It was far from a normal shift at the Hoffman House bar in La Crosse on February 22, 1980. No cell phones to check, no televisions in bars to watch, just a restless and lengthy pause that seemed to stretch on into infinity. My wife-to-be, in a few short months, was back in her apartment watching the tape-delayed broadcast of the USA-USSR Olympic hockey game. She was to call the restaurant with the score as soon as the game went final.
Just a few weeks earlier, the prospect of the U.S. hockey team playing any kind of meaningful game in these Olympics seemed bleak. A 10-3 thrashing by the Soviets at Madison Square Garden in a preliminary game had extinguished any optimism. The “Red Machine” had systematically eaten up and spit out another inferior opponent. Having won four consecutive gold medals and compiling a 24-1-1 Olympic record during that run, a fifth gold medal appeared to be a mere formality.
As if I was behind the U.S. bench myself, I paced up and down the bar, asking customers if they had heard any scores from the game. No instant media, no score updates. To my surprise some actually knew what game I was referencing. In 1980, La Crosse was a basketball town and I am not sure many even realized hockey was an Olympic sport.
The country was a mess with long gas lines and the real fear that we were one bad decision away from an all-out war with Russia. Our peanut farmer turned president painted our future with strokes of dull gray and a monotone message that offered little hope. And in Iran, fifty-two Americans hostages were now well into their second year of captivity. The Russian hockey team and their “Goliathan” persona had become public enemy number one. The symbolism of the game had grown into a national obsession. Even those that didn’t know a forecheck from a traveler’s check had become hockey fans in a mere week.
As each waitress approached my mixing station I gave them the same wide-eyed look only to be told, no we have not heard anything yet. That final ten minutes of the actual game, after Eruzione’s goal, must have felt like the same eternity I seemed to be facing.
Finally, the wait ended and I was handed a small note that simply said “USA 4 USSR 3. “
A beaten down country, in desperate need of a miracle, collectively exhaled a cheer that was literally heard around the world. A tidal wave of negative emotions, uncertainty and fear crested, and then collapsed as Al Michael’s uttered those famous words, “Do you believe in Miracles, YES!” In every corner of the country, American flags came out, cars drove around honking their horns and strangers celebrated together another American Dream come true.
It wasn’t the first or the last of improbable American Dreams, but it was one of the most visible and most needed. As Americans we are raised to believe in the American Dream, but life for many has a way of extracting our energy and hope as we fall into the regiment of everyday living. The roads to our dreams are always filled with obstacles, setback and naysayers who are quick to tell us why we can’t achieve it. For forty years Herb Brook’s boys have offered the motivation and the blueprint to make our own dreams come true.
Sounds easy, but it isn’t, and that is why so many dreams remain unfulfilled.
It begins with a vision and a single believer, who absolutely cannot be distracted or dissuaded from that vision or belief, that it can be achieved. Herb Brooks was that visionary and the primary architect that prepared this blueprint. His preparation was exhaustive and his plan virtually flawless.
His hand-picked army, chosen after months of research, possessed the work ethic, character, skill and perseverance that Brooks knew would be essential to their success. He was more concerned with their attitudes, grit and character than their statistics. He told them, “You can’t be common, the common man goes nowhere; you have to be uncommon.”
After months, perhaps years of preparing for this opportunity, his team had yet to take the ice. The back story, the true preparation, is often the most time intensive and vital part of a success story. Brooks had cut no corners, but the real work lay ahead.
Believing in your own dream and convincing twenty late adolescent young men to buy into that same dream were two completely different things. These were indeed elite hockey players for their age, and many would go on to play in the NHL, but right now they were signing on for what many experts believed was a suicide mission.
Brooks certainly believed that “the harder you work, the harder it is to surrender” and pushed his team to the brink of mental and physical exhaustion. The “Legs Feed the Wolf” is a “Brookism” that will live on forever. And while he was indeed physically conditioning his team, he may have more importantly been building a mental toughness they would rely on when they got to Lake Placid. In a simpler time, with fewer distractions, Brooks melded this team together so tightly, and convinced them that his dream, now their dream too, was possible!
Together they achieved that dream and forty years later we still can’t stop talking about it.
The 1980 Olympic Hockey Gold Medal propelled hockey in the United States to new heights in terms of growth and future accomplishments. It gave our country a crowning moment in a time when we desperately needed it, but perhaps most importantly it reminded us that dreams do come true, that miracles do happen.
For all of us we have our own “Russia” whether that is a dream we chase or a demon we want to extinguish. And when that road we are on becomes too steep or the obstacles seem too great, we all need a push, a reminder that achievement requires hard work, enthusiasm and a belief that not even the Russian Army can change.
Should you believe in miracles? Yes, but it all starts with believing in yourself.
Dan Bauer is a free-lance writer, retired teacher & hockey coach in Wausau, WI. You can contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org