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On This Date in Sports February 22, 1980: The Miracle

m coIn collaboration with the Sportsecyclopedia.com

In what has been widely considered the greatest moment in the history of sports, Team USA defeats the Soviet Union 4-3 in hockey at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid. The win comes at a time when spirits are at an all-time low in the United States. Using a ragtag group of college players, the Americans end the Soviets' two-decade lock on hockey gold in what will come known as the Miracle on Ice.

 

It was not the best of times for the United States. From the assassination of JFK to Riots, Urban Decay, Vietnam, and Watergate, the American psyche had to absorb a lot of trauma over the last two decades as the 1980s began. President Jimmy Carter had said the USA was in a malaise and had a crisis of confidence. Unemployment was high; inflation was out of control, and gas lines were still common. In Iran, our embassy was overrun with hostages being held by supporters of Ayatollah Khomeini.  Meanwhile, the Soviets were on the march, having gone in Afghanistan. It felt as if the USA's best days were gone forever, and we were even losing the cold war. 

The Soviet hockey team was the best in the world. In a time in which amateurism was still required in the Olympics, the Eastern Bloc countries had a significant advantage. While the West had freedom and commerce, Olympians could not sell their name until after competing and had to scratch and claw to get money for training and living expenses. Most were college students or just out of college, with few having any independent wealth. The Soviet Union, however, drafted all of their athletes into the army. While they were not soldiers, they were essentially full-time athletes working for the military fulltime, getting the leading equipment and training as the Soviet Government used their victories as propaganda. 

The United States chose Herb Brooks as the team’s coach after leading the University of Minnesota to a National Championship in 1979. Brooks had been the last player cut from the 1960 Gold Medal Olympic team in Squaw Valley, that last team to beat the Soviets for a medal at the Olympics. The Soviets were led by Viktor Tikhonov, who, one year earlier, led his team to a victory in the challenge cup against the NHL all-stars. Many of the players on the Soviet National Team were among the best in the world, especially goalie Vladislav Tretiak. However, due to the strict rules of the USSR was not allowed to leave the country without permission. This left many great players stuck behind the iron curtain, unable to test his talents against the best in the world. 

 

Herb Brooks began with summer tryouts in Colorado Springs and started a six-month training camp of hell, to get his players ready to skate with the Russians. Brooks rode them almost to the breaking point as his goal was to have the best-conditioned team on the ice, knowing that was their only chance. Just before the Olympics, Team USA got their first chance to see the Soviets in an exhibition at Madison Square Garden on February 10th, and it did not go well as the Russians dominated winning 10-3 as Jack O’Callahan suffered a sprained knee. 

 Two days after their humbling loss to the Russians, Team USA found themselves down 2-1 late in the third period against Sweden in their Olympic opener. With 27 seconds left, Bill Baker scored the tying goal, giving the Americans a 2-2 tie that helped start their Olympic journey. Before the games, most experts picked the Americans to finish seventh in the Olympic Tournament. On Valentine’s Day, the Americans showed just how strong they were with a 7-3 win over Czechoslovakia, team that was expected to take home the Silver Medal. Playing every other day, Team USA rolled through their pool going 4-0-1 as they beat Norway 5-1, Romania 7-2, and West Germany 4-2 to advance to the medal round. 

 

The medal round in 1980 was not a tournament; it was a two-game round-robin format, with the previous game against the second team in your pool counting. This meant the USA entered the medal round with tie in the standings as Sweden also qualified. The Soviets and Finland also qualified, with the Russians looking dominant as ever as they were 5-0, outscoring their opponents, including Canada 51-11.  

 There was no logical reason to expect the Americans competing against the Soviet Machine. The game would be played at 5 pm local time, meaning it would air on tape delay, as the officials looked at the Sweden game against Finland as the true marquee matchup. In the booth for ABC Television were Al Michaels, a rising star, and Ken Dryden, a recently retired goalie who had led the Montreal Canadiens to four-straight Stanley Cup Championships.

 Jack O’Callahan, injured in the exhibition against the Soviets, returned to the ice, as most viewed victory as merely being able to compete. Not Herb Brooks, who gave a rousing pre-game speech, which was recreated nearly 25 years for the movie “Miracle,” which recapped Team USA path to greatness. 

 

Team USA did skate with the Russians in the first period but trailed 2-1 Vladimir Krutov and Sergei Makarov. Buzz Schneider scored the American's first goal, as appeared heading into intermission with a well-played period, down one. However, as time winded down, Vladislav Tretiak misplayed the puck, allowing Mark Johnson to tie the game at the horn. Angry at the mislay, Coach Viktor Tikhonov benched Tretiak in favor of Vladimir Myshkin. It would not matter who was in goal for the Soviets in the second period as they dominated, with Alexander Maltsev scoring on the power play to give the USSR a 3-2. Fortunately, Jim Craig was able to keep Team USA in the game, making 36 saves in the game. 

 In the third period, the Americans got their shot at the power play and tied the game, as Mark Johnson scored his second goal. What was thought unlikely was happening as Team USA was skating and competing with the Soviet Machine, turning the Ice Palace in Lake Placid into a red, white, and blue banner waiving madhouse. Shortly after Johnson got the tying goal, Captain Mike Eruzione scored to give Team USA a 4-3 lead with ten minutes left. The rest of the game was up to Craig, who kept the score 4-3 making several outstanding saves, as the Russians began their assault. With ten seconds left, the roof began to get blown off the building as the countdown started, with Al Michaels, asking, “Do You believe in miracles?” and proclaiming Yes,” as the last seconds ticked away. 

 

The 4-3 win over the Soviets was a galvanizing moment for the United States; it allowed people to believe again. It was a moment in time in which people remember where they were when they first heard the news. However, it did not win the Gold Medal as the Americans still needed to beat Finland two days later. After trailing 2-1 after two periods, the Americans rallied again, scoring three goals to win the Game 4-2 and complete the miracle Gold Medal finish.