After 35 years, Red Army finally gets its due

Herb Brooks Arena
The 1980 US Olympic hockey team is set to return to Lake Placid on Saturday for the 35th anniversary of their 4-3 win over the Soviet Union. (Chris Waits/Creative Commons)

By Ryan Lund

Names like Kharlamov, Fetisov and Mikhailov may be unfamiliar to North American hockey fans, but they carry the weight of world championships and gold medals to 59-year-old Chicago hockey fan Arkady Dontsis.

Dontsis remembers their names, and one of the greatest hockey teams ever assembled, the famed “Red Army,” the Soviet Union national ice hockey team.

But while Dontsis remembers the team for its illustrious list of accomplishments, the rest of the world remembers the game they didn’t win, a 4-3 loss to the U.S. on Feb. 22, 1980.

The Americans would go on to defeat Finland 4-2 and capture the gold medal, while the Soviets would eventually take home silver, demolishing Sweden 9-2.

“We didn’t know a lot about the NHL then, they never showed the games [in the Soviet Union] in the late 70s and 80s,” Dontsis said. “We eventually got more acquainted to the NHL and their players, but the Soviet hockey players, everybody considered them the best in the world.”

Now, on the 35th anniversary of the “Miracle on Ice” the Red Army is finally getting its due.

ESPN revisited the game in a recently released documentary entitled “Of Miracles and Men,” chronicling young forward Slava Fetisov and the Soviet national team’s rise to dominance, while filmmaker Gabe Polsky took a similar approach with his film “Red Army.”

“They really were celebrities, and everybody who knew anything about sports knew the names of those guys,” Dontsis said. “We watched a lot of European and world championship competition. We watched a lot of hockey.”

The game began at 1 a.m. for Dontsis, who listened to the Soviet radio broadcast 70 miles from the Ukrainian capitol of Kiev, a world away from Lake Placid, N.Y.

“Nobody had any doubt that the Soviets were going to win,” Dontsis said. “For them, it was young college American players, not NHL players, and everybody knew that. We were confident that they were going to win.”

And they had every reason to be.

Winners of 14 world championships and gold medalists in the previous four Olympics, the Soviets were hardly an unknown quantity in the west.

“The hockey world knew all about them, and the hockey world marveled at them,” said former Team USA defenseman Jack O’Callahan, now the president of Winnetka-based Beanpot Financial Services. “In the years leading up to Lake Placid, they would come back every few years to play a few teams, and they would just dominate.”

Teammate John Harrington – who assisted on team captain Mike Eruzione’s game-winning goal back in 1980 – praised both films for their portrayals of former Soviet hockey coaches Anatoli Tarasov and Viktor Tikhonov.

Tarasov pioneered the Soviet team’s graceful, team-oriented style of hockey, while Tikhonov went on to coach the team in Lake Placid.

“I liked them, I thought they were both very well done,” Harrington said. “I always enjoy listening to guys like Tarasov and Tikhonov and to see how they ran their teams.

Anatoli Tarasov - considered the father of Russian hockey - was the architect behind the graceful, team-oriented style of play that led the Soviets to dominance in the 70s and 80s. (Клуб Харламовец/Creative Commons)
Former coach Anatoli Tarasov was the architect behind the graceful, team-oriented style of play that led the Soviets to dominance. (Клуб Харламовец/Creative Commons)

The films present a fresh take on one of the most iconic moments in sports history, even for the players who lived it.

“I thought that it was really well done, really well-produced,” O’Callahan said. “It’s funny to see the other side of it. My experience for 35 years has been all positive, where the Russian guys have had the flip side of the coin there.”

However, while players like Harrington and O’Callahan have fond memories of the game, the tone of the film is decidedly more somber than Disney’s 2004 picture “Miracle,” which tells the US team’s story from its beginnings in Colorado Springs to its win in Lake Placid.

“I think that came across pretty clearly in the documentary … there’s a little bitterness [from the Russians] some dissatisfaction there,” O’Callahan said. “I was a little disappointed in some of that messaging that came across.”

According to Dontsis the Soviet players had plenty of reasons for disappointment after settling for silver.

“In the Soviet Union, if you were not winning at hockey, it was considered very bad,” Dontsis said. “They lost to the Americans, and it was the Cold War then, so it was intense at the time.”

Dontsis hopes that films like “Of Miracles and Men” will help to educate hockey fans on the importance of a Soviet squad that was often vilified in the Cold War fervor that surrounded international hockey at the time.

“I just think most of the people who are interested in hockey, they don’t know how good the Soviet team was in the 70s and 80s,” Dontsis said. “With these kinds of shows and movies and documentaries, more Americans will know it was a good team that played different hockey.”

And while the two teams are eternally bound by the events of Feb. 22, 1980, Harrington and O’Callahan have had little chance to interact with their Russian counterparts over the years.

“I’ve never met any of them, never talked to any of them,” O’Callahan said. “Some other guys may have, but I never did.”

Harrington says that he interacted briefly with former Russian captain Boris Mikhailov while coaching in Switzerland several years ago, but while the two posed for a photo, Harrington is unsure what his Russian counterpart thought of the exchange.

“I was smiling, he wasn’t too happy, so maybe he realized that I was one of the guys he played against in 1980,” Harrington said.

Harrington and O’Callahan joined the rest of the team Saturday for the 35th anniversary of the game, as the group reconvened in Lake Placid to commemorate the event and honor fallen teammate Bob Suter.

Suter died in September at the age of 57 after suffering a heart attack in his home state of Wisconsin, the team’s second casualty following a car accident that claimed the life of Herb Brooks back in 2003.

“Just like when Herb Brooks passed away, it’s a tough thing to have happen,” Harrington said. “We always understand that we’re getting older, but to have something happen like what happened to Herb or Bob, it was a big shock.”

The team honored the former defenseman by raising Suter’s jersey to the rafters at Herb Brooks Arena, the site of their famous upset.

“It’s going to be a really emotional moment,” Harrington said. “We miss Bob, we really do. He was a great teammate and a great friend.”

But now, as the members of Team USA return to Lake Placid to remember their lost teammate and commemorate their accomplishments, the game still brings back positive memories nearly four decades later.

“It’s always a happy memory or a happy thought,” O’Callahan said. “So in a way it’s uplifting. It’s been 35 years of positive, uplifting stories.”

As for Dontsis, his hockey allegiances have shifted a bit in the 25 years since he and his family immigrated to the United States.

“I cheer for the United States,” he said. “I still cheer for [Russia] if the United States is not playing, but I am a fan of the American teams now.”

Photo at Top: The 1980 US Olympic hockey team is set to return to Lake Placid on Saturday for the 35th anniversary of their 4-3 win over the Soviet Union. (Chris Waits/Creative Commons)