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More Than A Miracle

Updated on June 13, 2015

A Game For The Ages

It was February 22, 1980 when Mike Eruzione drilled in the game winning goal on Vladimir Myshkin and Al Michaels asked America if they believed in miracles. The Miracle on Ice was a fantastic event that has spawned a Disney movie starring Kurt Russell. Indeed the US victory that day was nothing short of a miracle and a fantastic story to boot. After all the match that day featured a US national team that consisted entirely of college students who had only been playing together for a total of two years. On the other hand the USSR national team had been playing together for years and had the benefit of training with other professional teams. At the time the Soviet team was not only regarded as the best team in the world, but also near unbeatable. The team featured the best goalie of the time in Vladislav Treitak and two of the best scorers in the game. For all intents and purposes the US should have lost that game. In the match itself the USSR dominated the game getting 39 shots on the goal to the US’s 16. The US won the match 4-3 meaning 25% of the US shot attempts went in, an incredible percentage considering in the following match Sweden was only able to convert 2 goals on a total of 26 shots. This is of course just as much of a testament to how well USMNT goalie Jim Craig defended the goal that day. He probably single handedly saved the game for the US, blocking or deflecting 36 of the 39 shots on the goal. All of this goes to show just how many different factors had to line up in order for the US to upset the Russian national team. A miracle indeed.

However the hockey match played that day was more than just a game of hockey. in 1980 the United States and the USSR were still engaged in the Cold War. Although tensions had dialed back from what they were in the 50’s and 60’s a USSR and US rivalry was still very much in existence. More importantly any engagement that gave either country a chance to prove their superiority was met with a great deal of enthusiasm. The Miracle on Ice represented an extension of the Cold War onto the hockey rink. Thanks to mutually assured destruction direct conflict between the USSR and the United States was not plausible in the eyes of either state. As a result each country had to find different way in which they could assert their dominance and superiority in other ways. This manifested itself in ways such as the space race, a nuclear arms race, proxy wars in the Middle East, and of course, international sports.

Jim Craig's gear, immortalized in the hall of fame.
Jim Craig's gear, immortalized in the hall of fame. | Source

It Was The 70's Man!

First in order to understand in part the meaning of this game in the context of American national pride we have to look at the 1970’s. It is tempting to call the 70’s the decade of humiliation for the nation. However perhaps a more accurate description of the 70’s would be the decade of “we don’t know what we’re doing”. The 70’s was filled with blunders and missteps starting with just about every aspect of the Vietnam War. The United States first stepped into the conflict with little knowledge of the region and the domestic politics. As a result the US went into Vietnam woefully under informed and resulted in an incredibly mishandled war on the part of the United States government, culminating in the exposure of the Pentagon Papers and America’s embarrassing retreat from Saigon. Of course the 70’s in the US could not be discussed without any mention of Nixon and the Watergate scandal. Nixon to this day remains the only United States president to have resigned. The revelation of Nixon’s corrupt rule left a black mark on the White House. This of course was followed with economic stagnation due to the skyrocketing prices of oil caused by an OPEC ban. The OPEC ban was caused due to several countries in the Middle East disliking America’s role in the Yom Kippur War. Of course to accentuate the political tension of the era the United States decided to boycott the 1980 summer Olympics in protest of Russia’s aggression in the Afghanistan.

Richard Nixon, need I say more?
Richard Nixon, need I say more? | Source

Trial By Hockey

Thus the match to qualify for the gold medal round represented in a lot of ways a proxy war between Soviet Russia and the United States for metaphorical world dominance. It was America’s chance to say “We beat the Russians!” Granted in tiny letters at the end of that sentence you would have to add, “in hockey”, the sentiment would be rather similar. Now there is a chance that I am exaggerating the meaning of this game. However consider a few facts. First the movie Miracle wasn’t about the US men’s national team coming together and winning the gold. It was about the US men’s national team coming together and beating the Russians. The gold medal match against Finland was mentioned less in the film than some of the exhibition games the USMNT played prior to the Olympics. The match between the USSR and the US also holds the record for the most viewers at 32.8 million viewers. For reference the next highest is the 2010 gold medal match between the US and Canada at 27.6 million viewers. Keep in mind in 1980 most of the nation couldn’t get the game in real time and had to wait for the tape delayed version of the match. This is the level of excitement this match brought, more people watched this game than an actual gold medal match.

A counter argument would contribute the large audience to an underdog US team challenging a dominant, world beating Russian team. This is a fair point however, lets return to the subject of the movie Miracle. The match versus Finland is only mentioned by way of an awkward concluding voice over by Kurt Russell. It is clear that the main topic of the movies is beating the Russians, winning the gold medal is more or less treated as a bonus. This may seem like a stretch to treat one movie as something that speaks for the entire American mindset, but doesn’t mean something that talking about the 1980 ice hockey USMNT means talking about beating the Russians, not winning the gold. Many people, particularly younger generations such as myself, have not seen the actual game. We weren’t around to experience the elation of the American national hockey team beating Russia, and then winning the gold. What we have are movies such as Miracle and accounts of the game on Wikipedia. What is heard and seen is primarily the tale of the valiant underdog United States national team taking on and defeating the imposing Russian team. Of course then it's surprising to hear that the match between Russia and the US wasn’t the gold medal match, it was the match to qualify for the gold medal match.

In game photo of the Miracle on Ice.
In game photo of the Miracle on Ice. | Source

The Miracle And National Identity

The placement of the Miracle on Ice in the national conscience speaks to how integral that fateful February day was in boosting national pride in 1980. As I mentioned earlier the 1970’s represented a decade of embarrassment and humiliation for America. In many ways the country was looking for something to be optimistic about. The February 22 victory provided America with a national pride boost that was needed. This goes to show the relationship between national teams and national pride. Countries tend to link international sporting events such as the Olympics with the construction of national identity. As evidenced with the Miracle on Ice and the importance of the 1980 men’s hockey team to American national pride. The victory over Russia, was in many ways like an actual victory over Russia.

As mentioned earlier the gold medal qualifying match represented a proxy battle of sorts between the United States and Russia. It was the battle between tyranny and freedom, Communism and Capitalism. But wait, its just a hockey game, granted it was a game where the winner would have a chance to play for the gold medal, but still just a game. The men on the ice weren’t playing for democracy or US/Russian global supremacy, nor were they playing for any sort of economic/governmental style. And yet history seems to remember the 1980 United States men’s ice hockey team as the team that beat Russia, oh and they also won the gold medal. Although at the most basic level of competition this match featured two teams fighting for a shot at Olympic gold. But these aren’t ordinary teams sponsored by a single corporation or owned by a multi millionaire. These are national teams, teams that represent nation states on large international stages. Because these are national teams on some level these players aren’t playing for themselves, they’re not playing for a salary, they’re playing for national pride. So on some level these athletes are an extension of each nation and on a much smaller note, an extension of these nation’s values. So perhaps this particular game was something more than just a game and more than just a miracle.

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