“This impossible dream….comes true!!”
It was 36 years ago this afternoon, February 24th, 1980, that Al Michaels yelled out those words, as over 33 Americans jumped up and down in front of their TV sets.
A group of blue collared young men and their passionate coach had just won the gold medal, showing a hurting nation what we were capable of and restoring our fading patriotic pride.
We all feel pressure, and sometimes it affects us. The U.S. boys felt pressure for the first time when they took on Finland for the gold. Having shocked the goliath Soviets two days earlier, Herb Brooks’ team now played for the whole shooting match, but because of the points system had they lost to Finland and the Soviets beat Sweden, the gold would be the Soviets and we would have taken bronze or possibly no medal.
Feeling pressure for the first time, the US fell behind 1-0. Vice President Walter Mondale let out a massive expletive deleted, and promptly apologized to Reverend Bernard Fell, President of the Lake Placid Olympic Committee, who was sitting next to him.
Reverend Fell actually liked that Mondale turned the air blue because it meant he himself could holler and scream like a wild man. Two days earlier, the Lake Placid Olympic Committee had told him President Carter was sending Mondale and First Daughter Amy to Lake Placid for the gold medal game (Carter would not leave the White House because of the hostages in Iran).
Well, this in a light hearted way bothered Rev. Fell because he wanted to cheer loudly and with the VP there being there he would have to act all dignified. Plus Rev. Fell was a huge Republican and Mondale a big Democrat and Rev. Fell’s grandmother would roll over in her grave if she looked down and saw them together! Tough, they said. You are sitting next to him.
Thirty two million Americans would be watching this game live on ABC starting at 11 AM. West coast folks had to get up at 8, but because there was so much pride in this team it felt like a Super Bowl day where all of America was watching together, yet this was far bigger than any Super Bowl. A piece of the Cold War was being played out on a sheet of ice in the Adirondack Mountains. Inflation was at 18%. People buying houses were paying 18% interest. Vietnam and Watergate had deflated us. We were at the lowest point of self esteem in our nation’s history, but these boys had galvanized us and even though most of us didn’t know hockey, we were in front of our TV sets ready for that late morning on a Sundaystart.
However, in Memphis folks had to wait an hour to join the game in progress as WHBQ-TV aired the Bellevue Baptist Bible Hour from 11 to noon as always. Hey, this was the Deep South! This led to a box full of angry letters later and to one man hiring a plane to fly over the station with a banner reading “Show the game!”
“When I became GM of the station I came across a box of letters from viewers, mostly quite angry about the decision not to show the game from the start. I kept the box for posterity but don’t know if it’s there now. I don’t recall asking why they chose not to clear the game live. If it was for religious convictions I can appreciate that. However it didn’t advance anyone’s cause not to run the game live. Creating that sort of anger didn’t serve the church or the station. People who think all publicity is good publicity are, well, misguided. To put it politely”.
As the game continued, and as folks in Memphis joined the game in the 2nd period, the US still was behind. They would trail in 6 of 7 games in Lake Placid, but they never lost faith in one another, and their Spartan-like conditioning caused them to outscore opponents 16-3 in the 3rd and final period of the games. Still, they trailed 2-1 going into the final period. That’s when Brooks, who always knew the right thing to say, walked in the locker room in intermission and simply said, “You lose this game and you take it to your grave.”
He walked outside and back inside.
“To … your …. grave.”
He left. Point made. One of the players jumped up and said, “We’re not going to let a bunch of Finn’s keep us from the gold!”
They burst back onto the ice and played the best of their entire 7 months together. They scored 3 goals in the final period to win 4-2. Scoring the go ahead goal would be Rob McLanahan, who almost 2 weeks earlier had to be separated from going after Brooks after the 1st period when Brooks challenged his manhood for not playing with a deep thigh bruise. The same McLanahan who today is on the Board of the Herb Brooks Foundation and who coaches Herb’s grandkids and who will still tell you no other human could have gotten out of them what Herb did.
When the game ended, there was a Norman Rockwell moment as a fan came out with a large US flag and draped it over Jim Craig.
His dad, Donald, was not in his usual seat. Jim worried he had a heart attack. No, they had found him a better seat and a lady came onto the ice and showed him where he was. The look Jim gave his dad was one of pure love. You see, when Jim had graduated high school he gave his dad his yearbook. He had not allowed anyone else to sign it. It had just one inscription in it and it was Jim writing “I hope that one day when I am a dad I am half the day you are.”
Donald had lost his wife Margaret to cancer a couple of years before the Olympics and had lost his job just before the Games.
ABC had captured their relationship through the Olympics and afterwards the Craig’s got thousands and thousands of letters, including from over 100 fathers and sons who were separated for various reasons, but got back together because of the Craigs.
After the Finland game, the Soviets shredded the Swedes 9-2, so the US boys had to wait until that was over for the gold medal ceremony. They did meet with the world’s media in Lake Placid High School, of all places! It was the media headquarters. With top columnists from every big paper in the country there, Brooks showed up with all 20 players. He had not allowed them to come to the press sessions before because he was concerned the media would focus on Jim Craig, Mike Eruzione and Mark Johnson and neglect others. He had created such a wonderful team chemistry that he did not wanted it impacted.
With all of them there, Brooks said, “If you are a father, you kick your son in the ass a few times, and as a coach, I do, too.
You love your sons, just as I love this hockey club.”
The players all looked at him. He DID love them. It just had been impossible to see as he pushed them so hard.
Al Michaels is now in his 70’s and has called every major sporting event known to man. He was there that afternoon of February 24th, 1980 when the American flag rose above the Soviets, and he heard what he says is the most passionate singing of the National Anthem he has EVER heard.
They do joke today that with weight gains over 36 years, no way could they pull that off in 2016!!
As they stood together, they were from Boston, from tiny towns in Minnesota, from Flint, Michigan. Different cultures. They were big like 6’4 Ken Morrow and small like 5’7″ Mark Pavelich. But they were ONE and a great example for any company, school or church of what can be accomplished when everyone comes together.
When the game ended Herb Brooks once again went straight to the locker room like he did after the win over the Soviets. He felt it would be wrong to suddenly be all lovey dovey after pushing them so hard mentally and physically for 7 months, and he wanted it to be their moment.
Plus he had to pee like crazy.
Brooks’ relationship with USA Hockey was terse, to say the least. An official gave him the phone and said President Carter would be on soon. Ever one with a quick wit, Brooks pretended Carter was on the phone. “Yes, President Carter,” he said. “I will make sure the boys register for the Draft tomorrow (the Draft had been restarted with the Soviets in Afghanistan).”
The USA Hockey official winced!
“And President Carter, could you have some Billy Beer for us when we get to the White House tomorrow?”
The official reached for the phone, but Brooks told him to relax, that he wasn’t on yet! When President Carter did get on, he told Brooks that they were American heroes. Brooks responded that what they did helped show that our American way of life was better than their way.
In the locker room, Vice President Mondale, who was from Minnesota, knew that half the team was from that state. “Which of these players are from Minnesota?” he asked Brooks.
Mondale was confused.
“They all,” Brooks continued, “are from the United States of America.”
Oh, and remember how Rev. Fell at first didn’t want to sit next to Mondale? When the game ended, there wasn’t a bigger hug in all of America than the bear hug they had, with thousands of fans around them. Fierce Republican. Devoted Democrat. That didn’t matter. We weren’t then and we aren’t now Republicans and Democrats. We were and are Americans, and that team and that village of Lake Placid showed us.
As divisive a nation as we are today, we need their story more than ever.
February 24th, 1980 – USA! USA! USA!
Born in Oxford and educated at Ole Miss, Charlie Adams is a motivational speaker who specializes in sharing the fascinating back story of Lake Placid and the Miracle on Ice. His 90 minute to 2-hour presentation is filled with patriotism, the American dream, and the power of team. It is delivered to corporate, educational and church audiences. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.