- Written by Jimmy Duncan
In February of 1980, a group of college kids from the U.S. took down a Soviet hockey dynasty in one of the greatest moments in the history of sports.
A miracle on ice, they called it. ABC sportscaster Al Michaels coined the phrase with his repeated shouts of "Do you believe in miracles!" over and over as the final seconds of the game ticked away. Truthfully, it's hard to comprehend how much of a miracle it really was.
Over there, behind the iron curtain, the Soviet Union had cultivated a hockey program that America simply couldn't touch. Their game was different. While North American clubs prided themselves on grit, and toughness, the Soviet team played a skilled, graceful, almost beautiful game that saw them skate not through, but around other teams. The results paid tribute to the style. Olympic gold medals in 1964, 1968, 1972 and 1976 as well as exhibition tours against Team USA, NHL teams and North American All-Star Teams in which the USSR routed all comers. That was the reality of what America was facing.
Meanwhile, in the U.S., things were a little less structured. Team USA was a bunch of college hockey players and frat boys, who like to drink, fight and brag about how their school was better than yours. Then they played hockey. There was no cohesiveness, no unity and no team. It was just a group of guys, called on to play a few games in a small New York town.
Herb Brooks is credited with pulling them together. A former player and head coach at the University of Minnesota, Herb focused his sights on the Russians from the first day of camp, seeing them as the team to beat. His attack was two fold. Adapt the players a style of play that would beat Russia, and find a way to bring his divided locker room together. He succeeded in both, and the team started winning exhibition games leading up to the 1980 Olympic Winter Games.
Shortly before the opening ceremonies, Team USA took on the Soviets in an exhibition at Madison Square Garden, and lost 10 - 3. Later on, Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov indicated that such a lopsided victory "turned out to be a very big problem", in causing the Russian team to grossly underestimate the Americans. In Olympic group play, the Americans surprised many observers with their physical, cohesive play.
In their first game against favored Sweden, Team USA earned a dramatic 2 - 2 draw by scoring with 27 seconds left after pulling goalie Jim Craig for an extra attacker. Then came a stunning 7 - 3 victory over Czechoslovakia, a favorite for the silver medal. With its two toughest games in the group phase out of the way, the U.S. team reeled off three more wins, beating Norway 5 - 1, Romania 7 - 2, West Germany 4 - 2 and advanced to the medal round from its group, along with Sweden. In the other group, the Soviets stormed through their opposition undefeated, often by grossly lopsided scores.
The Russian Team defeated Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Finland, and Canada to easily qualify for the next round, although both the Finns and the Canadians gave the Soviets tough games for two periods. In the end, the Soviet Union and Finland advanced from their groups. The teams would meet again in the semifinals of the medal round, and in turn play the most famous hockey game ever.
Team USA fell behind early in the first period, and immediately the doubts started to creep in. As well as the team had played in pool competition, this was still the Soviet team that ripped them apart at MSG just a few weeks prior. The Soviets gave up the lead, and pulled their goalie, which amazed both sides, as that goalie, Vladimir Tretiak, was considered the greatest net-minder in the world, and he had only given up two goals anyway. In any case, the Americans pulled away, got the win, and moved on in the tournament. That's what so many people don't realize. It's assumed that the Miracle On Ice game was for the gold. It honestly wasn't. With the win, the Americans had to go on to play Sweden for the medal, while the Soviet Union played in a consolation game.
Politically and socially, these were turbulent times for America. The U.S. was coming out of a brutal decade. Vietnam, the Watergate scandal, recession, gas shortages, Three Mile Island, the Iranian hostage crisis, and more. The mindset of America was bad after all of this, and morale was at an all time low. In the ‘70s, America took allot of punches. This U.S. Olympic team would teach us all how to get back up. The chant “U S A” originated at this event while all of America watched causing a rally of pride for the Red, White and Blue ushering in a sense of pride, power and self reliance for the United States as the 1980s were underway.