The 1980 United States Olympic Hockey Team will forever remain etched in our memories as one of the greatest sporting events of all-time. In fact, Sports Illustrated selected the team's victory over the Soviet Union en route to winning the gold medal as the No. 1 sports moment of the 20th century. It was a magical ride that happened amidst the backdrop of the Iranian hostage crisis and Soviet invasion of Afghanistan - events that made the now fabled "Miracle on Ice" even more impactful on American history.
The Americans, who, since the inception of the Winter Games, had won one gold medal (1960), four silver medals (1924, 1952, 1956 & 1972), and one bronze (1936), were eager to bring home some hardware on their native soil. Having finished fourth during the previous Olympics, in 1976 at Innsbruck, Austria, under coach "Badger" Bob Johnson, the U.S. knew it would never have a better opportunity than the one they had in front of them in Lake Placid, N.Y.
The coach of the squad was Herb Brooks, who was no stranger to the U.S. Olympic hockey program. After being the last man cut from the gold medal team's roster in 1960, Brooks went on to play on the 1964 and 1968 Olympic teams, as well as on five other U.S. National Teams. Brooks, who had just finished leading the University of Minnesota's Golden Gophers to the national championship in 1979, now had the responsibility of selecting the 20 players to represent his United States Olympic team. Brooks didn't take any chances, he went with what he knew - local boys. So, while 12 of the 20 players on the final roster were native Minnesotans, nine of those 12 were players whom Brooks had coached as Gophers.
"Having played international hockey for so many years, it gives me an awfully warm feeling to be selected as head coach for the 1980 Olympics," Brooks said of his new job. "I'm extremely honored and humbled. To be picked when there are so many outstanding amateur hockey coaches in the nation, well, let's just say it's something I never really expected to happen."
In early September, the team began as challenging an exhibition schedule as had ever been organized for an American Olympic squad. Beginning with an initial European tour in early September, the team played a 61-game pre-Olympic schedule against foreign, college and professional teams, ultimately finishing with a 42-16-3 record. It was during this time together that the players were introduced to Brooks' new offensive game plan called the 'weave.' Brooks felt that if his club was going to compete against Europeans, they had better learn how to play like Europeans.
Entering the XIII Winter Olympic Games, the team was a decided underdog, an evaluation that seemed confirmed by a 10-3 defeat at the hands of the Soviets in the final exhibition game in New York City's Madison Square Garden. Though seeded seventh in the 12-nation pool, the Americans felt they had something to prove. The Americans took on Sweden in the opening game, as Bill Baker scored with 27 seconds remaining in the third period to give the U.S. a 2-2- tie. The goal acted as a catalyst for the young Americans, who then upset Czechoslovakia, and their amazing Stastny brothers, 7-3, thanks to goals from Pavelich, Schneider, Verchota and McClanahan. After beating Norway and Rumania, now only West Germany (the team that knocked them out of the bronze medal in 1976) stood in the way of getting into the medal round.
Down 2-0 in the first, the Minnesota boys came through big as McClanahan and Broten each tallied to tie it up. McClanahan then scored again on another breakaway in the third, and Phil Verchota lit the lamp late to give the U.S. a 4-2 win over the Germans. This gave the Americans a round robin record of 4-0-1, and a date with the mighty Soviets - who were led by Vladislav Tretiak, the world's premier goaltender. The Soviets, who had outscored their opponents 51-11 through their first five games, were just another of a long line of dynasty teams that had won the last four Olympic gold's and five of the last six. In fact, the only team to beat them since 1956 was the U.S. squad, 20 years earlier in 1960.
The game had all the hype imaginable, with political and social implications written all over it. The "Iron Range" line of Pavelich, Harrington and Schneider got the Americans on the board. Down 1-0, Pavelich fed Schneider for a nice slap shot that found the top corner. The Russians answered back three minutes later only to see Mark Johnson tie it up with just seconds to go in the period. When they returned following the intermission, the U.S. team was shocked to see that Soviet coach Victor Tikhanov had replaced Tretiak in goal with backup goaltender Vladimir Myshkin. While it would appear the great bear was wounded, the Soviets came back to take the lead and outshot the Americans 30-10 through two periods. Johnson scored his second of the game at 8:39 of the third period to tie it at 3-3, setting up the heroics for the Iron Rangers.
Midway through the third, Schneider dumped the puck into the Russian zone and Harrington dug it out to his old UMD wing mate Mark Pavelich. Pavelich then floated a perfect pass to the top of the circle where team captain Mike Eruzione fired home "the shot heard round the world." The final 10 minutes were probably the longest in U.S. hockey history, but the Americans held on as goalie Jim Craig played brilliantly down the stretch. Then, as the crowd counted down the final seconds, Al Michaels shouted "Do you believe in miracles? ... Yes!" And with that the Americans had made it into the gold medal game.
As the players went nuts on the ice, Brooks, ever the psychologist, quickly put his players back in their place. He screamed at them not to get too cocky, and that they were just lucky, and hadn't won anything yet. The next day at practice, Brooks put the team through a grueling workout, constantly reinforcing to his men that he was not their friend, and they had proved nothing up to that point. This was part of his plan, to get the players to despise him and force them to rally amongst themselves to become stronger.
In the final game the U.S. would face Finland, a team that had beaten the Czechs in the other semifinal. It was during this game that Brooks would utter the famous words: "You were born to be a player. You were meant to be here. This moment is yours." His team would respond, big time.
Despite being down 1-0 early in the second period, Steve Christoff got the Americans on the board at 4:39 with a nice wrister down low. The Finns regained the lead, however, and went into the third up 2-1. After an emotional speech between the intermission from Brooks, reminding players ever so eloquently that they would regret this moment for the rest of their lives if they let it slip away, the U.S. came out inspired and tried to make history. The hero this time was Phil Verchota, who took a Dave Christian pass in the left circle and found the back of the net at 2:25. With that, the Americans started to smell blood and immediately went for the jugular. Just three minutes later, Robbie McClanahan went five-hole with a Mark Johnson pass to give the U.S. a 3-2 lead. Johnson then saved the day by adding a shorthanded backhand goal of his own just minutes later to give the U.S. a two-goal safety net. From there Jim Craig just hung on for the final few minutes of the game as Al Michaels this time screamed "This impossible dream comes true!" It was suddenly pandemonium in Lake Placid, as the team threw their sticks into the crowd and formed a human pile at center ice to the chants of "USA! USA!"
Many of the players were visibly moved by what they had done, as evidenced during the singing of the National Anthem where the entire team gathered on the top podium. The country went crazy with a newly found sense of national pride. Sports Illustrated named the team as "Sportsmen of the Year." Life Magazine declared it as the "Sports Achievement of the Decade," and ABC Sports announcer Jim McCay went on to call it the "greatest upset in the history of sports."
Mark Johnson, son of ex-Gopher "Badger" Bob Johnson, led the team in scoring in exhibition games and the Olympics. The line of Schneider-Pavelich-Harrington led the team's four lines in scoring with 17 goals and 20 assists in seven Olympic tournament games. Brilliant goaltending by Jim Craig, who played all seven contests, was a big factor in the victory, as was the stellar play by defensemen Dave Christian, Ken Morrow, Mike Ramsey, Neal Broten and Bill Baker.
A Lasting Legacy
A grateful nation hailed the team as heroes. A visit to the White House followed, as well as appearances in cities across the land. Covers of Wheaties boxes, magazines, awards, honors, speaking engagements and more followed for all the players. In the heart of the Cold War, beating the mighty Soviets was something bigger than they could've ever imagined.
Looking back, the icy miracle was achieved by enormous ambition, coupled with great passing, checking, speed, and sound puck-control. Shrewdly, Brooks refused to play the typical dump-and-chase style of hockey.
"I didn't want the team throwing the puck away with no reason," said Brooks, who went on to coach the New York Rangers that next season. "That's stupid. It's the same as punting on first down. The style I wanted combined the determined checking of the North American game and the best features of the European game."
"They were really mentally tough and goal-oriented," added Brooks. "They came from all different walks of life, many having competed against one another, but they came together and grew to be a real close team. I pushed this team really hard, I mean I really pushed them. But they had the ability to answer the bell. Our style of play was probably different than anything in North America. We adopted more of a hybrid style of play - a bit of the Canadian school and a little bit of the European school. The players took to it like ducks to water, and they really had a lot of fun playing it. We were a fast, creative team that played extremely disciplined without the puck. Throughout the Olympics, they had a great resiliency about them. I mean they came from behind six or seven times to win. They just kept moving and working and digging."
After the Olympics, all of the players went their separate ways. Many went on to play professional hockey, while others went into business and began their careers elsewhere. They would not al be reunited again, however, until 2002, when the team was brought together in an emotional gala to collectively light the Olympic torch at the Winter Games at Salt Lake City.
Most importantly perhaps. was the fact that the historic win brought hockey to the front-page of newspapers everywhere, and forever opened the door to the NHL for American-born players from below the 49th parallel. The impact of the event was far reaching, and is still being felt today.
Since that milestone game in 1980, hockey in the United States has grown significantly at the professional and amateur levels.
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|vs. Soviet Union
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|White Bear Lake, Minn.
|Grand Rapids, Minn.
|St. Paul, Minn.
|St. Clair Shores, Mich.
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|Mounds View, Minn.
|St. Paul, Minn.