The 13th Olympic Winter Games were held at Lake Placid, New York in February 1980. At the time, the U.S.-Soviet relations were extremely shaky in the midst of the Cold War. The Soviet Union had not lost a single Olympic game since 1968 and were poised to win their fifth consecutive gold medal. On the other hand, the U.S. team, filled with 20 young men primarily from colleges in Minnesota and Boston, was not considered a threat. Yet, through teamwork and great coaching, the U.S. not only defeated the Russians but went on to win the gold medal on February 24, 1980.
The Olympics tournament began with the 12 teams divided into two groups to play round robin. The top two teams from each group advanced to the medal-round, but their prior results carried over. The Soviets won all five of their preliminary games. When they advanced, their 4-2 win over Finland counted towards the final standings. The U.S. won their latter four games – against Czechoslovakia, Norway, Romania, and West Germany. In their first game, the U.S. trailed Sweden 1-0 until Dave Silk (of Boston University) scored with 28 seconds remaining in the second period. The Swedes scored again in the third, and it was not until the U.S. pulled goalie Jim Craig that Bill Baker (of the University of Minnesota) scored in the final 27 seconds of the game. When the U.S. and Sweden advanced to the finals, their tie carried forward.
On February 22, at 5:06 pm, 8,500 watched the U.S. face off against the Soviet Union. Both coaches, Herb Brooks (head coach at the University of Minnesota) and Viktor Tikhonov (head coach of the Soviet National Team since 1977), were known for relentlessly pushing their players. Twenty years earlier, Brooks had been cut from the 1960 gold-medal Olympic team but played in 1964 and 1968. Tikhonov had led his team to the gold in both World Championships leading up to the 1980 Olympics. When their teams played an exhibition game at Madison Square Garden on February 9 (shortly before the Olympics opened), the Soviets won 10-3.
Despite being extreme underdogs, the U.S. kept up with the Soviet Union as the game progressed. After Vladimir Krutov scored first midway through the first period, Buzz Schneider (the only Olympic veteran on the team) matched him. Then Sergei Makarov gave the Russians another lead. At the very last second of the first period, Mark Johnson (of the University of Wisconsin-Madison) tied up the game. The teams left the ice but had to return to play the final second. Tikhonov blamed the Russian’s star goalie, Vladislav Tretiak (who already had two gold medals from the 1972 and 1976 Olympics), and replaced him in net with the less-experienced Vladimir Myshkin. The Soviets again took the lead when Alexander Maltsev scored. As the game dwindled down to the last half of the last period, Johnson took advantage of a power play to again tie the score. Only 81 seconds later, team captain Mike Eruzione (of Boston University) “blasted in a 30-footer” to give the U.S. a much-needed 4-3 lead. The rest was up to goalie Jim Craig (of Boston University). He thought to himself, “If we’re gonna lose, and I’ve seen them come back 1000 times, it’s gonna be a good goal, goddamit. I don’t want to have people asking me if I was nervous. I don’t want people telling me I couldn’t play in the big games.” He blocked 39 shots in total as his team held off the Soviet Union. As the final seconds ticked off, play-by-play announcer Al Michaels asked, “Do you believe in miracles?” The Americans could not help but believe and went wild as the “Miracle on Ice” ended in their favor. Team U.S.A. had come from behind three times to win. “Maybe they’re relieved. Maybe now they [the Soviet team] can go back home and just be considered another hockey team,” mused game-winner Eruzione, “And maybe I can go home Sunday and say I was on the best team in the world.”
The captain and his teammates had to be reminded by Coach Brooks that they still had another game to play before they could win a medal. That night, after their miraculous win, Finland and Sweden played for a 3-3 tie.
The final two games to decide the medals were held on February 24. At 11 am, the U.S. played Finland. Describing the feeling as the game began, Johnson said, “When we got on the ice out there, everybody knew that we would never have another 60 minutes together. We knew we would never have another time like this.” Again, the Americans had to come from behind as the Finns scored during the first nine minutes of the game. Four seconds into the second period, Steve Christoff (one of the nine players from the University of Minnesota) got the U.S. on the board. Before the period ended, Finland scored again during Schneider’s penalty for slashing. Eruzione later commented, “I thought from the first shift of the game there was no way they could skate with us. We didn’t feel they’d had any great scoring chances, at least not consistently. The two goals they had we more or less gave them. They wanted to win 2-1 or 3-2. We thought if we could go up 4-2, there was no way they could generate enough offense to win.”
Again, Craig and the American defense stayed strong to hold off Finland during an offensive push in the third period. Phil Verchota (of the University of Minnesota) tied up the game. Then Rob McClanahan (of Boston University) scored the game winner on a pass from Johnson, who finished the game with a goal during a penalty kill with only 3:35 remaining. Of their opponents, Finnish team leader Frank Moberg commented, “They have that spirit. You can almost touch it.” With that score of 4-2, the U.S. won the gold medal. As Joe Soucheray wrote for the Minneapolis Star Tribune, “On Friday night, America’s team gave a medal in heart and soul to everyone in this land. Yesterday, America’s team played for the gold medal and they won it 4-2, and they did it for themselves. That was the difference yesterday and it made the game every bit as good as Friday’s.”
Coach Brooks declared, “We startled the athletic world. Not the hockey world. The athletic world.” Someone came out on the ice and handed Craig an American flag which he wore wrapped around his shoulders as he and his teammates celebrated. Brooks admitted to crying with joy after seeing his wife’s tears. He described the scene his team made in the locker room, “The players were singing ‘God Bless America’ over and over. They were laughing and crying. I don’t think I’ll ever witness anything like it.” As he watched his team receive their medals, he joked, “Helluva deal. I missed one in 1960 and I miss another one in 1980. But Bob Fleming said he’d buy me one, and I said I’d hold him to that.”
Having kept the players from the press because “America’s team was a family without individual stars,” Brooks finally introduced them at the headquarters of world press (Lake Placid High School). When they asked Craig if he was surprised at the outcome, he replied, “If there’s anyone in this room who’s not surprised, would he please raise his hand?” Craig was the leading goalie for the games with a 91.57 save percentage, having blocked 163 shots. Johnson, the only American to make the top ten in scorers, confessed, “I still can’t believe what we have done. I’m still in awe of it, sitting here.”
President Jimmy Carter called the team to congratulate them. He told Brooks, “We were trying to do business and nobody could do it. We were watching the TV with one eye and Iran and the economy with the other.” Then Carter told Eruzione, “Tell the team how much I love them. They played like true champions. We’re so proud of you, and I’m looking forward to seeing all of you (at the White House) tomorrow.” The four boys from Boston-area asked for lobster to be served when they were brought there via the presidential jet.
Although the four Boston University alum retained pride in their hometowns, the team had become a family. Captain Eruzione explained, “For six months, coming from different areas of the country and from different ethnic backgrounds, we lived and worked together. No coach or team ever has experienced what we experienced. Right now, all we are is 20 guys from the United States. We don’t live anywhere. We’re 20 guys who live in the same complex in the Olympic Village.” After so much time together, Craig also felt some freedom at the end. “You know, we really had to let loose. You go for six months together, through all we’ve been through, putting yourself on the line practically every day. Living with all this pressure, you have to let go.” Coach Brooks noted, “After this, everybody will be gone. Everybody splits. But as years go by, this’ll mean something.”
While the Americans celebrated, the Soviet Union defeated Sweden 9-2 for the final game of the tournament. In the end, the U.S. won gold (with two wins and a tie), the Soviet Union silver (with two wins and a loss), and Sweden the bronze (with two ties and a loss). Although the Russians would go on to win gold at the following three Olympics (in 1984, 1988, and 1992), the U.S. “Miracle on Ice” sparked a surge of interest in American hockey influencing the next generation. On February 22, 2002, exactly 22 years after the “Miracle on Ice,” the U.S. (led by Brooks) again defeated the Russians and went on to win their next Olympic medal, the silver.
- Andrew Podnieks, Where Countries Come to Play (Toronto: McClelland & Stewart, 2013), kindle version.
- “US upsets Soviets in hockey, 4-3,” Boston Globe, 23 Feb. 1980, p. 1.
- John Powers, “A great day for US hockey,” Boston Globe, 23 Feb. 1980, p. 21.
- Leigh Montville, “Yes, America, your boys did it,” Boston Globe, 25 Feb. 1980, p. 1 and 38.
- “All eyes were on the gold rush,” Boston Globe, 25 Feb. 1980, p. 1, 38, 40.
- John Powers, “US wears the flag . . . and crown,” Boston Globe, 25 Feb. 1980, p. 37.
- Joe Soucheray, “An Olympian moment to remember,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, 25 Feb. 1980, p. 1 and 4A.
- John Gilbert, “Brooks, his wife moved to tears,” Minneapolis Star Tribune, 25 Feb. 1980, p. 1 and 4A.