An Open Letter to the UW Women's Hockey Team
Including this essay. Stop reading now, clip it out, file it away, and wait a year before reading it.
OK, back again? Let me add a little perspective.
When you won the NCAA Championship in Lake Placid, you undoubtedly heard that the place where you were playing, the Herb Brooks Ice Arena, was the site of the famous "Miracle on Ice" — the 1980 Olympics where Team USA beat the mighty Soviet Union. You've probably heard it referred to as the greatest moment in hockey.
More than that, tho. It was the greatest moment in sports.
Better than the Ice Bowl in Green Bay.
Better than Secretariat's Triple Crown.
Better than Michael Jordan's buzzer-beating jumper to win his 6th NBA title.
Better than baseball's "shot heard round the world".
Better than the yacht America heading for the finish line in the 1851 trans-Atlantic regatta, with a hopeful British sovereign asking "And who is in 2nd place?", only to be told "There is no 2nd, your majesty."
Still, the actual event happened well before any of you were born, so it may be that your best knowledge of it comes from the 2004 movie "Miracle", starring Kurt Russell as Coach Herb Brooks. While it is an excellent film, it does have one weakness: It doesn't adequately convey just how amazingly good the Soviet hockey team was.
Let me fill in that blank a bit.
You may have heard that every Catholic high school in America is a farm team for Notre Dame football. Imagine, if you will, that we are talking not just the parochial schools but EVERY high school, in a country larger than the US. There is no football in this country to serve as a distraction. There is some basketball, but, with a climate like Canada's, kids heading out to play in April and September aren't shooting hoops in the driveway, they're strapping on the skates to slap the puck around a little. Hockey is a birthright and a way of life.
This is the Soviet Union of the late Cold War. It's a fairly grim place. There are few colleges and universities to aspire to. Since it's a socialist dictatorship, without free enterprise, you can't get rich at ANY occupation, let alone sports.
It's a good thing for the Russian players that they have pride of accomplishment, because they don't have much else. The national team ranges in age from early 20s to mid-30s, but many of them are still bachelors, having lived most of their lives in dorms and barracks.
You know what life is like at the University of Wisconsin. There are hockey practices and games, of course, but also classes and schoolwork, a social life, boyfriends, finding a place to live, roommate issues, trips home, vacations, and a dozen other distractions. Not nearly so much of that for the members of the Soviet team. They don't get a well rounded liberal-arts education. They are hockey specialists.
And they don't seem to get much pleasure out of it, either. Unlike the pictures of you and your teammates in the paper — beaming with joy, jumping up and down, grinning from ear to ear as you hold that championship trophy on high — you will never find a picture of the Russian players so much as smiling.
In the Soviet Union there are rigid social expectations. If you show any promise at all in sports, you get routed into a rigorous training program than funnels its very best players into the national team.
That's "team", singular. The talent isn't spread around among a bunch of ruffly equal squads in a league intended to entertain the fans. Soviet hockey is a propaganda tool to show the superiority of a Communist society, intended to awe and intimidate.
Contract negotiations? There are no contract negotiations. Every member of the Soviet team is an "amateur", on leave from the Red Army, where his military duty consists of ... playing hockey. 350 days a year. (No religious holidays, of course, but even the Red Army granted 2 weeks' annual leave.)
And if a hot new kid comes up thru the ranks, there's no dewy-eyed nostalgia about "good old Dmitri, who's meant so much to this program thru the years". Dmitri's out; Sergei's in; let's get back to work.
Ruthless, efficient, and very, very effective. The Russians didn't just PLAY hockey; they OWNED it. They didn't just BEAT their opponents, they CRUSHED them. They annihilated them. In a sport where a typical score is 2-1, the Russians regularly ran up double digits.
And most other teams (including NHL All-Star teams put together for the specific purpose of beating the Soviets in exhibition games) considered it a moral victory if they scored AT ALL against Vladislav Tretiak, widely considered to be the best goalie ever to play the game.
This was the team that the USSR sent to Lake Placid in 1980.
The film does give some glimmer of how unbelievably dominant it was. The game is winding down, with the Americans clinging to a 1-point lead as the increasingly desperate Russians mount a ferocious assault. (For the game, they had 39 shots on goal to Team USA's 16.) The US coaches are laying plans for how to respond after Russian Coach Viktor Tikhonov pulls his goalie. But the seconds continue to tick away, and Tikhonov just stands there, frozen, facing the rink in disbelief.
In the audience, we start to wonder "My God! Is he afraid that if he loses his family will be shot?". Then one of the assistant coaches whispers in wonder "He doesn't know what to do!". And you realize that the REASON he doesn't know what to do is because he's never been in this situation before. He's never been trailing at the end of a game. He's never lost. Never!
The final seconds expire. Announcer Al Michaels asks "Do you believe in miracles?" And almost everybody thot they had just witnessed one.
It wasn't really a miracle, of course. It was lots and lots and lots of hard work (you understand that part), incredible dedication, smart coaching, and a few lucky breaks.
Now, with all due respect, your own championship consisted of beating other college hockey teams, consisting entirely of amateurs who will not make a living in the sport, operating in a 4-year window of opportunity, from a talent pool that's spread all around the continent. And, if you followed my advice and waited a year to read this, you know that by now they've handed out another trophy. If you've built well, you will have started a dynasty, and the 2008 team will also be wearing cardinal and white with wave "W"s. But maybe not. In any event, your own achievements will be last year's news.
But there's something else you achieved, and I want to be sure you understand how important it is.
At the end of the 1980 Olympics, the magnificent USSR hockey team had scored 3 goals. Team USA had scored 4. And you know that nice guy on the bench behind you? Your coach, Mark Johnson? He had 2 of them.
Your championship was terrific. Congratulations again.
But, more than that, you have been in the presence of greatness. I hope you appreciate that.
And I don't even LIKE hockey.