On this day in 1980, the U.S. men’s hockey team pulls off one of the biggest upsets in sports history with a 4-3 victory over the heavily favored Soviet Union at the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. Two days later, the Americans went on to beat Finland and take home the gold medal.
Going into the game, the Soviet team, which consisted of experienced, state-sponsored athletes, was considered the best in the world, even better than any teams in the National Hockey League. By contrast, the American squad was mostly made up of unseasoned college players. In an exhibition match shortly before the Olympics, the Soviets, who had dominated Olympic hockey since 1964, crushed the Americans, 10-3.
Despite their relative inexperience, the U.S. team had a strong, well-rounded group of players. They were led by Herb Brooks, the head hockey coach at the University of Minnesota, where his teams had won three NCAA championships. Brooks himself had been a player on the 1964 and 1968 U.S. Olympic hockey teams. In their opening game at Lake Placid, the U.S. squad tied with Sweden, 2-2, and then went on to defeat Czechoslovakia, Norway, Romania and West Germany. On February 22, the Americans faced the Soviets, who had defeated all their tournament opponents up to that point. The U.S.-Soviet match up was particularly charged, because at the time the nations were Cold War enemies.
Once the game began, the Soviets came on strong but the Americans managed to hold their own. With the Soviets up 2-1 in the final seconds before the first period, Mark Johnson tied it up at 2-2. Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov then decided to replace goalie Vladislav Tretiak, considered by many the best goaltender of the time. Coach Tikhonov would later call this move his biggest mistake of the game.
The Soviets led 3-2 in the third period, when Johnson scored again to tie the game. With 10 minutes left in the game, U.S. team captain Mike Eruzione scored what would become the winning goal. As a flag-waving American crowd counted down the final seconds of the game to victory, broadcaster Al Michaels famously explained, “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” After beating the Soviets, the U.S. defeated Finland, 4-2, on February 24 to capture the gold medal. The Soviets took home the silver medal, while the Swedes received the bronze.
Following the Olympics, many members of the U.S. team went on to pro careers in the NHL. Herb Brooks coached several NHL teams after the “Miracle on Ice,” before dying in a 2003 car accident.
The game is still remembered fondly by many Americans as one of the greatest moments in Olympic history.