U.S. hockey team would like to get past the ‘Miracle,’ but it’s a memory worth cherishing

Ryan Suter’s father, Bob, was on the ice the night of the miracle. When he came to Sochi to see his son try to become part of the first U.S. team to win gold since 1980, he had explicit instructions: Win the damn thing so everyone will shut up about the “Miracle on Ice.”

“It’s not a miracle to think about us winning a gold medal,” U.S. Coach Dan Bylsma said after the United States was certain of not winning a gold medal until at least 2018. “. . . Yeah, I guess the references are a little old and not applicable.”

No. They have it all wrong.

That game in Lake Placid remains as contemporary and important as it is old precisely because NHL-fueled American teams have not been able to break through, because nothing comparable will ever happen in our lifetimes.

“But it was 34 years ago, and we’re still” talking about it, U.S. forward David Backes argued before the tournament started. “I think the guys here would like to write our own chapter.”

They didn’t. The U.S. team came up a goal short against a determined defending Olympic champion about to go for its second straight gold against Sweden on Sunday. Canada’s defense and Carey Price’s goaltending were superior to all the big guns for the United States in a 1-0 victory.

Though tight and well-played, the game was a bit of a dullard, played before Russians who months ago thought they were buying tickets to see their beloved national team. It felt like Red Sox fans had purchased prime seats to an American League Championship Series involving the Yankees and the Rangers.

By the next Winter Games, it will have been 38 years since the United States’ surreal 4-3 semifinal win over the Soviets — 18 years longer than the drought between hockey gold in 1960 and 1980.

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Winter speed demons (and curlers, too)

It makes sense why this generation’s players are growing weary of questions about a game played before they were born. Until they win, they are not just compared with the Canadians or the Swedes or the Russians; they’re being compared with pre-HD footage of that majestic night in Lake Placid.

And yet everyone here should find Bob Suter and thank him for what he and his team did for the game and for anyone affiliated with it. The “Miracle on Ice” is maybe the greatest fork in the road of American sports history, and it not only led to the development of legends but immeasurably helped the future of American hockey, irrespective of all the coaches and players here who want to stop talking about the past.

Vladislav Tretiak, the Soviet goalie pulled that night after one period, is a legend, the martyred victim of Viktor Tikhonov’s coaching blunder who came back to reclaim gold in ’84 and then shockingly retired at just 34 years old because Tikhonov wouldn’t let him train in the offseason at home with his new family.

Tretiak is now president of the Russian hockey federation and one of his country’s most beloved sports icons. He is now seen as the link between generations and as such was one of two athletes given the greatest honor by his country prior to the Games, lighting the Olympic cauldron.

Men's hockey will be one of the most watched events at the 2014 Winter Games in Sochi, Russia. Here are 12 Olympic ice hockey stats you need to know. (Davin Coburn/The Washington Post)

But what if he were never pulled? He has said he believes the Soviets would have won. Tikhonov later admitted he made a mistake. If Tretiak returns to stone the United States in the second period and the Soviets hold off those gritty college kids, the Americans lose, as expected. Monotony on Ice.

There is no “This is our time, their time is done,” speech that one day inspires a movie. Herb Brooks, an old-school taskmaster whose players hated him some days, isn’t feted for life and never gets an NHL coaching job.

Mike Eruzione opens a pizza and sub shop, coaches youth hockey somewhere. He doesn’t sell his jersey for that game for almost $660,000. Instead, that piece of fabric collects dust in someone’s attic.

Jim Craig looking for his father in the stands isn’t captured by ABC’s cameras. They’ve already switched to figure skating.

U.S. hockey piddles along, never approaching the prominence of Canada or Russia, Sweden or even the Czech Republic. Tons of active young American boys such as Patrick Kane and, yes, David Backes take up wrestling or baseball instead.

Tikhonov is minted forever. And Tretiak? Wins another gold, never has ill will for his coach, plays past his prime. He comes back to Sochi a bitter, old, in-my-day guy. And Evgeni Plushenko lights the torch instead.

All in all, there should never be any shame or hesitation asking or talking about what that team did 34 years ago. Imagine if the United States did lose that night. Talk about a woeful life.

You think asking Bylsma a question about 1980 at a news conference seems trite and tired? Imagine if we had to make him to talk about having not won gold since that great 1960 team in Squaw Valley.

Now that’s painful.

There is one speck of symmetry between now and 1980. The U.S. team will regroup after its semifinal game to play the same nation the kids from the “Miracle on Ice” had to play to complete the dream and win the gold: Finland.

Alas, this is for bronze now, making that night all those years ago that much more memorable.

For more by Mike Wise, visit washingtonpost.com/wise.

Mike Wise is a sports columnist for The Washington Post.
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