1980 Winter Olympics/Miracle on Ice

America’s first President, George Washington, was born in Westmoreland County, Virginia, on February 22, 1732. It’s an important date in American history, and another important event for America also happened on February 22. The year was 1980, and the place was Lake Placid, New York, and it was “The Miracle on Ice.”

I was never a huge hockey fan growing up. That said, there were two occasions when hockey loomed large in my youth. The first came in 1994 when the New York Rangers won the Stanley Cup, their first Cup in 54 years. Having grown up just 14 miles from Madison Square Garden–hockey fan or not–I’ll never forget how exciting that was. The other time was on February 22, 1980. The United States Olympic hockey team defeated the mighty Soviet Union team at the 14th Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, New York.

It was one of the biggest upsets in sports history, ranking up there with other historic upsets, like the New York Jets defeating the heavily favored Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III or Buster Douglass defeating Mike Tyson in boxing. But for my money, none of the other great upsets compare to what happened on that day in 1980. Just the thought of it brings a wave of memories. I know I’m not alone, and here’s why.

The Soviets had won five of the last six Winter Olympics in hockey. In truth, they were professionals playing against amateurs. Between 1954–1991 the Soviets never failed to medal in international competition, often taking home gold. What’s more, in 1979, they beat the NHL All-Star team two games to one in a three-game series called The Challenge Cup.

By contrast, the American hockey team had won a single gold medal in 1960. Twenty years later, the 1980 team was exclusively amateurs, most of whom had played for the University of Minnesota and other college teams. The collection of players was considered also-rans. Of the twelve teams going into the 1980 Olympic hockey competition, the American team ranked 7th. The Soviets? They were ranked 1st.

The difference played out in real-time, too. In a pre-Olympics exhibition game played on February 9, the Soviets not only beat the USA team but humiliated them, 10–3. But what followed was vastly different. To everyone’s surprise, the U.S. team began the Olympics by tying the 3rd ranked Sweden team, and then it beat #2-ranked Czechoslovakia. More wins followed–Norway, Romania, and West Germany. The 4–0–1 Americans would now go up against those dominating Soviets.

While most analysts and fans were happy to see the American team advance as it did–especially because these Olympic games were played on home turf–at least one person believed the U.S. team could go all the way. He was USA’s head coach, Herb Brooks. Brooks convinced his players that they could win, too.

And for those who think this story is just about hockey, it’s important to point out that this was very much a story of the times–about the USA against the Soviet Union during The Cold War and amid the Iran hostage crisis. Lake Placid and hockey were about Patriotism. National pride. Democracy. Freedom. Chants of USA, USA echoed throughout the arena as fans proudly waved the American flag.

To the delight of viewers across the country, the big game didn’t go the way of the exhibition match-up. The first period ended with the game tied, 2–2. But the Soviets then took the lead, 3–2, as the second period wound down. The outcome would hinge on what happened during the final stanza.

Team USA tied the game in the third period, and then, with ten minutes left, Mike Eruzione gave the American’s their first lead, 4–3. Minutes passed, seeming like hours, as the Soviet team fired shot after shot–without success–at USA’s goalie, Jim Craig. As the clock ticked down, fans began the countdown … ten, nine, eight…. When the clock reached five seconds, announcer Al Michaels uttered words that are etched into the memory bank of American sports:

Do you believe in miracles? YES!!!

As the players celebrated on the ice, Coach Herb Brooks ran back to the locker room and wept with joy. The Americans’ had done it; they had defeated the best hockey team in the world, a team that some had labeled “unbeatable.”

But the improbable victory–as important as it was–didn’t yield a goal medal. The team had to beat Finland two days later to achieve the ultimate goal. It wouldn’t be an easy feat, either, partly for emotional reasons (having just beaten the Soviets) and because the Finns were an outstanding team.

Finland showed just how good by leading America, 2–1, as the second period ended. Everything was at stake in that final period, and Brooks knew what to say as the team huddled in the locker room between periods; Eruzione quoted him this way: “If you lose this game, you will take it to your graves.”

Translated: YOU CAN’T LOSE THIS GAME: final score, USA 4, Finland 2.

The U.S. won hockey gold in 1980, but the Soviets were back at it, winning the gold in 1984 and again in 1988. The ’88 Olympics was the end of an era, too–not in hockey but the nature of Olympic competition. In 1992, pro basketball players were allowed to play in the Olympics, and, a few years later, the National Hockey League followed by allowing its players to compete in the Olympics.

As a long-time supporter of and believer in the value of amateur competition, I think those were terrible decisions. I disagree with allowing NBA and NHL players in the Olympics, and Coach Brooks felt the same way. What’s more, I think it’s ironic that we labeled the NBA players “The Dream Team” because they were Goliath. The 1980 USA hockey team, on the other hand, was David.

And during one weekend over 40 years ago, America and the world watched David defeat Goliath. A group of remarkable young men–amateurs all–gave this nation what it needed most: “to believe that a dream, a miracle, can come true.”

If you’re interested in learning more about the 1980 Olympic hockey team, I highly recommend Miracle starring Kurt Russell.

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Mark Morthier — Old School Sports

I grew up in Northern NJ. I grew up in the 1970s. I was always a big sports fan. I enjoy writing about old school sports and weightlifting.