Thirty-five years later, the U.S. Olympic hockey team beating the Russians and winning the gold medal in Lake Placid is still widely considered the greatest moment in American sports history. It was a major victory for the country, one that extended into the Cold War and beyond.
In a nation in which football and baseball rule, a nation that gets a daily dose of television highlights covering all sports on all levels, it was a hockey team that captured the country back in 1980. But all these years later, the sport still keeps a relatively small parcel on the American sports landscape.
A record 26.7 million people watched the U.S. women’s soccer team blow past Japan in the Women’s World Cup final Sunday. Immediately, it qualified as a highlight in U.S. soccer history regardless of gender. A day later, NBC Nightly News said it may prove to be a “pivotal moment in sports history.”
Unfortunately, it’s likely fleeting.
FYI: This isn’t some anti-soccer rant. The sport has grown around the world, and exponentially so, over the past decade in the United States. The Women’s World Cup gave sports fans in this country, not just soccer fans, reason to unite. The final was entertaining, confirmed by TV ratings, even for critics like me.
Ideally, it would be a jumping off point for the next generation, and perhaps it will unfold precisely that way. However, history suggests there’s a better chance soccer will receive an initial jolt of more fans and increased participation, starting at the youth level, before fading into the backdrop.
The World Cup is staged every four years, which adds to the intensity and drama that generate interest. But as with many Olympic sports, passion is only temporary for casual fans. The hard part is sustaining the audience between major events. The World Cup’s magnitude is its strength, but the down time is a weakness.
American sports fans have a tendency to jump off the bandwagon as quickly as they climbed aboard. The 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team inspired kids across the country. The Miracle on Ice was a great moment. Hockey grew into a world game but has largely remained a regional sport in the U.S.
Every two years, we get the Olympics. The Winter Games and Summer Games are staggered. We’re glued to our television sets while watching events we rarely see in between, such as bobsled or track. Athletes become household names for a few weeks. If they’re lucky, their fame lasts a little longer.
More often, they quickly disappear from the national radar. Kids, ask your parents about Mary Lou Retton, Kerri Strug and Sarah Hughes. Or Phil Mahre and Greg Louganis. Better yet, ask them about Bruce Jenner.
Hopefully, years from now, casual sports fans will still remember Carli Lloyd.
Funny ’til someone gets hurt
In honor of Giants Pro Bowl defensive end Jason Pierre-Paul, who burned his hand in a fireworks accident, and world No. 1 golfer Rory McIlroy, who ruptured ligaments while playing soccer, we bring you strange sports injuries in the 21st century:
• NHL defenseman Dan Boyle severed tendons in his wrist after a skate fell off a hook connected to his locker stall in 2007.
• Former Cubs slugger Sammy Sosa had a sneezing fit that caused back spasms, leaving him on the 15-day disabled list in 2004.
• Plaxico Burress shot himself in the leg in a New York City nightclub in 2008 and landed in prison for illegal possession of a handgun.
• Pitcher Joba Chamberlain dislocated his ankle while falling from a trampoline, causing him to miss part of the 2012 season.
• Six-time NASCAR points champ Jimmie Johnson broke his wrist in 2006 after falling out of a golf cart during a celebrity tournament.
• NHL defenseman Erik Johnson missed the 2008-09 season when he suffered a torn ACL after his foot was caught between the accelerator and brake of his golf cart.
• Outfielder Marty Cordova missed a few games in 2002 after falling asleep in a tanning bed and suffering sunburn to his face.
• Ernie Els suffered a torn ACL while tubing in 2005.
When the Stones started up
The Rolling Stones are coming to Ralph Wilson Stadium this weekend, so it seems appropriate to place their longevity into proper perspective through sports. The Stones made their U.S. debut June 5, 1964, in San Bernardino, Calif.
On the same evening, about 60 miles away in Dodger Stadium, the Angels beat the Yankees, 3-2. Mickey Mantle batted .303 with 35 homers and 111 RBIs that season. It was the last time he batted .300 and had more than 23 homers and 56 RBIs in a season. Yogi Berra was a rookie manager.
Four months earlier, Cassius Clay beat Sonny Liston for the heavyweight title. Later that summer, Joe Frazier won an Olympic gold medal in boxing. Billy Mills became the first, and only, American to win the 10,000 meters. Jack Nicklaus was the PGA Tour money leader at $113,285.
The Maple Leafs beat the Red Wings for the Stanley Cup. Bill Russell and the Celtics beat Wilt Chamberlain and the San Francisco Warriors for the NBA title. Oscar Robertson was named Most Valuable Player in the NBA.
Cleveland won the NFL title, its last championship in any major sport. And the winner of the AFL title was … the Buffalo Bills.
From the Eichel file
Here are a few leftovers about Jack Eichel that remained in my notebook for the feature that ran Sunday in The News:
• Last season, he single-handedly caused his first game at UMass-Lowell, which is a few miles from his house, to be delayed for 45 minutes. Game officials were caught in a major traffic jam that was caused by fans flocking to the game. He had three assists for Boston University in a 5-2 win.
• A mailman gave him a 13-year-old Hyundai Santa Fe clunker with 160,000 miles on it when he was living in Ann Arbor, Mich., while playing for the U.S. National Development Team. “It was beat up, and he was as grateful as if it was a Maserati,” family friend Mike Rogers said. “For a kid to act like he did, it was mind-blowing.”
• When he was 13 years old, with talk about him swirling and college scouts coming to see him play in an all-star game, his parents made him stay home because he talked back to his mother the previous day about taking out the garbage. Message sent. Problem solved.
• Eichel liked the Boston Bruins, but his favorite team as a kid was archrival Montreal. His favorite athlete is Patriots quarterback Tom Brady, a man he hopes to someday meet.
How West was won
Pacers forward David West, who left $11.4 million on the table and signed with the Spurs for the veteran minimum, was applauded for proving winning was more important to him than money. It was a shift from the greedy-athlete mantra, but let’s not fool ourselves.
West is looking for his first NBA title. He improves a San Antonio team that was capable of winning one without him. He’s playing for $1.4 million, which is far less than his market value and helps the Spurs manage the salary cap.
It’s all true, but there’s also no denying that he pocketed more than $87.6 million over his first 12 seasons in the NBA. West, 34, collected $44 million, or more than half of his career earnings, over his four seasons with the Pacers.
In fact, winning is more important to him than money at this stage of his career. Indiana could argue that he’s showing selfishness in a different form.
“I’m shocked that Austin Dillon is even alive after what he went through.” – Jimmie Johnson after Dillon’s car flipped into a fence in a scary crash at Daytona Speedway early Monday, leaving the driver with a minor arm injury and bruised tailbone.
71 – Career at-bats, including playoffs, for Cubs pitcher Jon Lester before he recorded his first hit in the big leagues.
8 – Victories in eight meetings for Serena Williams against older sister Venus in grand slam events. Serena won the seven previous titles after beating Venus and can make it eight straight if she wins Wimbledon this weekend.
9 – Bases on balls issued by White Sox left-hander Chris Sale during an eight-game stretch in which he fanned 10 or more batters. He fanned 97 during the streak before it ended Monday.
• Yankees fans need to get past Alex Rodriguez getting left off the American League roster for the All-Star Game. Yes, he was batting .284 with 16 homers and 47 RBIs. The designated hitter selected ahead of him, Prince Fielder, was batting .347 with 13 homers and 50 RBIs. The decision was well within reason.
• According to ESPN, Marc Gasol is staying in Memphis after reaching a five-year deal worth $110 million. Gasol is coming off a career year in which he averaged 17.4 points and 7.8 rebounds per game. OK, how does that equate to becoming the sixth-highest paid player in the NBA, ahead of Kevin Durant?
• Donald Trump and the PGA of America agreed that the Grand Slam of Golf should be moved from Trump National Golf Club in Los Angeles to another venue. It’s the latest fallout after his comments on Mexican immigrants. Raise your hand if you’re thrilled that Terry Pegula, and not Trump, purchased the Bills.