The USA-USSR medal game: 22 February 1980
Last night for the second evening in a row I watched the ESPN 30 for 30 documentary Of Miracles and Men. The film recounts the history and aftermath of the 1980 Olympic hockey match between the United States and the Soviet Union from the Soviet players’ perspective. It is an especially moving film and one that you can watch online at least for the time being.
Because I grew up in South Florida hockey was never much on my radar. I do vividly remember the game though, including some incidents that many people forgot or never knew. First of all, as ESPN anchor Bob Ley reminds us in a tie-in, the game was not live on American television. It was shown on tape delay a few hours later. Also—and I don’t recall the film mentioning this—the underdog Americans did not beat the powerful Soviets for the gold medal. The Olympic hockey tournament at this time was a round robin contest in which each of the teams that made the medal round played each other once. The US-USSR game was the penultimate match. If the Americans had lost to Finland in the final game and the Soviets defeated the Swedes by a certain margin the United States would not have medaled in the tournament. Think about it.
This is the second of two documentaries about Soviet hockey that have been released in the past several weeks. I still have yet to see Red Army, which has been playing at festivals and on big screens in some cities. From what I understand that film too uses Slava Fetisov as its main protagonist. I don’t know much about Fetisov—again, I grew up far removed from hockey—but in this film he comes across as thoughtful and courageous. He had to be; Fetisov was one of the first players from the Soviet national team to play in the NHL. The generals and politicians, not to mention coach Viktor Tikhonov, did everything they could to prevent that. Fetisov nonetheless paved the way and eventually won two Stanley Cups with the Detroit Red Wings as part of the Russian Five.
The other hero was original Soviet hockey coach Anatoli Tarasov. The Soviets came to power after the First World War and Russian Civil War. When the country emerged as a full-blown superpower in 1945 the Soviet leadership tasked Tarasov to create a hockey program. The thing was, the game had never been played in the USSR. Starting from the ground up, Tarasov built a program based as much on chess and the Russian ballet as it was hockey. He intentionally avoided watching game film from the U.S. and Canada because he wanted to create a program based on his own vision. He succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest imagination and then, for political reasons, it was all cruelly taken away from him in 1972. Tarasov was only fifty-four.
The worst thing that happened to the Soviets—other than that 4-3 loss in Lake Placid—was their 10-3 win over the same American squad in Madison Square Garden just two weeks before. The New York Daily News uploaded the original article a few days ago. The Soviets arrived in upstate New York overconfident. Still things were going well until that match with the Americans. Many still see Coach Tikhonov’s decision to take goalie Vladislav Tretiak out of the USA-USSR medal game as an act of panic and desperation. I always thought it demonstrated his arrogance. Tikhonov believed the whole time that his team would beat the Americans with or without Tretiak. If he could teach the great goalie a lesson at the same time so much the better. Tikhonov’s putting back-up Vladimir Myshkin in the net makes the Seahawks’ decision to pass from the one-yard line look trivial.
It is hard to believe the Miracle on Ice was thirty-five years ago. So much has changed in the world since then. These winter days are a good time to look back on that era that now seems so far away.