Jacksonville Sports News, Sam Kouvaris - SamSportsline.com

USA Hockey 1980: A Different Time

It was a very different time for journalism, television and the USA. Although Watergate was still fresh in our minds and a healthy amount of skepticism was essential for every journalist, there was still innocence to news coverage. The responsibility for reporters was to the viewers and there was a real attachment between the two. It wasn’t all a ratings game.

It was 1980.

A 24-hour cable news network was just starting. There were some all-sports stations, but none of them had any impact because nobody really had cable. Satellite TV was something for the science fiction movies. The Internet was a dream. Local television stations, the radio, the morning and evening newspaper were the only conduits of information into everybody’s home. There weren’t soup lines, but the economy was weak and politicians talked about the “misery index,” a combination of economic indicators that kept Americans treading water. The Cold War raged on, with America’s role in the world undefined. Iran took hostages from the US embassy in Tehran and instead of action then President Jimmy Carter advised “patience.” Although only 23-years ago, as you can see, it was a very different time.

Set against this backdrop, the Olympic Winter Games were being held in the US, at Lake Placid, NY. Live television broadcasts were still part of the American Olympic experience. Not a lot of pre-packaged personality profiles. A lot of competition and live events. Eric Heiden was on the verge of one of the greatest feats in athletic history, capturing all five gold medals in speed skating, from the sprint to the marathon. American’s still were competitive in figure skating and some skiing events but the Winter Games were not considered an American stronghold.

Twenty years earlier, the US Hockey team won the gold medal in Squaw Valley, but since then, they weren’t a factor. The USSR, (the Russians, the Rooskies, the Soviets) had put together the best hockey team in the world. Disguised as amateurs, the USSR’s Red Army team had speed, finesse, passing and the finest goaltender in the world. It was before the Olympics allowed professionals and before the NHL was really international, and the Russians weren’t allowed (or welcomed) in American sport. So a collection of college players was chosen to represent the USA on the ice, everybody hoped they could possibly get a medal, but not gold.

Hockey was not considered a huge sport across the American landscape. There weren’t any teams in the West, and certainly none in Florida or Texas (not counting the WHA). So the interest in the USA Hockey team was strictly patriotic, an us vs. them situation.

Herb Brooks’ death on Monday in a traffic accident brought all of these memories to life in an entirely different light. It really hit home how much things have changed in just under a quarter of a century. With information overload one of the concerns of news executives, it’s almost hard to believe, or remember, that people couldn’t get enough of the US Hockey team.

It was early in my career, but it was a big enough event that I recognized the significance outside of just a sporting competition. I was working at an ABC affiliate at the time, and although live broadcasts were the rule and not the exception, the USA/USSR semi-final game was played in the late afternoon in Lake Placid, so the network decided to show it on a tape-delay basis. Interest had been building in the team, and in this game. The college players wearing the red, white and blue were clearly an overachieving team. They were going to have a chance to earn a medal. Nobody thought they’d actually beat the Russians, but in that political environment, it was something we could latch onto and compare our way of life to theirs.

Our boys vs. their men.

Our freedom vs. their repression.

It seems rather quaint now, but people were adamant about being able to watch the game, on tape, as if it was live. They didn’t want to know the score, or anything about the game. So, during the early news that night, I explained that I wouldn’t be giving any information about the game. In television, “teasing” the viewer is a part of the business. Those three second “teases” that are aired at the end of commercial breaks at the top of the hour allegedly draw viewers to the next newscast. As the game was about to be broadcast by the network, our late-night anchor appears in the “tease” and says, “Cold temperatures and a big win for the US Hockey team, details tonight.” Like everybody in the newsroom, the anchor was young (she went on to have a very successful career) but she wasn’t much of a sports fan and wasn’t particularly politically oriented. Almost instantly, the phone lines lit up, first on my desk, then across the newsroom. People were incensed. I mean really angry. Like “I’m coming to the station to burn it down” angry. The game went on, we got a bunch of hate mail and more threatening phone calls, but it eventually blew over.

The US team beat the Russians 4-3. Al Michaels delivered his now famous, “do you believe in miracles” line, which seemed so right at the time because before the game, everybody admitted it would take a miracle for the US to win.

Herb Brooks was the architect of the win, a master motivator and an unmatched innovator. No matter what other team he coached, no matter what he did anytime after that, Brooks was able to help change, at that bleak moment, how America thought about itself. It might be a stretch to say he changed history, but it’s not a stretch to say he’ll always be a part of it.