The Soviets Still Can't Believe It

March 06, 2000

Do you believe in disasters? Yes!

Yes, if you were one of the players or coaches on the 1980
U.S.S.R. Olympic hockey team. Yes, if the world will never let
you forget the day you allowed a bunch of peach-fuzzed American
college kids to whip your unwhippable team at the Winter Games
in Lake Placid.

"I have more than 60 gold medals," says Slava Fetisov, a Soviet
defenseman that day. "I have eight worlds, 10 Europeans, 13
Soviets, two Olympics. But all anybody wants to remember is the
game we lost."

"I am sick after these Olympics," says Viktor Tikhonov, who was
the Soviet coach that day. "I felt terrible, both emotionally
and physically. I was so depressed and stressed. I was sick for
weeks."

"Every day I think about this," says Vladislav Tretiak, the
legendary goalie who started in the nets for the U.S.S.R. that
day. "I cannot forget it."

Twenty years ago, in the deep freeze of the Cold War, the U.S.
beat the four-time defending gold medalists 4-3 in a tiny arena
in a puny upstate New York town. As the Soviets remember it, the
disaster actually began the day they checked into the Olympic
Village, which was so wonderful it was converted into a prison
after the Games. "Only one toilet for the whole floor,"
remembers Fetisov. If the ski team didn't wake you up at 5, the
barking guard dogs would at 5:15.

Also, Tikhonov says he was ill in Lake Placid. He says his
temperature was 95[degrees], and he had to be helped to the
arena each day. Maybe that explains why he did an unthinkable
thing: After a soft American goal tied the game 2-2 with one
second left in the first period, he pulled Tretiak and replaced
him with Vladimir Myshkin for the rest of the game. He pulled
Tretiak! "We could not believe this," says Sergei Makarov, a
forward for the Soviet team. "We know that when Tretiak gives up
a goal, he becomes double the tiger."

"I think Tikhonov wants to kill two dogs with one stone," recalls
Fetisov, who played nine seasons for the New Jersey Devils and
Detroit Red Wings and now is an assistant coach with the Devils.
"He wants to embarrass Tretiak, and he wants to prove he can win
without him."

Across the ice the Americans looked as if they'd just been told
Billy The Kid had called in sick for the noon gunfight. "They
were no longer skating," says Makarov, who at 31 was the 1989-90
NHL Rookie of the Year with the Calgary Flames and now lives in
San Jose. "They were flying."

Suddenly, the U.S. players believed they could win. And,
suddenly, they did. Mark Johnson and Mike Eruzione scored on
Myshkin, and the Americans led by one with 10 minutes to play.
Tikhonov, now 70 and the coach of a junior Red Army team in
Moscow, concedes, "It was not wise to change goalies. This was
my mistake. Why did I do it? It's difficult to say. I don't want
to discuss this. I don't have any explanation for this."

O-o-o-kay.

The Yanks held on to win, despite being outshot 39-16. The
Soviets, who had an unbeaten streak of 16 straight Olympic
matches, watched the place turn into one giant U.S. flag, and
then turned and trudged into the world's quietest locker room.
"If a mosquito had landed, we would've heard it," says Makarov.
Yeah, until Tikhonov started screaming, "You were s---!"

When the Soviet Olympic contingent's plane landed in Moscow, the
gold-medal athletes were welcomed and paraded before a gathering
of fans and media. The hockey team was taken through a back door
of the airport. In America the upset was hailed as the greatest
sports moment of the 20th century. In the U.S.S.R. it went over
like watered-down vodka.

Sovietsky Sport carried only the box score and a brief account of
the game, but everyone knew. The loss had occurred on Feb. 23,
Moscow time--Red Army Day, a national holiday. It was as if the
Dream Team had lost on Memorial Day.

Some players were booted off the Soviet national team, which
didn't mean just the loss of a jersey. It was the loss of your
car, your decent apartment and your very own refrigerator.
Starting at left wing for Siberia....

Soviet or former Soviet nation teams won the next three world
championships and the next three Olympics. Lake Placid was like
the lone zit on Heather Locklear, the one comic book in which
Superman dies. "In Russia, we have a saying," says Makarov.
"Once a year, even the vacuum cleaner can shoot like a rifle."

And once every 20 years, even the Russians can suck.

COLOR PHOTO: DANA FINEMAN/SYGMA

Twenty years ago, in the deep freeze of the cold war, the U.S.
beat the four-time defending gold medalists 4-3.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)