**Southern Nevada Sports Hall of Famer, Steve Carp’s returns to SinBin.vegas for the 2019-20 season. His weekly column publishes every Sunday during the Golden Knights season and is brought to you by the Jimmerson Law Firm.**
Reunions can be a joyous occasion.
Every year around this time, anniversary stories get written about arguably the greatest upset in the history of sports. The “Miracle On Ice” at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y. should be at the top, or near the top of every sports fan’s list.
USA 4, USSR 3.
This coming Saturday, they’ll be celebrating the 40th anniversary of the event in, of all places, Las Vegas. Virtually all of the surviving members of the “Miracle” team will be at the Thomas & Mack Center during the afternoon where they’ll relive the events and no doubt stoke the patriotic embers inside every person who attends.
Later that day, they’ll be honored at the Golden Knights game against Florida at T-Mobile Arena. And you know the U-S-A! chants will be deafening.
They did something similar five years ago and like then, the players who attend the Las Vegas event are being well-paid to do so. Frankly, I don’t have a problem with that. If they can continue to cash in on their celebrity 40 years later, more power to them. And if you choose to support this with ticket purchases, jersey sales and other memorabilia that will be peddled, I’m fine with that as well. Have at it.
These guys weren’t really able to financially capitalize on their accomplishments back in 1980. Of the 20 guys who were on the top of the podium at Lake Placid, 13 went on to play in the NHL, the best being defenseman Ken Morrow, who won four Stanley Cups with the New York Islanders and was George McPhee’s college teammate at Bowling Green prior to playing on the blue line for Herb Brooks.
Together, this group shocked the world and Americans who didn’t know a blue line from a red line, suddenly became hockey aficionados.
You can argue about Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson in 1990 in Tokyo being the bigger upset. You could try to make a case for the New York Jets beating the Baltimore Colts in 1969 in Super Bowl III. Some may say Leicester City’s winning the English Premier League championship in 2016 was the greatest upset ever. You might even try to cite No. 16-seed Maryland-Baltimore County’s beating top-seeded Virginia in the 2018 NCAA Basketball Tournament as the biggest.
You can try, but you would be wrong.
No, what happened in Lake Placid on a chilly, and I believe snowy, Friday night on Feb. 22, 1980 trumps everything. How? It changed an entire nation’s view of a sport. It was cool to play and watch hockey. It wasn’t just Canada’s game anymore.
Of course, the U.S. had shocked the world 20 years before at the Winter Games in Squaw Valley, Calif., when it won the hockey gold medal, beating Canada, the Russians and Czechoslovakia in what was the first “Miracle On ice.”
But let’s go back to what happened right before they lit the flame at Lake Placid in 1980.
You probably forgot what took place at Madison Square Garden when the Soviet Union beat the Americans 10-3 in what was the final tuneup for the Olympics. And as the tournament began, the idea that a bunch of college kids could beat the Russian pros, guys who had taken NHL teams to the woodshed, was preposterous.
The fact the U.S. managed to get to the medal round itself is a miracle. They scored in the final seconds on a goal by Bill Baker to tie Sweden 2-2. If the Americans lose that game, there is no “Miracle.”
In their next game, they shocked a strong Czechoslovakia team, 7-3, which normally would have been the highlight of the Olympics. Instead, they gained momentum with wins over Norway, Romania and Germany and made it to the medal round from their group along with the Swedes. And that set up the semifinal showdown with the Russians.
We all know what happened. Mike Eruzione’s ultimate game-winning goal in the third period. Al Michaels’ call of the final seconds on ABC: “Do you believe in miracles?” If you’re old enough, I’m guessing you remember where you were that Friday night when you heard the news on the radio (the game was televised on tape delay for most of America) or if you were able to not know the result and watched it unfold on TV or even read it in the newspaper Saturday morning.
I was driving home from work in San Jose and I damn near drove off Highway 17 when I heard the news. I got home, turned on the TV and watched how it unfolded.
I have three distinct memories from Feb. 22, 1980.
First, was Mark Johnson’s goal at the end of the first period which tied the game 2-2, and more important, chased Vladislav Tretiak, the great Soviet goalie, from the net. If Tretiak stays in goal, I don’t know if the Americans score twice more and win.
Second, I’ll always remember how the U.S. handled its composure once it got the lead on Eruzione’s goal. The Russians were coming at them literally in waves, pressing for the equalizer. Remember, this is the same team that blitzed the Americans for 10 goals at the Garden just over two weeks before.
Yet, there was no panic. Jim Craig, the American goalie, did his job, repelling shot after shot. The guys in front of him limited their mistakes in their own end and they would be rewarded for that effort.
Finally, there was still on more game to play to win the gold medal. How would they be able to get up, both emotionally and physically, to play early Sunday afternoon against Finland?
This is where Brooks may have been at his finest. Yes, he was able to convince the college kids they could hang with the mighty Russians. But now, he had one final job of psychological massaging to do.
After two periods, the Finns led 2-1. According to Eruzione, Brooks’ message to his guys before the third period was simple: “If you lose this game, you’ll take it to your f—ng graves.” He then walked towards the locker room door, paused, looked over his shoulder, and said to them again, “Your f—ng graves.”
They got the message. Three goals in the final 20 minutes got them the gold with a 4-2 win.
Unlike 1960, the aftermath of this Miracle On ice was the number of kids playing hockey spiked throughout the United States. There would be other factors in the growth of the sport, among them being Wayne Gretzky’s playing in Los Angeles for the Kings, which would spark expansion to other Sun Belt cities, including Las Vegas, years later.
When I see boys and girls playing hockey at City National Arena, when I watch UNLV’s club team and the high school programs in town, when I see ice rinks being developed in Henderson and the fact Southern Nevada will have both an NHL and an AHL team next fall, I think about Buzz Schneider, Phil Verchota, Eric Strobel, John Harrington and all the guys who sacrificed to represent their country and in their own unique way, helped grow this great sport decades later.
Yes, there’s Eruzione and Johnson and Morrow and Craig.
I also think of Bob Suter, who died in 2014 at age 57, and Mark Pavelich, who won’t be at the Thomas & Mack because he’s dealing with some mental health issues and is institutionalized. And of course, there’s Brooks, who knew how to kick ass on his players but also knew when to back off and show them respect and love and who believed in all of them. There’s a statue of Brooks, who died in 2003, outside the Xcel Energy Center in St. Paul where the Wild plays. It’s a fitting tribute.
And it’s why we should always remember what happened in 1980 in upstate New York and why we should be indebted to them for what they accomplished.
For more information on the Miracle On Ice 40th reunion at the Thomas & Mack Center, go to relivethemiracle2020.com.
**Steve Carp is the author of “Vegas Born — The remarkable story of the Golden Knights.” Follow him on Twitter @stevecarp56. All of Steve Carp’s work here on SinBin.vegas is presented to you by the Jimmerson Law Firm. For over twenty-five years, the Jimmerson Law Firm has been widely recognized as one of Las Vegas’s preeminent full-service law firms. Specializing in high stakes business, civil and family litigation, the Jimmerson Law Firm has an unparalleled track record of winning when it matters most. To reach the Jimmerson Law Firm, call (702) 388-7171 and tell them SinBin.vegas sent you.**