space, you can clearly smell the rubberized mats that make up the flooring. After you visit enough of these venues, you can even smell the age of the place by the kind of smell in the hallways and locker rooms. It's not a bad smell. It's a hockey smell. It's a smell that brings memories of hockey games past and connects them with the current day. If you are a baseball player, what I'm talking about would be similar to how the smell of cut grass makes you feel.

We had been hurrying around for nearly 7 hours at this point and we were still up against a tight schedule, but here we were finally slowing to a walk as we both realized where we were. The building was nearly empty, so there was that kind of quietness in the place that allows you to hear the echoes of your own footsteps.

As we passed the first ramp to the arena itself, I could almost hear the distant, 29 year-old chants of USA! USA! USA! still reverberating through the rafters. I could feel the ghostly presence of Coach Herb Brooks extolling his young team and saying, "This is your time." I turned to look at Katie and did my best to put the hustle and bustle of what we were about to rest for a few minutes and to enjoy that walk down the corridor with her. This, is her time I thought to myself.

There is no doubt in my mind that the ripple effects of that 1980 game had brought us here together at this moment. My daughter had been invited to train and play hockey at one of the US Olympic Team Training Facilities. The daughter of a Kensington roller hockey player! This moment was in many, many ways, a second miracle, our own personal miracle on ice. I didn't need a TV or a commentator to tell me that. What was even better, was that Katie knew it too.

PS Back in Oregon: Once Josh and I were secure in knowing that Team USA had actually won the game, we called the local ABC affiliate to let them know how upset we were that they had prematurely blurted out the score of the game, before the local tape delayed broadcast had ended. Due to our efforts (and a little help from Team USA), hockey led off the six o'clock news that night in Oregon. Probably the first and only time that has occurred. The station made a public apology for blowing it!

Charlie Gili

1 comment:

Pete Liria said...

Charlie -

The incredible rush of pride and excitement we all felt 29 years ago came back big time with your story. We (Kensington roller hockey players) were all living vicariously through the 1980 men's Olympic team, picturing ourselves there in place of - or along side - Eruzione and company.

I also had a chance to visit that rink and the Olympic training facilities in Lake Placid about 12 or 13 years ago with my daughters who were about 6 & 9 - very impressive. I also roller skated (quads, not in-line) on the speed skating oval where Eric Heiden won five gold medals in 1980, a very special year for US sports, Heiden's feat often going unremembered in the shadow of the men's hockey championship. I tried to ice skate on the Olympic rink but it was forbidden - they only let us ice skate in a small rink on the other side of town...too bad.

Anyway, you must be very proud of Katie...congrats, and I hope her dreams of hockey glory also come true!