Tuesday, February 22, 2011

February 22, 1980: Believe

LAKE PLACID, N.Y. - When did the players first start to believe?

Was it during the pregame speech? The now-famous inspirational message Herb Brooks delivered that February afternoon, the one where he said that while the Soviets would probably beat the Americans nine times out of 10, it wouldn't happen today. The one where Brooks looked his players in the eyes and said "You were meant to be here. This moment is yours." Is that when they started to believe?

Or did they start to believe at the end of the first period, when Mark Johnson slipped between two defenders, grabbed the loose rebound, and fired the puck past Vladislav Tretiak just moments before the horn blew. Was that the moment? That shocking, lightning-in-a-bottle goal, the one that went in so quickly that it took a moment to figure out just what had happened? Is that when they started to believe?

Or did they start to believe at the start of the second period, when they looked over at the Soviet bench and saw Tretiak sitting there, pulled from the game. They were facing the best goaltender in the world at the time, the man who may have been the best goalie to ever play hockey, and they had knocked him out of the game. That had to be it, then. That had to be the moment when the Americans first started to believe that this was possible.

But they still had two periods to play. It wasn't a surprise when the Soviets took the lead after two periods. What was surprising was that it was only 3-2. The Americans were still in it. But they couldn't get anything past Vladimir Myshkin. Tretiak's replacement was playing better than Tretiak.

Then the penalty. Vladimir Krutov was called for high-sticking, and the Americans had a power play. For two minutes, they fired on Myshkin, trying to get something past him. Just as the power play ended, Dave Johnson hit the shot, sending one between Myshkin's legs to tie the game. Bedlam.

Is that when the fans at the game started to believe? It was one thing to hang with the Soviets. It was quite another to be tied with them in the middle of the third period. This had to be when they started to believe. This is when the "USA, USA" chants started to get loud. But still, there was one detail that some people probably couldn't get past: it was one thing to be tied with the Soviets, but it was another to have the lead. The Americans hadn't yet taken the lead.

Then Mark Pavelich had the puck along the boards. Mike Eruzione was alone in the high slot. Pavelich fell, but was able to send the puck along the ice. The pass came, the shot went. Red light. An explosion of sound. Eruzione ran, rather than skated, to the far boards, joining in the celebration with the crowd. The American bench emptied, everybody piling on their captain. Improbably, impossibly, unbelievably, they had done it.

One year earlier, Brooks had chosen his roster not based on who the best 20 players were, but which 20 players would best be able to beat the Soviets. They had been together for eight months, training together, eating together, never leaving each others' side, with the sole purpose of winning one game. This game. And now, with exactly 10 minutes to play, they were had the lead.

And that's when everybody started to believe. Even though there were still 10 minutes to play - 10 excruciating minutes, 10 of the longest minutes any hockey team would ever have to endure - people in the crowd, people watching on television at home, people everywhere, started to believe. The boys actually had a shot at this.

But the Soviets weren't known as the best hockey team in the world for nothing. The final 10 minutes was a display of offensive force unlike anybody, even the Americans, had ever seen. Shot after shot was fired at goalie Jim Craig. Shot after shot was turned away. And as more and more shots bounced helplessly away from the net, more and more people started to believe.

The final 30 seconds was pure cheering, pure adrenaline, pure excitement. This was actually happening. The Soviets weren't going to score. They kept firing, kept missing, kept losing the race to the loose pucks. Then the puck finally bounced to the stick of an American defenseman and was cleared out of the zone one final time. And then, with five seconds left, Al Michaels finally believed. At this point, his now-famous question was redundant: "Do you believe in miracles? Yes!"

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