1980 'miracle on ice': an American in Moscow recalls Soviet reaction

A US student learned something about Soviet diplomacy while visiting during the 1980 Olympic men's hockey 'miracle on ice.'

Miracle on ice: The United States' Mark Johnson (10) prepares to shoot the puck into the net for the second US goal in the first period of a semifinal hockey game as the Soviet goalie Vladislav Tretjak defends at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., in this Feb. 22, 1980 file photo.

The Berlin wall fell. The Soviet Union broke up. Poland’s in NATO. Yawn.

But 30 years ago this week, a US Olympic hockey team made up of college amateurs beat a Soviet team of experienced hockey goliaths in Lake Placid. Now that’s a miracle.

Forgive the opening facetiousness, and a slide into first person, but sometimes things that aren’t supposed to happen, evidently do.

I'm remembering the Olympic “miracle on ice” from the vantage of a Moscow hotel, as part of a college group that just arrived in the Soviet Union of Leonid Breshnev, before perestroika and glasnost, when, for cold war babies, everything east of Berlin was wrapped in mystery and enigma. Moscow had invaded Afghanistan two months before and the trip almost didn’t happen; we were one of few American groups in Russia at the time, eating green peas at every meal, since peas were the bountiful harvest that year.

We stayed in the Hotel Kosmos, a newly French- built temple to Soviet modernity that featured green flora draped uncomfortably around a set of terraces. Under one of them men shouted and slumped in front of a small “televisor.” The next day we heard they were watching US coach Herb Brooks’s Olympic hockey team pull off an upset that had been broadcast as a sure victory around the Soviet empire.

Beyond improbable

So improbable was the win that New York Times columnist Dave Anderson wrote before hand, "Unless the ice melts, or unless the United States team or another team performs a miracle ... the Russians are expected to easily win the Olympic gold medal for the sixth time in the last seven tournaments."

That victory aproved a small miracle for us. It got mentioned in nearly every function we went to for days, and it helped oil our exchanges and visits to Moscow, Minsk, Smolensk, and then Leningrad -- years before the concept of “citizen” or “people-to-people” diplomacy became popular. Truth be told, the Soviets acted far more graciously about losing at the time than I would have expected from a comparable group of American, myself included – and that was a lesson.

Soviet tour officials were more practiced at the friendship game than American kids in an ancient civilization we could barely fathom. The solace for our Soviet hosts was in saying,“It was a good game. But wait until you play the Finns.” Then Herb Brooks’s US team beat the mighty Finns as well, bringing further rounds of congratulatory bonhomie, and conversation.

(Today in Vancouver, the US team again plays the Finns in the Olympic semifinals. Read here how Canada doused Russian hockey hopes in Vancouver.)
Of course, by the end of our trip, we’d mostly forgotten about Lake Placid and the miracle. Three weeks in Soviet Russia in the winter could do that to the sons and daughters of America’s fairly innocent disco suburbs.

Not until our intrepid study group got back to the US did we discover, after everyone else, what the win involved. We read about coach Brooks, from St. Paul, Minnesota, an international hockey aficionado, and heard of the gut-wrenching discipline and regime of exhibition games he put his players under to train for the Lake Placid games.

A lot of it is in the movie “Miracle,” which Jim Craig, the US goalie who kept batting away shot after shot, recently said was “only slightly Disneyfied.” A lot is being written about that game this week – how it changed hockey, how a team’s spirit and devotion can turn the tables, how a smart plan to counter skill with speed and stamina can make a difference.

Who can calculate the difference it makes? The miracle of Lake Placid may get a little hyped 30 years later. In 1980, it did impress a lot of Soviet people.
Russia's none too happy about its rankings at Vancouver – as you can read here.

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