The U.S. still wins, but there’s another call of 1980 hockey upset of Soviet Union

While Al Michaels broadcast the "Miracle on Ice" to a worldwide audience, Curt Chaplin was nearby doing play-by-play into a tape recorder.
A record player
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Curt Chaplin, far right in beard, and the ABC Radio Network team at Lake Placid.

Curt Chaplin, far right in beard, and the ABC Radio Network team at Lake Placid. (Photo taken from print ad provided by Chaplin.)

Everyone knows that Neil Armstrong, with his small step and giant leap, was the first man on the moon. But who was next down the ladder from the Eagle landing module onto the lunar surface?

Give up?

It was Buzz Aldrin, who can take some consolation in having outlived Armstrong and landed a spot on “Dancing with the Stars.”

If hockey has a Second Man on the Moon, it is Curt Chaplin.

Back in February 1980, Chaplin was a reporter covering the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., for the ABC Radio Network. Sensing the enormity of the Feb. 22 matchup between the upstart U.S. team and the heavily favored Soviet Union, Chaplin decided to do his own play-by-play.

‘Countdown going on right now’

The official broadcast was handled by ABC Sports’ Al Michaels, whose TV call of the game’s dwindling moments still tingles spines 35 years hence. It is one of the most iconic sports broadcasts in history, for what was arguably the greatest upset in U.S. sports history.

“Eleven seconds, you’ve got 10 seconds,” he said. “The countdown going on right now. Morrow up to Silk, five seconds left in the game. Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”

Unbeknownst to Michaels and his color analyst, Ken Dryden, Chaplin was 15 feet to their right calling the same action. No one heard Chaplin’s version until December 2006, when he uploaded a 10-minute highlight video to YouTube, synching it to ABC’s telecast. It has received nearly 700,000 views.

Chaplin disabled the embed feature, but you can listen here.

Being slightly obsessed with the “Miracle on Ice,” I reached out to Chaplin on the eve of the event’s 35th anniversary. Chaplin, who answered my questions via email, has spent the past 18 years as the announcer and hallway interviewer for the syndicated TV show “The People’s Court.”

In Lake Placid, he covered speed skating, luge, alpine events. But as a lifelong hockey fan, he spent his spare time watching hockey games. He begged for the opportunity to cover the U.S.-Soviet showdown, and sports director John Chanin finally acceded to the request.

The press box was full, however, so Chaplin found a spot on a TV camera platform.

“As [Mark] Johnson and [Vladimir Petrov] skated to center ice for the opening face-off, I felt the enormity of the moment,” Chaplin said. “Spontaneously, I pressed record on my Sony 110-B tape recorder and launched into a play-by-play, figuring if the anchormen needed a fast play-by-play highlight for their broadcasts, I’d be prepared.

“As the game progressed and the story got bigger and more intense, I kept it going. Ultimately, I called all three periods and the celebration.”

Other than club hockey games at Ohio University, the “Miracle on Ice” is the only hockey game Chaplin has ever called in a 40-year broadcasting career. What’s more, he had no head set, no game sheet, no notes. He was alone with the recorder strapped over his shoulder, a microphone, and a passionate hockey fan’s familiarity with the U.S. and Soviet players’ names and numbers.

He had three cassettes, one for each period.

“I was praying that my batteries wouldn’t die,” he said. “That was my greatest concern and that’s why I shut everything down immediately after each period.”

‘Biggest upset in recent Olympic history’

Johnson of the United States scored  8 minutes, 39 seconds into the third period, knotting the game at 3.

Presaging the final seconds of Michaels’ call, Chaplin (at 4:50 of the YouTube clip) commented: “It’s a tie hockey game. Who would have believed it?

“The entire U.S. team comes off the bench to congratulate Mark Johnson, who has just scored his second goal of the game. It’s a power-play goal. Dave Silk will get the assist. And the United States could be on the verge of the biggest upset in recent Olympic history.”

Just 1 minute, 21 seconds later, a Mike Eruzione wrist shot gave the U.S. its first lead, 4-3.

With 23 seconds remaining, as a Soviet player backhanded the puck into the U.S. zone, Chaplin said: “The Russians looking tired as they press for the tying goal.” And at that moment, a Soviet player followed an American into the corner and held him with both arms, appearing to be out of gas.

Six seconds left.

“If they can clear it here, 4, 3, 2, 1! It is over. The U.S. has beaten Russia! They’re going crazy out there. They’re jumping up and down, while the Russians on the other hand are just standing quietly, at their own blue line, in a group, watching the celebration.”

It’s great detail from a trained reporter who spotted the flip side of the American celebration. I get chills listening to Chaplin’s play–by-play, just as surely as I do every time I hear Michaels’ call. (Chaplin, who has never met Michaels, said his version has been accepted into the Hockey Hall of Fame as an exhibit.)

This game, this story, never ceases to thrill me. It’s an onion with many layers, Chaplin’s play-by-play another wonderful gift from a momentous event that keeps on giving after 35 years.

It’s an alternate take but with the same glorious ending.

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