Thursday, February 19, 2015

Remembering Lake Placid - Do You Believe in Miracles?

"Eleven seconds, you've got ten seconds, the countdown going on right now! Morrow, up to Silk. Five seconds left in the game. Do you believe Miracles?...YES!                                                                                           - Sportscaster Al Michaels' iconic call

The gloves were slung as high as they could be thrown, the sticks already tossed aside and a writhing pile of red, white and blue bodies moshed near the face-off circle in the American end as goalie, Jim Craig, got buried thirty-five years ago on February 21,1980 in a small town in upstate New York.

My family finds it funny that everyone recognizes Lake Placid now, the younger generation because of a horror movie that borrowed the moniker, the older generation because of arguably the greatest upset in sports history.

If you stop a baby boomer today and mention "Lake Placid" there is a good chance they will tell you that the US Men's Ice Hockey team beat the Russians for the Olympic gold medal, and they would be wrong. Beating the Russians that Saturday afternoon didn't even assure the US of a bronze medal; they would have to beat Finland the next day for the gold. And had they lost, no medal.

Growing up, before we were strafing our old high school with no thoughts to landing, the grandest circumstance we could place ourselves in when playing pickup baseball games was pitching in the seventh game of the World Series on the mound for our favorite team, unless of course you were batting. In that case, I would have been Richie Allen or Willie Mays, but leaving baseball aside for a moment, ice hockey is my favorite sport. As an imaginative little boy, my response to drawing up the ultimate, over-the-top sports circumstance I could place myself into I would not have placed me in Lake Placid, centering a gold medal team. That was unlikely to happen: the US could never win the Olympic gold medal again.

The US had won in 1960 in Squaw Valley, in what is incorrectly called an upset of Canada. People today don't realize just how good that team was but at the time, winning the gold was a small blip on the world's radar. Hockey had already been changing by the time I was playing as a teenager and the political setting in 1980 was far different. The Russians had invaded Afghanistan and the prestige of "winning the Space Race in 1969" was already in the world's rear view mirror.

The Soviets built a tremendous international sports machine and their members were always near the medal stand, no matter what sport. Their hockey team had played toe to toe with the NHL in early exhibitions but by the mid-1970s the Russian Red Army team nearly destroyed every NHL team they played in exhibitions.  Only the Montreal Canadians, the Buffalo Sabers and the Philadelphia Flyers held their own. The Rangers, for example, were embarrassed at Madison Square Garden, their All Star defenseman, Brad Park, looking like a revolving door watching the Russians pour past him to the goal.

The Russian hockey team was manned by paid professional hockey players who had been teammates, some for more than a decade. They had won 7 of the last 8 world championships. The last time they had lost a game was 1968, twelve years prior to that night. They had just blanked an NHL all-star team 6-0, and in an exhibition at Madison Square Garden in New York, two weeks prior to the Olympics, beat the USA Hockey Team 10-3. Craig says it could have easily been 20-3.

My family had been traveling to Lake Placid for more than a decade before the 1980 games. Then, most of the original venues from the games held in 1932 were still usable and most were free.  The speed skating oval was in the center of town in front of the high school. We always thought the long blades on speed skates were either unnecessary or silly looking until we found that we couldn't keep our feet, tearing around the curves at the most speed we could muster. At a certain speed, without the long blades, you just leave your feet.

You could watch the local high school play hockey at the original arena built in 1932 and in between periods they staged short figure skating exhibitions. The Olympic cross country course was free if you brought your own equipment and when you passed under the pedestrian bridge near the finish line you could imagine the then-empty spaces teeming with thousands of spectators from all over the world. With props like these, the imaginary Olympic scenes were so much more vivid than what was conjured up playing pickup baseball games.

One of the stranger aspects of this winter Disneyland was the secrecy of its allure. Nobody knew about it. Whiteface Mountain was known and revered to skiers and overnight visitors must have stayed 12 miles away in sleepy Lake Placid, but you just didn't hear anyone talk about the town.

Friends of ours moved to Lake Placid in the mid-1960s so their son could train for the 1972 Olympics and they opened a small, unassuming inn catering to figure skaters. We would stay there and meet all the people who were training at the various venues. Dinners were family style with whomever sat down at the same time as you were eating. If you let the French cook from Montreal know the night before, she would prepare a box lunch to take with us skiing at Whiteface.

We went for three days skiing every year. The first day after skiing all day and playing cards late into the night, was a tortuous wakeup. The breakfast table had bench seating and you needed two hands to swing your lead-heavy legs with sore hamstrings over the bench. At night we would race toboggans out over the ice on Mirror Lake* from the municipal ramp. You could rent a toboggan for unlimited runs for 50 cents.
I can make an effective argument that Whiteface Mountain is one of the finest skiing experiences in America. I correctly guessed that the day after the Olympics closed, everyone would have left town and abandoned the ski slopes. As people streamed down the New York Thruway, I headed north in the opposite direction to Lake Placid.

I was right. There was nobody. The hay bales and the timing gates were still in place and orange plastic fencing held back ghost spectator sections. I chose the woman's downhill course because I heard it was the steepest and most challenging and also because it started at the top, from fabled chair 2. Because there were no tight turns in the downhill, there were no moguls, the little hills that torment some skiers. The course looked like a golf fairway, smooth, very little indentation, wide, welcoming and fast beyond my wildest expectations.  With no moguls, after only a few seconds in the fall line my skis couldn't hold the speed, and I'd have to stop to dissipate the burn in my hamstrings. The slope was scary fast.

    Lift line at Whiteface - 10,000 foot runs from the summit.

The arena hosted a figure skating competition, regional or national, or hockey games from pee wee to juniors. Sometimes athletes other than figure skaters shared the upstairs dormitory at the inn. It was fun to ask them questions about their sport and get inside information. The most boisterous group had to be the bobsled team who were rough and tumble and liked to mix it up in the dormitory to the point where any moment they might come through the ceiling.

Intervale, the ski jumping venue, was a few miles south of town and you can stand on the hill next to where the jumpers land, the track marked out with small pine tree fronds stuck in the snow. One year I watched the Olympic trials, and with my fellow spectators, crept across the hill, inching ahead of the hill's shadow in the late afternoon. That shadow area had to be 15 degrees colder, and it was about ten degrees to begin with.

    Ski Jumper slowing after a jump at Intervale, Lake Placid

The bobsled run at Mt. Van Hoevenberg is dramatic to view in person. The run was built in the early 1920s and was the longest run in North America even with the additional abandoned upper half mile not included. The run was made of a dry stone wall formed in a half pipeline shape, the usable part wearing a thick layer of ice. There is something at the same time majestic and sinister about a 12-foot high curved stone wall presenting a parabola of ice to be figured out sometimes at more than 120 miles per hour.

With all these activities, the town was almost an afterthought. A few burger diners, some small boutiques and ski shops, trips to town were more for necessities than window shopping. Our family favorite was the ancient hardware store run by this little old lady. It was in an advanced state of grubbiness and sold the basic hardware items.

Even the picture on the boxed figure skates, if you could see it clearly enough through the grimy windows, was faded by the sun that somehow managed to get through. But the capper had to be the aisle with the nails, screws and bolts. Originally they were stored in individual cardboard boxes. The boxes had disintegrated years ago and what were left were little piles of similar sizes.

The hockey stick collection was a gold mine. Somehow ignored was a cache of Hespler "Superlites," hockey sticks that were no longer manufactured. We considered these the holy grail of sticks because they were extremely light and had a lot of whip to them. We were astounded to find 6 sticks in the back of the store, the only 6 sticks. We quickly bought 3. The next year we went back and there were 2 left. That was it. The last place on Earth that carried that model. We bought them out.

My mother and my sister, Chris, made the trip up the New York Thruway for the 1980 Olympics. Housing during the Olympics was impossibly expensive so they were lucky to have good friends with relatives living near Plattsburg, an hour to the north. My sister told me that getting in and out of the village was a process involving shuttle buses and long lines. My mother put her name on a mailing list set up by the Lake Placid Chamber of Commerce as soon as they announced Lake Placid as the next Olympic venue, so they picked out three affordable events. My sister remembers seeing Eric Heiden win one of his five gold medals for speed skating, a downhill skiing event, and a hockey game between two European teams. Everything was expensive: tickets, hotels, meals, even slices of pizza.

Tickets to the USA versus Russia hockey game were impossible to get but during the Olympics, Chris said that many events had tickets available. She said that being in the village the afternoon of the game you could sense that something special was happening. The game was played at 5:00 p.m. The US tried to get the game moved to 8:00 prime time on ABC, but the Russians refused because that would have been 4:00 a.m. Moscow time. The game was aired live in Canada but on a three hour tape delay to the US.

The hockey tournament was a round robin. The buildup to the game got bigger and bigger as the US kept turning in solid performances and the team changed from a long shot, to a dark horse, and then to a possible bronze medalist. When they beat the Czechoslovakia team, the cat was out of the bag. The Czechs had been the only team to beat the Russians in recent memory, and the Czechs usually beat everyone else. The US team crushed them 7-3 and then waltzed through their group with victories over Norway (5-1), Romania (7-2) and West Germany (4-2). The afternoon of February 21, people expected the US team to at least give the Soviets a good game, despite their hammering at the Garden when the Russians tried to beat the US sticks into plowshares.

I walked into the empty arena, where 72 hours before, the US hockey team had won gold. The empty seats were eerie, the flags from all the participating nations hanging motionless from the rafters, the ice empty and ghostly. That Olympics was the birth of the "USA...USA" chant. Looking across the ice at the far stands, you could imagine people on their feet, waving the flag, almost hear the chant, faintly.

You might have guessed that the 1980 Olympics changed the town in so many different ways, both for the good and bad. A few years later, sometime after the 1980 Olympics, I came back to where the hardware store once stood and found a dress shop. It was depressing. For the price of one dress I could have bought all the Hespler Superlites they once had for sale.

All of the facilities were upgraded, everything now cost more, more hotels sprung up, and a variety of new restaurants flourished. Lake Placid was no longer our little secret. Begrudgingly, we admitted that the good changes had outweighed the bad.

For my family, who faithfully made that pilgrimage to our secret winter hideaway, 1980 was special. Beating the Russians, winning a gold medal in ice hockey, our favorite sport, experiencing an entire country's Olympic love fest, and this all taking place in our beloved Lake Placid was the sporting highlight of our life. Every year on this annual anniversary of the victory at Lake Placid, I am still amazed that it happened at all but if you were to ask me today, I will tell you I do believe in miracles...YES!

*The tiny village of Lake Placid is located on the western shore line of Mirror Lake. Over the hill behind the town is Lake Placid.

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