In Russia, the cold shoulder

Hockey: One of the most famous moments in U.S. sports history has been largely played down by members of that heavily favored Soviet team.

Miracle On Ice: 25 Years Ago

Hockey

February 22, 2005|By Candus Thomson | Candus Thomson,SUN STAFF

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. -- Americans have never really gotten over their love affair with the "Miracle on Ice" game, played 25 years ago today between U.S. amateurs and the Soviet hockey machine.

Here, in this village with the snow-globe good looks, parents still bring their children to the rink to pose and play. They visit the Olympic museum one floor below to watch the grainy videotape of that magical win and reconnect with a glorious moment when underdogs triumphed.

Lore has it that on the night of the victory, a U.S. warship sent a message to a Soviet vessel nearby that said simply, "4-3," the final score.

"It may just be the single most indelible moment in all of U.S. sports history," declared Sports Illustrated.

Just last week, with snow falling just as it did that night more than two decades ago, thousands of people chanted "U-S-A, U-S-A," as Jim Craig, the goaltender on the American team, re-ignited the Olympic caldron with the original torch.

But if the Americans are reluctant to loosen their embrace on that moment, those who cheered for the other side have long since moved on.

Robert Edelman, author of Serious Fun, which looked at spectator sports in the U.S.S.R., said Russians have developed a philosophical view of the U.S. win.

"The line you get now is that it wasn't that big a deal. They say, `This is sports. Things are unpredictable, especially team sports. Defeat is inescapable in sports,' " Edelman said.

Of course, it helps that much has changed in 25 years. The Cold War ended. The Soviet Union exists only on old maps and in history books. Some of the Soviet players signed on with NHL teams as coaches and consultants.

Goalie Vladislav Tretiak splits his time between Moscow and the Midwest, working for the NHL's Chicago Blackhawks and running schools for promising young goaltenders.

Defenseman Slava Fetisov, the "Russian Bear" and captain of the Red Army team of the 1980s, won two Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings and was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame in 2001.

Vladimir Lutchenko, the great defenseman who was removed from the team just before the Olympics and sent home, lives in Massachusetts and has coached junior hockey with Craig.

Like their U.S. counterparts, the Soviet media didn't pump up hockey coverage going into the 1980 Winter Games. The team had won the gold medal in 1972 and 1976 and was expected to do so again. The United States wasn't even supposed to qualify for the medal round.

"You had wall-to-wall coverage, especially in the sports press, about the Olympics, and they gave every bit as much attention to biathlon and cross-country skiing as they did to ice hockey," said Edelman, a professor of Russian history at the University of California at San Diego. "Ice hockey, even when they were winning, almost never got more attention. The impression they were always trying to convey was this overwhelming, across-the-board superiority."

In fact, if Soviet hockey fans pointed to any milestone, it was the eight-game 1972 Summit Series against Canada, when their team played NHL stars for the first time and came within a game of beating the professionals.

"They proved they were nearly as good -- if not as good -- right then and there, and by the end of the decade were probably the best in the world, which set up the 1980 Olympic upset quite nicely," said Joe Pelletier, an international hockey historian and author. "The same Russian team destroyed NHL competition in 1979 and 1981 and practically every other form of competition along the way until 1984.

"So to be upset by a bunch of untested college kids was truly a miracle; 1980 is pretty much as big of a sports upset story as there ever has been."

After the game, as Americans celebrated on the village's main street, coach Viktor Tikhonov stalked the visitors' dressing room, assigning blame.

"This is your loss," he repeatedly told his star players.

In his new book, The Boys of Winter, Wayne Coffey describes reaction to the stunning defeat: "In the next day's edition of Pravda, the Communist party newspaper, there was no mention of the game with the United States -- nor in the [Olympic] wrap-up article of Feb. 25. ... After the Russians cleared out of their rooms in the Lake Placid Olympic Village, clean-up workers found 121 empty vodka bottles in the dropped ceilings of their units, the detritus of despondence."

When they arrived home, the silver-medal team was ignored by fans and Communist Party leaders clamoring to be photographed with the athletes who accounted for the 10 gold medals of the 22 total.

"We were demonstratively shoved aside, and rightly so," Tretiak wrote in his 1987 autobiography, The Legend.

Tretiak, considered by most hockey experts as the best goalie ever, was benched by Tikhonov at the end of the first period after giving up the goal that tied the game 2-2.

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