Team USA’s defeat of Russia at the Sochi Olympics is being called the biggest U.S. Hockey win since the 1980 Miracle on Ice. It was a thrilling victory, to be sure. And if the U.S. wins the gold, it will be a great moment for American hockey.
But it will be no Miracle on Ice.
The Miracle on Ice transcended sports. It came at the height of the Cold War, when Americans were suffering a crisis of confidence. The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan and were on the march across the world. The Soviet Union appeared ascendant, and the United States appeared to be in decline. The U.S. economy was gripped by gas lines and stagflation. Iran was holding our diplomats hostage and burning American flags.
Then, suddenly a band of college kids wearing the red, white and blue restored our confidence. They took on the mighty Soviet Red Army and won. We take their victory for granted today, but I was at Madison Square Garden a few weeks before the Lake Placid games and saw with my 13-year-old eyes as the Soviets demolished that same American squad 10–3 in a pre-Olympic exhibition game. If the two teams had played 20 times over, the Soviets would have won 19 times. But not on that day. On that day, when it mattered, the United States prevailed.
Americans saw that we could defeat the Soviet Union on ice and began to believe that we could defeat it in the Cold War as well. Soon, a new president stepped into the Oval Office and declared his plan to end the Cold War the same way the Lake Placid games had ended: “We win, they lose.” And Americans believed it could happen. And a little more than a decade later, it did happen. The victory began at Lake Placid.
Today’s circumstance is far different. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is an authoritarian aggressor that threatens the independence of its neighbors but it does not pose an existential threat to the United States or the cause of human freedom. The star of the Russian team, Alexander Ovechkin, plays for the Washington Capitals. He’s a hero on the banks of the Volga and on the banks of the Potomac. Indeed, more than half of the Russian squad plays in the NHL. Except for these two weeks in Sochi, Americans cheer for them all season long.
The Americans are NHL superstars too — and unlike the 1980 team, they are not underdogs. After the 1980s games, the U.S. captain Mike Eruzione had multiple offers to play in the NHL, but he turned them all down — because, he said, nothing he could achieve as a professional would compare with the experience of the winning Olympic gold. In contrast, the members of Team USA will be back on the NHL ice chasing the Stanley Cup in a week’s time.
After this weekend’s victory over Russia, the star of the game, T.J. Oshie, was asked what it was like to be an American hero. Oshie replied, “The American heroes are wearing camo. That’s not me.” He’s right. We are blessed to have humble and talented men like him representing our country in Sochi. But unlike these NHL Olympians, the members of the 1980 U.S. hockey team were heroes. Their victory was more than the greatest moment in sports history; it was a turning point in the Cold War. They did more than win gold; they helped change the course of history. That is why movies were made about them. That is why today, a generation of young athletes born decades after the Soviet Union collapsed still go on hockey pilgrimages to Lake Placid to play on the same ice where the miracle took place — and remember the U.S. victory as if they had been there themselves.
That’s because, as Eruzione put it, “It was more than a hockey game. It was us versus them. It was freedom versus communism.”
And it was a moment that will not be repeated. Not in Sochi. Not ever.