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Memories of the 'Miracle on Ice'

February 22, 2010 |  1:40 pm

Thirty years ago today I was in a little town in the Adirondack Mountains of upstate New York watching a miracle unfold.

Olyblog We didn’t know that at the time. The reporters covering the Olympics thought we were just watching a hockey tournament. Never did we think that those Games, that team and that tournament would mean so much to so many people and become an enduring symbol of what hope can accomplish in the face of impossible odds.

I was working for Newsday then, and our sports editor, a wonderful man named Dick Sandler, assigned me to cover figure skating. Oh, and he had one other assignment.

“You can cover the U.S. hockey team until it’s eliminated, and then you can ignore them,” he said.

Dick was right about so many things -- but not about that.

Bill Baker’s late goal to tie Sweden in the opener seemed like a stroke of luck, but the U.S. team’s upset of the powerful Czechs signaled that something special was happening, and we soaked it in.

We learned about “Herbies,” the punishing sprints that Brooks made his players do to in order to improve their conditioning -- which later would be a huge factor for the Americans. We learned about shy Mark Pavelich, outgoing John Harrington, and the skillful Mark Johnson, picked for the team even though Coach Herb Brooks -- on leave from coaching the University of Minnesota -- was a sworn enemy of Johnson’s father, Wisconsin Coach “Badger” Bob Johnson.

And when they beat the Russians, we learned about the impossible becoming possible.

I remember the last few minutes, staring at the ice and not believing what I was seeing. I remember walking outside the arena to find the streets jammed with people dancing and singing and chanting “USA!” I remember standing beside a Soviet official and watching him as he observed this joyous celebration and smiling as he stood there, raised his index finger and said to no one in particular, “Yes, you are No. 1.”

In Lake Placid, we didn’t know the effect the team’s success was having on the rest of the country. This was before CNN brought the world to everyone’s living rooms and before cellphones were ubiquitous. All we saw were telegrams people had sent to the hockey team, messages that were taped to the wall of the rink. Everyone, it seemed, had adopted them.

It was a great story, a great antidote to what ailed the country at the time and made even greater when the U.S. beat Finland in the gold medal game. Jim Craig became a national hero. Mike Eruzione, who knew he could never possibly top scoring the winner against the Soviets and earning a gold medal, wisely retired from hockey after the Games; he is a popular motivational speaker.

Many players, including Ramsey, Johnson and Neal Broten, went on to have successful NHL careers; Brooks coached in the NHL with mixed results before returning to coach the U.S. team to a silver medal at Salt Lake City in 2002. He died in a car accident in 2003. I still get Christmas cards from his wife, Patti.

I’m occasionally asked to rank the thrills I’ve experienced as a sportswriter, and being at Lake Placid is high on that list because it changed the way we think about sports and remains a touchstone for underdogs everywhere.

Thirty years is a long time in a profession and a life. My memories of Lake Placid are among the most precious souvenirs I’ve collected along the way.

-- Helene Elliott in Vancouver

Photo: The U.S. team celebrates its win over the Soviet Union in 1980. Credit: Associated Press

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