How the 1980 "miracle on ice" taught America to be great again

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"Do you believe in miracles?" Al Michaels asked the nation about the unlikely 4-3 win for the U.S. Olympic hockey team against the Soviet Union on February 22, 1980 on Lake Placid. It remains probably the most famous call in sports history.

Michaels answered his own question with an emphatic "Yes!" And as a 10-year-old Long Island kid, I definitely agreed. The victory over the Soviet team shaped me indelibly, not only because it was a legally exciting sporting event, but because I experienced a spontaneous outpouring of patriotism that would only be repeated on September 11th – and then only in the face of the tragedy ,

By 1980 the Americans had somehow become outsiders – or at least started to see themselves as such. It's no exaggeration to say that the 1970s was a decade of frustration, cultural lethargy, increasing crime, institutional failure, perceived decline, and sometimes crippling self-doubt. In the midst of a Cold War, amid economic unease, the Americans hadn't had much to celebrate.

Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev and American President Jimmy Carter.
In 1980 America and the Soviet Union – led by Leonid Brezhnev, here with then President Jimmy Carter – were involved in the Cold War.Corbis / VCG via Getty Images

The Lake Placid game may not have triggered the American revival, but in many ways it would become the demarcation line between the sad bag's 70s and the economic renewal of the 1980s. The mysticism of the moment would last for a generation growing up to see the base end of the Soviet Union.

I remember being swept up in the snowy excitement of the tournament when the United States first played Sweden, then angered favorite Czechoslovak players before winning the Miracle on Ice game against Russia and finally winning gold against Finland.

At least I remember retrospectively how I cheered Jim Craig, Mark Johnson, and Rob McClanahan in front of the TV every step of the way. Of course, it is very likely that I only saw highlights and band delay moments that NBC offered in those days before the cable and before the internet.

Team USA celebrates its 4: 3 victory over the Soviet Union.
Team USA celebrates its incredible 4-3 victory over the Soviet Union, which has been dubbed "The Miracle on Ice".Getty Images

It doesn't really matter. The legend should be opaque for details. For me, a child whose parents had left Hungary to flee communism, the Soviets were malicious beings – grizzled gears in a state-controlled team of super athletes who ruled the world with their uncanny speed, size, and precision. (Years later I would be lucky enough to talk about the game with one of the Soviet players. Let's just say the Russians loved their children too.)

The Americans were children, students who were born in Massachusetts or Minnesota and were only brought together for six months. At the top was Stoic Herb Brooks, future coach of the New York Rangers and New Jersey Devils. They were strangers, and yet I felt a strange relationship with them.

It's also worth noting that in 1980, hockey, which had never really competed with the big three for fans, was even less noticeable to the average American than it is today. In the years before Wayne Gretzky, the sport was often portrayed as an orgy of toothless rackets, not without reason, and not as an orgy of speed, skill, and beauty. The only reason Michaels ever had to call the hockey games on Lake Placid was because no other NBC spokesman really understood the game.

Rob McClanahan, Mark Johnson and goalkeeper Jim Craig (from left) immediately became heroes for a young Harsanyi, who watched as a 10-year-old in his living room on Long Island.
Rob McClanahan, Mark Johnson and goalkeeper Jim Craig (from left) immediately became heroes for a young Harsanyi, who watched as a 10-year-old in his living room on Long Island.

That would change soon. Everything seemed to change.

That was 40 years ago now. Given the partisan rancor that has infected much of American life today, the prospect of collective and unbridled patriotism appears to be further away than ever. In a free nation, disagreement or heated debate is not uncommon. However, there are some things that should bind us. Sport can do that. That was the case back then. At least that's how I remember it.

David Harsanyi is a senior writer on National Review. Twitter: @ DavidHarsanyi

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