“YOU PEOPLE are watching a group of people who startled the athletic world — not the hockey world, the athletic world. Whatever you choose to write — and I don’t mean for you to be cheerleaders — these people are deserving of so much in view of their age and the things they had to accomplish over a short period of time.”
The words came from Herb Brooks less than an hour after the U.S. Olympic hockey team had finished off the Miracle of Lake Placid with a victory over Finland, two days after pulling off what I think is the greatest sports upset of all time by shocking the hated Russians.
I was there. Forty years ago this weekend.
I saw it all from start to finish — even beginning with an embarrassing loss to the Soviets at Madison Square Garden a few days before the opening ceremonies.
“As a father, you have to kick your son in the butt a lot,” Brooks said. “As you know, you fathers and mothers that have to do it — you love your children like I love this hockey team.”
“Kick your son in the butt” is an understatement when it comes to what Herbie put these kids through. In the end, they won the gold medal, movies were made and thousands upon thousands claim to have been in that small arena. It was the greatest sports upset of all time.
These kids lost 10-3 to the Russians at MSG. Ho hum. It was embarrassing and signaled the unofficial start of an Olympic tournament where an optimist could think our kids could PERHAPS win a bronze medal.
And when the final minute began in the opening game against Sweden, even that looked like a longshot.
After getting outshot 16-7 and down 1-0 in the first period, Brooks delivered verbiage that included one of the quotes that lives long after his death in 2003.
“There were too many bleeps in there for me to repeat it,” Brooks said later. “But basically I said, ‘if you want to play this game effectively, you’d better report to the game with a hard hat and lunch pail. If you don’t, you might as well go watch a couple of old guys ice fish.”
With Jim Craig pulled, defenseman Bill Baker tied the game with 27 seconds left, beating future NHL star goalie Pelle Lindbergh (Both Brooks and Lindbergh died in car wrecks).
The U.S. tied and the kids were on their way. They would make their runs without another tie — just victories.
But the game everyone remembers came on Feb. 22. Washington’s birthday (mine, too, but no one cared about that). The Russians had invaded Afghanistan, which would prompt the United States (and me) to skip the Summer Games in Moscow. The Cold War was in full swing.
I was there for United Press International, a viable wire service in the old days. Frank Brown, who would go on to the New York Daily News and then as director of communications for the NHL, was there for the Associated Press. We raced each other in friendly competition, vying for what we called logs — papers with both services using one of us over the other.
I didn’t have a computer (yes, it was that long ago), so what I “wrote” came via dictation off the top of my head to a teammate on the other end. With the wire service, you started dictating during the third period, so your piece was ready to go as the final buzzer sounded.
The Americans were down to the Russians 3-2 in the third period. Dictation began, telling the world that “a brash young group of Americans” gave the Soviet hockey machine all it could handle before losing.
Five or six graphs into my lead, Mark Johnson scores to tie the game. Scrap the lead and start a lead with a tie game — even though you KNOW the Russians are going to win.
Then, 1:21 later, team captain Mike Eruzione scores. Scrap lead No. 2 and start dictating an upset lead — even though you KNOW the Russians are going to come back.
They never did, and we had 1,800 words on our high speed wire within 30 seconds after Al Michaels screamed on tape delay, “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”
The players sang God Bless America in the locker room. Outside, people were going crazy in the streets. As I wrote in “Lake Placid,” a coffee table book given out to each athlete, “Outside the Olympic Fieldhouse, fans honked horns, rang bells and screamed in delight. It was something you’d expect after a war victory. American people had themselves some genuine heroes — and they wanted to celebrate.”
More Brooksisms? Asked what he told the players before the game, Herbie said, “This moment is yours. You’re meant to be here at this moment. So let’s have poise and possession of ourselves at this time.”
The players took it and skated.
Years later, I would steal Herb’s words firing up a group of little kids before a playoff game. Team dads stifled laughs in the back of the room.
Eruzione, a marginal physical talent smart enough to make a career off the ice while many of his teammates went on to the NHL, summed the whole thing up, saying, “When it was over, all I could think of was, ‘We beat the Russians. We beat the Russians.’”
And two days later, they beat the pesky Finns and the gold was ours. The postgame scene including Craig wrapped in the flag, saying “Where’s my father?”
In the book, I wrote, “The awards presentation was something out of a fairy tale. The young Americans accepted their medals and many cried during the playing of the Star Spangled Banner. After the song ended, they took a victory lap around the arena, shaking hands, kissing adoring fans and waving. They had come all the way.
“If the sports world had ever seen a more remarkable story, there weren’t too many people talking about it this Sunday in Lake Placid.”
The Sunday had a touch of melancholy, Eruzione saying, “The saddest thing right now is that after we see the president tomorrow, we just go. We go different ways and who knows if I’ll ever see John Harrington and David Christian again.
“We came together as a team six months ago from all parts of the United States. All different kinds of backgrounds and all kinds of ethnic beliefs. We jelled into a team and I don’t think there’s a coach or anybody in the country right now that can say they’ve experienced the kind of thing we have right here. This had just been such a thrill.”