Craig. Schneider. Brooks. Johnson. Eruzione. Today, February 22nd, is the 32nd anniversary of the Miracle on Ice game, the most significant hockey game ever played. I figured it would be an appropriate time to remember that team and to go over just how significant that team was to our country at the time. 1979 was a tough year for the United States and when 1980 rolled around, that Olympic team gave our nation the one thing it so desperately needed – hope. Some may say that the importance of that game is overstated and that this is all just a flair for the dramatic. But in reality, that game, that single hockey game, was a beacon of light in dark times. We are forever in debt to that scrappy group of college kids.
March of 1979 the worst nuclear disaster in American History occurred at Three Mile Island. May 21st of that year, American Airlines Flight 191 goes down in Chicago, killing 271 people on board. Later in July, the Sandinistas concluded their successful rebellion against the United States, assuming power in Nicaragua. November of 1979 was one of the most trying months in American History as we saw the Iranian Hostage Crisis take place where 52 Americans were held hostage from November 4th through January 20th of 1980. In addition to all of this, the US was experiencing their 2nd energy crisis in the past 6 years as gasoline became a premium item, with some states resorting to gasoline rationing. Oh yeah, and this is in addition to the Cold War with the USSR. All in all, this was one of the most trying periods in the history of the United States and Americans were looking for anything to rally around. Insert the 1980 US Olympic Hockey Team.
This was a team of college kids, not a group of NHL superstars. Only one of them had ever played on the 1976 Olympic Hockey Team (Buzz Schneider), and most of these kids were barely 21 years old. They were no match for the Soviets, winners of the last 4 gold medals at the 1964, 1968, 1972, and 1976 Olympic Games. These college kids were no match for a Soviet team that just crushed the NHL All Star team 6-0 to win the Challenge Cup. How were they even going to compete? They couldn’t hope to match the skill level of the Czechs, (a team regarded to be the 2nd best team in the world at the time), let alone the Soviets. But this was a time when America needed something to believe in, and these boys believed in each other and united to take a stand against the greatest hockey team in the world.
In the week prior to the Olympic Games, Herb Brooks challenged his team by scheduling the Soviets. The Soviets absolutely blew the Americans away, thrashing them 10-3 in a game that would only add to the improbability of what happened shortly thereafter. As the Americans worked their way through the round robin portion of the tournament, the hype began to build. After the US thrashed Czechoslovakia, the 1976 Silver Medalists, 7-3, excitement began to mout as to what this team could accomplish. Could this team hang with the Soviets? In the mean time, the Soviet team was cruising through their group, winning all 5 of their games. The Soviets’ 5 wins were not just any wins, but absolute thrashings of their opponents. They defeated Japan 16-0, the Netherlands 17-4, Poland 8-1, Finland 4-2, and Canada 6-4. Coming into the game against the US, the Soviets were 5-0 and were winning their games by an average score of 10-2. When the medal round pairings were announced as US-USSR and Sweden-Finland, a buzz began to travel through the room. This was the game America had been waiting for. More importantly, this was the game that America needed.
Despite the Americans strong performance in the Group Play, the faith was still not high. Many felt that this was still the Soviets tournament to lose and that the Americans had already accomplished a significant goal just by reaching the medal round. Many felt that if the US could come out of this with a bronze medal, then this tournament could be considered a major success. On February 21st, the day before the game, Dave Anderson of the New York Times wrote his famous line “Unless the ice melts, or unless the United States team or another team performs a miracle, as did the American squad in 1960, the Russians are expected to easily win the Olympic gold medal for the sixth time in the last seven tournaments”. Ask for a miracle, and so you shall receive.
The game’s start time was set for 5:00 pm, but for televising purposes, NBC decided to air the game on a tape delay at 8 pm so as to reach the prime time audience. This meant that only the 8,500 fans in the building for the game would be the only ones to know the result of the game for the first few hours. Prior to the game, Herb Brooks delivered one of the most incredible pregame speeches, immortalized in the movie “Miracle”. Brooks told his team that this was their time, their moment, and that they were the best team in the world. The Soviets’ time was over, and it was the Americans time to shine.
However, when the game started, Americans quickly had nervous flashbacks to the 10-3 drubbing, as the Soviets started very strong, Just 9 minutes into the first period, the Soviets went up 1-0, and a feeling of inevitability started to set in with the fans. However, this was a different American team than the one the Soviets faced just two weeks earlier. Just 5 minutes after the Soviets scored, the Americans answered, as Buzz Schneider blew a slapshot past the glove of Vladislav Tretiak, the world’s greatest goalie. Tretiak had an aura of inevitability around him. In his career, he had participated in 13 International Tournaments and he had come away with 9 Gold Medals, 3 Silvers, and 1 Bronze. He was the best of the best, but he had been a little shaky in the 1980 Olympics, and the Buzz Schneider goal was nothing Tretiak couldn’t handle. The seeds of doubt in Tretiak’s ability were now firmly planted in Coach Viktor Tikhonov’s mind.
After the US goal, the Soviets’ came back with a fury, and just 3 minutes later, the Soviets were back on top. Americans were just hoping that the US could escape the first period down only 2-1 when the first sign of the miracle occurred. As the last few seconds ticked off of the clock, the Dave Christian fired in a slapshot on Tretiak from center ice. Thinking the period was just about to end, Tretiak casually kicked out the rebound in front of him and his defensemen let up on the play. In fact nearly everyone let up on the play thinking the period was about to end except for Mark Johnson. Johnson quickly snagged the rebound and fired it into the gaping net as the buzzer sounded. The USSR team left the ice, thinking the period was over, but the refs had to call them back to the rink as they determined that Johnson scored with 1 second remaining on the clock. The building erupted and real belief began to permeate throughout the crowd. Also, this was the first sign of any emotion from the Soviets as they panicked by pulling Tretiak and replacing him with backup Vladimir Myshkin. The Soviets outshot the Americans 18-8 and controlled play for most of the period, but the only number that matters is the score and that read 2-2 at the end of the first. This group of college kids was hanging around with the greatest team in the world.
The Soviets came out in the 2nd period like a team on a mission. They absolutely dominated the entire period, outshooting the Americans 12-2. Jimmy Craig was unbelievable, making several remarkable saves, and only yielding 1 powerplay goal to Alexsandr Maltsev. The complete dominance by the Soviets in the 2nd period completely silenced the crowd. However, the Soviets dominance through 2 periods did nothing to dissuade the belief that was in the arena because the fact of the matter remained that the score was just 3-2. After several trying months, Americans were ready to latch on to any sign of hope and that’s exactly what was being provided to them. Despite being outshot 30-10 through 2 periods, despite the play being totally controlled by the Soviets, their scrappy team of college kids was just 1 goal down and had 20 minutes left to rectify that.
The third period started the same way as the 2nd, with the Soviets trying to bury the Americans. When Vladimir Krutov took a penalty 7 minutes into the third period, the Americans were still without a shot on goal in the third period and had only mustered 2 shots on goal in the 27 minutes that Vladimir Myshkin had been in net. That penalty proved to be very costly to the Soviets as it stunted their momentum and gave the Americans a chance to find their game. Sure enough, just as the powerplay was coming to an end, Mark Johnson beat Myshkin for his 2nd goal of the game. The goal came with 11:21 left to go in the game and the crowd went into a euphoric state. The noise in the building reach an ear-splitting volume as the Americans sensed the moment.
Fans urged the Americans to continue their surge and push back against Soviets, who had completely controlled play up until the penalty. And oh boy did this TEAM of college kids respond. Just 1:21 later, Captain Mike Eruzione, who had been much maligned since day 1 by Coach Herb Brooks for his inability to score, put the puck past Myshkin to put the Americans ahead 4-3. If it wasn’t already complete pandemonium inside The Field House, it was now. Americans jumped up, hugged each other, and then hoped and prayed their team could hang on for the final 10 minutes. The Soviets on the other hand were in complete and total disbelief. They were the greatest team in the world, winners of the last 4 Olympic Gold Medals, and here they were, down 4-3 with 10 minutes to go, to a bunch of young college kids they beat 10-3 2 weeks earlier.
The Soviets pushed harder than ever before, completely controlling play. Almost immediately after the Eruzione goal, Maltsev skated in and fired a shot that hit the post, stopping the hearts of many in the American crowd. Wave after wave of those red jerseys came in on Jimmy Craig, but Craig was up to the task. The American team was on their heels, playing not to lose instead of playing to win and a sense of inevitability that the Soviets would score began to creep in to the minds of many in the crowd. However, as more time ticked off the clock, the Soviets began to panic. Their crisp team passing went somewhat out the window. Their sniper-like accuracy gave way to shots that missed the net. Shots were being taken from all over the ice, many with no chance of hitting the net, let alone going in.
As the clock dipped under 1 minute, the panic in the Soviets’ eyes was replaced by fear. This was not supposed to happen. They didn’t know how to respond to the situation. They never pulled Myshkin for an extra attacker, and it was later found out that the Soviets never practiced the 6 on 5 scenario. They had absolutely no idea what to do in this situation. 60 seconds became 30. 30 became 10 and the most famous countdown in the history of sports began. Al Michaels’ call will never be forgotten. “11 seconds, you’ve got 10 seconds, the countdown going on right now! Morrow, up to Silk. 5 seconds left in the game. Do you believe in miracles? YES!”
The upset was complete. The ray of hope that Americans had been hoping for was finally confirmed. This TEAM of college kids just defeated the most well oiled machine in the game of hockey. Coach Brooks could barely contain his emotions, as he had to run to the locker room just to let all of his tears out. The players themselves spontaneously broke out in God Bless America on the ice as they piled on top of one another. There was jubilation in the stands that would be felt several hours later by all across America. They had defeated the Soviets in more than just a game. This was part of the Cold War and this was a victory for the Americans. After all the hardships endured throughout 1979, and the mishandling of the Iranian Hostage Crisis, this was the beacon of light. This was a game where the significance was immediately recognized by all and it’s impact is still felt today. On any given day, any team, no matter the skill level disparity, can beat another, so long as they play as a team.
I think the impact of this game is best summed up in a quote from Dave Ogrean, the former executive director of USA Hockey. He said “For people who were born between 1945 and 1955, they know where they were when John Kennedy was shot, when man walked on the moon, and when the USA beat the Soviet Union in Lake Placid”. No one will ever forget the day when a group of young college kids who believed in themselves and believed in playing for the name on the front of the jersey instead of the one on the back defeated the greatest hockey team of that generation. Truly a Miracle, and on this day, we here at Hooked on Hockey Magazine, ask you to join us in saluting the 1980 USA Olympic Hockey Team. May we never forget what they did for us on that cold and snow day back in February of 1980.