Greatest Games Ever Played: 1980 Olympic Men's Hockey Semifinal
To this day hockey is a somewhat underappreciated sport in much of America simply because of the presence other past-times like baseball, football and basketball. Only recently has the game on skates and ice begun to really dig into the U.S. fanbase again after years of mediocrity. It's so easy to forget how much the sport did for the country a few decades ago when it could've meant the difference between victory and defeat on a global scale. That is what transpired in the small town of Lake Placid, New York back in 1980. It was there that one of sports' greatest upsets took place. Yet more than that, people easily can forget how great of a game it actually was and what it did for athletic competition in the future.
U.S.A. and the Soviet Union
Anybody born before the early 1990s has at least a vague feel of what life was like during the Cold War. It was two great super powers in the United States and the Soviet Union posing grave threats to one another. The political climate was never calm or easy. Too often it would bleed into the realm of sports, particularly the worldwide competition known as the Olympic Games. Every two years, winter or summer, it was a constant battle between the two sides for bragging rights on who won more medals and as result showed greater physical prowess than the "enemy." By the 1970s it appeared the Soviets had dealt a death blow to American morale. Not only did they often rule the world of winter sports, they topped it off with a dramatic and controversial victory in the basketball final of the 1972 summer games, a sport the U.S. had routinely owned since its birth.
By the end of the decade the country was in a state of depression. The Iranian hostage crisis began and in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, President Jimmy Carter called for a boycott of the 1980 Summer games. This undoubtedly created a very tense atmosphere for the Winter games that February. U.S. citizens had little to feel proud of what with inflation running rampant and their countrymen held hostage. Meanwhile, the Soviets had nothing to complain about. Their prospects for the winter games were quite rosy, especially in hockey where they had not lost a gold medal game since 1960. Nobody expected the traditional international hockey powers to challenge them, let alone the generally weaker Americans.
Herb Brooks steps in
During the initial selection process for the 1980 U.S. team many people wondered aloud if the time was right to start including professional hockey players seeing as how the Soviets only called their players "amateurs" because they had no pro leagues. Their teams were always filled with seasoned veterans. In the end the decision was made to stay the course and use college athletes to make up the team. The man hired to form that group was Herb Brooks. After a long playing career that never reached the pros, he became a coach at the University of Minnesota where he won three national titles from 1974 to 1979. He hand-picked every player for the Olympic squad, including many from his Minnesota championship team and their rival Boston team.
From the very outset Brooks understood one key factor that the Soviets held over their opponents: conditioning. He realized that their teamwork and endurance made them able to overwhelm opponents through all three periods. This is what he set about to accomplish, drilling his players hard physically as well as mentally, including a mixture of American, Canadian and European styles that stressed creativity, speed and cooperation. It was hard to overcome at first but with enough work and practice the group started to come together as the Olympics approached. They felt they were ready.
Three days before the games, Brooks decided to see if that was true by scheduling an exhibition with the Soviets at Madison Square Garden. The U.S. was blown off the ice 10-3. It was not the showing fans had hoped for, and many dismissed the young American squad from having any hope of winning gold.
Lead up to the rematch
Though still stinging from their whipping by the Russians, the U.S. entered their first qualifying match against another hockey power in Sweden. Falling behind 2-1 going into the third period, it looked like the Americans wouldn't even make it out of the first bracket. As the clock dwindled, Brooks pulled goalie Jim Craig to put out a sixth skater in a desperate attempt to tie the game. With less than 30 seconds left, it was that very skater Bill Baker who put the puck in the net. The U.S. avoided the loss and apparently got over their early jitters. They went on to dominate Czechoslovakia, Norway and Romania to finish unbeaten in their bracket and earned a trip to the final round.
The Miracle on Ice
The Soviet march to the final was anything but interesting. They hammered Japan, the Netherlands and Poland by the combined score of 41-5. Their only scare came from two traditional hockey powers in Finland and Canada. Russia beat the Fins 4-2 and then closed out the Canadians 6-4 with another trademark runaway in the third period. As the action moved into the medal rounds the two teams found their long anticipated showdown had finally arrived.
An interesting side note to the game as the arena packed in over 8,500 people was that most of the United States populace would not see it live. Only those close to the Canadian border who could pick up their broadcasting signal would have that pleasure. The Soviets refused to move puck drop from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. to solve this problem since it would have moved the start time back in Russia to 4 a.m. Thus no changes were made.
It didn't take long for those in the crowd to lose their air. The Soviets quickly used their typical aggressive teamwork to fool Jim Craig and jump out to 1-0 lead. Brooks didn't let his players panic, telling them to play their game. Later in the period American Buzz Schneider tied the score on a rocket slap shot. It appeared the U.S. was gaining momentum but once again the Russians flexed their superiority by scoring barely three minutes later.
At that point the game almost got out of hand. Soviet skaters attacked the American zone relentlessly. If not for a series of impressive saves by Craig the game could have easily gotten out of hand. As the period ticked down the U.S. took one last long range shot at the Soviet goal. Their goalie, Vladislav Tretiak, easily blocked it but misplayed the rebound. Only one American skater, Mark Johnson, was in the area. He slid through the Soviet defense and found the puck right on his stick. With one second left he fired it past Tretiak to tie the game again.
Perhaps the most pivotal moment of the game happened at the start of the second period when Russian coach Viktor Tikhonov chose to replace Tretiak in goal with Vladimir Myshkin. This was highly controversial since Tretiak was considered the best goaltender in the world, and was later voted onto the International Hockey Centennial Team made up of the best players of all time. Still the move seemed to pay off as the Soviets didn't give up a goal the rest of the period. However the biggest reason for this was the sudden surge of their offensive attacks against the Americans. In total they got 12 shots in on Craig while the U.S. managed only 2 on Myshkin. Yet the only goal of the period came on a Russian power play that gave them a 3-2 lead.
Mike Eruzione turns the tables
Six minutes into the third period the U.S. caught a break on a Soviet high sticking penalty. This gave them an extra man advantage for two minutes. They made an initial surge but couldn't get the puck past Myshkin. With the power play on the verge of ending a last American attack was seemingly blunted by a hard hit. Then the puck somehow found the stick of Mark Johnson again. He didn't waste the opportunity, scoring his second goal of the night and tying the game again 3-3. Barely a minute later, before the Soviets had a real chance to recover, American captain Mike Eurzione found himself wide open facing the Russian net. The resulting pass caught him dead center and he fired the puck past Myshkin to give the U.S. their first lead in the match.
The arena went crazy. Feelings from the players were jubilant but soon turned to crushing stress as they still had half a period to play. The Soviets stepped up their attacks even further, coming close several times to beating Craig including a narrow glance off the right goal post. All that time Brooks kept repeating his same command, "Play your game." Experts soon noticed how the American players weren't tiring. They showed throughout the period an ability to skate with the Russians all over the ice. This allowed the U.S. to avoid going into a defensive scheme and attack Myshkin at certain points. As the clock dwindled the Russian discipline began to break down. Shots went wild. Coach Tikhonov also didn't bother to pull his goalie for an extra skater like Brooks did earlier in the tournament. After the clock hit the 10 second mark and the last major Soviet press was avoided, the realization took over the crowd.
Commentator Al Michaels, who would later become a mainstay of American sports broadcasting, trumpeted the outcome with the phrase, "Do you believe in miracles? YES!" The U.S. had done the impossible, beating the mighty Soviet Union at a game they had dominated for twenty years.
All of America rejoiced when the game aired on tape delay. The lasting image of the moment, aside from the celebration of the U.S. team, was the befuddled look on the faces of Soviet players watching it. Two days later they would regain their usual winning ways by crushing Sweden 9-2 to claim the silver medal. It was hardly consolation. That same day, an emotionally exhausted American team fell behind early against Finland in the gold medal match. Fittingly, it was Brooks who gave them the push they needed when he said, "If you lose this game, you'll take it to your f--king graves." The U.S. scored three-straight goals in the third period and clinched the gold medal for the first time since 1960, completing the most amazing chapter in the history of hockey.