Hockey was not alien to Al Michaels before he became ABC Sports’ hockey announcer for the 1980 Olympic Games. Growing up in Brooklyn, he would attend New York Rovers and later New York Rangers games at Madison Square Garden. He knew the game, that was no question.
But Michaels’ resume of calling hockey prior to Lake Placid consisted of one single game: USSR vs. Czechoslovakia at the 1972 Winter Games in Sapporo, Japan. The Soviets would win 5-2 for their third of what would be four straight Olympic gold medals.
When Michaels was preparing to cover the ’80 Olympics, he wasn’t sure what his assignment would be. ABC had an announcing roster highlighted by Keith Jackson, Jim McKay, and Howard Cosell and covering Eric Heiden’s quest for five speed skating golds was a coveted gig.
Michaels’ one game of experience was enough for ABC Sports head Roone Arledge to put him on hockey.
“I was pretty happy about it because among other things, when you’re doing a Winter Olympic sport, you want to be inside,” Michaels said on a conference call with reporters this week. “So I was staying nice and toasty and warm, and of course as it progressed, there was never any opportunity for anybody else to come in and do those games, because again, at that point, by the time the Soviet game had taken place, I had done six games, and none of those guys had done any still.
“So I was fairly confident we would roll down to the end of the tournament and away we went. But you talk about getting fortunate. As I tell people to this day, there were not a lot of miracles on the biathlon course. I could have been assigned to that. So it all worked out.”
No time to script the final call
It all worked out and resulted in one of the biggest upsets and most legendary calls in sports history. The Soviets pressed as the U.S. led 4-3, leaving Michaels unable to script a final call.
“To think about what would be said at the end of the game or how it would be said never could enter my mind as the Soviets are putting pressure on,” he recalled. “I’ve got to call it, I’ve got to call it pass by pass, shot by shot.
“And then just serendipitous that with six or seven seconds to go, the puck comes out to center ice, and now the game is going to be over. The Soviets have no time to mount a last rush. The puck is in the neutral zone. And the word that popped into my head was miraculous. That’s just the word that popped in, and it got morphed into a question and quick answer, and away we went.
“But all I’m trying to do at that point is call the game, don’t blow a call. But the Soviets could have tied the game. How insane would that have sounded if I would have said that as the Soviets tie the game with one second to go?
“It was from my heart. It had nothing to do with what it meant to the country or anything beyond sports, but as somebody who’s loved sports since I was five years old, this was an upset. This was a gigantic, gigantic upset, and so that’s why the word miraculous came into my brain, and I said what I said. But that had everything to do with what an incredible moment this is, and not something that I ever thought would live in posterity, because remember in those years, too, nobody had a home video machine, videotape machine, so this is not something you think lives forever.”
(Even 40 years later, the ties to the home of the “Miracle on Ice” continue for Michaels. His 13-year-old grandson plays travel hockey in Southern California and his team won an October tournament in Lake Placid.)
The better line, according to Eruzione
The American public didn’t hear Michaels’ call live because the game was on tape-delay and aired in primetime. Mike Eruzione, who scored the winning goal, didn’t hear the legendary line until weeks later. After “Miracle” game, the rest of the team watched it on television as he and goaltender Jim Craig did interviews.
While “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” lives on, it’s a different line from the Finland game that’s stuck with Eruzione.
“You know, I never thought it was a miracle, but it was a catchy phrase and it sounded right,” Eruzione said. “I thought Al’s best call, which I thought got lost in this whole thing, was ‘This impossible dream comes true,’ when we beat Finland, because it was an impossible dream, and I’m not talking about the Red Sox. I’m talking about this was a dream that we had as players to go to the Olympic Games and win a medal, let alone have a chance to win the gold medal.
“Everybody gets caught up in ‘Do you believe in miracles? Yes,’ but I thought ‘This impossible dream comes true’ was even greater, and Al and I have played some golf together in some celebrity events, and we’re talking down the fairway and we always hear it, ‘Hey, Mike, hey, Al, do you believe in miracles? Yes.’ I walk through an airport and somebody will say, ‘Hey, Mike Eruzione, do you believe in miracles?’
“So it’s the catch line that everybody talks about, and it was spectacular, and that’s why Al is such a great commentator. He captured the moment and what it was. But I still think the second line after Finland kind of got lost in the shuffle because I thought that was spectacular as well.”
Sean Leahy is a writer for Pro Hockey Talk on NBC Sports. Drop him a line at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow him on Twitter @Sean_Leahy.