A version of this column first appeared in November, 2018. I’m reposting it today to commemorate the 40th anniversary of the “Miracle On Ice.”
Like a lot of guys, I have a “fan cave” at my house.
Walk into the tiny converted attic room and you’ll find memorabilia from the World Football League, the World Hockey Association, United States Football League, XFL – to me they are remnants of days gone by as well as good old days.
One of my most prized possessions is a hockey puck commemorating the 1980 United States Olympic Hockey Team’s game against the Birmingham Bulls of the Central Hockey League.
The “Miracle On Ice” took place on February 22, 1980, and if you’re an American hockey fan old enough to remember it, you most certainly do.
I saw that team on Nov. 8, 1979, when they visited Birmingham, Ala., to play the local minor league club in an exhibition at the Birmingham-Jefferson Civic Center Coliseum.
Birmingham, which was not part of the WHA’s limited merger with the NHL a year earlier, had resurfaced in the CHL, keeping the “Bulls” nickname but seeing its level of play take a dip. But a Triple A-type league offered just the kind of tune-ups the young U.S. squad needed.
Each team in the CHL played the Olympians that season, with the games actually counting in the league standings.
Birmingham lost to Brooks’ charges, 5-2, in Minneapolis on Nov. 4, and four days later they faced off again in the Magic City. The crowd was announced at 3,696, and pucks were handed out to those in attendance as a way to celebrate and commemorate the occasion.
A little over three months later that puck would be like gold to me when the Olympians became sports icons.
You know the story.
When the Winter Games came to Lake Placid, N.Y., little was expected out of the U.S. in hockey, especially since its roster was made up of a bunch of kids. The medals would likely be divided up among powerhouse teams fielded by the Soviet Union, Finland and Canada, and the prospects of the Americans advancing beyond pool play seemed absurd.
Just days before the Games began, the U.S. was hammered by the Russians, 10-3, at Madison Square Garden. Yet when it was medal time in New York State, goalie Jim Craig turned away 36 shots by “The Red Army” to help the hosts shock the greatest hockey team in the world, 4-3.
For many it was a political victory as well as a sporting one because of the Cold War. I was acutely aware of the “more than a game” overtones, but frankly I was just thrilled to see guys my age pull off a feat that seemed impossible.
Phil Verchota scored three times in the Games and added two assists, while Rob McClanahan had five goals and three assists in seven matches. I bring their names up because they were the stars of the United States’ 6-4 victory over the Bulls.
Often lost in the euphoria of the victory over the Soviets is the Gold Medal match against Finland, which took place on Feb. 24, 1980.
Heading into the final period the United States trailed 2-1. But the Americans scored three unanswered goals in the third period in a too-good-to-be-true finish, claiming a 4-2 conquest and putting the final touches on one of the most unlikely sports stories ever written.
I sure am glad I decided to keep that old puck.