For those who either were not around or were very young on Feb. 22, 1980, it is hard to imagine how low the American psyche had plummeted during the decade of the 1970s.
Although the 1960s generally are regarded as the decade of tumult in America, the events of the ‘70s did more harm to American self-confidence than any decade in our nation’s history.
A brief history lesson of that era would be highlighted by these keywords: Kent State, Pentagon Papers, Watergate, 1972 Olympic basketball defeat, Arab oil embargoes of 1973 and 1979, fall of Saigon, stagflation, New York City bankruptcy, Chrysler bankruptcy, the decline of the U.S. auto industry, the rise of Japanese auto industry, U.S. embassy takeover in Tehran, and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.
In short, as the new decade dawned at the beginning of 1980, the U.S. was down-and-out, a nation whose best times seemed behind it.
Into the midst of this maelstrom at the height of the Cold War and the depths of American economic and military power stepped the U.S. Olympic hockey team, which was both the youngest team at the 1980 Olympics and the youngest-ever in U.S. Olympic history.
The U.S. squad was by all accounts a mediocre group. The Soviets, Finns, Swedes, and Czechs were the medal favorites. Just making the medal round was beyond the grasp for the Americans.
However, a 2-2 tie in the last minute with Sweden in the opening game was followed by a convincing and unexpected win over the Czechs. The U.S. team improbably advanced to the medal round, along with the Soviets, the Swedes, and the Finns.
Although the U.S. had made it to the final round of four, their first-round opponent would be the U.S.S.R, which had not lost an Olympic hockey game since 1968 and had won the previous four gold medals.
In addition, this was a Soviet team that had trounced an NHL all-star team, 6-0, in the third and deciding game of the so-called Challenge Cup in the summer of 1979. More significantly, the U.S and the Soviets had met in an exhibition game just a few weeks previously in New York and the result was a 10-3 shellacking administered by the Soviets.
Finally, our younger readers should know that the Soviet team essentially was comprised of players who had “government” jobs — so technically they were amateurs — but for all intents and purposes they were professionals. By contrast, the U.S. team was composed almost entirely of college-age kids with no professional experience.
Needless to say, the U.S. team was a huge underdog when the teams took to the ice at Lake Placid on that fateful evening before a national television audience.
What was it that elevated the Americans to accomplish what Sports Illustrated later labeled as THE most significant sporting event of all-time? What was it that kept the powerful Soviets, who took a 3-2 lead into the third period, from scoring after Winthrop’s own Mike Eruzione, the U.S. captain, gave the U.S. a 4-3 lead with 10 minutes to play?
There have been a lot of explanations — the Russian coach said his team’s 10-3 beating of the Americans a few weeks earlier had made them overconfident and then they panicked when Captain Mike lit the lamp to give the U.S. the lead — but what is beyond dispute is that a group of underdog American kids showed to the world that heart, desire, hard work, and a faith in themselves could overcome even the longest of odds.
In hindsight, it is not an overstatement to say that the U.S. team’s victory marked the beginning of the end of the corrupt and decaying Soviet Empire and the end of the beginning of American decline. Mike Eruzione’s goal from between the face-off circles (which still give us chills when we watch it on You Tube) in Lake Placid truly was the second “shot heard ‘round the world,” 200 years after a band of scraggly underdog Minutemen fired that famous first shot at on April 19, 1775. The Miracle on Ice was more than just a hockey game — and that is why, 40 years later, the U.S. victory on that fateful night still resonates today.