Legends of Hockey - Spotlight - United States - 1980 Olympic Games
One on One Turning Point

United States - 1980 Olympic Games

10 DECEMBER 2013
Team USA's head coach Herb Brooks led a group of mostly collegiate players into the 1980 Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid, NY. (Mecca/Hockey Hall of Fame)
"Do you believe in miracles?"

With those five words, broadcaster Al Michaels delivered a phrase that has endured long past the careers of all those players involved in the Olympic Winter Games hockey tournament of 1980. Historic moments rarely occur, but on February 22, 1980, one of the most improbable upsets in sports history saw an enterprising group of collegiate hockey players from the United States defeat the powerful Soviet Union national team, which had won nearly every world championship and Olympic tournament since 1954. To be clear, this was not the gold medal game. In fact, that would follow, but this contest was undeniably the most important of that Olympic tournament.

Mike Eruzione went from being a college player at Boston University to being the captain of the American squad at the 1980 Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid, NY. (Mecca/Hockey Hall of Fame)
The United States' team was coached by Herb Brooks, who as head coach at the University of Minnesota, had led the college to three NCAA titles. As a player, Brooks had participated in two Olympics for the United States, and was the last player to be cut from the national team in 1960. Joining Brooks was a collection of college players, including eight members of Brooks's collegiate team, four from Boston University, two from the University of Minnesota-Duluth, two from the University of Wisconsin, two from Bowling Green University and one from the University of North Dakota.

Official Souvenir Program from the 1980 Olympic Winter Games Lake Placid, NY 1980 (Hockey Hall of Fame)
Brooks selected his team a year-and-a-half prior to the Olympics, choosing players with speed, skill, discipline, conditioning and putting each through psychological testing. While a very good coach, employing methods borrowed from European teams, Brooks was also not afraid of confrontation. "He messed with our minds at every opportunity," recalled Mike Ramsey.

The coach took his team to Europe for a series of exhibition games that would help get them accustomed to the larger international ice surface that would be employed in the Olympics. After a tie in a contest with Norway, Brooks was incensed, forcing his players do a series of skating drills that the players detested so much that they named them 'Herbies.' "We named them after our coach because we loved them so much," smirked captain Mike Eruzione in an interview with www.thepinkpuck.com. Brooks threatened that the team would do another bag-skate if they lost to Norway in a second exhibition game the next day. No worries: Team USA shellacked Norway 8-0. "We skated (the night before) because we forgot the value of respect," explained Eruzione. "What Herb would tell us is this: 'Respect yourself or you will not be successful. Respect your competition or you will not be successful. And respect your teammates or you will not be successful.' We never made that mistake again."

Team USA's netminder Jim Craig was excellent in goal throughout the Olympic competition. (Mecca/Hockey Hall of Fame)
Three days before the Olympics, Team USA hosted the Soviet Union at Madison Square Garden, and had the stuffing kicked out of them, losing 10-3. That game, though, gave Team USA an indication of just what they would be up against should they face each other in the medal rounds. It was a prophetic move by Coach Brooks.

The countries were ranked and divided into two groups. The USA was in the Blue Division, joined by Czechoslovakia, Norway, Romania, Sweden and West Germany. Meantime, Canada, Finland, Japan, the Netherlands, Poland and the Soviet Union comprised the Red Division.

With a dramatic goal with just 27 seconds left in regulation play, Team USA scavenged a 2-2 tie against Sweden in its first game. They went on to earn victories against Czechoslovakia (7-3), Norway (5-1), Romania (7-2) and Germany (4-2) to go undefeated in the preliminary round.

The Soviet Union, meanwhile, also went undefeated in their group, rolling over their opponents with wins over Japan (16-0), the Netherlands (17-4), Poland (8-1), Finland (4-2) and Canada (6-4).

Mask worn by Team USA netminder Jim Craig during the 1980 Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid, NY. (Matthew Manor/Hockey Hall of Fame)
While two teams emerged from each division, the group standings set up the pairing that the United States had hoped they could avoid, and that was meeting the Soviet Union in the medal round. Sweden and Finland also would compete in the medal round.

Team USA and the Soviet team prepared for the medal round in decidedly different manners. Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov rested many of his better players, but Brooks continued to drive Team USA hard, skating them incessantly and berating his players.

The puck dropped between Team USA and the Soviet squad at the Olympic Center in Lake Placid, New York on February 22, 1980. The game was not broadcast live in the United States. In fact, the game had concluded less than an hour before it was broadcast on tape in the States, with Al Michaels doing play-by-play in only his second hockey game ever (he had done the Olympic gold medal contest in 1972). The colour commentator was Ken Dryden, recently retired and fresh off passing his bar exam the day before the game.

Legendary Soviet Union netminder Vladislav Tretiak was replaced in goal late in the first period of the pivotal medal round match against the United States.
(Mecca/Hockey Hall of Fame)
Going into the game, most expected the Soviets to dominate. After all, their team was a well-oiled machine comprised of some exceptional hockey players that played the game year-round. While the United States had surprised many by being as good as they had been, it seemed implausible to think that a team of college players could skate with the mighty Soviets.

Al Michaels recalled, "As Ken Dryden and I walked to the arena early that afternoon, we really feared that it would be 6-0 or 7-0 early in the second period and that nobody would care anymore (to tune in to the tape-delayed broadcast). The expectations were that we hoped that they could hang in for a while and then we'd see what happened."

The Soviet Union and the USA traded goals in the first, which ended in a 2-2 tie after Team USA scored with one second remaining in the period. The Soviets went ahead with the lone goal in the second period, but the U.S. responded with two goals in the third. Team captain Mike Eruzione scored at exactly the 10-minute mark of the third, which put the U.S. ahead 4-3.

"Those were a long, long, long ten minutes," Michaels said. "That clock seemed to be in quicksand. It was as exciting as anything I'd ever seen in sports."

Defenceman Ken Morrow would follow up his gold medal victory with four Stanley Cup titles with the New York Islanders. (Mecca/Hockey Hall of Fame)
Then, with ten seconds left in the game, Michaels counted down to the U.S. victory, and blurted out a phrase that has not only made him famous, but one that will forever be linked to the Olympic tournament in 1980: "Do you believe in miracles?"

"I came up with it from my heart," Michaels explained to CNBC. "I love sports and you can't think of something like that beforehand. I've always felt that I'm in a spontaneous business and if you script something, it will sound as if somebody made it up and frankly, as I look back now, if I could have scripted something, I couldn't have scripted that. In my mind, there was no chance the U.S. would win the game, and at the end of that game, I was just concentrating on doing the play-by-play because I'm trained to call the game. The place was going insane. The building was shaking. It was as loud as anything I'd ever heard. I think Ken Dryden and I were the only people in the place that were like horses with blinkers on. I kept thinking to myself, 'Stay in the game; stay in the moment.' All of a sudden, with a few seconds left in the game, the puck went out to centre ice after the Soviets had put a lot of pressure on, and it afforded me the opportunity to say what I did. I didn't think about it. The only word that came into my head was 'miraculous,' and it got turned into a question. Looking back right now, I'm just very thankful that the right words came out at the right time."

Sniper Dave Christian helped the United States capture gold at the 1980 Olympic Winter Games in Lake Placid, NY. (Mecca/Hockey Hall of Fame)
But while that game was the most dramatic contest of those 1980 Olympics, and is often mistakenly remembered as the gold medal game, it was the penultimate game of the tournament for Team USA. They went on to capture the gold medal by winning its final game 4-2 over Finland. The Soviet Union took the silver medal by beating Sweden in its final game.

As Team USA celebrated on the ice, embracing one another in disbelief and jubilation, Herb Brooks quietly retired to the dressing room and wept. When the players finally returned to the room amidst hoots and hollers, they spontaneously began singing 'God Bless America.'

The March 3, 1980 cover of Sports Illustrated ran without an accompanying caption. "It didn't need one," explained photographer Heinz Kluetmeier. "Everyone in America knew what happened." The team subsequently received the magazine's 'Sportsmen of the Year' award. In addition, ABC's 'Wide World of Sports' and the Associated Press named Team USA its 'Athlete of the Year.' In 2004, ESPN named the Miracle on Ice its top sports headline moment and game of its 25-year history. In 1999, the victory was voted the 'Top Spots Moment of the 20th Century' by Sports Illustrated. As part of its centennial celebrations in 2008, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) chose the Miracle on Ice as the top international ice hockey story of the previous hundred years.

Two films have been created about the Olympic victory. 'Miracle On Ice' was a made-for-TV movie aired in 1981. In 2004, 'Miracle' was released by Walt Disney Studios.

Kevin Shea is the Editor of Publications and Online Features for the Hockey Hall of Fame.