Forty years ago this month, a kid from Wayne, Maine, was witness to Olympic ice hockey history. The kid was not me, but an old friend. I talked with him recently. He remembers Lake Placid well. He pulled an all-nighter, driving from college, came on a whim, gift tickets.He held a sign: “Wayne, Maine.” In the movie, you will see it beside the big American flag.  

The anniversary reminds us never to count America out. Heart, courage, and freedom’s hidden depths sometimes turn the tables, when adversaries least expect. Putting aside war and peace, politics and policy, consider a surrogate — Olympic competition. 

At the time, the Soviet Union was running roughshod over half the world, suppressing freedoms across Russia and what are now 15 independent states. The Soviet Union was manhandling eight now-free Eastern European countries. What Ronald Reagan would soon call the “evil empire” was at an apex.

Moreover, the Soviets were notorious for cheating at the Olympics, plugging Red Army athletes full of performance-enhancing drugs, steering all the Communist state’s power to unfair advantage on the world stage.

One more fact: The Soviet Olympic ice hockey team was rated best in the world.  They had won Olympic gold in 1956 — the year they crushed Hungary’s revolt — as well as 1964, 1968 — year they crushed Czechoslovakia’s Prague Spring — 1972 and 1976. 

They had won the world hockey championships in 1954, 1956, and 1963 through 1979.  No team challenged them. They were the best, an extension of Soviet oppression.

Against that backdrop, a collection of happy-go-lucky, freedom-loving American  college kids took the ice on Feb. 22, 1980. Reagan had yet to win a primary; his first would be New Hampshire four days later. Most Americans hardly knew Reagan, or Jim Craig, America’s Olympic goalie. Anonymity for both was soon to end.

The Soviets were 20 professionals, many holding Olympic gold. Four would later play  in the NHL, ending up in the Hall of Fame. 

But this was a day to behold — one that would change Olympic hockey, perhaps setting the stage for other world-shaking events. This was the day wild American boys, raised on simple truths, hard work and freedom, took on the corrupt, indomitable, theoretically unbeatable Soviet state.

No one gave the Americans a chance of beating the Soviets. Why should they? They were the youngest team that year, youngest ever to skate on Olympic ice. 

The American team was assembled by Minnesota’s Herb Brooks. Of 20 players, one had skated on Olympic ice. Brooks was a student of human nature, a fine attribute of free societies. He pushed, but never too hard. By February, they were one team — America. 

Foreshadowing was minimal. The U.S. drew 2-2 with Sweden, upset Czechoslovakia 7-3, but freaks happen. No one expected much.   

Somehow, the U.S., after a rough and tumble game, tied the score 3-3 in the third period.

The Soviet Army was not easily shamed, shaken or defeated, however. They went down hard, off ice and on. They had weight, experience, age and medal advantages. They had half the best players alive. They launched on the Americans.

There is an adage in sports and war: If you have an advantage, press it. Another speaks to surprise. General Patton said success comes to those who “always do more than is required.” That was Team America, third period. They never let up. Two shifts in, one American player found another stepping on ice – free in the slot. One hit two, and two fired past the Soviet goalie. America, for the first time, was ahead, 4-3.

Ten minutes remained. That was a hailstorm. Soviet shots hit the post; others hammered Craig. They would win if it meant crushing the goalie. But again, the Americans did something the Soviets never expected. Rather than protect their lead, they struck back.  On offense, they pounded the Soviet goalie.

Under pressure, the Soviets shot wildly — as one later conceded, “panicking.” In the last minute, they got in zone and fired wide. At 33 seconds, they hit Craig with a bullet slap shot, but it was kicked away. 

Now, the thing went airborne, the crowd chanting a countdown. Seconds became hours.  The Soviets worked to clear, fire, missed. At 20 seconds, the Soviets got in the zone, fought for the puck. Things were crazy. An American got it, tried to clear, but the Soviets were on it.

ABC sportscaster Al Michaels could not believe his eyes. “Eleven seconds, you’ve got 10 seconds, the countdown going on right now! Morrow, up to Silk. Five seconds left in the game. Do you believe in miracles? YES!” 

That was the day — 40 years ago — that heart, courage, and freedom’s depths turned tables on the Soviet Union. The game ended an era, started another. Those scrappy, can-do American kids outlasted, outshot and outplayed the Soviet Red Army — and won gold. They left their Soviet adversaries stunned. 

The victory, enshrined as the “Miracle on Ice,” became iconic, emblematic, a high point in Olympic sports history. In 2008, the International Ice Hockey Federation named it best international ice hockey story of the past 100 years. 

Maybe it was more. Maybe it was the sign of things to come. In nine months, Ronald Reagan was America’s president. In nine years, the Soviet Union was gone. Now and then, when you least expect it, an anniversary reminds you to never count America out.

And if you look closely, Wayne, Maine, was there.

Robert Charles grew up in Wayne, and served in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush White Houses, as a naval intelligence officer, and as assistant secretary of state to Colin Powell. He is often in Maine.


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