"Do you believe in miracles?" Al Michaels shrieked, as the U.S. beat the Soviet Union in the 1980 Lake Placid Olympic Games. Sitting next to him in ABC's broadcasting booth, all I could come up with was, "Unbelievable."
It's the years since that have been truly unbelievable for U.S. hockey. As a result, on Friday, Canada will play its impossible-to-imagine new archrival in the men's Olympic semi-final in Sochi.
During that gold-medal winning year of 1980, of the 654 players who appeared in at least one NHL game, 68, little more than 10 per cent, were American; 84 per cent were Canadian. Ten years earlier, in 1969-70, eight of the 322 NHL players, less than 3 per cent, were from the U.S.; nearly 95 per cent from Canada. And 10 years before that, in 1959-60, three of 153 NHL players, or 2 per cent, were American. The league was more than 97-per-cent Canadian. Yet this season, 2013-14, of the 906 players who have played at least one NHL game, 218, or 24 per cent, are American. Only about 52 per cent are Canadian.
U.S. hockey had been born and bred in the prep schools of New England, in the high schools of Minnesota, and in the winter climates and colleges of both.
School-based play limited both the number of games and the length of seasons, and required that some priority be given to the classroom. That put U.S. players at a developmental disadvantage to their club team-based Canadian counterparts. The U.S. players were skilled – they could skate, and shoot; they were big. But in the NHL's mind, they didn't play enough games against tough competition to put the pieces together to make a real player. U.S. players looked good, which, when they invariably folded in the few opportunities they got, made them look even worse.
Their fault wasn't talent, but character. They couldn't hold up against the grit of the Canadian players. NHL general managers also believed any player who had a life choice – hockey or school – couldn't be relied upon. When the hockey going got rough, they'd quit. If they weren't certain to commit to the game, they believed, why commit to them?
For Americans, college hockey was their NHL, and the Olympics their Stanley Cup and always would be, it seemed. Besides, with only six teams, the NHL didn't need any non-Canadian players.
That changed when the league doubled in size to 12 teams in 1967, when its expansion continued during the 1970s, and after the creation of the WHA. Eastern Europeans, still stuck behind the Wall, were unavailable; Swedes and Finns, highly skilled but seen as more likely to flee than fight, were considered even more dubious prospects than Americans. The NHL door was no longer shut to U.S. players; they could earn their way inside. With that chance, most proved false the stereotypes that had held them back.
Many players from the 1980 U.S. Olympic team went on to solid NHL careers, Neal Broten, Mike Ramsay, Dave Christian, Mark Johnson and Ken Morrow among them. But it wasn't until the late 1980s and 1990s that Americans first became NHL stars – Brett Hull (who also had a significant Canadian background), Mike Modano, Chris Chelios, Joey Mullen, Brian Leetch, Phil Housley, Pat LaFontaine, Keith Tkachuk, Jeremy Roenick.
The American win in 1980 offered inspiration. Just as important for the U.S. was the success of European teams, especially the Soviets, when they played Canada. The Soviets had shown that more than one style of play and one approach to development could produce victory at the highest level.
If two could succeed, why not three? If school strictures had held U.S. hockey back, what schools offered might also hold some advantages. Schools had gyms and weight rooms. They had physical education teachers who could maximize their athletes' training and nutrition, and study the game and its strategies. U.S. hockey administrators could develop a structure that put the summer to better use, creating camps of selected players and development teams, at a younger age.
These coaches and administrators came to the sport with fresh eyes, could see that times were changing, and found ways to adapt. They could see that elite performers in any field – arts, music, science, sports – no longer needed to emerge out of masses at a base, competing against each other, funnelling themselves to the top.
Masses aren't necessary. A much smaller number, trained rigorously, can produce the same result. Players at these camps and on these development teams might come to know each other, might form such strong bonds that even as they dispersed to other teams during the winter would come back feeling like teammates, at world junior and world championship tournaments, and at the Olympics.
The U.S. has gotten better each year. At the Vancouver Olympics, it lost to Canada in overtime in the gold-medal game. In Sochi, the Americans have defeated Slovakia, Russia, Slovenia and the Czech Republic – and meet Canada on Friday in a 2010 rematch.
The NHL expanded in recent decades to build a broadcast footprint that would cover most of the U.S. In ways that have often been hard to see, the NHL has also created an appetite among a seemingly modest number of kids to play hockey. The result is startling.
More kids in Canada play hockey than in any other country in the world. More kids in the U.S. play hockey than in all the other countries in the world combined. There are more indoor areas in Canada than anywhere else. There are more indoor arenas in the U.S. than in Russia, Sweden, Finland, and the Czech Republic – combined. More kids play hockey in Ontario than in any other province or state, by far. Quebec is next.
But in the United States, more kids now play in New York than in Massachusetts, almost as many play in Michigan as in Minnesota; and more play in each of these four states than play in British Columbia. More kids play hockey in Pennsylvania than in Saskatchewan and Manitoba; in California and New Jersey than in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick. More kids play in Texas than in Newfoundland.
The changes in hockey in the past 40 years have been immense. The number of teams, the money, the off-ice, year-round training. But no change has been greater than in the rise of U.S. hockey.
In 1980, at Lake Placid, there was no way that the U.S. was going to beat the Soviets and go on to win the gold medal. In 1980, there was no way that just 34 years later, about one-quarter of the NHL's players would be American.
In 2014, the miracle is that it won't take a "miracle on ice" for the U.S. to win in Sochi.
Special to The Globe and Mail