The Soviet hockey team, led by an iron curtain of a goaltender named Vladislav Tretiak, was the clear favorite to bring home the gold at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. The Soviets had won all four of the previous Olympics and had beaten the USA in all 12 face-offs between 1960 and 1980, outscoring the Americans 117-26.
Just a week before the 1980 games, in an exhibition game played at Madison Square Garden, the USSR walloped the USA 10-3. The entire hockey world expected the Soviets to easily skate their way to another gold.
But that’s not what happened, of course. In an epic semi-final match that became known as the “Miracle on Ice,” an American squad composed of talented but untested college players outplayed and outscored the mighty Soviet hockey machine.
“Some of the guys on the Soviet team were players that should have been NHL stars,” says Kevin Allen, a veteran hockey journalist for USA Today. “For a bunch of American players right out of college to come in and beat them was major. Sports Illustrated called it the ‘greatest sports moment of the 20th century’ and I’d have to concur.”
The Americans, While Not a 'Ragtag' Crew, Still Had Plenty to Prove
What’s often overlooked about the “Miracle” match was how good the American players really were. It’s a myth that they were a “ragtag bunch of guys” who came out of nowhere, says Allen, author of Star-Spangled Hockey: Celebrating 75 Years of USA Hockey.
The U.S. team was hand-selected by the now-legendary coach Herb Brooks, who was coming off an NCAA championship season with the Minnesota Golden Gophers. They represented some of the top amateur talent in the country and many would go on to have long and storied NHL careers. The American hockey team was young—the average age was 21.5—but they made up for it with confidence.
And confidence was something that was in short supply in America at the time, says Allen. When the Lake Placid Olympics opened on February 13, 1980, it marked the 102nd day of the Iran Hostage Crisis. Americans were just coming off a decade of political scandal, energy crises and crippling economic stagflation, plus the USSR had recently invaded Afghanistan.
“America was looking for a reason to be reminded of the greatness that this country could achieve,” says Allen, which is why the semi-final with the Soviets was more than a hockey game, but also a political and ideological showdown.
Brooks Was a Master Motivator, by Any Means Necessary
Over three decades as a hockey writer, Allen interviewed all of the key players in the “Miracle” victory and he says they look back at their time under coach Herb Brooks like a soldier remembering a drill sergeant from basic training. It was hell to live through, but afterward, they came to appreciate Brooks’ unconventional methods.
“Herb Brooks was eccentric, entertaining and really old school,” says Allen, who also interviewed the coach many times. “You might say he was practicing amateur psychology without a license.”
To prepare for international play, the young USA squad went on a 61-game exhibition tour in the months leading up to the Olympics. After a poor performance in Norway, Brooks barged into the locker room and ordered the players back on the ice. His former Minnesota players knew what was coming, a punishing drill known as “Herbies”—endless wind sprints that push athletes to their absolute limit.
Team USA did Herbies for an hour straight that night in Norway until they learned the true meaning of one of their coach’s favorite maxims: “This team isn’t talented enough to win on talent alone.”
One of Brooks’ classic motivational tricks was to purposefully anger his players by pushing their buttons. If they all hated him, Brooks reasoned, they would work together to prove him wrong. Brooks called Rob McClanahan, who came from a wealthy suburb of St. Paul, a “cake eater.” He regularly dressed down the captain, Mike Eruzione, in front of the team to rile them up.
But Brooks’ most famous ploy came after the demoralizing 10-3 loss to the Soviets in the final exhibition game. Jim Craig was the goalie in that game and Brooks told Craig that he had made a mistake in playing him. Craig was tired, Brooks said, and had clearly lost his edge. Craig was livid when he left the locker room and dead set on never losing again.
“Now we know that was clearly Herb Brooks’s intent,” says Allen, and Craig, playing with a chip on his shoulder, would go on to become one of the heroes of the “Miracle” match.
An Upset for the Ages
After going 4-0-1 in their pool, Team USA took the ice against the dominant Soviets on February 22, 1980. The much-anticipated game started at 5 pm but was broadcast on tape delay at 8 pm that night to capture a larger TV audience. A record 36 million American households tuned in.
Like every other game the Americans played in Lake Placid, the U.S. team fell behind early 1-0, but forward Buzz Schneider tied it back up with a dagger of a slapshot. The Soviets answered minutes later to go 2-1. Then, with just seconds left in the first period, forward Mark Johnson snagged a rare deflection from the Soviet goalie Tretiak and scored what many believe was the turning point of the game.
When the Soviets took the ice to start the second period, Tretiak was on the bench. The Soviet coach was so enraged by Johnson’s last-second goal that he replaced his god-like goalie with a mere “mortal,” says Allen, giving the underdog Americans even more hope.
After being shut out in the second period and going down 3-2 in the third, the Americans tied the score at 3-3 with Johnson’s second goal of the night. While Johnson led the offense, Craig was an absolute beast in the goal. He recorded 36 saves that night for a .923 save percentage. “It’s always going to be known as one of the great goalie performances of all time,” says Allen.
But the hero that everybody remembers from the “Miracle” game was Eruzione, the captain that Brooks loved to use as a punching bag. Receiving a perfect pass from Mark Pavelich, Eruzione took only his second shot of the night, a low, hard wrister that zipped past a kneeling defender and snuck under the Soviet goalie’s outstretched pad. Team USA was up 4-3.
It was bedlam in Lake Placid as the flag-waving crowd roared to its feet. Even stoic Herb Brooks couldn’t suppress a brief smile. But there were still 10 long minutes on the clock.
Somehow, Craig and the U.S. defensemen held off a Soviet onslaught until the final seconds ticked off the clock, and play-by-play announcer Al Michaels improvised the most famous call in American sports history: “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”
It would be several hours before the rest of the country witnessed the miraculous victory on TV, prompting Americans to pour into the streets waving flags and singing “God Bless America,” says Allen.
To win the gold medal, though, Team USA had to win one more game against Finland. In the locker room before the championship match, which the Americans ultimately won 4-2, Brooks abandoned his mind games to deliver a heartfelt pep talk, though it's not as popular as the speech he gave before the team's semi-finals game against the USSR. “You were born to be a player,” he told his young team. “You were meant to be here. This moment is yours.”