“Tell your whole team I love them,” U.S. President Jimmy Carter commanded Mike Eruzione, captain of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, when he got him on the phone in the moments following the Americans’ 4-2 gold-medal victory over Finland on this date, a Sunday, in 1980. It was the game two days earlier, of course, that everyone remembers, the one where Eruzione, goaltender Jim Craig (above, celebrating gold), and all their star-spangled teammates overthrew the mighty Soviet Union. Mostly they forget that the U.S. team still had plenty of work to do against the Finns. Under the complicated medal-round formula, an American loss combined with a Swedish win over the Soviets could have left the U.S. in fourth place. As it was, goals from Phil Verchota, Steve Christoff, Rob McClanahan, and Mark Johnson sealed the U.S. win, while the Soviets crushed Sweden 9-2. “Outside the arena an exultant throng counted down the final seconds,” Gerald Eskenazi reported for The New York Times, “then started to cheer as a Dixieland band began to play. When the doors of the field house opened, the crowd of 10,000 (including 1,500 standees) streamed into the Olympic Center driveway with chants of ‘U.S.A’ and ‘We’re Number One.’”
Canada skates out to a rare World Championships meeting with Great Britain later today at the Steel Arena in Košice, Slovakia. The first time the two countries met in the tournament was in January of 1935 at Davos in Switzerland, when the Winnipeg Monarchs wore the maple leaf in a 4-2 Canadian win. There were clashes before that at the Olympics, starting in 1924 at Chamonix, France, when Canada’s victory was by a score of 19-2. Four years later in St. Moritz, Switzerland, Canada cruised to a 14-0 win.
At the 1936 Winter Olympics in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany, the Port Arthur Bearcats formed the core of the Dominion team, who were (once again/as always) considered tournament favourites by dint of being Canadian. But after disposing with Poland, Latvia, and Austria, the defending champions lost in a 2-1 upset to Great Britain. It wasn’t the end of the world, but the shock and the same was severe. You’ll find more on that (+ bonus alibis and rationalizing) over here. Suffice to say that further Canadian victories over Hungary, Germany, Czechoslovakia, and the United States wasn’t enough to snatch back the gold, which the British claimed, leaving Canada to settle, bitterly enough, for silver.
“One of the most startling and dramatic upsets in Olympic history,” Gerald Eskenazi called it in The New York Times when the U.S. beat the mighty Soviet Union on this day in 1980 in Lake Placid, New York — but you knew that already. The score was 4-3 by the end of that fateful semi-final — see below to relive all the drama of the last few minutes, after Mark Pavelich intercepted a Soviet pass. Beating the Soviets earned the Americans the right to play Finland in the Olympic final two days later, where they prevailed once more, 4-2, and duly collected their golds.
One of the memorable images from the aftermath of the Soviet game was of U.S. goaltender, Jim Craig, touring the ice of the Olympic Field House with a flag caped about his shoulders. That’s it in the thread here above, as it appeared in 2015 when the former Boston University goalkeep decided to sell items from his 1980s treasury via the New Jersey auction house Lelands.
Measuring 5’ by 9.5’, these “forensically photo-matched and authenticated” stars and stripes went on the block attached to an appraised value of between US$1,000,000 and US$1,500,000. With the on-line auction inviting opening bids on the latter … none was forthcoming. At a second auction in 2016, when the bidding started at US$100,000, the flag attracted seven bids without selling — the final offer of US$611,591 failed to meet the reserve on a lot that Lelands called “the sports version of the Declaration of Independence, the “Rosebud” sled, or the suit Neil Armstrong wore to walk on the Moon.” (Take your pick, I guess.)
Craig’s 1980 gold medal also failed to sell, as did the sweater he wore against the Soviets. That 2016 sale did move 13 other lots from the goaltender’s Olympic collection, raising a total of close to US$292,000. Craig’s mask went for US$137,849, and his blocker for US$23,033. You could have had his skates for US$17,569, though you probably didn’t; his goalie pants went for a mere US$1,320.
The world didn’t end that February Friday, a few weeks back, as the Olympics played down and Canada’s men lost their hockey semi-final to upstart Germany, but it shuddered a little. “Eishockey-Sensation” was the early headline from Der Spiegel, and German Twitter trilled will mentions of a “Wunder auf Eis” — a new Miracle on Ice.
In Canada, it was morning, and the nation mourned, briefly. And moaned: about Gary Bettman, whose fault it all was, really, denying us our golden birthright; that the guy who scored Germany’s first goal is from Winnipeg; that (as Don Cherry raved) the linesman who called that stupid early penalty is Russian, i.e. linchpin of a vast conspiracy to see us humiliated.
By Saturday, when we beat the Czech Republic to win bronze, the national mood was brighter.
That’s it? Have we really mellowed so much in the years since the almost-calamity of 1972 that no-one’s calling for a royal commission to look into how we failed to finish? Don’t we care any more? Could be, I guess, a matter of faith, one that’s so strong and enduring that we don’t have to speak it let alone achieve it: what matters is not who actually won so much as what would have happened if Crosby and Connor and Carey had been on the job in South Korea.
Whatever the case, we’ve calmed down since our first Olympic hockey undoing, in Germany in 1936 at Garmisch-Partenkirchen. Up to that point, through four Olympic tournaments, Canadians had never lost a game, never come home with a medal that wasn’t golden. Looking back on what happened 82 years ago is like studying the original operating instructions for Canadian hockey humility, and/or the lack thereof.
Winter and summer, the 1936 Olympics were, of course, in Germany, presided over by Adolf Hitler and other odious Nazis. That’s a stain that’s only darkened by what we know, now, about what the next ten years would bring.
In Garmisch, the hockey tournament started with a kerfuffle over the eligibility of several players on the team from Great Britain who’d played previously in Canada. Their hockey paperwork wasn’t in order, Canadian officials maintained. The British disagreed, and almost withdrew, in a snit, but didn’t. When the hockey got going, Canada beat, and breezily, Poland, Latvia, and Austria, before facing off with the British.
They started with a snap, which is to say a speculative slap, from long range, that bamboozled Canadian goaltender Dinty Moore, nesting in the net. The Canadians tied the score, then continued to bombard British goaltender and sort-of Canadian Jimmy Foster. But it was the British who scored again, on a break in the third. The game ended, shockingly, 2-1 not-for-us.
Canada’s coach was penning a column for the papers back home, or at least lending his name to one. He assured Canadians that his team (and theirs) had had “easily 80 percent” of the play. “The English,” he continued,” although fast-skating, cannot be considered the equal of the Canucks, but because goals win games we are forced to swallow the bitter pill.”
“Canadian hockey hats are off to England this morning,” one Toronto columnist wrote next morning, but her gracious voice was a lonely one. Most of the newspaper accounts echoed the Star’s European correspondent, Matthew Halton, who’d watched the disaster unfold. “We are feeling pretty sick here today,” he advised.
As if the news from Germany wasn’t dismal enough that day, a local prophet who ran his own church out of his living room was making front-page news with an unsettling forecast: by Friday, the world would be expiring. This was Bible-based, apparently, nothing to do with hockey.
“The tall buildings of Toronto will be destroyed,” pastor Harold Varney calmly promised reporters, “and the world consumed in cleansing fire.”
In Germany, oblivious to the reckoning that was three days away, the Canadians played on. Whupping Hungary 15-0 was a tonic, and got us our groove back, briefly. But it was at this point that Canadian team officials discovered that they didn’t really understand how the tournament was set up. Yes, they would advance to the medal round with the British, the Americans, and the Czechoslovaks; no, they wouldn’t get a chance to play the British again. They would have to live with their loss — and the precious points that Britain would carry over.
Now it was Canada’s turn to threaten to take its pucks and go home. Instead, we attended an emergency meeting of the Ligue International Hockey sur Glace, arguing that that the final four teams should start afresh, play a whole new round-robin, allowing us to take our revenge and restore order to the universe. This was put to a vote.
We lost that, too.
The host team paid an immediate price when we played a subsequent against the Germans. “The Canadian pucksters were seething as they took the ice,” reported The Globe; “In Angry Mood” was a headline from Ottawa. Intent on giving the Germans — their team, populace, and Nazi officials — “a lesson in the art of bodychecking,” we found that they were poor students. The home fans booed the Canadians so strenuously during our 6-2 win that Hitler’s propaganda minister, the ghastly Joseph Goebbels, stood up to command the crowd to quiet. He was, for some reason, “dressed in the costume of Daniel Boone.”
Canada won its final two games fairly tranquilly, but it didn’t matter, the gold belonged to Britain. For the first time in Olympic hockey history, we were a shameful second.
In the blame and bluster that filled newspapers in the days following our silvery shame, all five stages of Canadian hockey grief revealed themselves, starting with Blissful Denial. “No one is worried, no one is upset,” The Winnipeg Tribune’s editorial page declared. “There is something rather pleasing in the fact that other countries like Canada’s game so well that they are taking it up so vigorously.”
Finger-Pointing ensued. Later, in March, when the hockey players finally returned home to Canada, they were quick to reproach Canadian team management for fumbling their responsibilities. In February, there was some question at home of how it could be that these officials hadn’t known the rules of the very tournament in which they were participating. “It is something hardly creditable to Canadian smartness,” an editorial in The Ottawa Journal sniffed.
Backlash followed: “It wasn’t a great team, measured by any yardstick,” the Journal confessed; never again, said The Star, should we send any but “a real all-star team to carry the red Maple Leafs in future Olympic hockey tournaments.”
Next was Official Uproar: Toronto MP Tommy Church rose in the House of Commons to carp about how poorly the whole affair reflected on us as a people. “I think,” he said, “something should be done.”
Finally, of course, there was Not To Worry, Everything’s Fine, Who Says It Isn’t? This was confirmed by the foreigners whose refreshing views we were only too pleased to publish: that the hockey result (from a Buffalo paper) had “a smell,” and that (from Manchester’s Guardian) “Canada would have won nine times out of ten.” The Globe reported that in a visit to Canada’s dressing room, Hermann Göring, head of Hitler’s Luftwaffe, had assured our players that “no matter what was to happen, he always would consider the Canucks the real world champions.”
A.E. Gilroy, head of the Canadian Amateur Hockey Association, had done his share of railing against tournament organizers and the deceitful British while he was still in Germany. Back home again, he apologized, refusing to waste anybody’s time with excuses, other than to mention that the dastardly Europeans had pulled a fast one on us, plus (also) there was something “peculiar” about the pucks, some of which did “weird tricks,” including on Britain’s first goal. Ask the Americans, Gilroy said: they agreed that the pucks were “not true.”
Lessons learned? I don’t know that there’s any real evidence of that. If you count the extent to which the press emphasized just how many of the British players had learned their hockey in Canada, then, yes, I guess we did kind own the loss. Here was a logic we could live with: Canadians hadn’t failed, they’d just succeeded under someone else’s flag.
Doomsday in Toronto was cold and snowy, and altogether free (it turned out) of hellfire. Friday came and went, and then it was Saturday.
Frisky reporters staking out Harold Varney’s doorstep demanded to know: if he was so sure of imminent Armageddon, why had he put out his bottles for the milkman the night before?
Varney wasn’t fazed. The Lord, he said, had granted an extension. “I am glad that there is yet time for the sinful to repent.”
They should make haste, though: “A few days from now, Toronto people should know, all will be judged.”
(I wrote about the 1936 Garmisch Olympics and Harold Varney’s gloomy outlook in Puckstruck: Distracted, Delighted and Distressed by Canada’s Hockey Obsession, my 2014 book. There’s more on these matters therein, on pages 171—180.)
If a hockey tournament at a Winter Olympics fails to feature a Canadian team is it, in fact, really a hockey tournament at all?
Yes, in fact, it is. Having looked it up, I’m able to confirm that Olympic hockey does go on, even in years that Canadians choose to stay at home, as happened in 1972 and again 1976, during a dispute with the IIHF over the use of professionals in international hockey. In ’72, in Sapporo, Japan, Anatoli Tarasov’s team from the Soviet Union was only too happy to continue the golden streak that had begun two Olympics before, edging out the United States (silver) and Czechoslovakia (bronze).
The story ended the same way in 1976, in Innsbruck, in Austria, though the plot was a little different. Boris Kulagin was the Soviet coach this time, and Czechoslovakia looked like they possibly might — just maybe? — overthrow the champions. They were up 3-2, at least, with five minutes left to go in the February 14 final, looking good until … well, Aleksandr Yakushev scored to tie the game and then, 24 seconds later, Valeri Kharlamov netted the winner.
West Germany took the bronze that year, surprising everybody, including themselves. Led by Erich Kühnhackl (father of the Pittsburgh Penguins’ Tom), the Germans lost comprehensively in medal-round games against the Soviets (7-3) and the Czechs (7-4), but beat Bob Johnson’s United States (4-1) to finish in third. They hadn’t done that since 1932, in Lake Placid, which made it modern-day German hockey’s finest hour right up until last night, when this year’s team won silver after looking like they possibly might — just maybe? — beat the Olympic Athletes from Russia for a miraculous gold.
The hockey tournament at the 1936 Winter Olympics wasn’t without controversy. For Canada, it was very much with controversy, and long before the team from (mostly) Port Arthur ever arrived in Germany. The trouble they got into in Garmisch-Partenkirchen was complicated, but it boiled down to this: on February 11, Canada lost its first ever Olympic hockey game by a score of 2-1 to … Great Britain. Subsequent Canadian thwackings of Hungary (by 15-0) and the hosts from Germany (6-2) weren’t enough to shift the standings in Canada’s favour, which meant that they went home with silver medals, while the Great British won gold, and the right (above) to skate triumphantly towards a photographer on the ice at Lake Riesser.