The greatest tale of any Winter Olympics was written at the 1980 edition in Lake Placid, US. Those days, players from the world’s biggest professional ice hockey league, the NHL (National Hockey League) of North America (USA and Canada), didn’t represent the national teams in the Olympics or World Cups.
It was only in 1998 that the league voluntarily suspended its all-star game and expanded the traditional all-star break during the Winter Olympics years to allow the NHL players an opportunity to represent their respective countries.
The average age of 21 meant the US had fielded their youngest ever team at the Olympics, before and since.
The Soviet Union were the odds-on favourites. The Soviets played in an excellently organised league with world class training facilities. They had won all the Olympic golds since 1960. Likewise, they had been the dominating side at the World Cup, winning 14 of the last 17 editions.
The strength of the 1980 Soviet Union squad can be gauged from the fact that three of them were later inducted into the Ice Hockey’s Hall of Fame.
A year earlier, the Soviet Union had defeated the NHL all-stars 6-0.
The US team had only one member from their team at the last Olympics, while the Soviets’ rooster showed no less than eight from the gold medal winning squad of the 1976 Olympics.
America’s coach Herb Brooks put his team to a rigorous physical fitness programme. In the five months before the Olympics, Brooks prepared his side by playing as many as 61 matches against teams from Europe and America.
Through these matches, Brooks inculcated a European style of play in the team US; wide open play with greater body contact. Still, in the last exhibition game in New York’s Madison Square Garden on February 9, 1980, the Soviets crushed the Americans 10ñ3. At this stage, Brooks aimed at only a bronze medal.
Three days later, the action started. As expected, the Soviets demolished all the opponents, and with disdain — they scored 51 goals (the next best was 26) in their first round’s five matches. A goal difference of 40 further reflected on their domination.
The US had to work hard: they drew one game and had a narrow win in another. The goal difference was only 15 in their favour.
However, their stunning 7-3 victory over Czechoslovakia, favourites for the silver medal, meant the seventh-ranked side came through the first round. The connoisseurs observed the Americans had taken something out of the European style.
There were no knockout matches to decide the medals. The top two sides from each pool competed in the four-team medal round with the points gained against the advancing side from the same pool carried over. So each team played two matches.
The US faced the Soviets in the medal round’s opener: college amateurs against the world’s best team.
The day before the match, legendary sports writer Dave Anderson wrote in The New York Times, “Unless the ice melts, or unless the United States team performs a miracle, the Russians are expected to easily win.”
The US-Soviet tie was more than a sporting clash. The Cold War was at its coldest. An American boycott of the 1980 summer Olympics of Moscow was very much on the cards in protest against the recent Soviet invasion of Afghanistan (President Carter eventually decided not to go).
As in most of the group matches, the US conceded an early lead. But they were soon on level terms, only to go behind again in the 18th minute. With just a few seconds left in the first of the three 20-minute periods, a dramatic happening saw the second US equaliser.
The legendary Soviet goal tender Trekiat had parried a long shot but uncharacteristically gave a rebound. Johnson saw the opportunity and drove hard to the net with one second left.
Within three minutes of the restart, the Soviets went ahead for the third time; that is how the second period ended.
The Americans had all to play for in the last period. It seemed coach Brooks’ endurance-building efforts were paying off. In the 48th minute, once again Mark Johnson made it all square. Inside 90 seconds, captain Eruzione put them ahead for the first time. The Americans didn’t get into the defensive groove and continued attacking as the coach kept telling “Play your game”.
The unthinkable scenario made the Soviets panicky who started shooting wildly. The US goal tender Craig, who had the game of his life, stopping 36 of 39 shots, was last tested with just 33 seconds left.
Famous sportscaster Al Michaels, calling for the ABC, began the countdown, “11 seconds, you have 10 seconds… five seconds left in the game. Do you believe in the miracles? Yes!” Shakespeare couldn’t have scripted the moment better!
It was considered such an upset victory that the next day the Boston Herald headlined it on the front page of the newspaper, not the sports page, with the simple words, “WE WON!”
The result stunned the Soviet Union. Pravda, the official newspaper of the ruling Communist Party, did not mention the match, either in its next daily issue or in its Olympics wrap-up.
Pertinent to remember here is the fact that the US still needed to defeat Finland to secure the gold medal. They won 4-2, thus finalising “the Miracle” as such.
It is the greatest tale of not only the Winter Olympics, but also of the sport of ice hockey. During its 100th anniversary celebrations in 2008, the International Ice Hockey Federation selected the “Miracle on Ice” as the century’s number-one international ice hockey story.
Most surveys declared the “Miracle on Ice” America’s greatest sports achievement of the 20th century. This story has been translated into feature films, documentaries and a book.