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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Melnyk threatens to move Senators if ‘disaster strikes’

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If you’re looking for someone to spoil an upcoming function, you may want to give Ottawa Senators owner Eugene Melnyk a call.

On the eve of the Senators’ outdoor game against the Montreal Canadiens at Lansdowne Park in Ottawa, and on the night when Ottawa’s greats from yesteryear took the ice with Parliament Hill as a backdrop, Melnyk did his best to steal the spotlight from the NHL 100 Classic on Saturday.

Speaking to reporters, Melnyk threatened to pull the plug in Ottawa and relocate the team if disaster struck.

“If it becomes a disaster, yes,” Melnyk said. “If you start not seeing crowds showing up, yes. But, for now, we are on the cusp of doing OK.”

The doom and gloom continued, with Melnyk suggesting he isn’t going to waste a “lifetime of working hard” to support the Senators.

“It’s not going to happen,” he said. “The bigger question is whether I’m prepared to blow all that money I made over many years in a different industry in a different country. How long can you underwrite a team?”

Melnyk reiterated that he’s not looking to sell the team, a statement he made earlier this week in the Ottawa Sun, and used McDonald’s as an example on Friday. 

“It won’t. It just won’t happen,” he said. “It’s a franchise. Imagine if you own a McDonald’s franchise, but you can move it. But why would you sell it? It’s something that’s very difficult to buy.

We’re doing OK here. Not great, but we’re doing OK. It’s just too much fun. What else do you do? I’m a Canadian. I’m a hockey fan, fanatically a hockey fan, and I couldn’t think of anything better to do.”

Melnyk said the Senators have “cut everything to the bone,” saying the Senators have one of the thinnest management groups in the league.

“We want to keep and maintain great players,” he said. “You can’t keep spending at the top end and getting the lowest revenues. It doesn’t work.”

According to CapFriendly, the Senators are at just over $73 million in projected cap space.

Melnyk called the Senators disaster on the ice this season a “crappy streak” that every team goes through.

“We have way too much talent with this team not to perform,” he said.

When asked if his comments on Friday could take away from the luster of the event taking place in Canada’s capital this weekend, Melnyk said no.

“It keeps the newspapers selling and the radio people listening,” he said.


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Marian Gaborik plays game No. 1,000 on Friday

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Marian Gaborik has already hit two milestones that end in double zeroes this season.

On Friday night, and at the world’s most famous arena, he hit his first that ends in three.

Gaborik took to the ice at Madison Sqaure Garden in his 1,000th NHL game as the Los Angeles Kings took on the New York Rangers.

It’s not a bad backdrop for the veteran of 19 NHL seasons.

Gaborik played 255 games with the Blueshirts between 2009 and 2013, hitting the 40-goal plateau twice and recording his career-best season in 2009-10, scoring 42 goals and adding 44 helpers for 86 points in 76 games played.

Gaborik has only played 11 games this season after starting the year on the shelf with a knee injury. Gaborik only returned to the lineup on Nov. 24, but he set two milestones in his return, hitting 400 career NHL goals and 800 career NHL points earlier this month.

Coming into Friday’s game, his stat line read 800 points in 999 NHL games.

As Sportsnet’s Mike Johnston points out, perfect symmetry could be achieved if Gaborik finishes with a plus-one in the plus-minus column in the game and he is held without a point.

I’m sure he’d rather have a new puck to add to his mantle… but think of the stats, Marian.

UPDATE: He didn’t think of the stats. 


Scott Billeck is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at phtblog@nbcsports.com or follow him on Twitter @scottbilleck

Check, mates: NHL top lines are expected to do it all

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By Stephen Whyno (AP Hockey Writer)

Tyler Seguin doesn’t consider it a challenge. He sees it as an opportunity.

Every time Dallas Stars coach Ken Hitchcock sends Seguin and his linemates over the boards against an opponent’s top line, he knows he has a job to do.

”Out-check the other line and let the skill kind of take over,” Seguin said. ”It’s fun.”

Fun? Sure. It’s also increasingly common in the NHL as coaches seek to put their top lines on the ice against the other team’s best forwards to create matchup problems that often lead to goals.

Goodbye to the likes of Bob Gainey and hello to Boston’s Patrice Bergeron, Pittsburgh’s Sidney Crosby and Washington’s Nicklas Backstrom. All can help keep the puck out of the net almost as well as they can put it in.

”We’re seeing less of the old Don Luce, Craig Ramsey, Brent Peterson lines,” said Capitals coach Barry Trotz, referring to defensive-minded forwards of yesteryear. ”We have guys like Bergeron; Sid goes up against top guys. So I think you’re seeing more of the power against power than we have in the past.”

Power against power is the name of the game in hockey today as players such as Bergeron, Crosby, Backstrom and Chicago Blackhawks captain Jonathan Toews embody the kind of top-line stars who can double as shutdown centers. Crosby was so good in that dual role at the 2014 Sochi Olympics that Canada won a gold medal – and he was so dominant offensively the past two seasons that the Penguins won consecutive Stanley Cup championships.

Crosby is well aware of the modern duties of a top-flight center.

”You have more responsibility defensively,” he said. ”You’re covering a lot of space, so it’s just something you’ve got to be aware of.”

Before the season, reigning MVP Connor McDavid of Edmonton cited defense and faceoffs as areas he wanted to improve. He already has the dynamic offensive capabilities and sees that as the next step in his evolution.

”It’s more rounding out your game,” McDavid said. ”Being a defensive guy, being able to be put out there in the last two minutes to defend a lead, just to be able to be trusted by your coach out there.”

Coaches have to be able to trust their top players in all situations, particularly since the days of strict shutdown lines are dwindling.

”The systems are about defense, and everyone needs to play it,” Backstrom said. ”That’s what the mindset is – to be good defensively and offensively.”

The best defense is good puck possession because often the most productive players aren’t as sound in their own end. Columbus Blue Jackets coach John Tortorella considers it essential to make elite offensive players spend time in their defensive zone, figuring they’re more apt to try to do too much in the neutral zone and turn the puck over.

Good two-way players also have that mindset when they’re matched up against top skill guys.

”They’re so good offensively that sometimes they can forget about their defense, and that’s when you can take advantage of them,” Philadelphia Flyers No. 1 center Sean Couturier said. ”They’re thinking so much offense that once they turn the puck over they’re going to try plays to get turnovers. That’s when you can take advantage of them most of the time.”

That’s the danger of going skill on skill. Few see Calgary Flames stars Johnny Gaudreauand Sean Monahan as defensive stalwarts, but coach Glen Gulutzan continues to put them on the ice against other top lines.

Gaudreau said ”sometimes the best offense comes from playing against other top lines.” And the strategy has multiple benefits.

”It makes sure that your top guys, they’re aware that they’re out there against the other sharks, so to speak, in the league,” Gulutzan said. ”Now they’re a little more conscious defensively. And what you hope is that, through a course of a season, you’re making your guys more defensively aware and come playoff time those things will come in handy.”

Seguin said he thinks the playoffs lead to concerted defensive efforts to shut down certain players, though that largely comes from coaches leaning on their top defensemen. Hitchcock and other coaches said putting their best defensemen against opponents’ top forwards is the most important matchup no matter the situation.

Of course, it helps to have forwards who thrive on tough matchups and understand balancing priorities.

”A lot of times you’re getting matched up with better players, so I think playing offense the whole game isn’t realistic,” Toronto Maple Leafs center Nazem Kadri said. ”Most of the time it’s just being in the right places and knowing where you are on the ice as opposed to chasing everybody around and that whole ‘shadow’ thing. You’ve just got to be in right areas and right zones.”

Playing responsible defense is one piece of the transition to offense, whether it’s winning board battles or faceoffs or taking the puck away. But top players are counted on and paid to score, so keeping others off the board simply isn’t good enough.

”If it’s 0-0, we’re still kind of mad as a line,” Backstrom said. ”We want to win that match. It would be nice if we could score against them.”

Russia aims for Olympic hockey gold despite turmoil

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MOSCOW (AP) — Russia can’t win Olympic hockey gold in Pyeongchang, but the ”Olympic Athletes from Russia” will have a great shot at the title.

OAR is the moniker imposed by the International Olympic Committee as part of Russia’s punishment across all sports for doping at the 2014 Olympics in Sochi.

That’s likely to mean neutral-colored jerseys – though Team Russia executives are battling to keep the traditional red – but still a roster boasting some of the best players outside the NHL.

Asked if the Russians consider themselves gold medal favorites in South Korea, captain Ilya Kovalchuk said: ”We always are.”

The OAR name is no big deal for Kovalchuk. ”Everyone knows where we’re from. It doesn’t matter. The flag is in our heart.”

Kovalchuk and Pavel Datsyuk of the Detroit Red Wings are among the stars available to Russia ahead of the first Olympics since 1994 without NHL players.

The commercial power of the Moscow-based Kontinental Hockey League – fueled by Russia’s state-run oil and gas companies – has allowed it to compete financially with NHL teams for Russian talent.

Along with Kovalchuk and Datsyuk, the Russian team has forward Vadim Shipachyov, who walked out on the Las Vegas Golden Knights last month, and two-time Stanley Cup-winning defenseman Slava Voynov, who is banned from the NHL indefinitely after pleading no contest to a misdemeanor charge of domestic violence.

Russia showed its potential Thursday with a 3-1 win over Sweden – a key Olympic rival – on two goals from Sergei Kalinin in a Moscow exhibition tournament game.

Russia recorded 34 shots against 22 for Sweden in front of a passionate home crowd, many in red shirts hailing the team as ”Red Machine Reloaded” in honor of the legendary Soviet rosters. Datsyuk sat out the tournament for fitness reasons.

”We just tried to play simple and hard,” defenseman Sergei Andronov said. ”We’re trying to play every game for a victory.”

The Russians haven’t won Olympic hockey gold since 1992, when an almost entirely Russian lineup of players from the recently collapsed Soviet Union competed as the Unified Team.

Under the Team Russia name, its best result is silver in 1998. The last Olympics on home ice in Sochi were a disappointment, as Finland beat Russia 3-1 in the quarterfinals.

The Sochi Games have come back to haunt Russia, with 31 athletes across six sports banned for doping and other sanctions from the IOC.

There’s no allegation of doping by the men’s hockey team, though six women’s team players were suspended.

The key Russian whistleblower, former laboratory director Grigory Rodchenkov, has stated in an affidavit that men’s hockey players were not included in a doping program as they would have been harder to keep track of across multiple clubs, and could have given the game away if they failed tests outside Russia.

Not everything has been smoothed out just yet though for Russia ahead of Pyeongchang.

The KHL leadership has yet to confirm it will release players, though any obstruction by the Russia-based league would face fierce opposition from the players and the Russian Hockey Federation leadership, which includes wealthy businessmen close to the Kremlin.

Months of uncertainty over whether Russia would be allowed to compete at all in Pyeongchang haven’t worn team morale down, coach Oleg Znarok insists.

”We’re feeling great and it’s always been great,” he said Wednesday. ”We’ve been working and getting ready. We had no doubts.”