Miracle 1980: Cold War on Ice

USA wins hockey gold in 1980

AP Photo/Fotalia

Miracle 1980: Cold War on Ice
| published February 22, 2015 |

By Kevin Robbie
Thursday Review contributor

The winter Olympics of February, 1980 were held in Lake Placid, New York. One of the more prominent events then—and now—is ice hockey. In previous Olympics, the United States team had compiled a checkered history. Its biggest victory margin was a 31-1 trouncing of Italy in 1948, in St. Moritz, Switzerland. Its biggest defeat was a 17-2 loss to Sweden in 1963. The U.S. team had earned one gold medal in hockey, in 1960. The team had earned six silver medals and one bronze. In the 1976 Olympics, the U.S. failed to win a hockey medal of any kind.

The 1980 Olympics were played against the backdrop of the Cold War, then arguably at its height, with relations between the superpowers as low as they had been since the Cuban Missile Crisis. Thus, a natural rivalry existed between the Soviet and American athletes, reflecting tensions between the United States and the Soviet Union (USSR). In the area of international relations, much of the recent news from a U.S. perspective wasn’t good. The Soviets had invaded and occupied Afghanistan the previous December. The Shah had fled Iran and an anti-American Islamic regime established. Later, in November, the American embassy in Teheran was seized, sparking the Iranian Hostage Crisis. Closer to home, a civil war broke out in El Salvador, and the Sandinista National Liberation Front overthrew U.S.-backed Anastasio Somoza in Nicaragua. A huge oil spill occurred in the Gulf of Mexico, spilling 600,000 tons of oil into the gulf. Not all the news was grim, though. President Carter and Leonid Brezhnev had signed off on the SALT II (Strategic Arms Limitations Talks) treaty and Egypt and Israel signed a peace treaty at Camp David. Overall, however, news stories and global changes appeared to be trending in the Soviets’ favor, or at least demonstrably against the United States.

Sports have long been a source of personal and national pride in the form of recognition of accomplishments on the athletic field and arena. The United States was a leader in Olympic competitions and American athletes were typically favored to be at or near the top of the medal leaderboard. American performance in ice hockey had proven to be inconsistent. The Olympic team was made up of amateur and collegiate players. In 1980, the American team included only one player from the ’76 team. Thirteen of the twenty players attended either the University of Minnesota or Boston University. The average age for the American players in 1980 was 21 and they were the youngest team in the Olympics. The coach of the Olympic team, Herb Brooks, was also the head coach at Minnesota. Brooks had been a member of the U.S. National Team in 1967.

In the fall of 1979, Coach Brooks guided his young team through a 61-game exhibition schedule as a tune-up for the Olympics. The schedule took the team throughout the United States and into Europe. Brooks instilled in the team a European style of play, believing this strategy would improve the team’s chances of success in the Olympics. The final exhibition was played on February 9, 1980, at Madison Square Garden. The Soviets beat the U.S. team, 10-3. In a post-game interview, the Soviet coach, Vladimir Tikhonov, asserted that his team “had not tried their hardest,” implying that a complete effort would have resulted in a more lopsided score. One Soviet player, Alexander Maltsev, scored on the Americans even while he was turning backwards. Coach Brooks put on a brave face after the game but privately, he believed his team might have been intimidated by the powerful Soviet squad. However, the American team finished its exhibition schedule with a record of 42-15-4, showing potential for success in the upcoming Olympiad.

In 1980, the Soviet players weren’t hockey gods but they were legends in their own right. The USSR had won four consecutive Olympic hockey gold medals, dating back to 1964, and also won gold in 1956. The gold medal in 1960 was won by the United States, in an underdog victory against the USSR. In fact, few teams had dominated a sport so comprehensively as the USSR in international hockey, and the Soviet leaders used their country’s enduring hockey success as a vehicle for propaganda. The Soviet team of 1980 was regarded as a well-oiled machine, with more than a dozen top flight players, including 27-year-old Vladislav Tretiak, widely considered the world’s top goaltender. Tretiak became prominent after the so-called “Summit Series” of 1972. The game pitted Team Canada, made up of numerous professional National Hockey League players, and the Soviet National Team. International competitions at the time disallowed professional players but the two countries wanted their best to go head-to-head against each other. Four games were played in Canada and four in Moscow. Canada won the series 4-3-1. The standout performance of Tretiak won the respect of the Canadian players, who, initially, were caught slightly off-guard by the finesse displayed by a team known primarily for its power game.

In Lake Placid, American fans and media were hoping the U.S. team could avoid playing the Soviets and simply get out of the Olympics alive. Herb Brooks, the U.S. coach, was an effective motivator as well as a skilled tactician. In the run-up to Lake Placid, he frequently exhorted his young charges to play with confidence, stay loose and rely on their teamwork. Coach Brooks didn’t want his team to go into any match with the Soviets feeling intimidated. He even went so far as to tell his team that one of the Soviet players, Boris Mikhailov, “looks like Stan Laurel. Don’t look at him like he’s the hockey equivalent of Zeus. Look at him like he’s Stan Laurel.”

The American team started the Olympic schedule well, tying favored Sweden, 2-2. In their second game, the U.S. stunned the outstanding Czechoslovakian team, who were favored for the silver medal, 7-3. The Americans then dispatched Norway, Romania and Germany to advance—improbably—with a record of 4-0-1, much better than any sports observers had predicted. The Soviets advanced with a record of 5-0, outscoring their opponents, 55-11. Remarkably, the stage was set for the young American team to face a rematch with the vaunted, heavily favored Soviets.

The Filed House at Lake Placid was packed with over 8,000 fans waving flags and singing “God Bless America.” ABC Sports carried the game, with the ABC network was broadcasting the game which was shown live only in Canada. Therefore Americans not living near Canada—those able to watch Canadian broadcast channels—were forced to wait for a delayed rebroadcast. The game was played in the afternoon and would have necessitated a move to 8:00 p.m. for a live, prime-time broadcast. The time change wasn’t made because of an objection from the Soviets; the change for TV would have meant a live, 4:00 a.m. broadcast for the USSR.

In the locker room, Coach Brooks told his team “you were meant to be here. This moment is yours….”

The Americans fell behind early, 1-0, on a slap shot by Alexei Kasatonov. The score was tied 1-1 by Buzz Schneider at the 14:00 mark. After the Soviets scored a second point on goaltender Jim Craig, the first period drew toward its close. With several seconds left, however, Dave Christian took a shot at the Soviet goal from 100 feet away. The great Tretiak deflected the puck but it bounced away from him. American Mark Johnson was practically on top of it, took a shot himself, and scored with one second on the clock. At the end of the first period, the game was tied, 2-2. The Americans were holding their own.

At the start of the second period, Soviet coach Vladimir Tikhonov made a controversial move by benching goaltender Vladislav Tretiak. The move surprised everyone in attendance, including the Soviet players and Tretiak himself. He was replaced in the net by backup Vladimir Myshkin. The change of goaltenders gave the Soviet team an ominous feeling. Years later, Tikhonov referred to the move as the biggest mistake of his career.

The second period proved to be a defensive battle, as the Soviets outshot the Americans, 12-2. However, American goaltender Jim Craig allowed only one score that period, on a power play goal by Aleksandr Maltsev. The period ended with the USSR up, 3-2. Still, team USA was holding its own against a Soviet juggernaut known for burying opponents with lopsided scores.

In the final period, the Americans continued playing aggressively. They tied the game on their own power play goal by Mark Johnson, who slipped the puck underneath Myshkin at the 8:39 mark. Shortly after that play, Mike Eruzione received a pass from teammate Mark Pavelich. Eruzione blasted the puck past Myshkin, putting the U.S. in the lead, 4-3. Eruzione had been perched in “the slot,” an area between two face-off circles and the goal. The slot is typically guarded by a defenseman. However, Soviet defenseman Vasili Pervukhin was blocking, or screening, Myshkin’s view. Eruzione took advantage of Pervukhin’s mistake to take the shot which put the Americans in the lead with ten minutes remaining. Soviet goaltender Tretiak remained inexplicably on the bench.

At this point, the Americans maintained their aggressive pace and stayed in an offensive posture, a tactic unanticipated by Tikhonov. The Soviets also continued to attack. Unaccustomed to being behind, though, the Soviet team team began pressing and shooting wildly. One of their players, Sergei Starakov, later admitted, “We panicked.” Another mistake by Tiknonov was to not pull the goaltender, Myshkin, for an extra attacker in the waning minutes. In the final 33 seconds of the game, the anxious Soviets took two more wicked shots on Craig, who blocked both of them.

With only 11 seconds remaining, the Americans gained control of the puck and ABC announcer Al Michaels uttered his famous call, “Do you believe in miracles?! Yes!!” Seconds ticked away, and soon the game was over. When the clock expired, 8,500 fans in attendance realized they had just witnessed history. Upon the conclusion of the game, Coach Brooks went directly to the locker room and cried. The Soviet team lingered around their bench, bewildered at the result on the scoreboard: USA - 4, USSR - 3. The American players reveled in the pandemonium inside the arena as fans waved flags, cheered and sang. In the USSR, people were stunned. No amount of propaganda could cover up the loss.

In spite of that stunning victory, the Americans had one more game left to play, the gold-medal round against Finland. Coach Brooks was somewhat concerned about the final game being treated as anti-climactic. He reminded his team that it was this game against Finland that would determine the gold medal winners. Addressing the team beforehand, he stated, “If you lose this game, you’ll take it to your f*cking graves.” The players didn’t want to be remembered as one-hit wonders by beating the powerful Soviets and then losing out on the gold medal. Two nights after beating the USSR, the Americans dispatched the Finns, 4-2. The United States was awarded the gold medal, the Soviets the silver and Sweden the bronze medal.

Although the Americans were clearly the underdog against the Soviets, they were also a good hockey team. The Americans were well-coached, steady on the ice, consistent and determined to win in their home country. The existence of a sympathetic and raucous crowd at Lake Placid certainly helped, too. The team seemed to relish its underdog status and took advantage of Soviet’s mistake of underestimating them. Throughout the game, the Soviets kept waiting for the young American team to wilt under their onslaught. Instead, they played inspired hockey for all three periods, with the team and the fans feeding off each other. For one magical night, people believed in miracles.

The “Miracle on Ice” left a professional legacy, as well. Several players, including Ken Morrow, Mike Eruzione and Mark Pavelich, went on to have successful careers in the NHL, as did Head Coach Herb Brooks. He also served as coach of the French National Team in 1998 and the USA team again in 2002, winning the silver medal. However, Brooks died in a car accident in 2003. The arena in Lake Placid in which the game was held was then named after Brooks. And such was the legacy of the David and Goliath story, several members of that famous USA team went on to successful careers in business and in public speaking and motivational work.

The Soviet team defeated Sweden, 9-2 for the silver medal. After the loss to the Americans, Coach Tikhonov had singled out several of his players, including the goalie Vladislav Tretiak and told them “This is your loss.” The Russian team members were so upset, they did not turn their medals over for engraving, as was custom.

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Wrigley Field at the Century Mark; Kevin Robbie; Thursday Review; June 7, 2014.

Cuba Relations & Baseball: Just Let ‘Em Play; Kevin Robbie; Thursday Review; January 28, 2015.