By Mark Knudson @MarkKnudson41 Special to WoodyPaige.com
If you were alive and aware in February of 1980, you witnessed the single greatest moment in sports history. The “Miracle on Ice” – The Olympic hockey team representing the United States made up of college players and professional washouts – pulling the stunning upset of the ultra-powerful Soviet Union. Team USA ultimately won our nation’s first Gold medal in the sport since a similar upset in the 1960 games. The 4-3 win over our country’s hated rivals (and not just in sports) in the semi-finals was the equivalent of the Stanford football team beating the New England Patriots.
Scratch that. There is no equivalent.
This was our kids (Team USA was the youngest team in the Olympics) beating the Evil Empire’s seasoned pros – the best team on the planet at any level. The Soviets had captured the Gold medal in five of the previous six Olympic Games, and they were primed for another. The summer before, the USSR team pounded an NHL All-Star team 6-0 to win the “Challenge Cup.” They beat Team USA 10-3 at Madison Square Garden in an exhibition just days before the games began for real.
What happened in Lake Placid lifted up Olympic hockey about 10,000 notches in the collective consciousness of American sports fans, but the fervor could not last. Team USA finished 1-2-2 in the prelims and out of medal contention in Sarajevo in 1984 (the Soviets bounced back and won gold again) and seventh in Calgary in 1988 when they lost their first Olympic rematch with the Soviets. Then the rules were changed, and professionals from all countries were allowed to compete in Olympic hockey. But the National Hockey League did not immediately get on board. Many people – still reveling in the excitement of the Miracle on Ice – wanted to continue to send American amateurs to represent our country in the games, longing for a “Miracle Part II.” (Newsflash: What happened in Lake Placid will never happen again. At least you can rent the movie…)
Then in 1992, along came the American “Dream Team” in Summer Olympic basketball and everything changed. Fans saw how great it actually was to send our best players out to represent our country (as other countries had been doing since the last 1970’s.) It was a grown up’s Olympics now.
But things had actually begun to change in hockey five years before that, in the summer of 1987, when the Canada Cup hockey tournament was held in Montreal and Hamilton. That same Soviet team – seven years removed from the national disgrace of losing to American kids – was matched against a Canadian team that wasn’t made up of boys…instead out skated the likes of Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier and Mario Lemieux…on the same line, no less. Soviet citizens were not yet allowed to play in the NHL, so this tournament provided a unique opportunity to see the world’s best against the best. Team Canada’s roster featured no less than 12 future Hockey Hall of Famers.
That three-game Canada Cup mini-series final provided the best hockey the people of this earth have ever witnessed. All three games ended up in scores of 6-5, two were decided in overtime. A Gretzky-to-Lemieux pass and score with just over a minute remaining won the tournament for Canada.
While it lacked the shock value and last minute drama (at least south of the border) of the 1980 Olympics, this display of hockey – from start to finish – showed the world how awesome the best vs. the best can be. In 1989, the USSR and other “Iron Curtain” countries agreed to allow their citizens/hockey players to play in the NHL. In 1995, an agreement was reached to allow NHL players to participate in the Olympic hockey tournament. It’s been that way ever since… and it’s been outstanding.
In the last winter games in 2014, Team USA, loaded with NHL standouts, beat Team Russia (also full of NHL players) 3-2 in Sochi, Russia in an exciting and well played overtime shootout. Team Canada defeated Team USA 1-0 and then shut out Sweden to win its second consecutive gold medal. There were epic games all across the board.
Next month in PyeongChang, South Korea, the NHL players will be missing for the first time since 1994. For Team USA – and everyone else – it’s back to playing without the best players in the sport. The players are strongly in favor of the chance to represent their countries. The owners are overwhelmingly against it. While other sports look to showcase their sport on the world’s biggest stage, the NHL has chosen not to. It’s an ill fated and short sighted decision. The league’s spin doctors will tell you that the hockey public supports their decision. Common sense tells you otherwise. Like all sports that lag behind football, baseball and basketball in popularity, the game of hockey needs this showcase event to grow the sport with casual fans.
So next month when you tune in to watch the world’s best compete in all sorts of sporting events, you’ll get a very ice-watered down version when it comes to watching hockey.
The upcoming Winter Olympic Hockey tournament should immediately draw a five-minute major penalty for too few men on the ice.