Canceling the ‘Miracle on Ice’

When it comes to American greatness, it’s hard to top the victory of the U.S. men’s hockey team over the Soviet Union in the 1980 winter Olympics at Lake Placid, New York. A team of no-name collegians took down the best team in the world on the international scene.

“Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” shouted play-by-play man Al Michaels as the clock ticked down on the Americans’ 4-3 victory. Chants of “USA! USA!” rang out across a country suffering through the Carter era, with its “misery index” at home and caving to Iranian hostage-takers abroad. Americans needed a victory, and they got one. Big time.

It was as though Bemidji State had taken down the Pittsburgh Steelers in the Super Bowl, perhaps the greatest moment in sports history. Then, on the 40th anniversary of this historic feat comes word that it was all a fluke, a “lucky win that spawned a myth.” The gold medal winners and their fans might wonder, says who?

Turns out, it’s Marcos Bretón, co-author of Away Games: The Life and Times of a Latin Baseball Player, and Sosa: An Autobiography. Marcos Bretón is also a columnist at the Sacramento Bee, flagship of the bankrupt McClatchy newspaper chain. Marcos comes billed as the “proud son of Mexican immigrants” but claims that the 1980 American victory once inspired him. That changed when, on the 40th anniversary, some team members showed up at a Trump rally with “Make America Great Again” hats.

“When I saw the image of the team as old white men wearing red hats next to Trump,” Bretón explains, “the spell was finally broken.” So beyond the politics, the problem was skin shade and age, factors beyond the control of any human being.

“The ‘Miracle on Ice’ guys were perfect for adulation because they were all white, fresh-faced and eager to embrace the flag without question,” the columnist explains. They were all from Minnesota and Boston, says Bretón, “places I had never been to.” This literary stylist also has a problem with the American white guys’ victory.

If the Soviet and American teams had played again in the Olympic tournament, Bretón writes, the Soviets would have “wiped the ice” with Team USA. The Soviets had indeed trounced the Americans 10-3 in an exhibition game, but that contest might have been the real fluke.

When it all counted, Team USA faced a Czech team that featured the three Stastny brothers, future players in the National Hockey League. The Americans defeated them 7-3, and it was at this game that the “USA! USA!” chants first rang out in force, as Al Michaels recalls in You Can’t Make This Up. Then the U.S. team, average age 21, faced the mighty Soviets, who did not wipe the ice with them.

The Americans were “skating faster than our players” and dominating play, said the Soviet play-by-play man, as noted in the ESPN documentary “Of Miracles and Men.” Buzz Schneider blasted a 50-foot slapshot past Vladislav Tretiak, perhaps the best goalie in the world, and Mark Johnson picked up a loose puck and scored in the final seconds of the first period to tie the game at two.

The swift Soviets had their chances but defenseman Ken Morrow and goalie Jim Craig held them off. Mike Eruzione wristed in a bullet to make the score 4-3. The Americans held on for ten minutes but to win the gold they had to face Finland, a strong team with Yari Kurri, a future NHL star and teammate of “The Great One” Wayne Gretzky. The USA came from behind to win 4-2 and claim the gold, but according to Bretón, the celebration was all wrong.

“It wasn’t a miracle at all,” he informs us. “It was a lucky win that spawned a myth that died when the red hats came out and the truth was revealed.” Here is “cancel culture” on full display. If any of those “old white men” who won Olympic gold happened to encounter Marcos Bretón, things might get exciting.

Sacramento readers have come to know Marcos Bretón as a predictable retailer of politically correct boilerplate, but most of his columns are about Bretón his own self. His “Miracle on Ice” put-down, for example, features more than 30 personal pronouns, heavy on “I” and “me.”

Like Eve Rand (Shirley MacLaine) in Being There, Marcos reveals himself to himself, and he is drenched and purged. If the 1980 American gold-medal winners pronounced Bretón an ignoramus and bigot, they would have a strong case. American sports fans might wonder what the proud son of Mexican immigrants thinks of a more controversial Olympics.

In advance of the 1968 Olympics in Mexico City, students took to the streets to protest the Partido Revolucionario Institucional (PRI) dictatorship that had ruled Mexico since the 1920s. Mexican troops and police gunned down the students by the hundreds, the worst mass shooting in North American History and still covered up by Mexican politicians.

On the 50th anniversary in 2018, Marcos was pretty quiet about the massacre. In a similar style, it’s hard to find a column where he goes after the Mexican regime with the same force he deploys against the Americans who defeated the mighty Soviet Union and won Olympic gold way back in 1980. If any of those players consider Marcos Bretón a gutless hack, it would be hard to blame them.

Meanwhile, as the Americans put it in 1980, and again in 2020, “USA! USA! USA!”

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