Category Archives: Olympics

Upset: an upsetting word in sports

I told myself at the beginning of 2020 I would not go into Howard Hughes mode and not post for weeks at a time.

Here I am with my first post in 17 days. On the other hand, it may be better in my case to calm down and not say anything else instead of posting for posting sake.

Today is the 40th anniversary of the “Miracle on Ice”, when the United States defeated the Soviet Union 3-2 in Olympic ice hockey (men’s, because there was no women’s ice hockey until 1998) at Lake Placid.

It has been considered one of the greatest upsets in sports, if not the greatest upset.

I hate the word “upset” when it is used in sports. It is tossed around far too liberally at all levels.

First, there is no such thing as an upset in professional sports.

People have called the Jets’ victory over the Colts in Super Bowl III a major upset since the game ended the evening of 12 January 1969. Yes, the Colts came into Super Bowl III with a better record and more acclaim, simply because the National Football League was more respected by those who called themselves “experts” about professional football than the American Football League, mostly because the Packers routed the Chiefs and Raiders in the first two Super Bowls.

Last I checked, the Jets were also a professional football team, one which cut players to reach the 1968 limit of 40. There were, at most, 1,400 men on a professional football roster in 1968 (26 teams; 40 players per team would be 1,040; I’ll assume most teams had to sign other players to fill in for those who were injured). That makes those 1,400 men in 1968 an extremely talented group. The Jets dressed out 40 of them for Super Bowl III, the same as the Colts.

Super Bowl XLII saw upset used in every other paragraph after the Giants ended the Patriots’ hopes for an undefeated season. That’s an insult to Eli Manning and the rest of the Giants.

Nine months after the Jets’ victory in Miami, the Mets defeated the Orioles in five games in the World Series. It has been called the greatest upset in World Series history.

Biggest surprise in World Series history? Perhaps. Upset? No way.

The Mets had the best pitcher in baseball, Tom Seaver, on their roster in 1969. Jerry Koosman, the Mets’ #2 starter, was better than most teams’ #2 starter, and better than many teams’ #1. Nolan Ryan was not yet the “Ryan Express”, but he was getting there. The Mets had the best defensive outfield in baseball in Cleon Jones, Tommie Agee and Ron Swoboda. While their lineup was not as star-studded as Baltimore’s of Brooks Robinson, Frank Robinson and Boog Powell, it was still good enough to win the National League East, coming back from a double-digit deficit in July, then sweep Hank Aaron’s Braves in the first National League Championship Series.

Upsets in college sports? I don’t like using that word, either. Villanova beating Georgetown in the 1985 men’s basketball championship game? Surprising, absolutely. Upset? Not quite. Same with Jim Valvano and North Carolina State beating Houston’s Phi Slamma Jamma two years before that.

Texas ending USC’s 34-game winning streak in the 2006 Rose Bowl to win the 2005 BCS championship? Texas was 12-0, played in a tougher conference, beat Ohio State in Columbus, had a better quarterback in Vince Young, and a better defense than the Trojans. Not an upset.

However, the word “upset” can absolutely be used for the Olympic ice hockey game of 22 February 1980.

The Soviet team had been playing together for years while serving in the Red Army. The Soviet goalie, Vladislav Treitak, was considered the best on earth, better than Tony Esposito, Billy Smith, Pete Peeters and anyone else in the NHL, including the recently retired Ken Dryden, who provided color commentary for ABC’s broadcasts of Olympic hockey in 1980. Dryden helped the Canadiens win the Stanley Cup six times from 1971-79, and later was elected to Parliament.

Several Soviets would emigrate to the United States and Canada by the end of the decade to play in the NHL, and one, Slava Fetisov, helped the Red Wings win the Stanley Cup in 1997 and ’98.

The Americans were strictly amateur. NHL president John Ziegler took the same stance as NBA commissioner Larry O’Brien in saying “absolutely not” to the professionals playing in the Olympics. At this time, Ziegler’s refusal was a hindrance to only two nations, Canada and the United States.

The Canadians did not medal in 1972 at Saporro or 1976 at Innsbruck. When the professionals did get to play internationally, it made a huge difference, as Team Canada defeated the Soviets in eight games (there was one tie) in the famous 1972 Summit Series.

The United States did earn bronze in 1972 with a bunch of unknowns (the biggest name from that squad, Robbie Ftorek, was better known as an NHL coach), but failed to medal in 1976.

How good were the Soviets? Most of the team won two out of three from a team of NHL All-Stars in February 1979 at Madison Sqaure Garden, with Treitak leading the Red Army to a 6-0 shutout in the third game.

The Soviets defeated the Americans 10-3 in a January 1980 exhibition. The race seemed to be for second place, with Sweden, Finland, Czechoslovakia and Canada joining the United States in that battle.

The U.S. went 4-0-1 in round-robin play at Lake Placid, defeating the Czechs, Romania, West Germany and Norway, and tying Sweden 2-2. The USSR outscored Finland, Canada, Poland, the Netherlands and Japan 51-11 in round-robin in the other division.

Finland earned the second spot from the Soviet division over Canada thanks to a 4-3 victory. The US and Sweden also advanced to the medal round, which matched the US vs. the USSR and Finland vs. Sweden on 22 February.

Vladimir Krutov and Sergei Makarov, both of whom made their way to the NHL in 1989, scored in the first period for the USSR. Rob Schneider and Mark Johnson countered for the Stars and Stripes.

Johnson’s goal came only a few tenths of a second before the red light came on to end the period. Had the red light come on before the puck crossed the goal line, it would not have counted. Hockey is different from basketball and football in that regard; in basketball, a shot taken before the buzzer (red light in college and professional) counts, as does a football play which takes place before the clock hits 00:00.

Enraged by the second goal, USSR coach Viktor Tikhonov pulled Treitak and put in backup Vladimir Myshkin. Myshkin held the Americans scoreless in the second period, and a power play goal by Alexander Maltsev 2:18 into the frame gave the Soviets a one-goal lead.

In the third period, it was the American’s turn to score on a power play, with Johnson scoring for the second time at the 8:39 mark.

Exactly 81 seconds later, captain Mike Eruzione scored on a slapshot when Myshkin was screened by teammate Vasili Pervukhin.

There were exactly 10 minutes remaining. The US led 4-3.

The Soviets threw everything into the attack. Instead of going into a neutral-zone trap, which many teams in the 1990s and 2000s might have done, US coach Herb Brooks kept his boys on the attack.

In the final minute, Tikhonov refused to pull Myshkin for the extra attacker, but the Soviets got two good shots on American goalie Jim Craig, one by Vladimir Petrov and another by Valeri Kharlamov.

Following Craig’s save against Kharlamov, Johnson won possession of the puck for the Americans. He passed to Ken Morrow, who cleared the puck past the American blue line and red line, bleeding time from the clock.

Then Al Michaels screamed “Do you believe in miracles?”, and history was made.

The game was not aired live in the United States or Canada. The game started at 17:00 EST and was shown on a three-hour tape delay. In hindsight, it was a terrible idea, since it put the game head-to-head with the most popular show on television, Dallas.

Tape delay sporting events were not uncommon in 1980, Three months after the Miracle on Ice, the Lakers clinched the NBA championship by winning game six of the finals in Philadelphia. Magic Johnson scored 42 points playing center in place of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who stayed back in Los Angeles, hoping to play in game seven if the 76ers won.

Only six cities saw the game live: Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Portland, Seattle, Las Vegas and Atlanta. CBS did not want to preempt Dallas, even though JR had been shot 21 March and the new season was still at least four months away (actually six due to a strike by the Screen Actors Guild). Everyone else, including New York and Chicago, had to wait until 23:30 ET (22:30 CT/20:30 PT) to watch the game on tape delay.

If the Miracle on Ice had occurred in 2020, or even 2010, there would have been no way to keep the result from viewers before the game aired, thanks to ESPN (which was only five months old in February 1980) and social media. In 1980, the game was still going on as Walter Cronkite, John Chancellor and Frank Reynolds anchored the nightly newscasts for the Eastern and Central Time Zones, and the networks agreed not to announce a score on newscasts for the Pacific Time Zone.

The good news about the Miracle on Ice: the US shocked the Soviets.

The bad news: the US had not yet secured a medal.

The Americans had to play Finland less than 48 hours after the Miracle on Ice. A loss meant the US could finish without medals.

Indeed, the Finns led 2-1 after two periods. According to Eruzione, Herb Brooks told the Americans they would “take this loss to their f***ing graves” if they did not come back. As Brooks exited the locker room, he repeated “your f***ing graves”.

The Americans scored three goals in the third period to win 4-2 for their first gold medal in Olympic hockey since 1960, and to date, their last. Despite having NHL players from 1998 through 2014, the Americans finished no better than second, losing the final to Canada in 2002 and 2010.

In 2018, the NHL and the league’s players could not agree to stop the season during the Olympics. Canada finished third and the US ended up seventh.

Since the Miracle on Ice, I’ve heard that “U” word used way too many times, including the two above instances from college basketball. I’m sick of it.

There may be other instances where “upset” may be appropriate for sports, but never more so than 22 February 1980 in Lake Placid.