Could anything ever again be as sweet as beating the Soviet Union at its own game? Yes, but it would require al Qaeda to form an Olympic team — and actually be good at something.
The amazing victory of the U.S. Olympic hockey team at Lake Placid still reverberates, long after the Soviet bloc crumbled.
To be sure, the Cold War didn't end in 1980 with a hockey game. But when a ragtag squad of U.S. college kids beat the best hockey team on Earth, it gave America something to believe in when the country's spirit was all but shot.
"Can you imagine American athletes playing Middle East terrorists in a sport — any sport? That's what it was like playing the Russians," says Jim Craig, the goalie of the U.S. team, speaking to a group of elementary school children too young to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall.
‘Do You Believe in Miracles? Yes!’
Craig and his teammates returned to Lake Placid on Thursday for a special screening of Miracle, a film, opening nationwide today, that recaptures the excitement of one of the greatest upsets in Olympic history.
Kurt Russell stars as "tough love" hockey coach Herb Brooks, who built the amateur team that went on to beat the same Soviet squad that had routinely humiliated NHL All-Stars.
America was resigned to defeat, and it was not just because of the Soviet tradition for excellence on ice. It was more of a national mood. Iranian revolutionaries overran the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and held 52 Americans hostage in a yearlong standoff. Soviet tanks had rolled into Afghanistan.
America's role as a world leader was in question. For the first time ever, the economy suffered high gas shortages, unemployment and skyrocketing inflation, giving birth to the buzzword "stagflation."
Out of nowhere, Brooks, the unorthodox hockey coach, gave America what has always fueled the imagination — a success story, a come-from-behind victory of the little guy.
Three days before the opening ceremony, Brooks' squad took on the Soviets in an exhibition game at Madison Square Garden and the Soviets won 10-3.
In Lake Placid, just a short time later, the Americans squeaked out an amazing 4-3 victory, with the whole world watching.
It seemed impossible, even in the latter part of the game, when a goal by Mike Eruzione put America in the lead. It seemed too good to be true.
"The Russians had won so many games in their careers in the last two minutes, last five minutes, so 10 minutes — it was like a lifetime," Craig said.
The final seconds of that game live on in the soul of sports fans, punctuated by echoing chants of "U-S-A!" and a breathless Al Michaels shouting over the airwaves, "Do you believe in miracles? Yes!"
Seabiscuit on Ice
It's fitting that this movie opens as Seabiscuit vies for an Academy Award. The triumph of the 1980 Olympics squad has often been compared to the undersized horse that captivated the country during the Great Depression.
The American dream was no less inspirational when played out on ice by fresh-faced boys and a coach who told them they could do the impossible, if they worked hard enough.
"I think what was fascinating when I read the script is that he [Brooks] had an idea that he could take the Russian school of hockey and the North American school of hockey and come up with a hybrid new style," Russell told ABCNEWS' Good Morning America.
"He selected players that weren't necessarily the best amateur players at the time, but players that he felt could fit into that program, and he got them to bond," Russell said.
Brooks died in a car accident last year, after a successful run as a coach in the NHL.
Craig and many of his teammates served as advisers for the film.
"I think it's kind of sad that Olympic squads today are made up of so-called dream teams of professional players," says Buzz Schneider, who is portrayed in the movie by his 22-year-old son, Billy. Actors Literally Fighting for a Part
Nearly 4,000 actors auditioned to play team members. "We did all the action ourselves," says Billy Schneider, who played amateur hockey, just like his dad.
"A fight broke out on the ice during the auditions, just like a real game," Schneider says. "By the end of the movie, we were playing pretty well."
Edmonton Oilers goalie Bill Ranford was called in as a stand-in for the character of Craig. However, the man behind the mask for most of the hockey action was actor Eddie Cahill, best known for his recurring role on Friends as Tag, Jennifer Aniston's assistant.
Director Gavin O'Connor took the unorthodox step of finding actors who could play the game — a time-consuming process that involved tryouts in New York, Boston, Minneapolis, Los Angeles, Toronto and Vancouver.
"To me it seemed obvious," O'Connor says. "I wanted the film to smell raw and real. So we could either teach actors to play the sport at the level I wanted to achieve without body doubles — impossible — or we can do an exhaustive search for highly skilled hockey players who were born with the performing gene."
Red-hot Oscar-nominated actress Patricia Clarkson joined the cast as Brooks' wife — softening the legendary taskmaster.
Craig, Schneider, and the other players are especially pleased with the lavish production, having expressed some silent disdain for a quickie made-for-television version of the Olympic miracle. "What TV movie?" says Nathan West, who plays Rob McClanahan, joking with reporters. The 1981 movie Miracle on Ice starred Karl Malden as Brooks and Steve Guttenberg as Craig.
Perhaps it's still hard for a non-American to appreciate just how important this victory was, then and now. Even when the movie was being filmed last year in Vancouver, it was tough getting the Canadian crowd to chant "U-S-A!" in a convincing manner.
"We had to bring the Canadian flag out on the ice," said Cahill. "Then we told the Canadians in the stands to pretend it was an American flag. That got them going."