On a handful of occasions Al Michaels has traveled back to the small hamlet in Upstate New York, where for two weeks a group of amateur of low-level professional hockey players delivered a performance that inspired a country.
The United States’ triumph over the vaunted Soviet Union hockey team remains one of the most fabled games ever in sports, a stunning result that might be the biggest upset ever in Olympic competition. Michaels, who has gone on to one of the finest careers in sports broadcasting including work on a total of nine Olympics, was on the call that night. He was an up-and-comer at ABC in those days, assigned to cover ice hockey because his previous hockey experience – calling the gold medal game at the Sapporo 1972 Olympic Winter Games – was more extensive than the rest of the broadcasting lineup combined.
Forty years have passed since the Lake Placid 1980 Olympic Winter Games, but Michaels can still recall vividly many of the details from that Friday night game, the gold-medal clinching victory over Finland two days later and the rest of the two-week tournament.
Each time he goes back to Lake Placid, Michaels returns to the Olympic Center arena, climbs the stairs and walks over to the location where the rickety broadcast platform was constructed in the first few rows of the balcony seating.
Time has passed, but even in an empty arena, Michaels pictures many sequences from throughout the game, capped by captain Mike Eruzione’s shot from slot that eluded Soviet Union goalie Vladimir Myshkin, his arms raised, for the game-winning goal as the crowd erupted midway through the third period.
“I’ve done a lot of pretty amazing events with classic endings, classic plays during the course of a game,” Michaels said. “But when I think back, I can feel that. I really can.
“There’s no question that can feel that in your bones, in your fiber. I can see it. I can almost smell what the arena smelled like that night. It will never leave.”
For most viewers, Michaels’ iconic call as the final seconds ticked off the clock – “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” is the enduring memory. Indeed, generations of fans can remember where they watched that game; Michaels has heard from plenty of parents who have told the story of the game to their children who were born after 1980 or were too young to watch back then.
“If you think back, some of the events where you remember where you were if you’re old enough – Pearl Harbor, [President John F.] Kennedy’s assassination, 9/11 obviously, the Challenger blows up,” Michaels said. “All terrible. This one? Beautiful. Joyous.”
It was a different era. In 1980, the game aired on tape delay; the Olympic schedule, decided before the tournament, dictated that the game between the top team from the Red Division and the second-place team from the Blue Division be played at 5 p.m. Eastern Time, with Sweden vs. Finland to follow. When preliminary play concluded and the United States advanced to the Medal Round, setting up a seemingly made-for-TV matchup against the Soviet Union, ABC executives wanted to switch the order of games to air the U.S. game in primetime to most of the country.
“I know that Roone Arledge and the powers that be at ABC tried like crazy to get that game moved to 8 o’clock,” Michaels said. “Who knew what was being offered. It was my understanding years later [that] it was the Soviet ice hockey federation that did not want to move the game. Whether they did it to hurt us or hurt ratings, I don’t know. Remember, they’re our archenemy at the time.”
The game would start at 5 p.m. with no live coverage. It was a time when cell phones and cable television were rare and text messages did not exist; there was no Internet or Twitter. As a remarkable game unfolded in the arena packed with fans waving American flags and chanting “U-S-A” over and over again, the outside world was generally unaware.
When ABC went on the air that night, the only hint that something special had happened were the delirious fans in the background as ABC’s Jim McKay did a live introduction – though viewers were not given any explanation for why everyone seemed so happy.
And with that, ABC went to the tape. Michaels and analyst Ken Dryden stayed “on air” so to speak, commentating on the Sweden-Finland game just in case there was a malfunction with the U.S.-Soviet Union tape and ABC had to cut to the live action in Sweden-Finland. For that game, Michaels had to go back to being an impartial observer. The U.S. 4-3 victory over the Soviet Union had been much different than nearly every other in his broadcasting career.
“In a situation like that, where you have the United States against not only a foreign country, but at that time your enemy – the Cold War … was icy cold at that point – it’s not like you’re rooting like crazy for the U.S. to beat Canada, the Soviets were a different story,” Michaels said. “At the end, I’m like everybody else in the country because those were my emotions at that point. It’s the only time in my career where I could know that 99.99 percent of the audience was going one way and the other infinitesimal less than one percent must be from the KGB.”
In the booth, Michaels and Dryden could not believe the way the game unfolded. A self-described member of “the hockey cult,” even in his wildest dreams Michaels never thought the U.S. stood a chance against the powerful Soviet Union. When he received the assignment, Michaels was hopeful the U.S. could maybe contend for the bronze medal. Even as the tournament began, with a last-minute tie against Sweden and then a surprisingly easy 7-3 victory over Czechoslovakia, Michaels never thought the U.S. could hang with the Soviets; the teams had played less than two weeks before the Olympics began, with the Soviets winning 10-3 in a game that felt even more lopsided than the score.
Walking to the Olympic Center on Friday morning, February 22, 1980, Michaels and Dryden talked about the upcoming game, hopeful that the U.S. could manage to somehow keep it close and maintain the viewing audience. Winning the game? That was never a thought.
The U.S. trailed 1-0, 2-1 and 3-2, rallying each time to tie the game. Thoroughly outplayed for much of the game and outshot 39-16, the U.S. took its first lead of the lead on Eruzione’s shot exactly with exactly 10 minutes left. That goal – which gave the U.S. the 4-3 lead that would hold up as the final score – has to be one of the most watched plays in ice hockey history.
“Once in a while, I’ll see it. It’s on the Internet and somebody will write a story about it and they have the clip inside of it,” Michaels said. “I’ll normally hit the play button inside the clip. I’ve seen it a few thousand times I would estimate.
“I’m like a third person watching it. I like to take myself out of it so that I can enjoy it the way so much of the country enjoyed it. I know what’s going to happen obviously – we all know what’s going to happen – but there is just that feeling of ‘Man oh man oh man’ this won’t go away. Thank God.”
Michaels became a regular part of NBC’s Olympic broadcasts in 1984 and continues to work the Games today. He has seen many incredible performances through the years, but the Miracle on Ice tops them all.
“I did Carl Lewis’ four gold medals in 1984,” Michaels said. “Torvill and Dean won the ice dancing title and Scotty Hamilton in Sarajevo. A number of things took place in London, Rio and Sochi, but nothing, nothing – nothing – comes close to this. People say to me, ‘What’s your greatest event or memory?’ … Seriously? Seriously? That is so high up on a shelf I couldn’t get there with 14 stepladders. That will never not be number one.”