Miracle on Ice: An (Eventually) Golden Moment


On this date in 1980, the United States ice hockey team won the gold medal during the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York.

Here are some things you may not have known about the “Miracle on Ice.”

The 1980  Olympics were the second winter games held in Lake Placid. The 1932 Winter Olympics, the first held outside of Europe, took place there as well. Lake Placid earned the right to host the 1980 games after they were the only city to submit a bid. The only other city in the running was Vancouver, Canada, which withdrew from final consideration. Vancouver would go on to host the Winter Olympics thirty years later.

Heading into the 1980 Olympics, the Soviet Union had won the previous four hockey gold medals. The last time the Soviets didn’t win the gold was in 1960, when the Americans went 7-0, including a win over the Soviets, to win the title. After the 1960 tournament, the Soviets went 27-1-1 in the next four Olympics, including four wins over the United States by a cumulative score of 28-7. In 1979, the Soviet team defeated a team of National Hockey League all-stars 6-0.

The Soviet team was made up of world-class players, some of whom were active military, which allowed them to be paid at a time when the Olympics had rules requiring participants to be amateurs. The American team was made up of college players, mostly from the University of Minnesota and Boston University. The coach of the American team was Herb Brooks, who was also coach at Minnesota, and had played on the 1964 and 1968 U.S. Olympic teams. The average age of the American team was 21 years old.

The Americans played 61 exhibition games in the five months before the Olympics. Brooks wanted his team to have a wide-open, physical style of play. The final game of the exhibition schedule was a 10-3 loss to the Soviets at Madison Square Garden in New York City.

In addition to the inherent drama of the two Cold War rivals facing off, there was added intrigue as U.S. President Jimmy Carter was considering having the United States boycott the 1980 Summer Olympics, which were scheduled to be held in Moscow. The boycott was in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

The Americans began Olympic play with a 2-all draw against Sweden and a 7-3 victory over Czechoslovakia, which was a pre-tournament favorite to win the silver medal. The U.S. went on to beat Norway, Romania and West Germany to go 4-0-1 in group play. The Soviets won their five games by a combined score of 51-11, including a 6-4 win over Canada. The Soviets and Americans qualified for the final round, along with second-place group finishers Sweden and Finland.

Contrary to popular belief, the game between the Americans and Soviets was not a gold-medal final. The final round was a round-robin tournament, meaning that the Americans had to play the Soviet Union and Finland, and their game against Sweden from group play would be carried over into the medal round. The gold medal would be determined by the standings after each team had played two medal-round games. The game between the Soviets and Americans was actually the first game of the medal round.

The game was played at 5 p.m. local time on a Friday. ABC television chose to show the game on tape-delay with Al Michaels on play-by-play. Michaels was chosen to call the game because he was the only ABC announcer who had previously called a hockey game. It was available live in Canada.

After the first period, the game was tied 2-2 on Soviet goals by Vladimir Krutov and Sergei Makarov, and American goals by Buzz Schneider and Mark Johnson. During the first intermission, the Soviet coach replaced his starting goalkeeper Vladislav Tretiak, the best goalie in the world, with Vladimir Myshkin. The Soviets scored once in the second period to take a 3-2 lead heading into the final period.

In the third period, Mark Johnson scored a power-play goal with about 11-and-a-half minutes remaining to tie the game at 3-3. The U.S. took a 4-3 lead on a goal by team captain Mike Eruzione with 10 minutes remaining. The Soviets scrambled for the next 10 minutes to tie the game, but couldn’t find the back of the net. Vladimir Petrov’s shot with 33 seconds remaining was saved by U.S. goalie Jim Craig. The Americans cleared the puck with seven seconds remaining, sealing the nearly unbelievable upset.

Following the game, Jim McKay of ABC summed up the scope of the upset, saying it was comparable to a Canadian college football team beating the NFL’s Super Bowl champion Pittsburgh Steelers.

Despite the victory, the Americans weren’t assured of earning any medal, much less the gold. It remained possible for them to finish fourth and go home empty-handed.

It turned out the Americans needed to beat Finland on February 24 to claim the gold medal. A tie or loss would have handed the gold medal to the Soviets, and the U.S. would likely leave with silver, but if the loss was by more than six goals, the U.S. would have finished third.

Against Finland, the Americans trailed 2-1 after the first two periods and looked destined for the silver medal. However goals by Phil Verchota, Rob McClanahan and Mark Johnson gave the Americans a 4-2 victory and an insurmountable 5 points in the final standings.

After the Olympics, the Soviet coach, Viktor Tikhonov, was asked why he pulled Tretiak after the first period. He said it was the biggest mistake of his career and it was the turning point of the game. Later when Slava Fetisov played in the NHL, Mark Johnson asked him about the coach’s move. His response was two words: “Coach crazy.”

The Soviets remained a force in international hockey until the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union. Soviet players didn’t begin playing in the NHL until 1989 when six players came to North America.  That started a flood of Soviet and then Russian players into the NHL.

American coach Herb Brooks died in 2003 in a car accident at the age of 66. The only American player from that team who is no longer living is defenseman Bob Suter, who died in 2014.

Four players from the Soviet team, which was considerably older than their American counterparts, have died since 1980. Coach Viktor Tikhonov died in 2014.

Our question, When did the American hockey team earn their next victory over the Soviets or Russians in Winter Olympic competition?

Today is Flag Day in Mexico, Engineer’s day in Iran and Independence Day in Estonia. It’s unofficially National Tortilla Chip Day, National Trading Card Day and World Bartender Day.

It’s the birthday of artist Winslow Homer, Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, and comedian Mitch Hedberg.

This week in 1980, the top song in the U.S. was “Crazy Little Thing Called Love” by Queen.

The No. 1 movie was “Kramer vs. Kramer,” while the novel “Princess Daisy” by Judith Krantz topped the New York Times Bestsellers list.


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