by | Nov 21, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

CALGARY, Alberta — I walked down the corridor of press offices, and knocked softly on the door marked “TASS.” It was opened by an older man in a gray coat.
“Hello,” I said quickly, extending a hand. The man shook his head, pointed at the floor and began babbling in Russian.

Trouble, I figured. But I figured wrong. What he was saying, I would learn, was: “We Russians don’t shake hands through a doorway; come inside and shake like friends.”

Which only proves there are two ways to look at everything. Tonight, at these Winter Olympics, the Americans and the Russians will meet again in ice hockey, a rivalry now and forever glossed with the words “1980, Lake Placid.” Remember? When a team of fresh-faced U.S. kids defeated the mighty Soviets and went on to the gold medal?

For America, it was a snapshot of glory. Fans cried. Even journalists were cheering. But a stern-looking, 48-year-old man named Vladimir Dvortsov also was in that Lake Placid press box, and when the game ended he was the only one to go into the losers’ locker room.

He was the TASS reporter.

And now he was standing in front of me.

“Yes, of course, I remember that game,” he said, through an interpreter.
“Afterwards, the Soviet players were all sitting quietly by their lockers. They were in shock. I said to them, “What is the reason for this defeat? You have such a great team, and you lost to students.

“They said, ‘We lost? We lost?’ They could not believe it. This was a titanic failure.” We know the U.S. side

As he spoke, this strange man with dark hair and glasses, it dawned on me how much of this story had never been told. After all, losers are normally interviewed at sports events, too. But the Soviets, inpenetrable under good conditions, were off limits after the 1980 defeat. So we heard how the U.S. players sang “God Bless America,” and how coach Herb Brooks locked himself in a bathroom for a private moment of joy.

And in the Soviet Union, Dvortsov said, the whole game was viewed as “a mistake.” The lifting of famed Soviet goalie Vladislav Tretiak after the first period — with the score tied 2-2 — was seen as a crucial blow, a move decried by Russian fans, the way Pistons fans might now lament: “Why did Isiah throw that pass?”

“It never should have happened,” Dvortsov said, waving his hands. “The American students were too encouraged when Tretiak left. They scored two goals on (Vladimir) Myshkin, the replacement. It was a mistake by the Soviet coach. It was nonsense.”

Dvortsov said most people in Russia felt that way. He said the Soviet players told him afterward that his questions in the locker room would be the only ones they would ever answer about that game.

“Really?” I said. “And have you never talked to them about it again?”

“Ninety-nine percent,” he said.

We want to remember. They want to forget.

It was strange to hear such a new account of such a familiar game. We are so used to wonderful stories — who doesn’t shiver at the words “Do you believe in miracles” — that we forget there were losers in that affair, Olympians who went home with dreams disappointed. “I know in the U.S. the game was seen as something wonderful,” Dvortsov said, his craggy face breaking into a grin. “Journalists wrote the mighty USSR had finally been defeated!”

“And what did you write?” I asked.

“I wrote the U.S. team had a very good performance and they deserved the victory. And for the Soviet team, it was a tragedy.”

The translator paused.

“Perhaps not tragedy. Uh . . . disappointment?” A different time

He told other stories about that night, like how he entered the U.S. locker room and was shocked to see that the guards were celebrating. (“The players were on the telephone with President Carter. There was no security! I could have taken the uniforms!”)

And then, suddenly, he stopped, and began talking quickly to the translator. This is what he said:

“You must consider the time this game happened, yes? It was quite different from now. There was no talk of a summit, for example, like we signed last year. . . .

“Today it would be different. If it happened, it might be unexpected, but we would congratulate the U.S. team.”

He paused. “You know, Monday night, when the Czechs played the U.S., some of us rooted for the Czechs, and some for the U.S.? Not because one is the Soviet bloc and one is not. But because we like their hockey. A team is a team, not a bloc. Do you understand?”

I nodded, and said I did.

It grew late. He had to go. We shook hands — inside the office — and I left.

To be honest, I never figured on this interview happening. I was lucky I had a few sheets of paper in my pocket. I am reading them now, crinkled and sloppy, new notes on a game that is eight years old. And I’m glad I have them. Funny, no? Sometimes we think we’ve got the whole picture. The truth is, we’re only a part of it.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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