Miracle men: It was 37 years ago, today

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

It was 37 years ago today that America experienced perhaps its finest sports moment in its history. And we couldn’t see it live.

The country had been reeling since Vietnam, inflation was killing paychecks, and nuclear war with the Soviet Union seemed inevitable.

The United States couldn’t buy a win.

And hockey wasn’t really our sport. The Soviets were the best in the world. But then a coach from St. Paul and some kids from Minnesota and New England (mostly) got hot.

We couldn’t see it live. Cable TV channels hadn’t yet taken root and back in the day, it was death to preempt soap operas. Besides, ABC could sell primetime commercial advertising at a higher price.

ABC tried to get the game rescheduled to a night game so it could broadcast live, but the Soviets opposed the idea because it would air at 1 a.m. in Moscow. The Soviets won, as was the nature of things back then.

Because it was a weekday afternoon game, we all had to go to extraordinary lengths to avoid any information about it, not easy in my case; I worked at an ABC Radio affiliate which was carrying the game.

When the contest was broadcast that evening, it was edited down to save time for coverage of skiing.

The game was voted the top sports moment of the 20th Century, even though it wasn’t the gold-medal game. That would come a day or so later, and that game was carried live because it was a weekend.

A lot of things have changed in 37 years. Quite a few members of the team — including Defenseman Bob Suter and coach Herb Brooks are dead. The surviving players are old men. Our sense of patriotism comes on actual battlefields. And it’s no longer possible to keep a secret in today’s media landscape.

But most of all, we wonder if we will ever again have a shared and unifying sports experience that really wasn’t about sports at all?

  • wjc

    You wrote: “The ones who are alive are old men.”

    Come on, man! Neal Broten is 57, Phil Verchota is 60. Are they really old men?

    Pretty thrilling stuff, though! I walked into a grocery store in Dinkytown (Meier’s) during the game and it was playing over their PA system. I tried to plug my ears, but I could tell that the game was going well for the US.

    It was fun to watch that night even though I had heard spoilers which cut the level of suspense.

    • I was hoping you wouldn’t have to find out this way.

    • Jack

      Old men indeed. I’m 51 and was in junior high. Heard about the win in Mr. Nelson’s music class.

    • Carol S.

      My husband was inducted into the Minnesota State High School League Hall of Fame the same year that Broten was inducted. I swear he was more excited to meet him than he was about getting inducted himself. It was fun to watch them talk. Broten still looked like he could skate pretty well.

  • MrE85

    I’m sure I mentioned this before, but I watched the ending of that game alongside John Mellencamp, who had come to his usual table for some beer and pizza. Rap’s Pizza Train, a funky (and now defunct) bar/deli/restaurant in Bloomington, IN.

    • Gary F

      He might have still been John Cougar back then.

      • Robert Moffitt

        He was. His band was called “The Zone.”

        • dukepowell

          Never knew that.

          • Robert Moffitt

            Yep. They used to play gigs at The Bluebird, which I think is still there. He came to Rap’s because we were one of the few places in town then with a Sunday liquor license.

    • Rob

      Did you and John do some jamming?

      • Robert Moffitt

        No, but some years later, I ran over his mom’s mailbox. That was my last encounter with the Mellencamp family.

        • Jerry

          Were you like “Lord, this must be my destination”?

          • Robert Moffitt

            Nah, John bought his mom a nice house. You can still see the “Tastee Freez” mentioned in the song — it’s still serving ice cream as “The Chocolate Moose.” There is also a quick shot of another Bloomington icon, Nick’s English Hut. It’s been there since the 1920’s.

        • Was that in front of a little pink house by any chance?

    • Jerry

      You were just two American kids, growing up in the heartland.

      • Robert Moffitt

        Truth.

  • Michelle

    I was spending the college year in Denmark and was on break traveling in France. As a reminder, just that fall Russia had invaded Afghanistan which the US had not been very happy about. Except for the very occasional English newspaper ( why would we buy a newspaper when we could buy beer!) we were cut off from US News –this was pre internet, email etc. A French shopkeeper stopped us (we were obviously Americans) and squealed “USA, Russia”. My heart sunk to my stomach-all I could think of was that we were at war and I was on the wrong side of the ocean! Luckily he continued with “eeece hockey” and pantomimed a hockey shot. Luckily my now husband had a clue that he was talking about the Olympics. We had no idea they were even playing each other. I have never forgotten that moment . My small version of the cold war.

  • Zachary

    why, yes. Yes I do believe in miracles.

  • KTFoley

    Had to turn the volume all the way up, to hear that cheering one more time.

    The post-game handshake line was de rigeur back then. Is it still?

  • Jack Ungerleider

    February 1980 – I was a kid from NY experiencing his first winter in Minnesota. At a small liberal arts college we didn’t watch much TV and when it came to news I got more on (I think it was) Friday morning, than any other time, when I did a stint on the campus radio station and would rip and read the news from our wire service printer every so often.

    I was blissfully unaware of the whole thing.

  • Anna

    We will never see another amateur U.S. Olympic hockey team of that caliber again.

    The Olympics has lost some of its magic because the U.S. teams are no longer strictly manned with amateur athletes for both the Winter and the Summer Games.

    The numerous doping and cheating scandals of recent years have tarnished its once golden reputation.

    The 1980 U.S. Men’s Olympic hockey team played for the love and challenge of the sport. Do college athletes do that anymore or are college sports just another training camp for professional sports teams?

    I watch the movie about that miraculous win every winter. It’s a reflection of a different time and a different era.

  • Rob

    Herb Brooks was not a smiley guy, and I recall that there was quite a flap when the eerily grinning statue of ol’ Herb was revealed and put on permanent display in the early ’90s outside the Ordway in downtown St. Paul. It’s still kind of jarring to drive or walk past the statue and be creeped out by this historically inaccurate rendering.

  • Ralphy

    You might this of interest:

    https://mobile.nytimes.com/2005/02/22/sports/hockey/the-other-side-of-the-miracle-on-ice.html

    121 bottles of vodka! I’m impressed.

  • dukepowell

    Having grown up on southern Indiana, I was a basketball fanatic. Moving to Minnesota, and never learning how to skate, it was my initial thought that hockey was a poor substitute for competent basketball. Watching a few high school hockey tournaments changed my mind..

    In 1980 I was in Mankato and eager to watch the Russia vs. U.S. game. Finding out that it was not to be televised live prompted me to call ABC Sports in New York.

    I got through.

    The guy I spoke with explained, in detail and consistent with Bob’s explanation, why they couldn’t broadcast it live. At the end of the short conversation, I’ll never forget what he said, “You don’t really think they can win, do you?”

    I still chuckle when I think about it.

    This story also reminds me of meeting Herb Brooks and having a short chat about 14 hours before he was killed. That kinda makes me sad.

    • Great story.

      and a great reminder what an awful tragedy, Herbie’s accident was.

      • dukepowell

        I was invited to a charity golf tournament at Giants Ridge and was at a well attended dinner the night before. Near the end of the festivities, the MC drew everyone’s attention to the back of the room.

        Herb Brooks had made a late appearance and received a loud, sustained standing ovation.

        Mentioning to the guys that were seated around the table that I had always wanted to meet Brooks, someone offered an introduction. We walked to the back of the room, the introduction was made, and I spent a charmed minute in a conversation that I can’t remember.

        The next morning I was off to the Legend’s course and caught a glimpse of Brooks as he was on to play at the Quarry. As I remember it, this was the first time the Quarry was open for play.

        Having a very pressing schedule, I was off the course after 18 holes and went directly to my car for the trip back to the Twin Cities. Shortly after I was able to dial in 1500 KSTP, I heard that there was a terrible wreck on Hwy 65 (my route) and traffic was backed up. A while later it was reported that Herb Brooks had died in that crash.

        I didn’t believe it. No one had gotten off the golf course earlier than I did. There was no way Brooks could have been that far (a couple of hours) ahead of me.

        Later I found out he left after 9 holes.