A malaise has cast its pall over the nation. Middle East conflicts, Afghanistan military operations, fossil-fuel debates, and the re-emergence of the Russian Bear have put Americans on edge.
To top it off, confidence in the U.S. government is at a low point – spirits are drained, downtrodden, depressed.
Sound like America today? In truth, that description is from February 1980 when the United States hosted the XIII Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid, New York – the backdrop for the “Miracle on Ice,” the U.S. hockey team’s victory over the highly favored Soviets. This Saturday, Feb. 22, marks the 40th anniversary of that most inspirational sports event of my generation.
I was a senior in high school and a hockey player myself, so I had more than a passing interest in the game. I could identify with the players on the U.S. hockey team – they were all college hockey players averaging 22 years of age; I was 18 and preparing to attend Quinnipiac College where I would play hockey. I dearly wanted the U.S. to beat the big, bad Soviets, winners of four consecutive gold medals and owners of a 27-1-1 record in Olympic play during that time.
A true David-and-Goliath matchup, for sure.
The game was not broadcast live on TV. Since it ended before prime time, around 7:15 on a Friday night, ABC broadcast the game on tape delay, starting at 8 p.m. But I couldn’t wait around for the TV broadcast, so I found a live broadcast on the radio and listened intently as the American “boys” pulled off the most unlikely of upsets against the Soviet men.
I remember jumping around the basement rec room as the game reached its climactic conclusion. (It wasn’t until I watched the game later that I got to hear Al Michaels exclaim, “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”) The United States Olympic hockey team had beaten the very same team that schooled them, 10-3, in an exhibition game the week before at Madison Square Garden. The victory meant not only a trip to the gold medal game against Finland two days later – a game the team would win, 4-2, in a comeback; it also marked a decisive victory for the psyche of an entire nation.
“At a time when international tensions and domestic frustrations had dampened traditional American optimism, the underdog U.S. Olympic hockey team gave the entire nation a lift by defeating the world’s top team, the Soviets, and ultimately winning the gold medal,” read the introduction to E.M. Swift’s outstanding tribute in Sports Illustrated. “Those youngsters did so by means of the old-fashioned American work ethic, which some people feared was disappearing from the land.”
American confidence was reborn. Saying you were “proud to be an American” was not the hollow, jingoistic cliché it often becomes in today’s cynical climate. People sincerely believed in America again after the Olympic hockey team’s heroics at Lake Placid.
So where is our Olympic hockey team today? Indeed, could a sports team work the same magic in 2020 that Coach Herb Brooks’ boys did in 1980?
I could draw a parallel to the state of Connecticut and the extreme sense of state pride that was lost when the Hartford Whalers skipped town for North Carolina in 1997. And I could ask if the return of another NHL franchise to the state would give the state’s citizens a much needed reprieve from their enduring inferiority complex. But the saga of the Whalers was complicated, involving taxpayer subsidies and ownership demands.
The Olympic hockey team, by contrast, involved no economically motivated owners or contractually obligated players. The Olympic hockey team was simply 20 players dedicated to a seemingly impossible dream. The team’s lifespan had a beginning, a middle, and an end. And there was a definitive end – in this case, an Olympic gold medal made possible by a monumental victory over an international juggernaut.
The rest of America lived the dream with that team and believed in themselves again.
So amidst the public strife and polarization that envelop state and national politics in 2020, take a moment this week to remember the Olympic hockey team from 1980 – especially on Saturday, Feb. 22, the 40th anniversary of that team’s 4-3 victory over the USSR. Think about the pride, the teamwork, and the belief in what’s possible that each of those American hockey players brought to the task at hand.
Those players and that team taught Americans to believe again. It’s a lesson we all could use right now. Again.
Barth Keck is an English teacher and assistant football coach who teaches courses in journalism, media literacy, and AP English Language & Composition at Haddam-Killingworth High School.
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