Nations: ‘Miracle’ memories still strong

I can’t say I’m brimming with excitement about the impending start to the Winter Olympics — never have been, probably never will be.

There is some novelty, I suppose, to watching portions of alpine skiing, a bit of figure skating (just a bit, thank you), maybe even a little curling (that’s a lie, I’d rather watch paint dry). The bobsleigh (that’s what they call it on the official Olympic web page, so who am I to argue?) looks like something I’d like to try more than something I want to watch, and ski jumping is what I imagine would happen as a worst-case scenario if I ever hit the slopes.

Frankly, I’ve always wondered why the International Olympic Committee doesn’t make some attempt to balance the Summer and Winter games. The Summer Games have so much more mainstream, viewer-friendly options — I understand moving basketball to the Winter Games might be asking for a bit much, but how about boxing? Growing up, boxing was one of those marquee events pitting the good old U.S.A. against the powerhouse Communist bloc countries headed by the Soviet Union, East Germany and Cuba.

Thinking back on the old U.S.S.R. did put me in mind to write this column, and point out the one Winter Olympic sport I never switch off the television — hockey. It’s not that I’m a die-hard fan of that sport, probably casual at best, but hockey provided me and l’m certain more than a few of my generation and older the greatest Olympic moment — greatest sports moment, even, if you’re an American — ‘Do you believe in miracles?’

Of course, I’m referring to the famous “Miracle on Ice” medal-round game between the U.S. and the dreaded Soviet Union national team during the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y.

To put my own memories into perspective, I have to show my age a bit here. That game took place on Feb. 22, 1980, which would have put me at 7 years old and not by much. I don’t remember any details about the game — sure, I’ve seen the highlights over the years — but game memories faded long ago. This is what I do remember, though — sitting in the kitchen with my father to watch that game, just the two of us peering into one of those tiny, fuzzy counter-top black and white TVs, and knowing full well that our team wasn’t supposed to win that game yet watching nonetheless, just in case.

The Soviet Union was much more than just an economic rival, then — that country held the very real power to annihilate our country and destroy the world (it would have to be the communists who’d start a nuclear holocaust, at least in my 7-year-old way of thinking).

The daily threat of nuclear war was still all too real even to someone my age. I did not grow up in the age of fallout shelters bomb drills, but I duly received advice along the lines of remembering to not look directly at a nuclear blast to avoid instant blindness — knowledge I earnestly tucked away in my mind, just in case.

Just to set the stage for the significance of this particular game — the Soviets were overwhelming favorites to win the gold medal, having claimed the previous four golds since the U.S. had last pulled off an upset in 1960. The always powerful Team Canada was always the best hope of the West to unseat the Soviets, but despite being a Michigan kid just a few miles from Windsor, Ontario, there was no chance of backing anyone but Team USA.

Again, game details are fuzzy — I remember it was close throughout, I remember my dad’s excitement feeding my own patriotic pride, I remember first hearing those ‘U-S-A, U-S-A’ chants which have become customary for nearly any national team now. It was a 4-3 victory, a shocking win, a great moment and one of the earliest vivid memories I have to this day.

There won’t be another moment like that for Team USA, which went on to win the gold in 1980 with a 4-2 comeback victory over friendly Finland. The U.S. squad won’t be favorites, of course, it never is — Canada will be there, and Finland, and the Czech Republic, and Norway, Slovakia, Slovenia, Austria, Latvia, Sweden and Switzerland. The Russians will be there, too, but there’s less of a chance the U.S. will meet its old foe in the medal round — both are part of Pool A along with Slovakia and Slovenia.

No matter when they do meet — and they will, at least in the preliminaries — there’s no doubt I’ll be tuning in for another battle on the ice between Team USA and Russia. For me, that’s as good as it gets in the Olympics.

Contact Sports Editor Jeff Nations at 540-465-5137 ext. 161, or jnations@nvdaily.com>