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'80 U.S. hockey team is symbol



Published: Wed, February 13, 2002 @ 12:00 a.m.



While a grizzled veteran of the sports staff marveled when the 1980 U.S. hockey team lit the cauldron to cap the Winter Olympics' opening ceremony, the young pups weren't exactly misty eyed.

"What's the big deal? So they won a hockey game?" they suggested.

Ah, but it was so much more than that.

But in trying to explain that, the old timer fell back on the worst of clich & eacute;s -- over-exaggeration. (You know, we all walked 10 miles to school fighting 6-foot snowdrifts ...)

"Try to imagine some high school basketball players getting together to upset a Michael Jordan team for the NBA title," the geezer shot out.

"Wait a minute," came a wise reply of youth. "Weren't these guys the best college players in the land?"

Oops! Score one for the whippersnappers.

Comparison: Upon further review, we decided the 1980 Miracle on Ice where the American amateurs defeated the Russian "amateurs" for the ice hockey gold medal could better be compared by imagining one of Youngstown State University's Division I-AA championship teams upsetting the St. Louis Rams. (It's not a perfect analogy but it will do -- talented athletes at a lower level against some of the world's elite.)

In this age of cheap cell phones, tiny microwave ovens and SUVs in school parking lots, our young-uns sometimes have difficulty grasping just how different the world and the Olympics were before communism imploded.

Twenty-two years ago, the Russians possessed Afghanistan, American hostages were captive in Tehran, gasoline prices and inflation were soaring and the U.S. seemed powerless (short of launching World War III) to do anything about any of it.

Boycott: President Jimmy Carter's response to the Soviets was to boycott the Summer Games in Moscow. (The U.S.S.R. returned the favor four years later by skipping the Los Angeles Games.)

In February 1980, Americans didn't have many reasons to feel good about ourselves. And when it came to the Olympics, that sense of failure had been snowballing for years.

In the 1970s, Communist countries enjoyed Olympic superiority by exploiting the amateur rules.

Need a villain? Check out the Boris and Natasha athletes the Soviets and the East Germans used to send to the Winter Games.

Rulings: And then there were such controversial rulings as in the 1972 gold medal basketball game where the officials kept putting time back on the clock until the Russians finally scored enough points to upset the U.S.

In the '70s, the Soviets dominated international hockey tournaments with NHL-caliber players masquerading as amateurs. (The Soviet Army hired the country's top athletes to be soldiers. Their job in the army was to play hockey while the Olympic overseers turned a blind eye.)

In 1972, the NHL's best players (who weren't exactly in shape at the end of the off-season) had to claw and scratch to beat the surprising Soviets in the first Canada Cup Series. (Paul Henderson, who scored the series-winning goal with 32 seconds to go in the final game, is to Canada what Mike Eruzione is to the United States.)

Meanwhile, the U.S. was represented in the Olympics by amateur athletes receiving little financial help from the government. Instead, those athletes depended upon sacrificing families for the chance to compete on the world's largest stage.

So when 20 college kids led by a brilliant coach (Herb Brooks) who motivated them by making them hate him stunned the world with a 4-3 victory over the Soviets, it struck home. Big time.

Those kids deserved the torch honor, as did Brooks, who should have been with them.

Today, the era of miracles is over because professionals are skating for their countries. If justice is served, Canada, the home of hockey's best players, will win its first hockey gold medal in 50 years.

XTom Williams is a sportswriter for The Vindicator. Write him at williams@vindy.com.




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