February 22 The U.S. hockey team defeats the Soviets in the ‘Miracle on Ice’

In one of the most dramatic upsets in Olympic history, the underdog U.S. hockey team, made up of college players, defeats the four-time defending gold-medal winning Soviet team at the XIII Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid, New York. The Soviet squad, previously regarded as the finest in the world, fell to the youthful American team 4-3 before a frenzied crowd of 10,000 spectators. Two days later, the Americans defeated Finland 4-2 to clinch the hockey gold.

The Soviet team had captured the previous four Olympic hockey golds, going back to 1964, and had not lost an Olympic hockey game since 1968. Three days before the Lake Placid Games began, the Soviets routed the U.S. team 10-3 in an exhibition game at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The Americans looked scrappy, but few blamed them for it–their average age, after all, was only 22, and their team captain, Mike Eruzione, was recruited from the obscurity of the Toledo Blades of the International League.

Few had high hopes for the seventh-seeded U.S. team entering the Olympic tournament, but the team soon silenced its detractors, making it through the opening round of play undefeated, with four victories and one tie, thus advancing to the four-team medal round. The Soviets, however, were seeded No. 1 and as expected went undefeated, with five victories in the first round.

On Friday afternoon, February 22, the American amateurs and the Soviet dream team met before a sold-out crowd at Lake Placid. The Soviets broke through first, with their new young star, Valery Krotov, deflecting a slap shot beyond American goalie Jim Craig’s reach in the first period. Midway through the period, Buzz Schneider, the only American who had previously been an Olympian, answered the Soviet goal with a high shot over the shoulder of Vladislav Tretiak, the Soviet goalie.

The relentless Soviet attack continued as the period progressed, with Sergei Makarov giving his team a 2-1 lead. With just a few seconds left in the first period, American Ken Morrow shot the puck down the ice in desperation. Mark Johnson picked it up and sent it into the Soviet goal with one second remaining. After a brief Soviet protest, the goal was deemed good, and the game was tied.

In the second period, the irritated Soviets came out with a new goalie, Vladimir Myshkin, and turned up the attack. The Soviets dominated play in the second period, outshooting the United States 12-2, and taking a 3-2 lead with a goal by Alesandr Maltsev just over two minutes into the period. If not for several remarkable saves by Jim Craig, the Soviet lead would surely have been higher than 3-2 as the third and final 20-minute period began.

Nearly nine minutes into the period, Johnson took advantage of a Soviet penalty and knocked home a wild shot by David Silk to tie the contest again at 3-3. About a minute and a half later, Mike Eruzione, whose last name means “eruption” in Italian, picked up a loose puck in the Soviet zone and slammed it past Myshkin with a 25-foot wrist shot. For the first time in the game, the Americans had the lead, and the crowd erupted in celebration.

There were still 10 minutes of play to go, but the Americans held on, with Craig making a few more fabulous saves. With five seconds remaining, the Americans finally managed to get the puck out of their zone, and the crowd began counting down the final seconds. When the final horn sounded, the players, coaches, and team officials poured onto the ice in raucous celebration. The Soviet players, as awestruck as everyone else, waited patiently to shake their opponents’ hands.

The so-called Miracle on Ice was more than just an Olympic upset; to many Americans, it was an ideological victory in the Cold War as meaningful as the Berlin Airlift or the Apollo moon landing. The upset came at an auspicious time: President Jimmy Carter had just announced that the United States was going to boycott the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and Americans, faced with a major recession and the Iran hostage crisis, were in dire need of something to celebrate. After the game, President Carter called the players to congratulate them, and millions of Americans spent that Friday night in revelry over the triumph of “our boys” over the Russian pros.

As the U.S. team demonstrated in their victory over Finland two days later, it was disparaging to call the U.S. team amateurs. Three-quarters of the squad were top college players who were on their way to the National Hockey League (NHL), and coach Herb Brooks had trained the team long and hard in a manner that would have made the most authoritative Soviet coach proud. The 1980 U.S. hockey team was probably the best-conditioned American Olympic hockey team of all time–the result of countless hours running skating exercises in preparation for Lake Placid. In their play, the U.S. players adopted passing techniques developed by the Soviets for the larger international hockey rinks, while preserving the rough checking style that was known to throw the Soviets off-guard. It was these factors, combined with an exceptional afternoon of play by Craig, Johnson, Eruzione, and others, that resulted in the miracle at Lake Placid.

This improbable victory was later memorialized in a 2004 film, Miracle, starring Kurt Russell.

From The History Channel website.

February 21 The Washington Monument is dedicated on this date in history

The Washington Monument, built in honor of America’s revolutionary hero and first president, is dedicated in Washington, D.C.

The 555-foot-high marble obelisk was first proposed in 1783, and Pierre L’Enfant left room for it in his designs for the new U.S. capital. After George Washington’s death in 1799, plans for a memorial for the “father of the country” were discussed, but none were adopted until 1832–the centennial of Washington’s birth. Architect Robert Mills’ hollow Egyptian obelisk design was accepted for the monument, and on July 4, 1848, the cornerstone was laid. Work on the project was interrupted by political quarreling in the 1850s, and construction ceased entirely during the American Civil War. Finally, in 1876, Congress, inspired by the American centennial, passed legislation appropriating $200,000 for completion of the monument.

In February 1885, the Washington Monument was formally dedicated, and three years later it was opened to the public, who were permitted to climb to the top of the monument by stairs or elevator. The monument was the tallest structure in the world when completed and remains today, by District of Columbia law, the tallest building in the nation’s capital.

From The History Channel website.

February 20 The first American orbits the earth on this date in history

From Cape Canaveral, Florida, John Hershel Glenn Jr. is successfully launched into space aboard the Friendship 7 spacecraft on the first orbital flight by an American astronaut.

Glenn, a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Marine Corps, was among the seven men chosen by the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) in 1959 to become America’s first astronauts. A decorated pilot, he flew nearly 150 combat missions during World War II and the Korean War. In 1957, he made the first nonstop supersonic flight across the United States, flying from Los Angeles to New York in three hours and 23 minutes.

Glenn was preceded in space by two Americans, Alan B. Shepard Jr. and Virgil I. “Gus” Grissom, and two Soviets, Yuri A. Gagarin and Gherman S. Titov. In April 1961, Gagarin was the first man in space, and his spacecraft Vostok 1 made a full orbit before returning to Earth. Less than one month later, Shepard was launched into space aboard Freedom 7 on a suborbital flight. In July, Grissom made another brief suborbital flight aboard Liberty Bell 7. In August, with the Americans still having failed to make an orbital flight, the Russians sprinted further ahead in the space race when Titov spent more than 25 hours in space aboard Vostok 2, making 17 orbits. As a technological power, the United States was looking very much second-rate compared with its Cold War adversary. If the Americans wanted to dispel this notion, they needed a multi-orbital flight before another Soviet space advance arrived.

It was with this responsibility in mind that John Glenn lifted off from the launch pad at Cape Canaveral at 9:47 a.m. on February 20, 1962. Some 100,000 spectators watched on the ground nearby and millions more saw it on television. After separating from its launching rocket, the bell-shaped Friendship 7 capsule entered into an orbit around Earth at a speed of about 17,500 miles per hour. Smoothing into orbit, Glenn radioed back, “Capsule is turning around. Oh, that view is tremendous.”

During Friendship 7‘s first orbit, Glenn noticed what he described as small, glowing fireflies drifting by the capsule’s tiny window. It was some time later that NASA mission control determined that the sparks were crystallized water vapor released by the capsule’s air-conditioning system. Before the end of the first orbit, a more serious problem occurred when Friendship 7‘s automatic control system began to malfunction, sending the capsule into erratic movements. At the end of the orbit, Glenn switched to manual control and regained command of the craft.

Toward the end of Glenn’s third and last orbit, mission control received a mechanical signal from the spacecraft indicating that the heat shield on the base of the capsule was possibly loose. Traveling at its immense speed, the capsule would be incinerated if the shield failed to absorb and dissipate the extremely high reentry temperatures. It was decided that the craft’s retrorockets, usually jettisoned before reentry, would be left on in order to better secure the heat shield. Less than a minute later, Friendship 7 slammed into Earth’s atmosphere.

During Glenn’s fiery descent back to Earth, the straps holding the retrorockets gave way and flapped violently by his window as a shroud of ions caused by excessive friction enveloped the spacecraft, causing Glenn to lose radio contact with mission control. As mission control anxiously waited for the resumption of radio transmissions that would indicate Glenn’s survival, he watched flaming chunks of retrorocket fly by his window. After four minutes of radio silence, Glenn’s voice crackled through loudspeakers at mission control, and Friendship 7 splashed down safely in the Atlantic Ocean. He was picked up by the USS destroyer Noa, and his first words upon stepping out of the capsule and onto the deck of the Noa were, “It was hot in there.” He had spent nearly five hours in space.

Glenn was hailed as a national hero, and on February 23 President John F. Kennedy visited him at Cape Canaveral. He later addressed Congress and was given a ticker-tape parade in New York City.

Out of a reluctance to risk the life of an astronaut as popular as Glenn, NASA essentially grounded the “Clean Marine” in the years after his historic flight. Frustrated with this uncharacteristic lack of activity, Glenn turned to politics and in 1964 announced his candidacy for the U.S. Senate from his home state of Ohio and formally left NASA. Later that year, however, he withdrew his Senate bid after seriously injuring his inner ear in a fall. In 1970, following a stint as a Royal Crown Cola executive, he ran for the Senate again but lost the Democratic nomination to Howard Metzenbaum. Four years later, he defeated Metzenbaum, won the general election, and went on to win reelection three times. In 1984, he unsuccessfully sought the Democratic nomination for president.

In early 1998, NASA announced it had approved Glenn to serve as a payload specialist on the space shuttle Discovery. On October 29, 1998, nearly four decades after his famous orbital flight, the 77-year-old Glenn became the oldest human ever to travel in space. During the nine-day mission, he served as part of a NASA study on health problems associated with aging. In 1999, he retired from his U.S. Senate seat after four consecutive terms in office, a record for the state of Ohio.

From The History Channel website.