Memories of the Lake Placid Olympics 40 Years Later
By David A. F. Sweet
When I tell people I attended the Miracle of Ice game, they are always somewhat wonderstruck. There were only about 8,500 of us to begin with, after all, and likely far fewer today. To my knowledge, no one’s formed a group on social media publicizing who we are and sharing our memories. To meet someone who happened to watch that never-to-be-forgotten Olympic moment must be like stumbling upon a link to a long-ago era, similar to hearing someone impart that he or she once chatted with Thomas Edison.
Truth is, despite my love of hockey, I was one of the more out-of-touch fans that evening. That’s because at the time, as a teenager, I had little comprehension of the historic import of what I was watching.
Let me set the stage. I was 16 years old and a junior at Deerfield Academy. A few television sets dotted the basements of dormitories, but mainly the cigarette smokers hung out there and controlled the channels. Also in the bowels were pay phones, a key to communicating with the outside world. If you wanted to read the newspaper, the library held the Boston Globe and a few others, but I don’t remember anyone actually mimicking their fathers by crossing their legs and opening a broadsheet.
Amid this informational Dark Ages, I needed to meet with the Dean of Students to come up with a rationale for why I should miss three days of classes, benefits enjoyed only by those who were sick or who had suffered a death in the family. Why should I be allowed to attend the 1980 Winter Olympics when my classmates were grinding away and trudging to classes in coats and ties in the frigid New England weather?
I have no recollection of what I said to the Dean, but I somehow persuaded him to unleash me upon the outside world (or my Dad had informed him I’d be going, and the meeting was more of a ruse to let me know how lucky I was). Regardless, when I arrived with my Dad in Lake Placid after a four-hour car ride from western Massachusetts, I was not a fount of Olympic knowledge. Nor, for that matter, was I attuned to the world scene. I do remember during sophomore year, a corridor master invited us into his small apartment to watch while President Jimmy Carter and Soviet leader Leonid Brezhnev kissed over the Salt II treaty, but my understanding of the Cold War with the Soviet Union was shallow at best. No one was tweeting that the end of the world could be near.
We stayed in an apartment in the middle of Lake Placid, thanks to Jack Shea. A native of the town who worked at the Northern Trust in Chicago, he was well-connected to the New York hamlet and to the Olympics. His father Jack, also known as The Chief, won two speedskating gold medals at Lake Placid during the previous Olympics, way back in 1932.
Aptly, given Jack’s background, my first trek to a sport in Lake Placid was watching Eric Heiden glide around the big, outdoor oval on his way to a record five speedskating golds. My Dad and I also hiked up a mountain to watch ski jumping. Not merely a spectator, I went dogsledding in the village, and I traded Olympic pins with strangers. In fact, my hat became covered with them – including one promoting the 1980 Moscow Summer Olympics that the United States would boycott because of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Afghanistan.
When we entered the rink on Feb. 22, 1980, and I sat down in Section 6, Row E, Seat 5 (the ticket is framed above me as I type), my pro hockey knowledge was strong. I could easily name the NHL greats of the 1960s and 1970s. I had watched many based at the always-raucous, 18,000-seat Chicago Stadium. But I couldn’t name any U.S. players that night. And the 8,500-capacity arena — lacking the booming organ and deafening goal horn that Chicago Stadium possessed — was somewhat underwhelming.
What I did know from the drop of the puck was the game and the atmosphere engendered by the frenzied crowd was amazing. Back-and-forth action right in front of us; players hopping over the boards and hustling everywhere; American flags waving in the stands; U.S. goalie Jim Craig turning away shot after shot from a ceaseless attack.
We all went crazy as it ended. U.S. players threw their sticks into the crowd – even though they had one more game to play, the gold-medal contest against Finland. People leaving the arena were still yelling. America watched it all a few hours later on tape delay.
It was truly a once-in-a-lifetime event that could not be replicated today. The U.S. team was comprised of college players – also known as amateurs – against obvious Soviet professionals (called amateurs just to fit in with the Olympic rules of the day). Pros dominate hockey and other sports in the Olympics today, so an underdog stunning the world is quite unlikely.
As I look back 40 years on that jaw-dropping triumph, how fortunate I was to be there with fewer than 10,000 others for what has been called the greatest sports moment of the 20th century. Thank God I saved the ticket (I have no idea where our other tickets from those Games are). And how ironic that I ended up writing a book about a Soviet Union-United States Olympic battle — not in Lake Placid, but on the hardcourt in Munich in 1972, which featured an excruciatingly different result.
Only within the past year while going through my Dad’s papers did I uncover the itinerary for the Lake Placid trip. It contained a few surprises. I never knew or had forgotten my Mom originally planned to come. I didn’t recall our two-bedroom apartment was a bargain at $850 a week (Hockey Canada paid $1,500 a week to be our next-door neighbor). I also hadn’t known our apartment, according to Jack Shea, was a “miracle find” (appropriate wording in retrospect), as it was procured only six months before the flame was lit, and the U.S. Olympic Committee had gobbled up every hotel room in the hamlet for the entire month of February.
Eight years later, my Dad and I attended the Winter Olympics in Calgary, joined by my brother Kirk. The efforts of the Jamaican bobsled team were entertaining, the Labatt’s were flowing, and the hockey again was stupendous — but there will always be only one Miracle on Ice.
The Sporting Life columnist David A. F. Sweet can be followed on Twitter @davidafsweet. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.