Saturday Single No. 678

Here’s a piece I ran in this space ten years ago today. It’s been edited slightly.

One of the classic small-town fund-raisers is the fish fry. During the years I lived in Monticello, the Other Half and I would occasionally make our way to the American Legion club at the west edge of town and join our friends and neighbors at long tables. The menu was always deep-fried fish – probably haddock, maybe cod – with french fries and cole slaw.

We’d nibble on our dinners, sip coffee and chat with whoever ended up sitting nearby. Occasionally, I’d field questions or complaints about something the newspaper had published that week. Otherwise, we’d maybe talk about the city’s plans to redevelop downtown, the upcoming school board election or the prospects for the high school’s teams – still called, amazingly enough, the Redmen – in the coming winter tournaments.

But as we sat at the tables for the Rotary Club’s annual fish fry forty years ago this evening, we talked about none of that. All anybody wanted to talk about was a bunch of college kids, kids with names like Broten, Johnson and Eruzione; Callahan, Craig and Pavelich; Morrow, Verchota and Suter and eleven more. And we talked about Herb Brooks, the hockey coach who’d molded those twenty American college kids into a hockey team that had defeated the legendary team from the Soviet Union 4 to 3 in an Olympic medal-round game late that afternoon.

I’ve never asked anyone, but I’ve always wondered how sparse the crowd was for the first hour or so of the fish fry that evening. The hockey game began at four o’clock Central Time – officials for the ABC network, which was broadcasting the Olympics from Lake Placid, N.Y., tried to have the game switched to seven o’clock, but Soviet officials refused – and was likely over a little after six o’clock. That’s when we made our way to the Legion club for dinner, as I’d been listening to the game on a distant radio station, struggling to make sense of the play-by-play through a forest of static.

I imagine that many others had done the same, as it seems in memory that we were among a large group of diners who showed up about the same time. Those already dining were already talking about hockey or related topics, like why ABC – which planned to air a tape of the game that evening – didn’t show the game live at four o’clock. And there were grumbles at the Soviet officials who refused to allow the game to be moved from late afternoon to the evening. (Wikipedia notes that such a shift would have meant a four a.m. start for the game in Moscow.)

But most of the time, it seems – in the soft light of a memory now forty years old – we were shaking our heads and marveling at what those twenty American kids and their coaches had done that afternoon. After all, the Soviet team had won five of the six gold medals in hockey since 1956 (with the U.S. winning in 1960 in Squaw Valley, Calif.). Since those 1960 games, the Soviets had gone 32-1-1 over the next four Olympic tournaments and the preliminary round at Lake Placid. Games between the Soviet teams and the professionals of the National Hockey League had started in 1972, and during the two most recent series, the Soviets were 7-4-1 against the NHL’s best. In addition, in the last exhibition game for the U.S. Olympic team before the competition at Lake Placid, the Soviets had defeated the U.S. team in New York City by a 10-3 score.

So I don’t recall talking to anyone during the preceding days who thought that the U.S. boys – who’d won four and tied one of their preliminary round games – could beat the Soviets. Watching the five earlier games had cued us – hockey fans and those who were only vaguely familiar with the sport alike – that the U.S. team might be something special. And it was, advancing to the medal round with what seemed like a good chance for silver or at least bronze.

But those American kids surprised everyone: the experts in the sporting world who’d conceded the gold medal to the Soviet team from the start; the delirious crowd in the Lake Placid arena that afternoon; and those of us all across the country who would sit in their living rooms and watch the taped game that evening. The kids probably even surprised their own coach, Herb Brooks. And there’s no doubt that they surprised the supremely talented members of the Soviet Union’s Olympic hockey team.

There were overtones to the hockey game, of course: The general sense of unease in the U.S. at the time and the international rivalry between the U.S. and the Soviet Union – heightened by the Soviets’ 1979 invasion of Afghanistan – all made the U.S team’s victory a template for something more than a hockey game. But even as only a hockey game, it was enough. And that’s what we chewed on that evening at the Rotary fish fry, forty years ago tonight.

And here’s a video of the last minute of the game and the celebration that followed.

One Response to “Saturday Single No. 678”

  1. Val H. says:

    I know next to nothing about ice hockey but I do understand the excitement of a win by the underdog – especially at Olympic level. My eye was caught by the name Pavelich in your post. Like you, I am (or at least, have been) a genealogy nut. Back in the 1990s I was a stay-at-home Mum and managed a lot of research in my downtime. I was also happy to do unpaid research for others living upcountry or overseas. One was a woman who lived over the border in country New South Wales. She was an expert on the name Pavlich (as it was rendered here) and told me that every Australian Pavlich was related to her (however remotely) and could be traced back to a Scottish immigrant. She had also researched the name in Scotland and had traced it back to a Writer to the Signet (solicitor to the Court) who had come from Romania(?). My memory is a bit sketchy and I don’t think I still have her original correspondence so I hope I have not misquoted her. Here in Australia we also have a sporting hero named Pavlich – and also a Matthew. He was captain of the Aussie Rules football team the Fremantle Dockers and a six time All-Australian. That footage you posted is certainly spine-tingling.

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