The Soviet hockey team, led by an iron curtain of a goalie named Vladislav Tretyak, was clearly the favorite to win the gold medal at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. The Soviets had won the previous four Olympic Games and had beaten the United States in all 12 encounters between 1960 and 1980, beating the Americans 117-26.
Just a week before the 1980 games, in an exhibition game played at Madison Square Garden, the USSR beat the United States 10-3. The entire hockey world expected the Soviets to easily skate to another gold medal.
But that’s not what happened, of course. In an epic semi-final match that became known as “Miracle on Ice,” an American team of talented but untested college players outperformed and outclassed the mighty Soviet hockey machine.
“Some of the guys on the Soviet team were players who should have been NHL stars,” says Kevin Allen, veteran hockey reporter for USA today. “For a group of American players right out of college, coming to beat them was a big deal. Illustrated sports Called it the “greatest sporting moment of the 20th century” and I have to agree. ”
The Americans, although not a “ ragtag ” crew, still had a lot to prove
What is often overlooked in the “Miracle” game is how really good the American players were. It’s a myth that they were “a motley bunch of guys” that came out of nowhere, says Allen, author of Star Hockey: Celebrating 75 Years of American Hockey.
The USA team was hand-picked by now legendary coach Herb Brooks, who had just completed an NCAA Championship season with the Minnesota Golden Gophers. They represented some of the best amateur talent in the country and many of them would go on to have long and successful NHL careers. The American hockey team was young – the average age was 21.5 – but they made up for it with confidence.
And trust was something that was lacking in America at the time, Allen says. When the Lake Placid Olympics opened on February 13, 1980, they marked the 102nd day of the hostage crisis in Iran. Americans had just emerged from a decade of political scandal, energy crises and crippling economic stagflation, and the USSR had recently invaded Afghanistan.
“America was looking for a reason to remember the greatness this country could achieve,” says Allen, which is why the semi-final with the Soviets was more than a hockey game, but also a political and ideological showdown. .
Brooks was a master motivator, by any means necessary
WATCH: US achieves ‘Miracle on Ice’
For more than three decades as a hockey writer, Allen has interviewed all of the key players in the ‘Miracle’ victory and he says they remember their time under Coach Herb Brooks like a soldier remembering a Basic training drill sergeant. It was hell to go through, but eventually they came to appreciate Brooks’ unconventional methods.
“Herb Brooks was quirky, entertaining and really old school,” says Allen, who has also interviewed the coach on several occasions. “You could tell he was practicing amateur psychology without a license.”
To prepare for the international game, the young American team went on a 61-game exhibition tour in the months leading up to the Olympics. After a poor performance in Norway, Brooks broke into the locker room and ordered the players back on the ice. His former Minnesota players knew what was coming, a punishing drill known as the “Herbies” – endless wind sprints that push athletes to their absolute limit.
The US team did Herbies for an hour straight that night in Norway until they learned the true meaning of one of their coach’s favorite maxims: “This team is not talented enough. to win with his talents alone. ”
One of Brooks’ classic motivational tricks was to deliberately anger his players by pressing their buttons. If they all hated him, Brooks reasoned, they would work together to prove him wrong. Brooks called Rob McClanahan, who came from a wealthy suburb of St. Paul, a “cake eater.” He regularly dressed the captain, Mike Eruzione, in front of the team to annoy them.
But Brooks’ most famous ploy came after the demoralizing 10-3 loss to the Soviets in the final exhibition game. Jim Craig was the goalie for this game and Brooks told Craig he made a mistake playing it. Craig was tired, Brooks said, and had clearly lost his advantage. Craig was furious when he left the locker room and resolved never to lose again.
“Now we know that was clearly Herb Brooks’ intention,” Allen says, and Craig, playing with a chip on his shoulder, would go on to become one of the heroes of the “Miracle” match.
An upheaval for the ages
After leading 4-0-1 in their pool, the United States took the ice against the dominant Soviets on February 22, 1980. The long-awaited game started at 5 pm but was broadcast on tape delayed at 8 pm. h that night to capture a larger TV audience. A record 36 million American households tuned in.
Like every other game the Americans have played at Lake Placid, the American team fell behind at the start of the game 1-0, but forward Buzz Schneider caught the game with a stab. The Soviets responded a few minutes later to go 2-1. Then, seconds to go into the first period, forward Mark Johnson landed a rare deflection from Soviet goalkeeper Tretyak and marked what many believe was the turning point.
When the Soviets took the ice to start the second period, Tretyak was on the bench. The Soviet coach was so enraged by Johnson’s goal at the last second that he replaced his divine goalkeeper with a mere “mortal,” Allen says, giving the lost Americans even more hope.
After being shut out in the second period and losing 3-2 in the third, the Americans tied the score at 3-3 with Johnson’s second goal of the night. As Johnson led the attack, Craig was an absolute beast in goal. He recorded 36 saves that night for a .923 save percentage. “He will always be known as one of the best goalie performances of all time,” says Allen.
But the hero everyone remembers from the game “Miracle” was Eruzione, the captain Brooks loved to use as a punching bag. Receiving a perfect pass from Mark Pavelich, Eruzione took just his second shot of the night, a low, hard twist that passed a kneeling defender and slipped under the Soviet goalkeeper’s taut cushion. The American team led 4-3.
It was chaos in Lake Placid as the flag waving crowd rose. Even the stoic Herb Brooks couldn’t suppress a brief smile. But there were still 10 long minutes left on the clock.
Somehow, Craig and the American defenders withstood a Soviet assault until the last seconds passed, and play-by-play announcer Al Michaels improvised the call on most famous in the history of American sport: “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”
It would be several hours before the rest of the country witnessed the miraculous victory on television, causing Americans to take to the streets waving flags and chanting “God Bless America,” Allen says.
However, to win the gold medal, the US team had to win one more game against Finland. In the locker room before the Championship game, which the Americans ultimately won 4-2, Brooks ditched his mind games to deliver a heartfelt pep talk. “You were born to be a player,” he told his young team. “You were supposed to be here. This moment is yours. ”