Miracle on Ice

Cold War on skates: USA & CCCP 80's hockey teams

At the XIII Winter Olympic Games in New York, a hockey game that has since been likened to a battle between David and Goliath’s biblical characters occurred. The Soviet squad, who were undoubtedly the best in the world at the time, took on a youthful American team and could not overcome them. It was a shocking and unexpected result that would go on to be called a miracle, the Miracle on Ice.

In five of the six previous Winter Olympic Games, the Soviet Union won the gold medal in the men’s hockey tournament. The team, which consisted of professional players, was the favourite to win the gold medal even at this event. The team had not lost an Olympic hockey game since 1968. Many of the players were already well known on the international scene. Unlike Western nations who used amateur athletes, the Soviet Union used full-time athletes. Before the Olympic Games began, the Soviets had played the US team in an exhibition game and destroyed them 10-3 at Madison Square Garden. This should probably have broken the spirit of the US boys at the time, but maybe it also caused the Soviets to underestimate the US team, which they were going to face later on. The United States’ team was made up of mostly younger amateur players. Only four players of the group had any minor league experience. Mike Eruzione, the team captain, was recruited from the Toledo Blades. Only one player in the team had previously been an Olympian, Buzz Schneider. The team was the youngest team in the tournament and still remains the youngest US national team in history. 

The team was seeded seventh going into the competition. In the opening round of play, the US did not lose a match. The team scored four wins and one draw. In their first game, they matched the Swedes who were expected to win, and in their following, they beat a very favoured Czechoslovakian team. Czechoslovakia was expected to challenge the Soviets a little going into the tournament. 

The American team was not initially expected to do anything spectacular. This unexpected turn of events began to give the cynics something to think about. Those first two games were expected to be their toughest games on the group stage. The Soviet team didn’t lose a match in the first round as expected. They went into the four-team-medal round with reputation and expectation.

The US team and the Soviets met before a sold-out crowd of almost 10,000 spectators at Lake Placid on February 22 1980. The stars and stripes of the US flag waved as the crowd sang patriotic songs. In the first period of play, Valery Krotov of the Soviets scored first. In the middle of this first period of play, Buzz Schneider responded for the US, with a high shot that went over the Soviet goaltender’s shoulder. The Soviets then went back into the lead with a shot from Sergei Makarov. Dave Christian made a shot from thirty metres out which the Soviet goalie saved and pushed out to around six metres in front of him. With one second of play remaining, Mark Johnson slammed the puck which went past Vladislav Tretiak into the Soviet goal. Tretiak, who was widely considered by many as the best goalie in the sport then (and even till today by some), looked a little sluggish in trying to tackle the shot. The Soviets initially contested the goal but it was eventually deemed good. The first period ended and amazingly, the US had tied the Soviets. The teams were tied 2-2.

The Soviets controlled things in the second period. They came out with a new goalie, Vladimir Myshkin. Victor Tikhonov, the Soviet coach, would later come to regret replacing Tretiak with Myshkin. With just two minutes back in play they went into the lead with a goal by Aleksandr Maltsev. Myshkin, their new goalie, allowed no shots in by the Americans. s. 

That said, he didn’t have much work to do as the Soviets completely outshot the US team during this period with a 12-2 difference. They would have extended their lead if not for the significant saves made by Jim Craig, the US goalie.

Almost halfway through the third period and within a space of roughly three minutes of play, the US miraculously sent two pucks into the Soviet goal. First, Johnson brought the US team level with the Soviets at 3-3 after the Soviet’s Vladimir Krutov was sent to the penalty box for high-sticking. The US team made good use of Krutov’s absence. The goal seemed to come from nowhere as the Soviets were still considered to be dominating the game. One of the ABC commentators remarked that the US team gave Craig, their goalie, way too much work. Just as he said this, the team captain, Mike Eruzione, swept a loose puck in the Soviet zone, seemingly using the Soviets themselves as a shield from Myshkin. The crowd jumped to their feet as they saw the Soviets net move backwards. The US had gone into the lead, 4-3. At this point, US fans began to dream.

With 10 minutes of play to go, the Soviets then became more aggressive as they tried to neutralise the advantage of the US. They still dominated play, but nothing could go past Craig, the US goalie. It seemed Craig was possessed by something different as the team played that day. Herb Brooks, the US coach, urged his boys to play more offensively instead of letting the puck remain in their zone. This encouraged the team to get more shots on goal. The Soviets got wilder with their play but Craig was relentless in his duties. Finally, the Americans successfully got the puck out of their zone with a few seconds of play left. The crowd began a count down during the final seconds, as the numbers displayed on the screen. Just as the game was about to end, Al Michaels, one of the ABC commentators, remarked, “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” with excitement in his voice. The final horn sounded and the players and other team officials rushed onto the ice in uncontrolled celebration at their victory.

The unexpected had just happened. Amateurs and college boys had taken down the mighty Soviet team.

Two days later, the US team played against Finland in their final game and defeated them to win the gold medal. The Soviets, who went on to play against Sweden in their last match, won the silver medal. The US President, Jimmy Carter, called the American players to congratulate them and remarked that the boys defeated the pros. 

Though the players may not have initially thought of their win as more than a game win, the Miracle on Ice was an ideological victory in the Cold War. The US President had just announced that the country would boycott the Summer Olympic Games in Moscow. This announcement was a reaction to the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union. During this same period, fifty-two Americans at the US Embassy in Iran were being held hostage. The US economy was also faced with a deep recession. All these contributed to the significance of the US teams victory as it gave the country something to celebrate in the midst of uncertainty. Many Americans celebrated their much needed but unexpected victory immensely. For many, that Friday remains the best moment in US sporting history. It wouldn’t be far fetched to assume that some people still don’t know that this game was not even the final game for the US team at the 1980 Winter Olympics. 

The US had to win their last two matches to secure the gold medal, and that they did. They could have finished second or third had they not won both their final games. Unlike the single-game format of today, all the teams that progressed to the medal round had to face each other once during the tournament. The points from the medal round and the group stages were compiled to determine the final places of the teams.

Even though the team was a young and promising one, it really was not expected that the amateur squad would perform so well against professional players. Years later, Eruzione would reveal that Coach Brooks would always bring them back down to earth after a win. Brooks was a stern and authoritative coach. Players had to do things his way. He worked his players to the point that they hated him and only backed off when he felt they wanted to quit. Many of the guys in the US team would later go on to have professional careers in the US National Hockey League (NHL). The Soviets seemed invincible in their physical conditioning. Brook’s regime for the American boys got them ready to challenge for the gold medal with their physical conditioning being their secret weapon. Countless hours of running skating exercises got them ready to hang with the Soviets for the three periods of play.

After the 1980 Olympics, the Soviets remained the dominant power in Olympic hockey until the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. The US team met with the Soviets at the Canada Cup in 1981 but lost. In 1982, at the World Championships, they met again and still lost. The Soviet team did not lose to the United States until 1991. In fact, four members of the 1980 Soviet team have since been enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Despite the losses after that 1980 game, the Miracle on Ice remains an unforgettable moment for the US.

The US team received the Sports Illustrated magazine’s Sportsmen of the Year Award and were also named Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press. In 2004, ESPN declared the Miracle on Ice to be the top sports headline moment since 1979. A film memorialising the moment was released the same year. It was critically praised for its portrayal of history. The film, which starred Kurt Russell as Herb Brooks, was unsurprisingly titled Miracle. To this day, February 22 1980, is remembered as the day of the Miracle on Ice.


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