BLOOMINGBURG, NY – Forty years ago today, in a sleepy little upstate New York village was the void in the schedule of the most momentous event in hockey history. Much has been written and produced commemorating the 1980 United States Olympic hockey team’s improbable run in winning the gold medal. I’m here to talk about those college kids and the impact it had on my favorite sport.
Young sports fans are very impressionable. Who didn’t mimic the batting stances or touchdown celebrations of pro athletes seen on television? At times, even the youngest of keen eyes know when they’re watching something or someone special. For me, at the age of four there was one hockey player that was light years ahead of his peers and that guy was Bobby Orr. There’s plenty of video footage of #4 for you to be amazed at what Orr did on a regular basis and two bad knees as a defensemen. He was the Gale Sayers of the NHL–a superstar in hyperspace only to be cut down and cut short by injury.
Hockey fans know the teams known as the Original Six from watching NHL coverage on NBCSN and the network’s propensity to air these games often. The Second Six (Los Angeles Kings, California Golden Seals, Pittsburgh Penguins, Philadelphia Flyers, St. Louis Blues, and Minnesota North Stars) are expansion teams who entered the league in 1967. Two teams were added each year in 1970, 1972, and 1974. Bobby Orr single-handedly helped sell the sport to these cities as the league secured a National television contract showcasing the Boston Bruins and Orr as much as possible.
The sad part of it all is Orr retired after a trade to Chicago in 1976 and the sport was barely treading water from that point forward in the United States amid the Montreal Canadiens dominance, the lack of a national television contract, and the tape delay of local market games. The evolution of hockey in America does not happen without Herb Brooks and his amateur players and hockey diehards like myself owe them a debt of gratitude. While Orr sold the sport the 1980 Olympians grew the game. The perfect storm occurring to hockey is not without the failure of the rival World Hockey Association and its disbanding and subsequent agreement with the NHL in 1979 to take four of their hallmark franchises and welcome them as expansion teams. On one of those team’s rosters, the Edmonton Oilers, there was a young kid named Gretzky that you may have heard of.
It took a decade for the fruit of the gold medal winning team to take root south of the Canadian border. Youth hockey participation was on the rise. The rinks built through Orr’s exploits finally reaped the numbers first intended. The college ranks saw a tremendous influx of homegrown kids and those from geographical areas not known as hockey hotbeds thus serving as the NHL’s minor leagues in the process. Gretzky’s assault on the NHL record books glorified the wide open game and speed of today’s hockey.
It’s fairly easy to surmise without that Miracle, American hockey goes the way of the dodo bird. Raise a glass to Herb Brooks’ memory and the accomplishment of those young men if you’re a hockey nut because the sport dies somewhere in the early 80’s without them.
Comment below and come back tomorrow for Miracle Incarnate, Junoir Blaber.