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The remote control was in overdrive earlier this week, racing through everything from C-Span to The Discovery Channel. Out of the blue - actually, the red, white and blue - it was stopped cold, by a moment frozen in time.

The voice of Al Michaels grabbed the ear. An ice rink caught the eye. If you were alive in 1980, and old enough for solid food, you knew this was Lake Placid.

The channel of choice was showing "Miracle On Ice," the 1981 movie about the United States hockey team's improbable run to Olympic gold a year earlier.

Included was video from the 4-3 semifinal upset of the "unbeatable" Russians, with Michaels shouting his now-famous "Do you believe in miracles?" as the final seconds ticked away.

"Yes!" he answered for us.

We've seen the replay thousands of times. Still, the emotions come surging back, leaving the mouth dry and the eyes moist. You recall how patriotism, the Cold War, the seasoned Russians and a group of unknown college kids made hockey matter … the biggest miracle of all.

Out in cold

It was a transcendent moment, considered powerful enough to earn hockey widespread appeal. The game was poised to take its place among the American sports elite, alongside Major League baseball, the NFL, the NBA.

Something happened on the way to the mainstream.

It never made it.

Hockey remains on the outside of U.S. sports fanaticism, its nose pressed against the glass. The Cold War, Russian dominance and the fresh-faced college kids are gone. What's left is the sport we largely ignored until one glorious week in 1980.

For awhile, we at least were drawn to Olympic hockey every four years, to the prospect of another "miracle." But this week, these Olympics, have shown just how far away that is.

A Team USA of professionals went 1-4-1 in Turin, Italy, with the lone win over Kazakhstan. Beating the Peoria Rivermen would have been more noteworthy.

The tie came against Latvia, which in English means "Who?" The losses were to Slovakia, Sweden, Russia and Finland. No shame in losing to any of those teams. The shame is in losing to all of them, and coming home without a sniff of a medal.

Team USA won silver in 2002 at Salt Lake City, perhaps spurred by the partisan American crowds. It was no "miracle," but enough to get us to watch occasionally.

No Nagano

Four years later, we were driven to watch anything else. Curling, skeleton and snowboarding were more appealing. Reruns of "Charmed" were easier on the eyes.

This much can be said for Team USA. It confined the embarrassment to the ice, unlike the 1998 version in Nagano, Japan.

That band of spoiled NHL stars was miserable in competition, going 1-3 and failing to medal, but saved the worst for last, trashing three Olympic village apartments on the way out of town. It was "Animal House" meets "The Bad News Bears," hardly the stuff of miracles.

If that was the low point since the euphoria of 1980, this year was a close second. The timing was actually worse, with the NHL still trying to dig its way out from last year's lockout. The season-long work stoppage was a disaster in every sense, doing as much to bury hockey in America as 1980 did to elevate it.

Ironically, hopes for a Lake Placid-like miracle are greatly diminished by the inclusion of professional players. The Olympics are an extension of the NHL now, just as the Summer Games are of the NBA. Even the most disjointed and undermanned USA hockey team could never be as big of underdogs as the 1980 collegians.

To replicate that level of national pride and excitement is too much to ask. Yet, beating Latvia seems a reasonable request.

Hollywood has helped keep 1980 alive, most recently with "Miracle" in 2004. Like its 1981 counterpart, it commands attention from the remote control. Perhaps one day, Team USA will as well.

Randy Kindred is a Pantagraph columnist. To leave him a voice mail, call 820-3402, By e-mail: rkindred@pantagraph.com.

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