On February 22, the 40th anniversary of their landmark victory over the Soviet Union, members of the 1980 US Olympic hockey team appeared at a Trump rally in Las Vegas sporting red “Make America Great Again” hats. As USA Today noted, “that didn’t sit well with Trump opponents, who criticized a team that once unified a nation.” One of the critics was Marcos Bretón of the Sacramento Bee.
After the “momentous” American victory on February 22, 1980, Bretón writes, “My inspiration was the ‘Miracle on Ice’ team.” Forty years later, “when I saw the image of the team as old white men wearing red hats next to Trump, the spell was finally broken.” Like all human beings, hockey players have no control over their age and skin shade, but Marcos holds it against them.
“The ‘Miracle on Ice’ guys were perfect for adulation because they were all white, fresh faced and eager to embrace the flag without question,” writes Bretón, who also has a beef with the victory. If the teams had played again, he writes, the Soviets would have “wiped the ice” with the Americans. So the momentous victory was something of a fluke. On Monday night, ESPN provided a different perspective.
As the “Of Miracles and Men” documentary showed, the Soviet squad did nothing but play hockey and train. They were a mature, professional team, best in the world on the international scene, with world-class players such as Valeri Kharlamov and Slava Fetisov. The Americans, on the other hand, were all collegians with an average age of 21, youngest team in the tournament.
Nobody expected the American team to win a medal, and in the run-up to the games, as the New York Daily News headlined it, “Russian hockey team annihilates Team USA 10-3 in Madison Square Garden in Madison Square Garden exhibition before start of 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid.” At the time, that seemed to sum up the fortunes of the entire nation.
The Soviets were on the march in Afghanistan and Central America. Iran was still holding American hostages and humiliating the United States. On the home front, the disastrous Carter administration introduced the “misery index” of unemployment and inflation.
In the Olympic tournament, the USA faced a strong Czech team with the three Stastny brothers and Miroslav Dvorak. As play-by-play man Al Michaels recalled in You Can’t Make This Up, in this game fans first chanted “USA! USA!” The Americans prevailed 7-3, but the might Soviets lay ahead.
The ESPN documentary replayed commentary from the Soviet announcer, who said the Americans were “skating faster than our players,” and dominating play. The Soviets had their chances but goalie Jim Craig shut the door. Soviet coach Viktor Tihkonov pulled goalie Vladislav Tretiak for Vladimir Mishkin, Mike Eruzione wristed in the winning goal, and as the clock ran out Al Michaels said “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”
The USA went on to defeat powerful Finland, with the great Jari Kurri, to win the gold medal, coming back from a two-goal deficit in the third period to win 4-2. The Americans simply wanted it more and outplayed more experienced opponents. It was as though a junior college team had smacked down the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl.
The victory tops the Sports Illustrated list of the 100 greatest moments in sports history, and even Sacramento Bee columnist Marcos Bretón says the victory inspired him. That is, until 40 years later when the 1980 gold medalists showed up at Trump rally with red MAGA hats. They were props for a president “who is popular with white nationalists and who denigrates people of color constantly,” so their great victory had to be cancelled.
“It wasn’t a miracle at all” Bretón explained. “It was a lucky win that spawned a myth that died when the red hats came out and the truth was revealed.”
So when Buzz Schneider blasted a 50-foot slapshot past Tretiak, that was only a fluke goal. Likewise, it was pure happenstance when Mark Johnson picked up a loose puck and scored in the final seconds of the first period to tie the game at two. It was only accidental that Jim Craig stopped all Soviet shots but one in the second period. Mike Eruzione’s bullet shot that put the Americans ahead 4-3 was only a matter of luck, and coach Herb Brooks had not prepared the team to play the game of their lives.
For their part, the Soviets knew the Americans beat them fair and square. The American players and fans alike might wonder about this guy who writes off the game as a “lucky win” by a bunch of white guys from Minnesota and Boston, places the columnist explains, “I had never been to.”
Marcos Bretón is co-author of Away Games: The Life and Times of a Latin Baseball Player, and Sosa: An Autobiography. At the Sacramento Bee, flagship of the bankrupt McClatchy newspaper chain, Marcos tackles many subjects, but most of his columns are about Marcos Bretón his own self. True to form, his “Miracle on Ice” put-down features more than 30 personal pronouns, heavy on “I” and “me.”
Local readers have come to know Marcos Bretón as a predictable retailer of politically correct boilerplate. If those 1980 American hockey players were to regard Marcos Bretón as an outright bigot it would sure be hard to blame them.