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Memories of the Miracle on Ice

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SOCHI – Thirty-four years have drifted by, and I’ll bet every month since I have thought at least once about the Miracle on Ice.

Memories of childhood fade in and out – blurry snippets of playground games and classroom boredom, gasoline lines and Rocky movies, Happy Days sitcoms and disco on the radio – but that one Olympic hockey game, the United States against the Soviet Union in February 1980, stays sharp and colorful and so present it almost feels like I could take a step back and live it again.

We sat in our family room on an old sofa with a couple of springs peeking through, and we stared at a Magnavox 21-inch television that had perpetual static. It was a Friday night. I recall snow. My mother had gone out to play cards, so it was a boys club, with Dad and my two younger brothers sitting there. I was 13.  I knew almost nothing about the game. I knew only that we were in a cold war with the Russians – as boys we would cynically calculate how many times each country could blow up the world with nuclear weapons — and that our U.S. hockey team had no chance to win.

Then Olympic host Jim McKay came on to introduce the game. And behind him, people were screaming, ‘U.S.A! U.SA!” I remember McKay saying that, although the game had already happened, he would not be the one to reveal the score. In retrospect, seeing all those Americans chanting and celebrating probably should have tipped us off.

Instead, I remember my Dad saying: “I wonder if they kept the score close.”

VIDEO: Watch U.S.-Russia (Saturday, 7:30 am ET) live online

The story is so familiar – at least our American version of the story. A driven man named Herb Brooks had come up with a plan to play with the invulnerable Russians. It was actually a plan to BEAT the Russians, but even Brooks was too timid to fully believe such a thing was possible. The Russians had won the previous four Olympic gold medals. And the talk was the 1980 team was the best of them all.

Brooks had famously been the last person cut from the 1960 U.S. hockey team, which in the first version of the miracle on ice, beat the Soviets and won gold in Squaw Valley. He watched that gold medal game with his father, and when it ended Herb Sr. told his son, “Well, I guess the coach cut the right guy.”

This bluntness, bordering on cruelty, infused the son. Herb Brooks Jr. was obsessed with an idea: Americans playing the Russian style of hockey, beautiful, fast and loose, brisk passes, lots of possession time, five attackers moving as one. The style didn’t come naturally to him; Brooks had won three national championships at Minnesota while coaching exactly the opposite style (physical hockey, lots of dumping of the puck and chasing after it). But he was convinced the only way to play with the Soviets was to play their game.

He handpicked a team of fast and skilled young players he believed could adapt. And he drove them relentlessly. He had this drill everyone called “Herbies,” a back-and-forth skating nightmare that left even the best-conditioned players vomiting. The long training camp was a never-ending series of Herbies. One night, after a bad loss, they skated Herbies even after the arena had shut out the lights. And mind games. And threats. And insults. Behind his back, they called him “Ayatollah Khomeini.”

Put it this way: A few weeks before the Olympics he called in his captain and future American sports hero Mike Eruzione and threatened to cut him.

“Did you believe him?” I asked Eruzione.

“Sure I believed him,” Eruzione said. “We were more scared of him than the Soviets.”

Those intense feelings, for some, did not fade until Brooks died in a car accident in 2003. One year earlier, Brooks did not join the team for the Olympic torch-lighting ceremony in Salt Lake City. He said that he was invited, but he didn’t think it was right to go. “One of them might push me in,” he said, and it wasn’t entirely clear that he was joking.

Related: Catching up with Miracle on Ice icon Mike Eruzione

The first time the U.S. played the Russians in 1980 – 13 days before the Miracle – they lost 10-3 in Madison Square Garden. It was such an insane mismatch that the actual Olympic game seemed pointless.

Al Michaels was in Lake Placid already to call the Olympics for ABC, but he called that game off a television feed to practice. “All I can tell you is that it was a joke,” he says. “The score was 10-3; it looked like 20-0. That score doesn’t do justice to the game. … I think we all believed the Americans were better than that. But the Soviets were SO good.”

Then, maybe that game was where the magic began. Brooks hinted through the years that the Madison Square Garden game was a bit of a setup, that he did not unleash the open style that they had been working on, and that he did not bother trying to settle down his team when they began to panic.

“Have fun,” he had told his team before the game according to Wayne Coffey’s fantastic book The Boys of Winter, and no player could ever remember Brooks using the word “fun” at any other time.

Whether purposeful or not the blowout did two things:

  • It freed the U.S. team to play with abandon in the Olympic game. There is nothing quite like the freedom that goes with having no chance.
  • It made the Soviets wildly overconfident.

The game itself played out like a dream. There were 8,500 fans crowded into the arena in Lake Placid (including seven-time Olympic gold medalist Eric Heiden and M*A*S*H co-star Jamie Farr), many of them armed with giant American flags. It was a gloomy time in America. There were hostages in Iran, round-the-block gas lines, high inflation and an increasingly cold war with the Soviets that would lead to an American boycott of the Summer Games in Moscow.  The entire nation was ready to explode for something good.

The Soviets scored quickly, and the U.S. team tied the game. The Soviets scored again to make it 2-1 when the game’s pivotal play happened. With the first period running out, American Dave Christian hit a slap shot that the Soviet’s great goaltender Vladislav Tretiak uncharacteristically misplayed, allowing the puck to bounce in front. American Mark Johnson slipped through and slapped the puck past Tretiak for the tying goal. There was one second left on the clock.

There was a huge argument then about whether the goal should count – and lost in the argument was the most shocking move of the entire game. Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov was so angry about the goal and the way the game was going he removed the great Tretiak from the game. Almost no one noticed it until the start of the next period, when there was a buzz on the American bench.

“Oh my God,” the U.S. players whispered to each other. “They pulled Tretiak.”

It has become popular legend that the pulling of Tretiak changed the whole complexion of the game. And the players do remember feeling a jolt of confidence after it happened. But the reality is that the Soviets utterly dominated the second period, out-shooting the Americans 12-2 and controlling the game more or less for every minute. But the Soviets scored only one goal.

“The way (U.S. goaltender) Jim Craig played in that second period, to me that was the whole game,” Michaels says. “The saves he made that period, some of them were ridiculous. If he lets in even one more goal, it’s 4-2, forget it, the game’s over. But at 3-2, there’s a chance for something.”

Related: ‘Miracle On Ice’ haunts triple champion ex-Soviet goaltender

Then came the miracle. Johnson scored the game-tying goal, and with about 10 minutes left Eruzione took a shot from the slot that beat goaltender Vladimir Myshkin to give the United States 4-3 lead. The final 10 minutes were glorious and agonizing and wonderful as the Soviets peppered away at the American goalie. One shot by Aleksandr Maltsev hit the post. The final two minutes, the Soviets fired wild shot after wild shot.

“We were panicking,” the Soviets’ young defenseman Sergei Starikov would tell Coffey.

And then, at the very end, Al Michaels made the call: “Five seconds left in the game. Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”

And the American team celebrated wildly. Jim Craig was wrapped in the American flag. The team skated around the rink in disbelief. Flags flapped so hard that the entire arena cooled. Herb Brooks went to tunnel to have his own quiet moment.

And in our little house in Cleveland – like in homes all over the country — we all jumped around like crazy people and did believe.

OK, so that was our point of view. It obviously was different here in Russia. Here, nobody could understand how their great team – the greatest team in the world – could lose to a bunch of American college kids.

“Their team beating our team,” Tretiak would say many years later. “It truly was a miracle. Such a thing will never be repeated.”

Tretiak says that, even then, he could not help but feel admiration for the gritty American team. But he never would understand why he was pulled. “Ask the coach,” he said. Tretiak said he never talked about it with the coach, Viktor Tikhonov. Nobody talked about such things with Tikhonov.

VIDEO: U.S. ready for its showdown with Russia

If Herb Brooks was a fierce leader during his time as U.S. hockey coach, Tikhonov was a dictator. He controlled every aspect of Soviet hockey. He made the players live in barracks 11 months out of the year. He made them play exactly the way he wanted them to play. Many have wondered why the Soviets didn’t remove the goalie, play with an empty net and try to attack 6-on-5 in the final seconds of the game. The answer was simple. Tikhonov didn’t play with an empty net.

To an outsider, Tikhonov was the very picture of what was behind the iron curtain. He was grim and severe-looking and seemingly humorless and unapproachable. He had been given the Soviet hockey team shortly after their won bronze at the World Championships in 1977 – the first time in 15 years they had not won gold of silver. His directive was simple: Fix this.

And Tikhonov did fix it the same way Vince Lombardi built the Green Bay Packers and the same way Bill Belichick built the New England Patriots – that is by controlling every single aspect of Soviet hockey. The American players might have despised Brooks, but Tikhonov was such an overwhelming presence in his players’ lives that such mundane feelings as “like” and “dislike” simply didn’t apply.

“He was cold to us,” Tretiak would say. But Tikhonov – marrying the Old Russian style of speed and rhythm with a certain conservatism he carried naturally – built an almost invincible force. At the 1979 World Championships, the Russians beat Czechoslovakia 11-1, then beat Canada 9-2, they crushed Czechoslovakia again 6-1 to win the gold. The 1980 Olympics looked like they would be easy.

Tikhonov was actually ill during those Olympics, though he would never say a word about it. He would come to regret two things. One, he would regret that he could never quite wake up his team after their 10-3 victory over the United States just before the Olympics.  He told them again and again not to be overconfident, not to take the Americans lightly, not to put too much stock in that game. But he could see that his words weren’t sinking in.  “The players told me it would be no problem,” Tikhonov told Coffey. “It turned out to be a very big problem.”

In truth, even he might have been overconfident, which led to his pulling of Tretiak. He was so angry after the goal right at the end of the period that, he said, he let his emotions get the best of him. Anyway LOSING the game never occurred to him. He pulled Tretiak to send a message to his team but he did not think it would matter in the result. “My blood was boiling,” he would say. “It was my worst mistake. It was my biggest regret.”

The rest of the game played out like a bad dream for the Soviets. They would rather not remember. In 2002, when Vlacheslav Fetisov coached the Russian team, we asked him what he remembered from that game. “I don’t remember,” he said. “That was many concussions ago.”

And Tikhonov would say he never saw the game on film. “I saw it once,” he said. “That was enough.”

* * *

Michaels had no idea how big his “Do you believe in miracles” call had become. This is because – and not many people know this – he stayed around after the call to announce the Finland-Sweden hockey game. He says that he and color commentator Ken Dryden did not even have time to talk about the game before having to focus on the next one. When he left the arena, he walked to the hotel and the street was still buzzing. But he still had no idea.

“I remember somebody came up to me in the hotel later and said, ‘that was so great what you said at the end,’” Michaels says. “And I remember thinking, ‘What did I say?’

For weeks and months after the game, Michaels said he would get letters from people. The letters weren’t only about the call. Many of them were heartfelt, tear-stained; people talked about how for the first time in so many years they were proud to be Americans. After a while, Michaels wondered why people kept sending HIM those letters.

And then it occurred to him: He was the one with an address. After the Miracle game, after the U.S. won the gold medal, the team broke apart. Some went to play in the NHL. Some went back to college. Some went to work. There was no more 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, no organization to how much it meant.

So people wrote instead to Michaels, care of ABC on Sixth Avenue.

“I still have many of those letters,” he says. “They were so heartfelt. I’ve often said, that team made it cool to be patriotic.”

* * *

So the United States and Russia play again Saturday, and it has nothing at all to do with 1980. There is no Soviet Union. There is no cold war. Everyone is a professional. The Russian team features Alex Ovechkin, who in his real life is the biggest sports star in Washington.

But it’s still USA-Russia. And there is a player on the Russian team named Viktor Tikhonov. He’s the great coach’s grandson. He grew up in San Jose – his father Vasili was a San Jose Sharks coach – and he sounds utterly like a California guy. Young Viktor is playing for his father, who died six months ago in a horrible fall while trying to fix a broken window screen in his Moscow apartment.

Viktor says that the tragedy has brought him closer to his grandfather. He knows the reputation of Viktor Tikhonov, the ferocious coach who, after the 1980 defeat, led the Soviet Union to the gold at the next three Olympics. He says that he only knows a kindly grandfather. He says he never asked about 1980.

In fact, young Viktor Tikhonov has also never seen that game. He has refused to see the movie “Miracle” about that game.  When asked why, he shrugs. He’s a Tikhonov. The game that still fascinates America all these years later means something very different to a Tikhonov.

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Alexander Radulov is the x-factor for the Canadiens

SOCHI, RUSSIA - FEBRUARY 16:  Alexander Radulov #47 of Russia celebrates after scoring a goal in a shoot out against Jan Laco #50 of Slovakia during the Men's Ice Hockey Preliminary Round Group A game on day nine of the Sochi 2014 Winter Olympics at Bolshoy Ice Dome on February 16, 2014 in Sochi, Russia.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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The Montreal Canadiens just went through a potentially franchise altering offseason that saw them keep the coach and GM that presided over one of the biggest collapses in franchise history, trade the most popular player on the team (P.K. Subban), and then go all in on toughening up the lineup by trading for Andrew Shaw.

It was such a crazy offseason that the addition of Alexander Radulov, perhaps one of the most intriguing and fascinating moves of the offseason by any team in the league, has almost completely slid under the radar and been forgotten about. And he might be one of the most important players on the team when it comes to the Canadiens’ success this season.

Nearly a decade ago Radulov looked to be on his way to stardom in the NHL before he abruptly left for the KHL, a league he dominated for the better part of the past eight years minus his brief return to Nashville (that also had some controversy with it).

Now he is back for another run at the NHL.

While Shaw, one of the team’s other big offseason additions, was getting ejected from his preseason debut with his new team on Tuesday night, Radulov had a dramatically different night on the ice. He not only recorded a pair of points by scoring an early goal and then assisting on a Nathan Beaulieu goal, but he also looked like a top-line player.

Yes, it is only one preseason game. But it was at the very least a small glimpse at the potential that Radulov could bring to a team that so desperately needs what he could provide.

What’s especially amazing about all of this is that a player like Shaw is going to be the one that gets the bulk of the attention because of the way he plays and the energy he brings.

Beaulieu heaped a massive amount of praise on both Radulov and Shaw for the way the played on Tuesday, pointing out that both bring elements the team had lacked. But he seemed to be especially fired up by Shaw’s performance. He hit on all of the key points that come with a player like Shaw, especially when it came to his gesturing to the crowd for more noise during his fight with Nathan Walker.

“I love it. He is my favorite player,” said Beaulieu. “That was awesome. That’s also something we were probably missing the last couple of years, a little bit of emotion. That is something he brings. I absolutely love seeing that. He is instantly a fan favorite just from doing that. Although it’s a preseason game, he’s a physical guy, he’s passionate about hockey. I can guarantee you everyone in this room absolutely loved it.”

“He’s just such an emotional wrecking ball, he drove me absolutely crazy last year, for him to just step in he is so comfortable already. The way he can get 20,000 people behind him like that, he is a special individual.”

That is all well and good, and there is definitely an emotional element to all of this that Shaw does bring, and you can not completely toss things like that that out the window. But the No. 1 priority here is still putting the puck in the net and scoring goals. That is the big thing that has been missing for the Canadiens over the past two years, a window where the team only scored 430 goals. That number put them 20th in the league over that stretch. Of the nine teams below them, only two of them (Vancouver and Philadelphia) qualified for the playoffs in either those seasons (one appearance for each, with neither advancing beyond the first round).

The lesson here: You can not succeed being as punchless as the Canadiens have been offensively the past two years.

Even with players like Subban (before the trade), Max Pacioretty (one of the NHL’s best goal scorers) and Alex Galchenyuk (already a 30-goal scorer whose best days should still be ahead of him) offense has been a major struggle for the team. They need to score more, and you are not going to emotion the puck into the net. Whether it comes down to the system put in place by the coaching staff, the talent assembled by the front office, or some other intangible factor, the team has simply not scored enough goals and has fallen into a hole where it will only go as far as a healthy Carey Price can take it.

Fortunately for Montreal, Price looks ready to go after missing almost all of the 2015-16 season due to injury. But for as good as he is, he still should not need to be constantly put into a position where he has to be nearly perfect every night for his team to have a chance to win.

Even though Radulov might not be the player he was eight years ago (he is, after all, 30 years old instead of 22) or score the way he did against lesser competition in the KHL, he is still a big-time NHL talent that can be a top-line player.

He is still a player that brings a potential element that the Canadiens have lacked more than emotion and fire.

His ability to be that player (and he has to get the opportunity from the coach, and not get instantly glued to the bench the first time something goes wrong with him on the ice) might have a much bigger impact on the success of the Canadiens than almost anybody else not named Price.

Canada beats Team Europe 3-1 in Game 1 of World Cup Final

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 27: Steven Stamkos #91 of Team Canada is congratulated by his teammates after scoring a first period goal against Team Europe during Game One of the World Cup of Hockey final series at Air Canada Centre on September 27, 2016 in Toronto, Canada.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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The good news for Team Europe is they were able to hang with Team Canada for most of the night in Game 1 of the World Cup final on Tuesday night.

The bad news for Team Europe is Canada, while playing perhaps its worst game of the tournament, was still good enough to win, 3-1, and take a 1-0 lead in the series. Canada is now in a position where it can win the tournament with a victory on Thursday night.

Early on this seemed like it was going to be Europe’s chance to get the upper hand in the series, but they just could not generate enough offense, especially on the power play that has still not scored a goal in the tournament, to take advantage of what was probably an off night for Canada. That sort of off night from Canada probably will not happen again on Thursday.

Even though it did not look as dominant as some of their other performances in the tournament, it was still pretty much the same recipe for Team Canada. The Sidney CrosbyBrad MarchandPatrice Bergeron line provided the bulk of the offense, they shut the game down over the second and third periods defensively, and Carey Price built a wall around his net and made the saves his team needed him to make.

Marchand, just one day after signing his eight-year contract extension with the Boston Bruins, opened the scoring just two minutes into the first period when he scored his third goal of the tournament. Ten minutes later Steven Stamkos gave Canada a 2-0 lead when he scored his first goal of the tournament, finishing an odd-man rush with Ryan Getzlaf.

After a Tomas Tatar goal cut the deficit to just a single goal for Team Europe in the second period, they had a great opportunity to tie the game when Andrej Sekera had a breakaway that was turned aside by Price to keep the lead. Even though the game remained close, they never really had a better opportunity to tie the game. They were clearly missing Marian Gaborik who was injured in the semifinal game against Sweden. He could be sidelined for eight weeks as a result of that injury.

Bergeron added to the Canada lead and pretty much put the game out of reach midway through the third period with his second goal of the tournament. That goal was assisted by Crosby, his second point of the game, giving him a tournament leading nine points.

Canadiens’ Andrew Shaw ejected for boarding Capitals’ Connor Hobbs

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Will Montreal Canadiens forward Andrew Shaw be the first player to get a phone call from the NHL’s department of player safety this season? Based on the second period of Tuesday’s preseason game against the Washington Capitals, he certainly could be.

Shaw, playing in his first exhibition game with his new team, was ejected from the game late in the second period for boarding Connor Hobbs.

Immediately after the hit, Shaw found himself in a fight with Washington’s Nathan Walker, a sequence that involved Shaw earning 30 penalty minutes — a five-minute major for boarding, a five-minute major for fighting, a 10-minute misconduct, and a 10-minute game misconduct. As Shaw was involved in his fight with Walker, he was gesturing to the Montreal crowd for noise and then managed to get one extra shot in at Walker after he was down on the ice.

It was a eventful period for Shaw who found himself in the middle of multiple incidents in a short period of time. Along with everything mentioned above, he was also taken down in the neutral zone by Jay Beagle on what looked to be a slew foot. Here is a look at both of those incidents (the Beagle on Shaw incident, and the Shaw on Hobbs hit) via @MarcDumont.

Shaw was a major addition for the Canadiens this offseason, along with Shea Weber in the P.K. Subban trade, as they tried to add more toughness to their lineup.

Islanders goalie situation could leave Jean-Francois Berube in tough spot

NEW YORK, NY - APRIL 02:  Jean-Francois Berube #30 of the New York Islanders watches a shot just miss the net during the first period against the Pittsburgh Penguins on April 2, 2016 in the Brooklyn borough of New York City.  (Photo by Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
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The problem with having two capable NHL goaltenders is that only one of them can play at a time, and somebody that probably deserves to get more playing time is going to be stuck on the bench.

That situation gets even more complicated when you have three capable goalies, all of whom are signed to one-way contracts.

That is the situation the New York Islanders are looking at as they enter training camp with Jaroslav Halak, Thomas Greiss and Jean-Francois Berube all under contract for this season. It is a similar situation to the one they faced at times last season when all three goalies were healthy and Berube spent most of the year sitting in the press box as a healthy scratch, never really getting any meaningful playing time at either the NHL or AHL levels.

With Halak and Greiss both playing for Team Europe at the World Cup (Halak is stealing the show, and perhaps the tournament) it is allowing Berube to get some early playing time in camp. But once Halak and Greiss return, things are going to get very crowded, very quickly.

Berube acknowledged that possibility on Tuesday. Here he is talking about the situation this week, via Newsday‘s Arthur Staple:

“I know it’s a possibility to happen again. I have no idea what’s going to come when those guys get back. I’m trying to focus on getting as much work in as I can and use this time to get prepared for the season.”

“We all know it’s not the greatest situation,” Berube said of having three goaltenders. “For me, I play my best when I play a lot and I’m used to playing a lot. We just have to see what happens.”

Halak is by far the most established of the three goalies, both in terms of experience and performance.

His overall career numbers don’t put him among the NHL’s elite at the position, but he has always been a solid starter. Plus, as he has shown in the World Cup (just as he did in the 2010 playoffs) he is capable of going on hot streaks where he carries his team. There is a lot of value in that. He still has two years left on his contract.

Behind him you have Greiss and Berube. Greiss has turned into a rock solid backup over the past few years and played great for the Islanders in the playoffs last season while Halak was sidelined due to injury. Berube has pretty much established that he has little left to prove in the AHL and is probably ready to be a full-time NHL player in some capacity.

A trade at some point is probably the easiest way to remedy this situation for the Islanders, but even that isn’t going to be easy. Trading Halak (which the Islanders reportedly considered over the summer until he had surgery) doesn’t seem like it would make a great deal of sense at this point because there are almost no teams that are in the market for a starting goaltender. That would make it next to impossible to get a worthwhile return, and you don’t want to just give him away.

Berube is still only 25 years old and still eligible for restricted free agency after this season, is still cheap against the cap, is still the youngest out of the trio (by a few years), and seems to have an upside that the Islanders like. That leaves Greiss, an unrestricted free agent at the end of the season.

The only other option, outside of a trade emerging at some point (even though the market is slim now, it should pick up once the season begins as teams need upgrades for starters and backups), is a repeat of most of last season where they carry three goalies until one gets injured, which means Berube is likely to once again be the odd man out.