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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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‘I felt a huge pop’: Bishop suffered an ankle/shin injury in Eastern Conference Final

Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Ben Bishop looks at the ice after allowing a goal by Detroit Red Wings' Gustav Nyquist in the second period of an NHL hockey game in Detroit, Saturday, March 28, 2015. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)
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Tampa Bay Lightning goalie Ben Bishop revealed he had strained ligaments in his ankle/shin area, which ultimately put him on the sidelines for the Eastern Conference Final.

Bishop was stretchered off the ice after suffering the injury in the first period of Game 1 versus the Pittsburgh Penguins, and never returned to game action, meaning back-up Andrei Vasilevskiy had to take over the starting duties for the duration of the series.

“When I went down, I felt a huge pop. I thought somebody two-handed me in the shin. Once I felt the pop and then it was a bunch of pressure and pain, I thought my leg broke,” Bishop told reporters.

“I pretty much strained all the stuff in my shin and ankle. I was coming back and it was getting better. I was able to skate there at the end but going down in the butterfly and those movements — like going up against the post — it was still really painful and I just wouldn’t have been effective.”

Bishop estimated he was getting close to a return, but still a “week or so” before he could play with the pain.

“It was getting there. Just tough timing.”

Bishop, 29, has one more year remaining on his current deal that comes with a cap hit of $5.95 million and is slated to become an unrestricted free agent at the end of next season. Vasilevskiy, 21, played well when called upon in the post-season and has one year remaining on his deal. He’s slated to become a restricted free agent after next season.

Lightning GM Steve Yzerman acknowledged that at some point, a decision on their goalies will probably be necessary, either for salary cap reasons or perhaps a potential expansion draft.

“We’ve got two outstanding goaltenders. I know that,” said Yzerman.

Added Bishop: “If you look around this league right now, you need two goalies to win.”

Yzerman: ‘I think the best thing for this team is Jonathan Drouin being on it’

TAMPA, FL - APRIL 30:  Jonathan Drouin #27 of the Tampa Bay Lightning celebrates his goal against the New York Islanders  during the first period in Game Two of the Eastern Conference Second Round during the 2016 NHL Stanley Cup Playoffs at Amalie Arena on April 30, 2016 in Tampa, Florida. (Photo by Scott Iskowitz/Getty Images)
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Talk about a whirlwind season for Jonathan Drouin.

The talented forward, and third overall pick in the 2013 NHL Draft, went from the center of a well documented controversy for a public trade request to a pivotal component for the Tampa Bay Lightning in its playoff quest that fell just short of a Stanley Cup Final berth after a Game 7 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Eastern Conference Final.

The 21-year-old Drouin, recalled from the AHL when Steven Stamkos was taken out of the lineup with a blood clot, scored five goals and 14 points in 17 playoff games. And, based on the comments of general manager Steve Yzerman to reporters, he’ll be a regular on this team when the 2016-17 season begins in the fall.

Drouin has one more year remaining on his entry-level contract before he’s a restricted free agent, as per General Fanager.

Funny how some things can change.

The Drouin trade request was one of the more contentious — not to mention ongoing — storylines this season. But it could be that both sides have since resolved their differences.

“I definitely want to be here,” said Drouin, as per the Tampa Bay Times. “I love the way this ended, I guess with this different and weird year. But the way this finished and it’s definitely somewhere I want to play.”

In this case, the best deal was the one Yzerman never made. Even as speculation and reports and rumor circulated the situation for weeks leading up to the trade deadline.

“He makes us a better team. Simple as that,” Yzerman told reporters. “He can do things — a talented young player that’s only going to get better.

“I think the best thing for this team is Jonathan Drouin being on it.”

 

Penguins enter Stanley Cup Final as favorites over Sharks: online bookmaker

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The Pittsburgh Penguins, led by the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and Kris Letang, were last in the Stanley Cup Final in 2009, when they hoisted hockey’s silver chalice.

The San Jose Sharks are in uncharted waters, having never been here before, and that includes Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau, both veterans of more than 1,000 regular season games played.

Perhaps that’s why the Penguins, one of the marquee NHL teams given their generational super star Crosby, are -135 favorites to win the Stanley Cup, according to online bookmaker Bovada on Friday. The Sharks were listed as +115 underdogs.

The Penguins, a force in the NHL since a coaching change in mid-December, became the betting favorites to win it all following their series win over Alex Ovechkin and the rival Washington Capitals in the second round.

Game 1 of the final goes Monday in Pittsburgh, where the Penguins will start with home ice advantage.

So far in these playoffs, the Penguins have gone 7-3 at Consol Energy Center. The Sharks are 5-4 on the road, where they actually started 3-0 following the first round against the L.A. Kings.

Right now, the Sharks possess the top three point producers in these playoffs in Logan Couture, Joe Pavelski (the leading goal scorer with 13) and Brent Burns, while Phil Kessel — as part of that dynamic HBK Line — is fifth in the league and leads the Penguins with 18 points in 18 games.

 

‘Two legends’ Thornton and Marleau prepare for first Stanley Cup Final

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SAN JOSE, Calif. — Joe Thornton and Patrick Marleau have been linked ever since they went one-two in the 1997 NHL draft to Boston and San Jose.

They became teammates with the Sharks more than a decade ago, won a gold medal for Canada at the 2010 Olympics and each had their captaincies stripped as they became the faces of so many postseason failures in San Jose.

Now at age 36 and after more than 3,000 combined games, 949 goals and 2,610 career points in the regular and postseason, Thornton and Marleau have the opportunity to add the only thing missing on their impressive career resumes if they can win the Stanley Cup.

“It’s just the next step for us,” Thornton said Friday. “We’ve been doing a really good job of staying day to day, shift to shift. This is just another challenge we’re hoping to come out on top on.”

Related: Here’s your  TV schedule for the Stanley Cup Final on NBC Sports

The two will take the ice in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time in their careers on Monday night in Pittsburgh, ending a long journey that included many disappointments and criticism that was often undeserved.

“It’s two legends,” teammate Brent Burns said. “I’ve said it before. Those two are some of the best players to ever play the game. It’s huge to get them here. They’ve done pretty much everything else. They sometimes take a bad rap in the media, which is unnecessary. Anybody that’s played with them sees the way that they work and what kind of teammates they are, what kind of people they are. They’re two of the best.”

They just haven’t always been considered that way because of the lack of playoff success that was at times as much a reflection on the lack of help they got as it was on any deficiencies in their games.

But both also had times when they failed to raise their game at the biggest points of the season. Thornton went pointless during a seven-game series loss to Montreal in his final playoffs in Boston in 2004 while he played with torn rib cartilage. Thornton also posted a -11 rating in the 2010 playoffs in San Jose when the Sharks got swept by Chicago in the Western Conference final.

Marleau struggled in the 2007-09 playoffs when San Jose got knocked out twice in the second round and then lost as the top seed in the first round to Anaheim in 2009. That led to the Sharks demoting him from captain.

The two have had plenty of playoff success along the way as well, but it has been the failures that colored people’s perceptions of them, none more than blowing a 3-0 series lead to Los Angeles in 2014 in a collapse that ultimately led to Thornton being stripped of the captaincy.

“We’ve been through a lot here,” teammate Logan Couture said. “I’ve only been here seven years but those guys have been here longer than I have and they deserve this. They’ve been through a lot, Patty especially.”

Marleau played 165 playoff games before reaching his first final, the most of any player. He lost his first three trips to the conference final and needed 16 trips to the playoffs to reach the final round.

Thornton was next on that list with 150 games, including two conference final losses before making it to the Cup in his 15th postseason.

The fact they will be there in Sharks uniforms only makes it more special. There was talk they could be traded the summer after the 2014 playoff collapse, Thornton had a public feud with general manager Doug Wilson last season and there were reports that Marleau was seeking a trade earlier this season.

Nothing ever materialized and the two are still in San Jose to the delight of all sides. Thornton is playing perhaps the best two-way hockey of his career, posting three goals and 15 assists through the first three rounds and dominating possession against the other team’s top players.

After spending much of the year as a third-line center, Marleau moved back to his more familiar spot of a second-line wing alongside Couture. He has four goals and eight assists so far, including two helpers in the third period of the conference final clincher against St. Louis.

“We’re just enjoying the ride right now,” Marleau said. “We’ve had some really good teams over the years. This team is a little bit different. The confidence we’ve built over the regular season and now in the playoffs, I think winning on the road helped us get close as a group during the regular season. It carried over into the playoffs so far. Just having each other’s back out there, working for each other.”