Editor's note: This is the first in a series of occasional posts looking back 40 years to the Miracle on Ice.
Tired, aching and full of low-level expectations the U.S. Olympic hockey team readied for its penultimate pre-Olympic appearance: a one-period exhibition showdown with Team Canada at the NHL All-Star Game, 40 years ago tonight in Detroit.
What a road it had been.
Through 60 games the ragtag group of college-age kids had 41 wins, 16 losses and 3 ties.
The tour began Sept. 3, 1979 in Holland. With temperatures in the Twin Cities soaring to near 90 and Hat Trick Hockey on East 66th Street in Richfield advertising its preseason skate sale (CCM Junior Tacks, $64.95!) nary a mention of USA’s 8-1 win over the Dutch made the morning paper. Within three weeks the narrative changed. An exhibition with the North Stars at Met Center – Team USA’s first game on home soil – was delayed by 20 minutes because of a logjam at the ticket window that brought attendance to 13,084 – more than double the expected turnout. The fans were treated to a 4-2 gave in favor of the North Stars and five (!) drop-the-gloves fights.
The Olympians spent the next four months worrying about their play on the ice rather than choreographed marches to the penalty box. They played more NHL teams. They played exhibitions in Des Moines and Eveleth and Omaha and Milwaukee.
Two games each against the 9-team Central Hockey League were scheduled, in addition to games against familiar WHCA opponents, East coast collegiate teams and a pre-Olympic tournament in Lake Placid in mid-December.
Every other country – Sweden, Canada, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union - brought its “B” Team for the event, which was held at the same time as the prestigious Izvestia Cup in Moscow.
A second Russian team – Gorky Torpedo – played a four-game series with the Americans two weeks later. Following a crowd-pleasing 10-3 trouncing at Met Center (and on the heels of two other decisive wins) on Dec. 30 coach Herb Brooks wasn’t shy about his emotions.
“Damn right they underestimated us,” he said. “I’m told that a U.S. team beat a Russian team in 1967 in Vienna and the 1976 U.S. team beat Spartak … We’ve now won four games from the Russians and now they might be starting to wonder about us.”
By the time a 5-3 loss to CHL’s Fort Worth Texans was over on Jan. 25 in front of 7,212 at Met Center – less than three weeks til puck drop for real in Lake Placid – Brooks had mixed thoughts about his battered squad.
“We’ve been playing flat,” he lamented to reporters before adding, “I’m satisfied with the progress.”
Fifteen days remained until a showdown with THE Russian team at Madison Square Garden.
Brooks, wrote Minneapolis Tribune reporter John Gilbert, wished for a better measuring stick of his team before the Games began.
“The only one we’ll get is Feb. 9,” Brooks said. “And that’s too late.”