February 2005

From the Archives: Blood Sport

How I almost missed the Miracle on Ice

From the Travelers Aid office in Saranac Lake we had a micro-macro perspective on the 1980 Winter Olympics, not quite inside the big snowy ma­chine, but definitely more involved than the man on the street. We dealt with the hassles, not the disasters. We heard the radio chatter from the Red Cross and Olympic personnel and did what we could when the state police called. Our contact with the competitions was limited to practices we could attend in spare mo­ments away from the phones. We helped tourists who missed charter flights back to who-remembers-where, reunited groups that had split up in the course of wandering Lake Placid’s Main Street, assisted in getting a few miscreants out of the country, arranged train, plane and automobile connections for the clueless. It was twenty-four hours on, twenty-four off, the days smearing like so many slushy sidewalks. Headquarters were above a bar, so we could lower a basket down an old laundry chute, with a note requesting a burger and a Coke. Night after night. Eric Heiden’s pumping thirty-two-inch thighs, flying East German bobsleds, sailing ski jumpers—those images were for the paying customers. The events be­longed to them, not us.

Except for one. A block of hockey tickets had been reserved for New York State legislators, and we knew the late-afternoon game would include the U.S., maybe the Czechs, maybe the Finns, maybe the Soviet Union. The pols weren’t biting, so my coworker and I snagged three tickets, one for each of us plus my boyfriend. The seats were prime, fourth row behind a goal.

Then word came that the game would be our guys against the Soviets: bigger, stronger, bears on skates. Those hand-me-down tickets suddenly became a hot commodity. Fine. We weren’t about to miss what ap­peared to be a pivotal skirmish in the Cold War.

Standing in line in the arena, it was close quarters, and the crowd snaked up the stairs, shuffling tiny steps in oversized boots. Three burly fellows, dressed in a zoo’s worth of pelts, were mumbling away in Russian directly in front of us. Then jabber turned to jab—YOW! I got a very solid elbow in the nose from Mr. Minsk. Direct hit! Suddenly I had a twin-nostril gusher, and stars twinkled overhead. Mr. Pinsk and Mr. Murmansk muttered on, unaware of the impact.

We tried to stanch the flood. Big red rose petals bounced off the concrete. As nosebleeds go, this was epic epistasis. People around us didn’t seem to notice, and we were stuck in line, dripping away. My face was a mess. When we got to the top of the stairs a state trooper spotted me, and we finally got free of the crush. “You need help?” he asked.

“I’m heading for our seats,” my optimistic partner said, “You have your ticket, right?”

The trooper and I navigated the labyrinth leading to the first-aid cubicle, where a doctor and nurse cleaned up my combat face. They checked my pupils and pulse. They dabbed at me with peroxide-soaked gauze. They looked up my nose and clucked. The doctor thought I should go to the hospital for packing, and I insisted no way was I missing the game. So with a bag of ice, wadding under my upper lip and a slight dent in my courage, I tried to find the way back to the arena.

I could smell the crowd, all that wet wool, and hear the rumble of thousands of fans. But I couldn’t find the door. I wandered down one corridor, only to be met by the tallest cops I’ve ever seen. They loomed over me. “Where do you think you’re going?” reverberated down the cavernous corridor. “Where have you been?” was a better question, since I was far, far away from any public entrance.

I lost it. I blubbered something like “A Russian hit me . . . sniff, gulp . . . I want to see the game. I can’t go to the hospital!” For some reason this performance was convincing and when my partner and coworker looked up, there I ap­peared, with my Goliath escort of guys in gray. “You rate! Have a beer,” said a spectator in the row behind us.

I hate team sports, except for hockey and polo, in which you must have other, more important skills to score. Hockey as skating is gorgeous to see, all that speed, swooping and abrupt stopping. Polo too, the pounding hooves, backspins, grace, power and the occasional full-body crash.

It was a calm game for me. I couldn’t risk another trip to first aid, where they’d surely whisk me to an emergency room. But between the drama, goals, saves, goals, there was a happy serenity to the event. When the first period ended and the refs were twirling around the rink, a Frisbee appeared. A striper caught it deftly. He flipped it into the stands. The crowd roared. The disk returned to the ice, and the ref got it, with more enthusiasm this time. He faked left. The crowd roared again. He faked right. More noise, then the disk sailed up to some troopers on a high tier. They tossed it back down. More shouts, more disk play. Then the teams poured onto the rink and the second period began. Pandemonium.

The concessionaires, with their heavy trays of beer, decided this one night that the spirit of international brotherhood would prevail over the capitalist ethic. One sat in the aisle next to us and gave away all his beer. He stayed for the rest of the game.

The second period ended, and the Frisbee reappeared. The sound was deafening, as sections of seats vied for the officials’ toss. The Zamboni nearly got a standing ovation. The driver waved, tipping his hat, to even greater approval. Clean ice has never been so publicly admired. As the teams emerged from the locker rooms, the roof shuddered from the racket. On the Rich­ter scale, it was a quake felt round the planet.

When it was all over, ten thousand incredulous fans left that charmed spot, and the party spilled onto the street. All over town people were standing on the rooftops, screaming; the sidewalks were thronged with the ecstatic. The vanquished vanished. The fur hats and coats blended into the dark night.

Everybody knew, and the news traveled up and down Main Street, out onto Mirror Lake where Ingemar Stenmark was getting his slalom gold medal and the laser show lit up the sky. The word was a tsunami, carrying revelers into the Hilton, where sportscaster Jim McKay was dancing with an Olympic hostess. I swear trucks and cars were honking in Tupper Lake and we could hear them in Placid.

The party went on and on, as did the hangovers. I can’t recall the stick play at all, or the names of more than one or two U.S. players. But that feeling, of being among thousands of very happy people, that stays.

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