Two days earlier, Canada fell just short of a miracle of its own. The Canadians blew a two-goal lead to the Soviet Red Army team late in the second period, and a 6-4 loss marked the end of their run in Lake Placid, N.Y.
Thirty-five years later, the rag-tag Americans are being celebrated for one of the most memorable upsets in sports history on their way to an improbable gold medal, while Canada finished a forgettable sixth.
"We had a better team than (the U.S.) had," Watt said this week. "There's no question in my mind. But, hey, the Olympic Games are all about being right on the right day."
Back before NHL players took part in the Olympics, Canada's talent-rich team featured 12 future NHL players, including Glenn Anderson (then 19), captain Randy Gregg, Kevin Primeau, Jim Nill and Paul MacLean. They had a winning record over the U.S. in exhibition play but never got to prove that superiority at the Olympics.
Instead, Watt still laments a 150-foot fluke goal by Finland that ultimately cost Canada a spot in the medal round — he remembers the puck sliding past goaltender Bob Dupuis and will "see it till the day I die." Loss to the Finns aside, the Canadians had their own chance to beat the Soviets to move on.
Even though Friday marks 35 years to the day of that game, players remember it like it was yesterday. One player's back spasmed, leading to Alexei Kasatonov's two-on-one goal with 13 seconds left in the second period that cut Canada's lead to one.
"Games are decided in the moment on very small things," said Terry O'Malley, the oldest player on that team at 39 and now an assistant coach of the women's hockey team at the University of Regina. "I'm thinking how small things make the difference in a game."
From more than six months together, Gregg knew his teammates "like brothers" and could sense the nervousness when he looked into their eyes during the second intermission.
"We certainly went out and played as strong as we could and there was nobody that was nervous to the point where they didn't feel like they wouldn't continue to play," said Gregg, who went on to win five Stanley Cups with the Oilers and is now a doctor at the Edmonton Sport Institute. "We had a sense that there was going to be a real major challenge when we got out for the third period."
The "Mighty Red Machine" scored twice more in the first 65 seconds of the third and then twice more after Canada tied it again. As Nill said, "it's a game that could've gone either way."
"I think that game kind of showed that you know what, boy, these guys, they can be beat," said Nill, now the general manager of the Dallas Stars. "We might've softened up the Russians a little bit, also. It was a high-intense, physical game. I think that put a little doubt maybe in the Russians, also."
U.S. captain Mike Eruzione learned a lesson about the Soviets from Canada's game, but it wasn't that.
"I thought the Canadians had them on the ropes and let them off," Eruzione said Wednesday. "In my head, I'm thinking, 'If we ever had them in that position, we wouldn't let them off.'"
The U.S. did just that, taking the lead midway through the third period and finishing off the upset to the sound of broadcaster Al Michaels' call of, "Do you believe in Miracles?" Meanwhile, Gregg was watching and having a glass of wine at a Lake Placid restaurant with Canadian Olympic speedskater Kathy Vogt, his future wife.
Gregg is at peace about the defeat 35 years later, confident that things wouldn't have necessarily been better for him and his teammates had they beaten the Soviets.
"A loss is never a loss unless you learn something from it, and I think we learned a lot from that," Gregg said, pointing to the many players who went on to have success in hockey and other fields.
Nill is similarly convinced that things worked out for the best. He surmises that he might not have a job in Dallas today had the "Miracle On Ice" not happened.
"In the end, probably the best thing for hockey was the U.S. team winning, to tell you the truth," Nill said, referencing the Cold War and struggling American economy. "The NHL was big in Canada, it wasn't big in the U.S., and I think when the Americans won, these college kids won, hockey, it gave the people in the U.S. something to grab onto."
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