Menu

More Sports

Russians play down 'Miracle on Ice' 30 years later

VANCOUVER, British Columbia (AP) — They are gathering again at a Winter Olympics, now aging cold warriors.

Thirty years ago, they played a game that has been called the greatest upset in Olympic history, a David-vs.-Goliath tale, a political metaphor, a miracle.

That's how many Americans remember the hockey game played at the Lake Placid Olympics on Feb. 22, 1980, when a group of mostly college kids defeated the mighty team from the Soviet Union, which had dominated the sport for most of the previous two decades.

But what went through the minds of those red-clad players, who watched in stunned disbelief as the Americans celebrated the "Miracle on Ice" at the other end of the rink?

The hawkish features of goalie Vladislav Tretiak turned soft and he smiled slightly as he was reminded of the painful anniversary. But he brushed the memory aside as easily as one of the many thousands of shots he turned away in his Hall of Fame career.

"It's fine with me," Tretiak said in an interview with The Associated Press at the nondescript East Vancouver community rink where the Russian Olympic team is practicing. "It's a big number, but of course it's 30 years ago."

The 57-year-old general manager of the Russian hockey team is one of several players from the Lake Placid game who is in Vancouver. Mike Eruzione, who scored the winning goal for the U.S., is here.

Mark Johnson, who scored twice, is coaching the U.S. women's hockey team. U.S. goalie Jim Craig, who turned aside so many Soviet shots, is coming. Former defenseman Slava Fetisov, now a Russian government sports official, will be here too.

Even Al Michaels — whose famous call, "Do you believe in miracles? Yes!" — is broadcasting from Vancouver for NBC.

The U.S. team had been selected and coached by Herb Brooks, a tough disciplinarian who was a master motivator. The Americans played a series of exhibition games before Lake Placid, and were soundly beaten by the Soviets, 10-3, in their final Olympic tuneup in Madison Square Garden in New York.

The team survived a tie with Sweden in the round-robin Olympic tournament and then got victories over Czechoslovakia, Norway, Romania and West Germany.

Against the Soviets, the hard-skating Americans fell behind twice in the first period but managed to tie it 2-2 when Johnson put a last-second rebound past Tretiak.

Legendary Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov unexpectedly pulled Tretiak from the game after the first period, replacing him with Vladimir Mishkin in an apparent move to shake up his complacent team.

"It was difficult for me to sit on the bench with the score 2-2," said the Hall of Fame goaltender who won three Olympic gold medals and was part of 10 world championship Soviet teams. "If I played the second and third period, the game might have turned a different way."

Alexander Maltsev scored the only goal of the second period. Trailing 3-2 in the third period, the Americans got another goal from Johnson to tie it, and Eruzione, the team's gritty captain, scored a screened shot to give the U.S. the lead for the first time with exactly 10 minutes left.

With the crowd chanting "USA!" Craig turned aside wave after wave of Soviet attacks in the frenzied final minutes to preserve the win.

"The Soviets were putting so much pressure on the American team at the end of the game, and it was a one-goal game, the crowd is going absolutely insane, we were on a platform that was shaking, the production truck was going crazy," Michaels recalled.

When time ran out, Michaels gave his famous call and the U.S. team broke into a wild celebration. The Soviets could only watch. Two days later, the Americans beat Finland to win the gold.

Tretiak said he never got an apology from Tikhonov for what many regard as the key blunder that gave the game to the Americans.

"Tikhonov wrote in his autobiography that it was the biggest mistake of his life," the goaltender said.

Tretiak showed none of the bitterness over the game that has been attributed to him by the Russian media — feelings hurt so badly that he contemplated quitting the sport. He once was quoted as saying that he would remember being denied a fourth gold medal "until the end of my life."

He later decided against retiring. "I didn't want to leave hockey as a loser. I wanted to be a winner again," Tretiak told the AP.

In a 2006 interview with the online newspaper Gazeta, teammate Valery Vasilyev also blamed Tikhonov, saying the move to replace Tretiak "made the team nervous."

"For me, it was a 'Mirage on Ice,'" Vasilyev was quoted as saying. "I still can't understand how we could have lost to the Americans. I still can't believe in that — as if it were a dream.

"I believed then and I still believe that our dismissive attitude to the U.S. team had led to our defeat," he said. "We simply hadn't taken them seriously."

Craig finds Vasilyev's explanation that the coach's move unsettled the Soviet team "very reasonable."

A goaltender like Tretiak can have a "calming influence," on his teammates, Craig told the AP.

"They were a team that hadn't been challenged. They had grown into this huge, powerful machine," said Craig, now 52. "We were young. We didn't know better."

When the Soviets went home from Lake Placid with silver, they met with aging Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev, who all but pretended that nothing happened. "Viktor, I know that you are stronger than the Americans," he reportedly told Tikhonov.

The loss was little talked about in Russia in the years afterward.

Current Russian goalie Evgeni Nabokov, who wears Tretiak's No. 20 to honor his boyhood hero, sighed when he was asked about the game, which he said "was quickly forgotten" at home.

He was only 5 years old in 1980, so he doesn't remember it, and he added that the story of the game has "never been actually told to us."

"In the States, I know it's such a big deal — even 30 years later, you guys still talk about that," Nabakov said. "But to us, because I think we were winning so many other Olympics, to be honest, I don't even remember that because we knew if we lost this one, we can win the next one, and that's what they did."

The one exception may be "Miracle," the 2004 movie that tells the story of the game and of how Brooks molded the team. The film focused not only on the game but also the political atmosphere at the time — the U.S. hostages in Iran, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan at the height of the Cold War, and President Jimmy Carter's plan to boycott the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics.

Tretiak said he saw the movie and gave it a thumbs-up.

"They made a very nice movie — very patriotic," Tretiak said. "I applaud the Americans for making a very nice movie ... very patriotic and very good for kids. The memories came back to me."

Craig, now a motivational speaker, was asked what he would say to a team like the Soviets after such a devastating loss.

"I would ask them, 'What did you learn from this?' I would have them evaluate why they lost," he said.

Tretiak seemed to have learned that lesson already.

"It's possible to achieve anything if you're disciplined. A team without stars can defeat a team full of stars," he said.

Johnson called it "a special moment in the history of this game, but time heals all wounds, also."

"I think it's something where everybody can remember it in their own way, and it's obviously something that nobody (from Russia) should feel badly about," he said.

Michaels said he didn't know of any reunion planned in Vancouver for those from Lake Placid, and Tretiak said he didn't have any time for such a get-together due to his GM job with the Russians. "I'm always with the team," he said.

In Vancouver, the Russians have set up a lavish headquarters as they prepare to host the 2014 Winter Olympics in the seaside resort of Sochi. Several display cases around the pavilion are crammed with Russian sticks, jerseys, pucks and helmets from international hockey competitions dating from the 1950s to last year's Stanley Cup finals. Even the 1972 Summit Series — which the Soviets lost 4-3-1 to a team of NHL all-stars from Canada — was commemorated.

Tellingly, there is nothing from the game three decades ago that holds such a special place in Olympic history.

___

Associated Press writer Leonid Chizov in Moscow, AP Sports Writer Greg Beacham and freelance writer Kevin Woodley in Vancouver, and Television Writer David Bauder in New York contributed to this story.