I was born two years after the United States beat the Soviet Union 4-3 at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, and when I thought about writing this piece, something struck me hard. “Wow, that was 40 years ago,” I thought.
Forty years is a long time and as we get further and further from that monumental occasion, my fear is that the moment and, more importantly, its meaning will slowly fade from public consciousness like an old photo exposed to the sun for too long.
I know I care about that game, know the intricate details and can probably recite a fair number of the guys on the ice that day (okay, okay, I can tell you everything about that game) – but do others care? And, how do other countries shape the narrative around that match? Specifically, Russia. How do they talk about it?
Obviously, this moment is a big deal in the U.S. and I’ve never really asked how other countries view it. Other perspectives are critical, and equally important for keeping the conversation going globally and making sure this moment doesn’t disappear
To help me with my existential hockey crisis, I solicited the help of three hockey journalists. The first is American Tony Luftman, who is an anchor for the NHL Network. I also spoke to Canadian Julie Stewart-Binks, who has covered hockey for multiple outlets. Lastly, and of particular interest to me, Sport-Express hockey writer and KHL TV sideline reporter Igor Eronko from Russia.
I wanted to know if the Miracle on Ice was so prominent in my mind because of where I grew up, if the moment still endures with younger generations and what, if anything, the collective hockey world can take with it for another 40 years.
This is what Luftman, Stewart-Binks and Eronko had to say.
What are your earliest memories of the 1980 Olympic game - “The Miracle on Ice” - the Soviet Union vs the United States in Lake Placid?
[Tony Luftman, USA]: I remember being a very little boy and watching my dad watch the game and him yelling at the top of his lungs when Mike Eruzione scored the game-winning goal.
[Julie Stewart-Binks, Canada]: This might sound blasphemous, but I think it would have to be the 2004 Disney movie “Miracle.” I can’t pinpoint any other time standing out. I was born in 1987, and don’t have any memories of anyone talking about it, or it being broadcasted. I grew up as a figure skater, and can even remember watching the 1994 Lillehammer Olympics when I was 6 years old, but I was more interested in Kurt Browning than anything to do with U.S. hockey.
[Igor Eronko, Russia]: I was born in 1982 in the USSR, where the Miracle was just erased from any memories. The first time I looked at the history of that final was in 1995 or 1996. It took me around five years to find the record of that final. And I thought that Soviet team gave no credit to the opponent, although they should have.
When you think of that game, what initially comes to mind?
[Luftman]: Because I’ve studied it so much, I have a deep appreciation for what that team accomplished. It was a team that people didn’t know how good they were and they worked very hard together to accomplish a common goal and it remains my favorite sports moment ever.
[Stewart-Binks]: Once I watched the game, I think what comes to mind is Al Michaels’ call “Do you believe in miracles, YES!”, which is synonymous with the game… and then how that rivalry has continued to this day most notably with the 2014 Sochi Olympics epic never-ending shootout. But, on a deeper level, I think about how the political environment at the time affected my family. My father, Will Stewart, was a Canadian rower who was poised to be on Canada’s Olympic rowing team for the 1980 Summer Olympics. As we all know, Canada pulled out of those Olympics in light of Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, something my father recalls as something he’ll “never get over.”
[Eronko]: Actually, the movie and Kurt Russell. Also, that the USSR team was shown as a caricature in the movie. I know a lot of players from that USSR team and I’ve discussed with them that loss. All of them see it as an accident. I don’t think so. We should realize how well prepared the U.S. team was and how they played so many exhibition games to become a real team.
How was the match talked about or perceived in your country back in 1980?
[Luftman]: It was a different time and it was greater than a hockey game because of it being such a unique time politically [and] socially. It’s a confluence of events that could never happen again and I think that is what’s part of what makes it special and unique.
[Stewart-Binks]: I had to ask both my parents about this one. My mom said that she doesn’t remember it because it didn’t include Canada. I think a lot of hockey fans feel that they probably could have beaten the Soviets if they had the perspective the U.S. team had - especially based on the talent the Canadians had - as Canada blew a two-goal lead against them in an earlier game, not being able to put them away, something the U.S. learned from when they produced their own miracle.
[Eronko]: I looked some at some archives and couldn’t find much. The intention was to give as little information as possible. It was a loss nobody expected and it was quite hurtful to the country.
How is the match talked about or perceived in your country now?
[Luftman]: It has a special place in the history of the sport because it was a turning point in the way that American players were viewed. Mike Ramsey from that team was the first American to be drafted in the First Round of the NHL Draft and since then, eight Americans have gone first overall.
[Stewart-Binks]: I think Canadians respect success and competition even when it’s that of their rivals. It was an exciting game, especially considering the tense political environment it was nestled into, which provided a unique canvas for the underdog story to take place. What is different is, this game isn’t part of our identity, we were spectators, so the gravity of the win and the unique circumstances in which it took place, aren’t woven into our collective identity.
[Eronko]: The 1972 Super Series is much, much more memorable for everyone. And, the 2008 World Championship final is more memorable as well. Nobody sees the USA as a real hockey rival still (like Canada). And the USA doesn’t bring the best players to the Worlds.
Do people your age (millennials) or younger know about the moment?
[Luftman]: I think that’s one of the great challenges that I think about when I’m working on NHL Network. I want everyone to know about it, because it was so special and such a transformative moment in the history of the sport. I want everyone to know about it.
[Stewart-Binks]: Sadly, not really. I actually asked some younger people that I work with (who are American) and they’ve heard the term “Miracle on Ice” used but don’t really know what happened. Others know this story from the Disney movie.
[Eronko]: Yes and no. And I can’t call myself a millennial. If I were to remind someone that the Miracle on Ice was an example of an all-time upset, they wouldn’t understand me. Usually, people my age don’t remember anything about it. My friends who are close to the game of hockey do know and they know who Herb Brooks is.
If I were to ask them about it, what would they say?
[Luftman]: Why was it called a miracle?’ and ‘Why is it so special?’ I would tell them, ‘It wasn’t a miracle. The better team won,’ and as assistant coach Craig Patrick likes to say, “The best team got what it deserved.”
[Stewart-Binks]: Refer to the above, haha.
[Eronko]: Mostly they’d say the U.S. got lucky. And part of me would agree with them. But just a part.
[Luftman]: Absolutely, without a doubt. Everyone remembers champions. The greatest yardstick for remembering a team is the title of champion and that team will forever be remembered as an Olympic championship team.
[Stewart-Binks]: Of course, because it helped foster a generation of hockey fans and hockey players, many of whom today either play the game professional, broadcast it, or have just a passionate undying love for the game and their country. Even those who aren’t die-hard hockey fans found a thread in being so proud of their country, a memory that lives forever. As a Canadian, while it didn’t affect us, and had no real impact on many of the lives of my friends and family, it helped foster a whole other country of fans and supporters of the sport that inevitably helped us keep growing and evolving the sport in our country.
[Eronko]: No. Now, everyone knows everything about their opponent. At the time it wasn’t like that. At the time, the physical condition of the team meant a lot more. You were learning the opponent during the game. Video has totally changed hockey.
Why do you think the moment has endured for so long?
[Luftman]: I think it’s because our country has only won two Gold Medals in men’s ice hockey at the Winter Olympics. To credit the Soviet Union, they were far and away the best international hockey team ever.
[Stewart-Binks]: There are many universal themes that transcend time. Being the underdog, and beating Goliath. The nature of how the game unfolded and the tension that made it a collective must-watch event. Being proud of being an American and beating an arch rival in their own sport. It’s a moment that is bigger than the game and taps into the collective identity of Americans.
[Eronko]: Because of the plot. Because of the Cold War. The best team in the world was beaten by students. It was a movie plot. The USSR was called the “Red Machine” because they were real machinery. No emotions, just pure aesthetics of hockey. To be them you had to gather the best NHL players. As you know, in 1981 even that didn’t help.
What lessons or memories can the next hockey generations take from that game - if any?
[Luftman]: I think it extends beyond hockey players and it’s a lesson that all of us can benefit from. With hard work, careful planning and a team first attitude, anything is possible.
[Stewart-Binks]: It doesn’t matter what something looks like on paper, or the collective narrative surrounding a team or country. All that matters is what happens on the ice during those 60 minutes. No one can win the game until it’s played. Anything can happen.
[Eronko]: Respect your opponent. A couple of days ago I talked to some of the Team Russia coaches and players who took part in the Vancouver Olympics. Their quarter-final loss was similar to the Miracle on Ice. They all said: you have to play a game like that, or you’d never be able to imagine it could really happen.
The Miracle on Ice has been called the greatest sporting moment in U.S. history. For Tony, is that appropriate? For Julie and Igor, what is your country’s biggest hockey moment?
[Luftman]: It is the greatest moment in sporting history but I don’t believe it was a miracle. I believe miracles, as Mike Eruzione says, “Are what doctors do, police officers, firefighters [do].” This was a hockey game and our team scored four goals, the Soviets scored three goals. It was no miracle, the better team won the game.
[Stewart-Binks]: There are so many wonderful hockey moments that come to mind as a Canadian – it’s the gift that keeps on giving. I will say, I think the 2010 Olympics dubbed “Canada’s Golden Games” was very special, where Canada won the most gold medals, but also beat the United States in overtime to claim the gold medal in men’s hockey. The Canadian women also won gold, and it was just a very proud time to be Canadian.
[Eronko]: The 2008 World Championship gold medal. It was in Canada and Russia beat them on their home ice. Team Russia was playing a cute style. Sometimes a very fancy style. And everyone liked it. As for me, I would prefer the 1987 Canada Cup final. That was a “wow” moment. I watched those games several times and every time I would say “this is how hockey should be played”.
What’s one thing you’d like people to know that doesn’t come up in the typical narrative about that game (for example it’s often spoken about as East vs West, Soviets vs Americans, Pros vs College kids). What is another perspective you’d like to add?
[Luftman]: That Team USA played its game. Herb Brooks throughout the third period, after the Americans took the lead, kept saying, ‘Play your game.’ The team stayed true to its identity, executed its game plan, and the Soviets panicked. I don’t think enough people remember that they were the team that was so masterful with the weaving and passing, and they were reduced to dumping the puck in and they never pulled their goalie because they’d never been behind.
[Stewart-Binks]: Respectfully, our two biggest rivals going up against each other, and as Canadians, we really don’t care who wins, actually hope both lose.
[Eronko]: Viktor Tikhonov’s poor decisions. They were really poor. He didn’t know what to do. Nobody talks about it, but the blame should be put on him. He tried to do the same things as he did with CSKA and you can’t do that when you play at the Olympics.