New York Rangers Tradition

'Miracle' was product of different world

Three decades later, it's hard to believe fans saw game on tape delay

Monday, 02.22.2010 / 5:19 PM / History
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\'Miracle\' was product of different world
Team USA players, including Rangers draft pick and future Blueshirt Dave Silk, celebrate their improbable victory over the Soviet Union on Feb. 22, 1980. The game was not shown on U.S. television until roughly three hours later.
Game 1 Review: USA 2, Sweden 2
Game 2 Review: USA 7, Czechoslovakia 3
Game 3 Review: USA 5, Norway 1
Game 4 Review: USA 7, Romania 2
Game 5 Review: USA 4, West Germany 2
Exclusive Craig Patrick Interview

By Dan David, newyorkrangers.com

This evening marks the 30th anniversary of one of the truly great moments in sports history -- the moment of the "Miracle on Ice", when a group of young American hockey upstarts shocked the Soviet machine at Lake Placid.

You know the story, and you've probably seen the various movies. Team USA beat the four-time defending gold medalists 4-3 on Mike Eruzione's game-winning goal halfway through the third period. You also know that the "Miracle on Ice" helped re-energized millions Americans at a time when the national psyche had been beaten up by the Iran hostage crisis, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, double-digit interest rates, and many other problems left over from the less-than-inspiring decade of the 1970s.

It was somewhere betwen 7 p.m. and 8 p.m. on Feb. 22, 1980, that Eruzione scored and then the final minutes ticked off the clock amid thundering cheers of "USA, USA". More than 10,000 people had packed the Olympic Field House that evening at a flat-rate cost of $24.40 per ticket. More than 1,500 people paid full price just to stand through the game.

The buildup to the USA-USSR game had been intense after the American team had shocked the hockey world in Olympic round-robin play by going 5-0-1, including its remarkable rout of Czechslovakia and heroic last-minute tying goal against Sweden.

Hockey had never been a major sport for mainstream Americans, but on Feb. 22, 1980, it was the only one that most of them could talk about. The game against the Soviets was not just a clash of hockey teams, but a clash of nations and ideologies, played out at the height of the Cold War on American soil.

At the same time the U.S. hockey players were preparing to face the Russian, American political leaders were preparing to call for a boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow as a protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. That boycott would not be announced for another month, but most Americans already sensed that their Olympic year would end in Lake Placid, which only added to the tension between the U.S. and Soviet teams.

What happened 30 years ago this evening was history in the making, and prior to the game, Team USA head coach Herb Brooks read his famous speech to the players that included the lines: "You were born to be a player. You were meant to be here."

Inspired by their coach and driven by the impossible dream of beating the Soviets on their path to a gold medal, the Americans came out hitting and got through the first period tied 2-2 on the strength of goals from Buzz Schneider at Mark Johnson. The Johnson goal, scored off the wacky carom of a Ken Morrow desperation shot with one second remaining in the period, supplied the first hint that this might be a fateful night.

USA defenseman Mike Ramsey, who would go on to a standout career in the NHL, lays a hit on Russian legend Valeri Kharlamov, who was killed in a tragic car accident just over a year after his Soviet squad lost to the young Americans at Lake Placid.
Thinking the period had ended before Johnson scored, the Soviets had already left for the locker room when officials called them back for a final faceoff with one second left in the first. Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov was so upset with legendary goaltender Vladislav Tretiak for allowing the second goal that he decided to go with 24-year-old Vladimir Myshkin the rest of the way.

Tikhonov made a very bad decision. Although Myshkin did not allow a goal in the second, enabling the Soviets to grab a 3-2 lead on Alexander Maltsev's power-play goal early in that period, he would collapse in the third, enabling the Americans to tie and win the game.

Johnson scored his second goal of the night, off an assist from future Rangers forward Dave Silk, to tie the game on a power play at 8:39 of the third period. Only 71 seconds later, Eruzione delivered the fateful goal, and the rest is history.

Whenever talk of 1980 arises, it's inevitably accompanied by discussion about how much two things have changed in the world of Olympic hockey since then. First, professional players and NHL stars are now allowed in the Olympics, so the potential for an underdog like Team USA no longer exists. Second, the Cold War is long over, so there are no longer the sort of political overtones that accompanied Olympic competition between U.S. and Russian teams. A game is pretty much just a game rather than a chance for one political system to triumph over another.

The most profound changes in the world since 1980, however, might be the ones no one could have predicted back in 1980 -- the emergence of new technologies that made it possible to follow all sports in real time and the explosion in the commercial value associated with great sports moments, which would come to play a big part in determining when and where those moments would take place.

Why are these changes so dramatic in light of the "Miracle on Ice"? It's simply because the second-most amazing thing about that game 30 years ago this evening was that nobody except the 10,000 people in the arena saw it live. By the time all other Americans heard Al Michaels saying "Do you believe in miracles? Yes!", the game itself had been over for roughly three hours.

In today's world, where the hype surrounding even minor sporting moments can feel much greater than the moments themselves, it is hard to believe that an event of "Miracle on Ice" magnitude was not broadcast in real time. It is even harder to believe that sports fans were able to accept this situation or able to still get excited about something they knew had actually ended before they turned on their television sets. In today's world, three hours is an eternity, and the Internet alone would have made it impossible for a major network to delay a broadcast under the assumption that most people would watch it without knowing the outcome.

DID YOU KNOW?

• The Soviets ended up winning the silver medal in 1980. Since they entered the Olympics in 1956, Soviet and/or Russian teams have won only one other silver medal -- during the first year of NHL participation at Nagano in 1998.

• Even though it once seemed Soviet players would never get out of Russia, five members on the 1980 Soviet Olympic hockey team eventually played in the NHL. They were viacheslav Fetisov, Alexei Kasatonov, Vladimir Krutov, Sergei Makarov, and Sergei Starikov.

• The 1980 Soviet Olympic team produced three Hockey Hall of Famers in Viacheslav Fetisov, Valeri Kharlamov, and Vladislav Tretiak. Herb Brooks and Craig Patrick, in the builder's category, are the only members of Team USA who reached the Hockey Hall of Fame.

• Seven members of the Soviet team had won gold medals at the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck.
But in 1980, you could still put a game on tape delay and assume that only a relatively small portion of the audience would know the result in advance. In fact, the only people outside of the arena who knew the final score before the game were those who were phoned by people in the arena or those who were working at news outlets with access to the Associated Press or United Press International wires.

ESPN was in its infancy on Feb. 22, 1980, and most people didn't get it on their cable systems. CNN did not exist yet and there was no such thing as 24-hour sports talk radio. You had to be an absolute newshound or have a friend in the know that Friday night to be aware of the final score before watching the game on TV. Most people didn't have that kind of access to information, so most people had no problem watching the big game on what they knew to be tape delay.

Hockey Hall of Famer and New York Rangers legend Brian Leetch was among the generation of young American hockey players who would be forever inspired by the 1980 "Miracle on Ice" when they saw it unfold as children. That entire generation ended up leading Team USA to the 1996 World Cup of Hockey championship, as the bulk of the players on that team were between the ages of 7 and 15 when the "Miracle" happened.

Leetch recalls that he was at a hockey tournament with his PeeWee team on the night of Feb. 22, 1980. One of Leetch's coaches knew someone who had either been at the game or was able to tip him off about the score. Leetch's coaches got all of the youngsters together at their hotel to watch the game without telling them what was going to happen. In today's world, a young Leetch would have seen the score on his cellphone before the broadcast even began.

So why wasn't the game shown live? Most people have assumed it's because ABC wanted to hold on to it for prime-time viewing and therefore chose not to show it at a time when fewer eyeballs would have been on their TV sets.

That's not really the story, however. Back then, ABC had set itself up to only broadcast live weekday action from Lake Placid during a prime-time window from 8:30 p.m. to 11 p.m. All other programming during the day remained unchanged on the network, particularly the all-important evening news shows. The Olympics were important, but they weren't important enough to disrupt the viewing habits of most Americans who relied on these news shows for information or the affiliates that made significant revenue from them.

More than 18 months before the Olympics, ABC recognized that hockey scheduling could be a problem. They asked the Lake Placid organizers committee to promise that major hockey games scheduled on weekdays would be moved into the prime-time window. The organizers said this wouldn't be a problem.

On Feb. 20, after Team USA finished second to Sweden in the Blue Division, the schedule for the medal-round was announced. Team USA would face the Soviets at 5 p.m., and Sweden would Finland at 8 p.m. ABC immediately appealed to the Lake Placid organizers to flip the games around, and the organizers said they would try to make that happen.

Unfortunately for ABC and millions of American hockey fans, the only people in position to change the Olympic hockey schedule were officials from the International Ice Hockey Federation. That group said it would consult its leadership about changing the start times, but that it would need unanimous approval from all of the key members of the sport's governing body in order to switch the games. The IIHF was hopeful that it could get authorization to make the switch.

So guess what happened?

One nation refused to grant the IIHF its permission to flip the games. That nation was not revealed at the time, but it was later reported to be the Soviet Union. If, at the height of the Cold War, an American TV network thought it was going to get a favor from the Soviets, it was sorely mistaken.

The USSR had two reasons for refusing to move the first of the medal-round games into prime time. On the one hand, it gave the Soviets a chance to thumb their noses at the United States, which was already talking about pulling out of the Moscow Games. On the other hand, it ensured that the game would begin prior to midnight in Moscow, meaning that more Russians were likely to watch their team humililate the U.S. squad. That would turn out to be an even bigger miscalculation than the decision to take Tretiak out of the net.

So the game went on as scheduled. ABC sent broadcasters Al Michaels and Ken Dryden to the Olympic Field House to call the big game on tape because there was no way to make it live on short notice anyway. The final medal-round game against Finland, which would be played at 11 a.m. on a Sunday, wasn't a problem for ABC to broadcast live, but the "Miracle on Ice" got caught up in red tape.

ABC had paid $15 million for U.S. broadcast rights to the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics. Thirty years later, a package including the 2010 Vancouver Games and the 2012 Summer Games in London cost NBC more than $2.2 billion dollars. While technology has ensured that a broadcast of a major sporting event like the "Miracle on Ice" will never again be relegated to tape deay, economics have also given broadcasters a seat at the table when it comes to making hockey schedules. How else is it that even before the 2010 Olympics started, the public already knew the start times for Team USA games in both the quarterfinal and semifinal rounds?

In the world that existed on Feb. 22, 1980, a miracle wasn't just the outcome of a hockey game. It was also the notion that there could be a world with mobile phones, instant access to information, and the comfort of knowing that no important hockey game might ever be seen for the first time on tape.

USA 4, USSR 3


First Period Scoring


1. USSR -- Vladimir Krutov (Alexei Kasatonov), 9:12
2. USA -- Buzz Schneider (Mark Pavelich), 14:03
3. USSR -- Sergei Makarov (Alexander Golikov), 17:34
4. USA -- Mark Johnson (Dave Christian, Dave Silk), 19:59

Second Period Scoring


5. USSR -- Alexander Maltsev (Krutov), 2:18 (PP)

Third Period Scoring

5. USA -- Johnson (Silk), 8:39 (PP)
6. USA -- Mike Eruzione (Pavelich, John Harrington), 10:00

Shots on Goal


USA -- 8-2-6 -- 16
USSR -- 18-12-9 -- 39

Goaltenders: Jim Craig (USA) and Vladislav Tretiak/Vladimir Myshkin (USSR)