Saturday, February 22nd marks the 40th anniversary of the U.S. Olympic Hockey Team’s 4-3 victory over the former Soviet Union. The game, the victory and groundswell of American pride could not have come at a better time.
American hostages were being held in Iran, the American economy was suffering through a deep recession and the cold war was heating up with Russians marching into Afghanistan. In athletics, the Russians represented cheating, doping and winning at all costs. They were a factory… cranking out freakishly strong athletes time and time again and dominating the medal count at previous Olympics. In ice hockey, Cincinnati’s Big Red Machine of Bench, Rose, Griffey and Perez, paled in comparison to Balderis, Tretiak, Fetisov and Makarov. In fact, despite their loss in the Olympics, the 1980 Soviet hockey team is still considered by some, to be the greatest international team of all time.
Leading up to the 1980 Olympic games, the Soviets were so dominate, they had won the gold medal in five of the six previous Winter Olympic Games; had not lost a game in Olympic play since 1968; and leading up to the 1980 games, went 5-3-1 against NHL teams, including a 6-0 victory over the NHL All-Stars.
There was no “Dream Team” back in 1980. While teams like Sweden and Finland contained future NHL players, and the Russian team, made of professional players from the elite teams in the Soviet Union, Team USA was comprised of college standouts that had little-to-no international experience. In fact, to that point, there had been only one U.S. born player selected in the first round of the NHL draft since 1968.
Just 2 weeks prior to the 1980 games, the Soviets crushed the young, inexperienced Americans, 10-3, in an exhibition at Madison Square Garden.
When Olympic group play began, the Americans were pitted against medal favorites, Sweden and Czechoslovakia as well as Norway, Romania and a tough West German team.
In their first game against Sweden, Team USA trailed 2-1 late in the third period. In a moment that would have repercussions days later, the Americans scored with just 27 seconds remaining to earn a dramatic 2-2 tie. Had Team USA not scored to even the game and all other results remained the same, the Soviet Union would have won the gold medal on goal differential over the U.S. in the medal round.
Riding high from their opening game, Team USA stunned Czechoslovakia, 7-3. With their two toughest games, out of the way, Team USA tallied wins against Norway 5-1, Romania, 7-2, and West Germany 4-2 to advance to the medal round.
The Soviets had little resistance as they rolled through group play defeating Japan 16-0, the Netherlands 17-4, Poland 8-1, Finland 4-2, and Canada 6-4, setting the stage for an opening medal round matchup between the Soviet Union and Team USA.
One misconception about the game was that it was broadcast live. It was actually aired on tape delay, about 3.5 hours after it’s start. With a start time of 5pm EST, ABC requested the IOC move the game back to 8pm EST to broadcast it live to it’s American audience. That would have created a 4am game time in Moscow, which the IOC wished not to do.
The game started well for the Russians as they scored about midway through the first to take a 1-0 lead. No celebrating. They expected it.
After trading goals, it looked like the Soviet Union would take a 2-1 lead into the first break before Mark Johnson took a misplayed rebound from Vladislav Tretiak and scored with 1 second left to tie the game at 2 after the first period. On the scoreboard, the game was tied, but, to say it was a huge momentum shift would be a severe understatement. Team USA now knew they could play with the Russians… and the Russians knew it as well.
Starting the second period, Soviet coach, Tikhonov, replaced Tretiak with backup goaltender Vladimir Myshkin; a moved that shocked both teams and overshadowed a quieter period that saw one goal scored by Soviet right-winger Aleksandr Maltsev, making the score 3-2 Soviet Union, heading into the third period.
The scene was now set for one of the most memorable moments in sports. After a high-sticking call put Team USA on a power-play, Mark Johnson found a deflected puck that slid it’s way to him and fired on goal to score at 8:39 into the third, trying the game at 3. Belief had fully set in. Just 1 minute and 21 seconds later, Team USA captain Mike Eruzione, left undefended in the high slot, took a pass and fired a shot passed a screened Myshkin for the goal and a 4-3 lead. The Russians were stunned. The Americans elated. The chants of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” filled Olympic Center Ice Rink in Lake Placid. Still, an agonizing 10 minutes remained on the clock. The Russians now ramped up their offensive zone pressure and peppered U.S. goalie, Jim Craig, with shot after shot only to be repeatedly denied.
In the waning minutes of the game Team USA coach Herb Brooks fully expected the Russians to pull their goalie in favor of a sixth man, but they never did. They never had to before. They were in unfamiliar territory and didn’t know what to do.
I could tell you exactly the words used by ABC’s Al Michaels, in the final moments of the game, but that would not do him justice. Here it is below for you enjoyment.
Another misconception about the game was that it won Team USA the gold medal. It was not till 2 days later, when the U.S. came back from a 2-1 deficit in the third period to defeat Finland, 4-2, that they then secured the gold medal… and their place in history.