It was the 70s and a pall hung over America. The nation was still reeling from its Vietnam experience; the nuclear reactor at Three Mile Island incident sparked doubts about the safety and future of nuclear energy and people cued up for gas, sometimes waiting hours to fill their tanks, only to find when the finally made it to the pump that the gas was gone.
Interest rates spiked to all-time highs, inflation eroded America’s spending power, the Kent State shootings hadn’t yet been eradicated from national psyche and the nation endured a scandal that forced a sitting president to resign from office.
Then, two external events conspired to cause even greater concern and embarrassment to the nation. The first was the seizure of the American embassy in Teheran on November 4th 1979; and for the next 444 days, Americans suffered the indignity of watching the nightly TV spectacle of Iranian “students” shouting “Death to America” while burning the Stars & Stripes in front of the entire world. Eight weeks later on Christmas Eve the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan and the president put the U.S. military on alert.
The world was watching to see what the United States would do but we were powerless to do anything more than meekly protest and threaten to boycott the Moscow Olympics. President Carter spoke of a national “malaise” and “a crisis of confidence,” and pundits called the period the nadir of American self-esteem. Many felt America was losing her way.
Then an event occurred that altered the American psyche. America can be the land of hyperbole and we often hear hackneyed phrases such as “once in a lifetime” or “it will never happen again”—after all, how many football games or boxing matches have been billed as the “game or fight of the century?” But a trip back to February 1980 brings us to a place and time that actually meets the criteria of “It will never happen again.”
The place—Lake Placid, NY; the date—February 22nd, 1980; the stage—the Winter Olympics; and the event—a hockey game between a group of American college kids and the all-but-unbeatable Soviet Olympic Hockey Team (a team that had previously crushed the NHL All-Stars 6-0.) The game has rightfully been called “the single most indelible moment in American sports history.”
This was more than Jesse Owens winning four gold medals in front of the Fuehrer in 1936 Berlin, or Wilt Chamberlain scoring 100 points against the NY Knicks in 1962, or the Boston Red Sox unlikely win against the mighty Yankees in the 2004 League Championship Series, coming back from a 0-3 deficit (sorry Sox fans.)
The event that took place in the sleepy hamlet of Lake Placid that Friday afternoon in 1980 was more than a mere hockey game. It was a sliver of the Cold War, David versus Goliath, us against them. Twenty young men from colleges across the Midwest and the East Coast did the impossible—they beat the Russians at their own game. By defeating the Soviets and eventually winning the Olympic Gold Medal, these college kids lifted the collective psyche of the country and rejuvenated the American spirit.
In July of that year, the U.S. Olympic hockey coach Herb Brooks set upon a mission to redeem and elevate U.S. Olympic hockey, which had be foundering since 1960. Coach Brooks never officially stated his goal, but the unwritten goal among the U.S. Olympic Committee was “not to be embarrassed on the Olympic stage.”
I’m not a sports writer, so if you’re interested in the specifics you can “Google” the 1980 Olympics and the game against the Soviets. But that victory triggered an outpouring of national emotion never before provoked by a sporting event, and likely never will again.
Recent polling indicates the majority of Americans feel the nation is again headed in the wrong direction as we question as policies diverse as withdrawal from Afghanistan to the spiraling national debt. So where or to whom do we turn to today?
I can’t answer that question, but what I can say is that I have confidence in America. Perhaps there isn’t a hockey team to revitalize the nation’s collective consciousness as those 20 college kids did in 1980. But we are Americans and I believe in “American Exceptionalism.” If we look to ourselves and not to government to solve our problems, we will prevail.
But regardless of the path we choose, what occurred on that small hockey rink in Lake Placid in 1980 will forever remain a “once in a lifetime” event.
Quote of the Day: “Do you believe in miracles?”— Al Michaels, sportscaster