Men’s Olympic ice hockey can be divided into three distinct periods. For the first thirty years it was dominated by Canada then, from the mid-fifties until the introduction of NHL players into the Games in 1998, it was the Soviet Union who were the superior force in the sport. The 21st century has seen Canada return to pre-eminence when they are allowed to be at full strength.
But even at the height of their abilities the favourites could still be defeated by unlikely contenders. In 1936 the Canadians were beaten by a Great Britain team with many players, although born on the island, who had learnt their hockey whilst domiciled in Canada. Twenty-four years later the Soviet Union were beaten into third place in Squaw Valley as the USA won gold for the first time although, in fairness, the Soviets were not the all-conquering force they would develop into in the next decades. One of the last players cut from the American team in 1960 was Herb Brooks. Twenty years later he would prove a pivotal figure the next time the stars and stripes flew in the Olympic hockey arena.
In the world championships preceding Olympic year the Soviets were in ruthless form. They won all nine games and scored over seventy goals in the process whilst the US team finished 7th of the 8 participants. Brooks, who had forged a successful coaching career in US collegiate circles, was hired to coach the American team for the 1980 Olympics on home ice in Lake Placid.
But before all of that, the Americans played a 61-game pre-Olympics schedule over six months, touring Europe and North America as part of coach Brooks’ intensely planned mission to shock the world. The team won 42 out of the 61 games on their schedule. Fine victories over the Finnish and Canadian national team were counterpointed by big defeats to several NHL teams and lesser professional teams like the Fort Worth Texans and the Adirondack Red Wings. Their final pre-Olympic game was against the full-strength Soviet team just three days before the Lake Placid Games opened. It went badly for them and Team USA were crushed 10-3 at Madison Square Garden in New York.
The USSR kept that form in the first stage of the Lake Placid tournament, scoring crushing wins in their first three matches against the weaker teams in the competition before beating Finland and Canada with virtuoso third period performances. America had begun with a last-minute equalizer to tie Sweden 2-2 but then impressed greatly with a convincing win over Czechoslovakia. The U.S. scored four unanswered goals to come from behind and defeat West Germany, 4-2, in their final group game.
The point from game against Sweden was carried over to the final four team pool which meant that the Americans would need to defeat the Soviets to still be in contention for gold.
22nd February 1980 – Lake Placid Arena, New York State, USA
The Soviet Army had invaded Afghanistan in December 1979, raising Cold War tensions which would eventually result in a US led boycott of the Summer Olympics in Moscow. America itself was suffering through high unemployment, inflation, an energy crisis and the Iran Hostage Crisis. With this background a moment of sporting drama to wave the stars and stripes and sing “America the Beautiful” was the perfect antidote and on a February Friday afternoon in upstate New York this was exactly what came to pass.
Due to a transport foul-up, the arena was still only partially filled when Vladimir Krutov shot the USSR into an early lead. Schneider equalized but Makarov appeared to ensure the Soviets would lead at the end of the first period. With one second left of that period Mark Johnson fired in a rebound after Soviet goaltender Vladislav Tretiak had casually kicked out a slapshot and the US would instead be on level terms. Tretiak was pulled from the game and replaced by Vladimir Myshkin, who would play the rest of the match. Tretiak claimed years later that had he remained on the ice the USA would never have won.
The Soviet Union dominated the second period with US goalie Jim Craig was forced to make 12 saves to Myshkin’s two. Despite his heroics Craig was unable to prevent Alexander Maltsev putting his team into a 3-2 lead.
Eight minutes into the final period with the Soviets still pressing the US goal, Mark Johnson scored his second goal of the game on a power play to level the game once more. Finally, with 10 minutes remaining, team captain Mike Eruzione pounced on a loose puck, sped between two bewildered Soviet defenders to score the winner.
The game was not shown live on ABC Television in the USA nut when it was broadcast later that night American viewers were treated to what become an iconic piece of commentary by Al Micheals.
“Eleven seconds, you got 10 seconds, the countdown going on right now. Five seconds left in the game, do you believe in miracles? Yes!”
This was still enough for the US to be guaranteed the Olympic title. They still needed to defeat Finland in their final match, or the Soviets may still have retained the gold on the tie breaker.
Twice the Finns took the lead, but the Americans battled back and eventually went in front when McClanahan scored from short range midway through the third period. Mark Johnson then provided the coup de grace with a fourth goal with three minutes to go.
The gold medal victory has remained one of the defining moments, not just in ice hockey history but in American sporting and cultural history and was commemorated in the 2004 movie “Miracle”
As Mike Eruzione said years later “As a country, we were looking for something to feel good about. Herb sometimes used to call us a lunch-pail, hard-hat group of guys, because that’s who we were. We were working-class kids who came from working-class families, and I think America saw that and took great pride in that.”