Keeping Score: Miracle turns 40

  • The box score from the Olympic semifinal between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. played at Lake Placid, 40 years ago today. CONTRIBUTED PHOTO

Published: 2/21/2020 7:25:58 PM

Good morning!
Forty years ago this evening in Greenfield, word began filtering through the bars and taverns on Main Street that the U.S. Olympic hockey team had beaten the mighty Soviet Red Army, 4-3, in Lake Placid, N.Y.

Upon hearing the news, I rushed to my apartment on Davis Street and watched the telecast with my buddy John Lyman. Great as it was, ABC’s taped delay had ruined the spontaneity.

“No internet back then, seems rather primitive now,” said Mark Enoch, who drove to the Games from his home in Amherst. “Lake Placid was sealed up tighter than East Berlin. Even the locals couldn’t drive their cars in town. You had to park miles from the village and be bussed in.”

Enoch’s love for amateur sports was instilled by his father who taught math and coached track at DA. “Tickets had to be purchased through Sports Illustrated,” he said. “(President) Carter must’ve been asleep at the wheel to sign off on it. SI published the entire Olympic schedule and you ordered the tickets through them.”

The XIII Winter Olympics began on Feb. 13 when Vice President Walter Mondale welcomed 1,072 athletes from 37 nations. Roni the Racoon was the official mascot and flugelhorn player Chuck Mangione opened the ceremony with his lukewarm hit “Give it All You Got.” Eric Heiden won five speed skating events, but most of the medals went to the USSR and East Germany, given their prowess in the biathlon and cross country skiing. Meanwhile the Soviet hockey team was thrashing the likes of Japan and the Netherlands by scores of 16-0 and 17-4.

“I passed on hockey because no one had any idea who would be playing Game No. 14 at 5 p.m. on Feb. 22,” said Enoch. “Besides, three weeks earlier they beat us 10-3 at Madison Square Garden.”

The Soviet Union’s Red Army team had won five of the previous six Olympic gold medals, their only blemish coming in 1960 when the U.S. beat Czechoslovakia, 9-4, to win the gold in Squaw Valley.

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The seeds of their hockey success were sown after WWII when Joseph Stalin ordered Anatoli Tarasov to build a national program. A student of the sport, Tarosov emphasized short, precise passes and quick, deft goaltending. “The ultimate aim of a pass is to get an open player,” Tarasov explained, according to his Wikipedia biography. “If our opponents make 150 passes in a game against our 270, this means we had 120 more playing opportunities.”

Before he handed the coaching reins to Viktor Tikhonov, Tarasov had groomed a 15-year-old Ukranian boy named Vladislav Tretiak into the world’s premier goaltender. Tretiak later recalled his mentor’s unrelenting quest for perfection. “If I let in just one puck,” he told a reporter, “Tarasov would ask me the next day, ‘What’s the matter?’”

Besides its nuclear arsenal, what made North Americans nervous about the USSR was its hockey team. Nobody knew their true ceiling because only amateurs had played them in international competition.

In 1972, the NHL Players Association worked an agreement with the Soviets to play a Summit Series — four games in Canada and four in the USSR. In the opener at the Montreal Forum, the Soviets shocked their hosts, 7-3, but Canada’s honor was restored two nights later with a 4-1 win at Maple Leaf Gardens.

Ultimately Canada won four games, the Soviets won three and there was one tie. During the final game in Moscow, Paul Henderson’s goal with 34 seconds left lifted Canada to a 6-5 win. Canada won the series, but the USSR. had outscored them, 32-31.

The natural rivalry resulted in an abundance of exhibition games. In 1977, the Russians played the New England Whalers in the Hartford Civic Center. Whalers coach Harry Neale studied them from behind the glass at practice.

“Who are their best players?” a reporter asked.

“Bleeped if I know,” Neale answered. “I don’t even know how to pronounce their names.”

With handles like Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, who could blame him?

In the locker room after practice, the Soviets were quiet and polite, but on the ice they elbowed and speared. Gordie Howe took umbrage and broke a Soviet player’s arm. Another Soviet tripped Hartford winger Alan Hangsleben, and the Warroad, Minn., native whirled and used what was left of his balance to break his stick across the player’s back.

I don’t recall the score, but it was a heckuva game.

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If the best the NHL could do against the Soviets was break even, how could a bunch of college kids from BC, BU and Minnesota have a chance against this daunting Red Army team? “I opted for the slalom and watched (Ingemar) Stenmark win gold, Phil Mahre finishing second,” said Enoch. “He was so far superior to the others, it was laughable.

“I was halfway up Whiteface under the chairlift, watching skiers furiously try to memorize the course for their second run. Stenmark truly looked bored, gazing at the clouds, not bothering to look down at the course he’d soon demolish.”

Stenmark’s second run was nearly three seconds faster than his first trip between the gates. He retired in 1989 with 86 World Cup wins. “Lindsey Vonn honored him after she nearly caught him in total World Cup victories,” said Enoch. “Ingemar is a reclusive Swede, but was appreciative of the attention Vonn showed him.”

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At the Olympic Fieldhouse, the puck dropped at 5:07 p.m. with one referee and one linesman officiating the U.S. versus USSR. semifinal. “I was just walking around downtown after my grueling slalom experience,” joked Enoch. “I could have had a scalper’s ticket for $75, but decided to watch from a bar four blocks from the arena. Worst mistake of my life!”

Enoch probably wasn’t the only person weighing his options, considering that $75 in those days is worth roughly $235 today.

The U.S. was trailing 2-1 when Mark Johnson tied the score with one second left in the first period. Between periods, Tikhonov pulled Tretiak and put Vladimir Myshkin between the pipes (shades of UMass coach Greg Carvel). The Soviets took a 3-2 lead into the final frame, but Jim Craig was having a 36-save night and Johnson’s second goal set the stage for Mike Eruzione’s game-winner.

Two days later, the U.S. won the gold medal by beating Finland, 4-2. “If you lose you’ll take it to your bleeping graves,” coach Herb Brooks had warned them.

Despite missing what AP would tab the sporting event of the 20th century, Enoch came home happy. “It was a great time, even if I had to sleep two nights in my car. I’ve always felt the 1960 team with the Cleary brothers got screwed as far as national recognition. It was every bit the upset of the 1980 team.”

Yeah, Mark can take that up with the AP.

Chip Ainsworth is an award-winning columnist who has penned his observations about sports for four decades in the Pioneer Valley.


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