Thirty-five years ago, the U.S. hockey team faced off against the Soviet Union in the medal round of the Lake Placid Olympics. Few expected the untested American squad to challenge the defending champion Russians, but during a match played in the shadow of the Cold War, they made three successive comebacks and pulled off an astonishing 4-3 victory. Led by coach Herb Brooks, the underdog Americans went on to triumph in their final game, sealing one of the most unlikely gold medal runs in Olympic history.

By February 22, 1980, the U.S. hockey team had already become the surprise story of the Lake Placid Olympics. They had blazed their way through the early stages of the competition, tying with a highly touted Swedish team before scoring four straight wins. Coach Herb Brooks’ squad was the youngest Olympic team ever fielded by the United States—nearly all the players were still in college—yet against all odds, they had advanced to the medal round and a showdown with the Soviet Union.

Compared to the American amateurs, the Soviet team was a murderer’s row of seasoned professionals and stars in the making. Their lineup boasted top-shelf talent in wingers Boris Mikhailov and Valery Kharlamov, and they had the world’s best goaltender in Vladislav Tretiak. Like most Russian teams, the 1980 squad made a habit out of scoring early and often, overwhelming opponents with their skating and surgical puck handling. In 20 years, the United States had managed to beat the Soviets only once, when they pulled off an upset win at the 1960 Olympics. Since then, the red-jerseyed juggernaut had won gold in four straight winter games.

Only two weeks earlier, coach Brooks’ U.S team had received a 10-3 drubbing from the Soviets during an exhibition match at Madison Square Garden. “It was hard to even warm up,” USA winger John Harrington later told author Wayne Coffey. “We weren’t just playing when the game started. We were watching them play, and by the time we felt like we belonged on the ice with them, it was 8-0.” The New York Times later wrote that the Americans appeared “disorganized and outclassed” during the defeat, but Brooks took the rout in stride. “Sometimes a good kicking is good for a quality athlete and a quality team,” he quipped.

Team USA coach Herb Brooks (Credit: Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)
Team USA coach Herb Brooks (Credit: Bruce Bennett Studios/Getty Images)

If anyone in hockey knew the value of a “good kicking,” it was Herb Brooks. A former Olympian—he was the last man cut from the 1960 U.S. squad—Brooks was notorious for his demanding and often ruthless coaching style. After whittling his Olympic team down to its final roster in 1979, he had stretched the players’ bodies to the limit with a battery of practice matches and lung-busting skating marathons. He had a particular penchant for wind sprints, which the players endured so often that they nicknamed them “Herbies.”

Brooks’ methods were often brutal, but they were also effective. The team that met the Soviets on February 22 was in peak physical condition, and they had learned to play in an elegant, Russian-inspired style that emphasized possession and crisp passing along with crunching body checks. Before the Americans entered the rink, Brooks addressed them in the locker room. “You were born to be a player,” he said. “You were meant to be here. This moment is yours.”

Shortly after 5 p.m., the puck dropped in front of 8,500 flag-waving spectators at Lake Placid’s Olympic Center. The Soviets started the game strong, buzzing through the American defensive zone and leveling several shots at goaltender Jim Craig’s net. After 9 minutes, winger Vladimir Krutov deflected the puck into goal to give the Russians a 1-0 lead. The Americans answered only 5 minutes later, when Minnesota native Buzz Schneider scored off a stunning 40-foot slapshot. The Soviets later restored their advantage through Sergei Makarov, and Craig was forced to make several saves as the clock wound down. The Russians looked set to head into the break with the lead, but with only a second left in the first period, U.S. center Mark Johnson pounced on a rebound and drove the puck past goaltender Vladislav Tretiak. The match stood level at 2-2.

“I’ve never, ever experienced that kind of emotion and the kind of adrenaline rush that I felt in that room after the first period,” forward Eric Strobel later told Wayne Coffey. “It was like your skates weren’t even touching the ground.” The score unnerved Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov, who made the rash decision to pull the world-renowned Tretiak and replace him with Vladimir Myshkin in goal. His team came out in the second period looking for blood. After only 2 minutes, they reclaimed their advantage after a shot from Alexander Maltsev rang off the post and into the American net. The Soviets besieged Craig’s goal for the next several minutes, forcing him into a flurry of sparkling saves. By the time the period ended, the Russians held a 3-2 lead. They had outshot the Americans by a total of 30-10.

U.S. goaltender Jim Craig blocks a Soviet shot (Credit: John Kelly/Getty Images)

A nervous silence descended on the arena as the third and final period began. Time was slipping away, and it felt like an eternity since the Americans had last threatened Myshkin’s goal. Relief came after 8 minutes, when Mark Johnson caught up to a loose puck and blasted it between the pipes for his second goal of the night. Only a minute and a half later, team captain Mike Eruzione came off the bench and immediately hammered a 25-foot shot past Myshkin to make it 4-3. The stadium roared back to life. “Now we have bedlam!” ABC television announcer Al Michaels yelled into his microphone.

The U.S. team had their first lead of the night, but there were still 10 agonizing minutes left to play. The Russians began skating and passing with renewed urgency, dancing past the hard-checking Americans and firing shot after shot at Craig’s goal. “Play your game,” Brooks yelled as his players defended for their lives. With only a few seconds to go, the crowd began counting aloud with the clock, howling “5…4…3…” in a single voice. When the final horn sounded, the arena erupted in jubilation. “Do you believe in miracles?” an awestruck Al Michaels yelled over the din of roaring fans. “Yes!”

The American bench stormed the ice, piling on goaltender Craig before lifting their sticks in a salute to their crowd. The Russians could only look on in stunned amazement. “I just watched how they were, young guys, smiling over what they do on the ice,” Soviet forward Makarov later told Coffey. “It was more than hockey for those guys. We were happy for them.” Noticeably absent from the festivities was coach Herb Brooks, who had disappeared down the tunnel after the match ended. He later admitted he’d retreated to the locker room to cry tears of joy.

Team USA celebrates on the medal podium after winning the gold with a victory over Finland on February 24, 1980. (Credit: Robert Riger/Getty Images)
Team USA celebrates on the medal podium after winning the gold with a victory over Finland on February 24, 1980. (Credit: Robert Riger/Getty Images)

When news of the win hit the streets—the game was televised on tape delay—Americans broke into a spontaneous national celebration. Motorists honked their horns at one another. Strangers hugged. Bar patrons screamed themselves hoarse and belted out renditions of “God Bless America.” The political implications of the response were impossible to ignore. The United States and the Soviet Union were still embroiled in the Cold War, and President Jimmy Carter was soon to announce an American boycott of the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow as protest against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. To many, the American upset was more than just one hockey team beating another—it was a victory in an ideological struggle. Even Herb Brooks, who had done his best to keep politics out of his locker room, couldn’t resist commenting. “It just proves our life is the proper way to continue,” he told President Carter during a post-game phone call.

In the midst of all the fanfare, many momentarily forgot that the U.S. team still had to play one more game against Finland to secure the gold medal. In that final match, the American amateurs once again pulled off a come-from-behind victory, scoring three third period goals to triumph 4-2. For the team—more than half of whom would later play in the NHL—the gold medal was proof that their “miracle” victory over the Soviets had not been a fluke. “We knew we were younger,” Mark Johnson told the New York Times, “we knew we could outskate them, we knew we were going to break our butts to beat ‘em. And we did.” Defenseman Mike Ramsey was even more blunt. “Maybe we overachieved,” he later said. “But we were a damn good hockey team.”