It is not just the most famous hockey game ever played in this country, it qualifies for consideration as the most famous game, greatest upset and proudest sports moment in our nation’s history. Friday, February 22, 1980 at the Winter Olympic Game in Lake Placid, you probably know the story. But, there are many reading this who don’t fully know who the Soviet Union was. As a result, the full impact of the “Miracle On Ice ” could be missed.
The Soviet Union was the outcome of an economic/political movement that saw the overthrow of the Czar of Russia and the takeover of the empire. The monarchy was replaced with a provisional government run by socialists. They operated community groups called soviets and controlled the many militias. Although the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. were allies by necessity in World War II, they were not friendly with each other. In fact, in 1962 the two nations almost engaged in a nuclear war because the Soviets had installed missiles in Cuba that could carry atomic warheads and strike deep in the United States.
We didn’t like each other.
The best place to play out the rivalry was through athletic competition. There were certain sports where one side dominated over the other. The U.S. had a distinct advantage in the Summer Games on the basketball court. The Soviets were the kings of weightlifting. The Americans had the edge in the Decathlon. The Russians had taken over the position of Canada as the premiere hockey nation on the planet.
Unlike today’s games, the Olympics of that era were “amateur”, simply no pay for play. The Soviets had their way around it. Many of their top athletes were “soldiers” in the Red Army. The USSR hockey team was basically the Red Army team, soldiers assigned to play hockey. The Soviet team was loaded. The USSR had won the last four Olympic gold medals. They hadn’t lost in Olympic play in 12 years. Seven of the Russian players would end up in the NHL and 4 would be inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame. The American team was comprised of college kids, the youngest team in the Olympic tournament. Only one American had previous Olympic experience. But, after their success in Lake Placid, 13 would spend time in the NHL.
There would also be a Utica connection with four of the participants in the Miracle On Ice game, three of them players and two of those players started that game in Lake Placid.
The odd man out in that line up was the USA Head Coach, Herb Brooks. Brooks was a very successful college coach at Minnesota, winning three Frozen Four Championships. After winning gold in 1980, Brooks spent a year coaching in Europe then returned to the U.S. where he coached the NY Rangers for three full season and part of a fourth. When being let go in New York, Brooks went back to college for a year. He then coached the Minnesota North Stars for a season, but couldn’t get 20 wins and was not brought back. Lou Lamoriello called on Brooks after that. Tom McVie, Utica’s first AHL Head Coach, had been called up to take the bench in New Jersey. But Tommy was only a seat holder as Lamoriello’s design was to bring Brooks back to the NHL. But first, Herb Brooks spent the 1991-92 season as Head Coach of the Utica Devils. Brook’s Devils finished 4th in the Southern Division of the 15 team AHL, losing in four straight games to the Binghamton Rangers in the first round of the Calder Cup playoffs.
Brooks would coach New Jersey the next season. Despite a winning record and a playoff appearance, Brooks tenure in Jersey would be just one season. He would return to the NHL to coach the Penguins in the 1999 season, where he would coach one season and then move to the front office. He was Pittsburgh’s Director of Player Personnel when he was killed in a car crash in 2003.
The three players who were in the Miracle game and later wore the uniform of the Utica Devils were all Soviet defensemen. Both of the USSR starters included. For those who may wonder, what does the CCCP on the Soviet uniform mean? CCCP is Cyrillic, the Russian alphabet, equivalent of USSR.
Back to the game! The Soviet Olympic team of 1980 was the kind of mix of young and veteran players that a coach loves. The Russian Captain was Boris Mikhailov, a solid winger who was not flashy but always around the puck. He would have been as reliable a soldier in the NHL as he was in the Red Army. They had the man regarded as the best goalie in the game, at that time, Vladslav Tretiak. He was so good, so revolutionary at the position, Tretiak was inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame despite having not been born in North America (first time for that) and never having played in the NHL.
The Soviets also had two of the best defensemen playing at that time. They were young, mobile and capable of jumping into the rush, something that defensemen weren’t used to doing at the time…despite the influence of Bobby Orr. They were Viacheslav Fetisov and Alexi Kasatonov. They would both be drafted by the New Jersey Devils in 1983. They would both eventually sign with the Devils and both would play with the Utica Devils, albeit briefly. There was a third Soviet blue liner in that game, Sergei Starikov, who would follow a similar path.
Slava Fetisov was considered the prize of the lot. In many ways, Fetisov should be regarded as one of the most influential men in hockey in his time. He played a role in how the defensive position is regarded. Bobby Orr changed the way the position could be played, but a lot of what he did was attributed to Orr’s unique ability. Fetisov was not Orr. One thing they both shared was the understanding and ability to carry out the important part of this style of defensive play — if you commit to going one way, your job is still to get back and play the other way. Fetisov did that as well as any defenseman of his era.
By the late 1980s, things were changing in the Soviet Union. The economic experiment that was sold to the people decades before had not stood the test of time, if it was ever capable of doing so. Things were falling apart. When Fetisov and Kasatonov were drafted by the Devils in 1983, the USSR had less than ten years of life left in it. In 1989, Slava Fetisov was 31 years old. He had two Olympic Gold Medals (and a Silver from Lake Placid), seven gold medals from the World Championships and was twice the USSR Player of the Year. If it were only hockey, Fetisov’s request was like Bobby Hull jumping to the WHA. But, this was the Soviet Union. It wasn’t just sports.
Fetisov’s request was bold. It wasn’t just hockey. It would be the admission that there was something better than Soviet life. And, it was in New Jersey of all places. Despite being threatened with exile to Siberia, the best hockey defenseman in the world was ultimately given permission to become a New Jersey Devil. In his second season in New Jersey, Fetisov was injured and, after recovery, was sent down to Utica on a conditioning stint. In his one and only game in the AHL, Slava Fetisov had a goal and an assist. Fetisov would have his name put on the Stanley Cup twice and become the first player enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame with the team name Utica Devils appearing on his career stats.
Alexi Kasatonov spent most of his hockey career in the same defensive pairing as Slava Fetisov. More of a traditional stay at home defenseman, Kasatonov was a great compliment to Fetisov’s jump into the fray way to play. While wearing the red and white, these two defensemen who started the Miracle game at Lake Placid were good friends. Like his linemate, Alexi was drafted by the Devils in 1983. Unlike his linemate, Alexi was not as aggressive about going to the NHL. There was friction between the two over the notion of turning pro. There were political overtones to the dispute and these two never fully reconciled their difference.
Kasatonov followed Fetisov over to the NHL. The Devils decided that it would be best to send Alexi to the AHL first, to gauge just what they were getting. Alexi Kasatonov made his North American pro hockey debut at the Utica Memorial Auditorium against the Adirondack Red Wings. He was a goal away from a Gordie Howe hat trick in that first game. Alexi was the Second Star of the game. When I announced him as such, he wasn’t sure what to do. He was told to skate out on the ice and, instead of the tradition few paces out the door and acknowledge the crowd, Kasatonov was all the way to the neutral zone before the First Star, Jeff Madill, called him back. Kasatonov would play three games with Utica before being called up to New Jersey. He would play all or part of 8 seasons in the NHL, for the Devils, Ducks, Blues and Bruins.
The third defenseman to play in the Miracle game and then for the Utica Devils was Sergo Starikov. Starikov was not the hockey household name of the other two, but he was a steady defenseman, good enough to win two Olympic Gold Medals. He made the trip, with Fetisov, from Moscow to New Jersey and started his pro career up in the NHL. His play there wasn’t at the same level as that of his Russian teammate. When Alexi Kasatonov arrived in the U.S. and the Devils assigned him to Utica, Sergi Starikov accompanied him. Sergi was a steady, solid on the blue liner. His play wasn’t flashy. He was good positionally and his awareness on the ice was ahead of many of the others in the game. Starikov was good at long ice level passes, the kind that are becoming common in breakouts from the defensive zone. Not a common thing 30 years ago. Starikov would spend two seasons in Utica. He appeared in 16 games for New Jersey that first season. They would be the only games he played in the NHL.
On February 22, 1980, the Utica Mohawks beat the Johnstown Red Wings 4-0 at the Utica Aud. The crowd went wild when the score of the Olympic game was announced. No one in attendance that night could imagine the connection that would develop between that game on their hometown team in a decade.