Tag Archives: Soviet Union

This Day in History 2/22 – “The Miracle on Ice”; the US beats the USSR in the 1980 Winter Olympics

I love the Winter Olympics, much more than the summer variety. 

The sports are more dangerous, the speed more deft-defying.  Where else is the use of cowbells so encouraged?

So it is fitting that today we commemorate one of the greatest moments in our Olympic history.  In 1980, in the little hamlet of Lake Placid, New York, the Winter Games was hosted for the second time.  Ice hockey would capture the world’s attention, as the United States, a young inexperienced squad of college stars and amateur talent, faced off against the mightiest team in the world, the Soviet Union.

March 3, 1980 cover of Sports Illustrated. The only edition to run without a headline nor a caption. None was necessary.

This was more than David and Goliath.  It was more like David’s invalid brother versus Goliath and the rest of his family.  The USSR had only recently shellacked the Americans in an exhibition game.  Yet the US had a secret weapon, a tenacious coach named Herb Brooks who wouldn’t stop believing that the Soviet juggernaut could be beaten.

On February 22, 1980, the US faced the USSR.  In the post-Vietnam era, during the Iran hostage crisis and a terrible recession, it was tough to feel good about America.  Many people felt that maybe this plucky little team can pull something off.  It seemed like wishful thinking.

Two thirds of the way into the game, it sure seemed like a miracle was needed.  The team faced a deficit early in the game–3-2 at the end of the second period.  However, like it did so many times in the preliminary games, the Americans gutted it out and managed to overcome their deficit. 

By the end of the game, within the last few seconds and the score 4-3 in favor of the US, ABC commentator Al Michaels uttered a famous phrase: “Do you believe in miracles?!”  The name stuck, and the game was forever known as the “Miracle on Ice.”  It was a lone bright spot on a very dark decade, and everyone who was alive and aware knows about it.

What some people often forget about the game was that both teams spawned players that would resonate in the National Hockey League.  The Americans who made good in the NHL included Neal Broten, Mike Ramsey, Mark Pavelich, and Bob Suter–who is the brother of NHL veteran Gary Suter and father of current player Ryan Suter.

What’s even more suprising is the Soviet talent that made its way to this side of the Atlantic.  In 1986, Alexander Mogilny–who was not in the 1980 Olympic squad–was the first Soviet player to defect to the US to play in the NHL.  Since then a slew of players from the 1980 squad made careers in the NHL, including Viacheslav Fetisov, Alexei Kasatonov, Sergei Makarov, and perhaps the greatest goaltender of all time, Vladislav Tretiak.  Although he never played in the NHL, Tretiak was a longtime goaltenders coach, tutoring the likes of Ed Belfour, Dominick Hasek and Jocelyn Thibault.

Attached is the last few minutes of that fateful game.  Explain the context of the game with your students so they can enjoy the whole experience.

Besides, where else can you watch sports during the school day?

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This Day in History 11/9: The Fall of the Berlin Wall

Thefalloftheberlinwall1989The announcement of our winner of “History’s Greatest A**hole” contest will have to wait, as Mr. D needs to wax nostalgic about today’s anniversary.

Twenty years ago today, on November 9, 1989, the Berlin Wall, the most visible and hated symbol of the Cold War, came tumbling down as the East German government flung open its borders.  The opening of the Wall was the beginning of the end for Communism in Eastern Europe, as (mostly) peaceful revolutions swept across the continent, bringing down regime after regime until the great bear itself, the Soviet Union, dissolved in 1991.

Today, most kids have never even heard of the word Communism or anything like a Cold War.  Yet try to be a child seeing these events unfold.  For my generation, those that witnessed the end of an era, we couldn’t even believe it was happening.

For most of our lives, we thought that the great conflict between East and West, the Cold War, the struggle between the United States and the Soviet Union had reached a meandering stalemate that could last forever.  If the rivalry did heat up, it was usually every four years during the Olympic Games. 

 I was a precocious kid, and even at that age a rabid anti-Communist.  Most of my friends used words like “Commie” and “Russkie” pretty casually, but I knew the evil they contained.  When Katerina Witt of East Germany won the gold medal in figure skating in 1988, I left the room.  I screamed at my parents that I refused to listen to an anthem from a Communist dictatorship.    No one booed louder when Nickolai Volkoff sang the Soviet national anthem before wrestling for the WWF (now WWE). 

Christ, I made Alex P. Keaton look like Nancy Pelosi.

Yet even I, the great red-baiter that I was, had the inevitable shrug most had when confronting the Soviet menace.  They were there, and they we there to stay.  As long as they don’t move from where they are, and no sneaky stuff with Typhoon submarines, then I guess we can coexist.  It was even a buzzword of the Brezhnev-era Kremlin: “peaceful coexistence.” 

Then I heard about what was happening in Poland.  Yes, I was a wierd kid: the Solidarity movement of Lech Walesa fascinated me. 

I mean, here was a situation that, to a true lover of Marx and Lenin, made absolutely no sense: a “worker’s republic” refusing to let a group of shipyard workers from Gdansk organize into a labor union.  A labor union is the crux of all Communist ideology, and it was turned on its head as Solidarity formed to combat unfair conditions laid down by Warsaw’s Soviet satellite regime.  The authorities fought back brutally, enforcing martial law from 1981-1982.  Yet the movement survived, and it worked to undermine, and eventually destroy, the Polish dictatorship.

The Polish revolution worked because of a gap in the Soviet clinch on power.  By the 1980s, the Soviets were in economic freefall, and badly needed Western capital and technology just to keep up.  Thus, Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev began a program of gradual liberalization of the economy (perestroika) followed by a loosening of the authoritarian political landscape (glasnost).  On top of this, Moscow basically allowed its satellites to do what they wanted.  There would be no repeat of the crackdowns of years past–this time the Red Army will not interfere.

The result was a flood of anger and resentment.  Reform movements were going on all over Eastern Europe, mostly among grassroots groups looking for bread-and-butter changes: better housing, higher wages, better working conditions, etc.  The people’s republics simply grew so stagnant that they were completely divorced from the reality of the people, and rebels like Vaclav Havel and Lech Walesa were considered heroes.

Yet we never thought that wall would ever come down.  And it did, thanks to massive demonstrations, public media attention, and an East German government willing to say “enough is enough”, and replace the autocratic Erich Honecker with the more pliant Egon Krenz, who summarily threw open the borders to allow East Germans free access to the west.  That hated wall, that son-of-a-bitch wall finally came down.

As with most things, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of Communism seemed inevitable now.  Today, we are still dealing with the aftereffects of the Revolutions of 1989, both good and bad.  But for kids like me, who never thought it was going to happen, the Berlin Wall was a moment we could never forget.  Like the clamoring hordes in Boston in the 1770’s, no one was silencing the will of the people anymore.

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