In 1980, the United States was emerging from a troubled decade. The 1970s had been marked by an ugly end to the Vietnam War, the demoralizing Watergate spectacle, rampant inflation, unemployment and an energy crisis. The Soviets had just invaded Afghanistan, rejuvenating the Cold War. As the Lake Placid Olympics opened, 52 Americans were held hostage in Iran, their nation seemingly helpless against a gang of student radicals. The line commonly associated with the Miracle On Ice is, “it gave the country a reason to feel good again.”
Could all this be media spin, a storyline conjured by reporters swept up in the moment and pundits trying to squeeze great meaning from an isolated event? To some extent, perhaps. But there is no doubt that Americans were touched deeply by a hockey team as never before. Following the victory over the Soviets, one woman told Sports Illustrated she had never seen so many American flags since the sixties, “And we were burning them then.” In the weeks to follow, the players received bags of mail. To this day, they hear stories that begin, “I remember where I was when…” The team captain, Mike Eruzione, remains in demand on the after-dinner speaking circuit.
Whatever it’s role in the larger cultural context, one thing is beyond dispute: the Miracle On Ice raised the profile of American hockey, giving it an adrenalin shot that is still felt today.
In 1980, there were 10,490 hockey teams in the United States. In 1990, the total was up to 14,969. Then the game really took off. By 1997, USA Hockey had registered 29,479 teams and 449,168 players. Those numbers have since continued to rise.
The fact that the 1990s were the greatest period of growth for American hockey suggests that the 1980 Olympics did not inspire thousands of kids to strap on the blades right away. But the event certainly took its place in American sports mythology, giving young hockey players a heritage to celebrate and icons to look up to. That kind of legacy is the lifeblood of any sport.
"I was 8-years-old when the U. S. won gold at the 1980 Olympics,” NHL veteran Steve Konowalchuk told ESPN. “I remember watching the games and celebrating each victory. I worked very hard on my game as a result, hoping to one day be a part of something as special as winning an Olympic gold medal."
“There was a prejudicial feeling toward American players that the 1980 Winter Olympics helped to turn around,” adds ESPN analyst Bill Clement, a Canadian who was playing in the NHL in 1980. “Before then, the criticism of American players was that they weren't tough enough, couldn't score when they had to, and couldn't win big games for you or with you. That mentality began to change after 1980.”
Memories are inexact, and legend can obscure fact. People tend to exaggerate the underdog factor, thinking of the 1980 Olympic team as a rag-tag bunch, not a fast and disciplined group that produced several excellent NHL players. They forget that after the amazing upset of the Soviet Union, Team USA had to beat Finland to win gold. Even some sports reporters have written erroneous articles, combining events and images from the two games into one.
The details are important to the hockey community, where the Miracle On Ice represents an international breakthrough and a huge step forward for the domestic game. But in the country's sporting imagination, the Miracle On Ice endures because it stands as that rarest of fairy tales: the one that came true.