Do You Believe In Miracles? Yes!

miracle on ice

The U.S.A. defeats the Soviet Union 4-3, February 22, 1980

The Olympics are a time for the world to come together every four years and unite behind the spirit of athletic competition.  Although the focus is on the games themselves, geopolitical conflicts cannot be completely set aside.  Such was the case in 1980, during the height of the Cold War, when the United States and the Soviet Union met in an Olympic hockey game in Lake Placid, New York.  The United States’ 4-3 victory would go down in history as the “Miracle on Ice.”  To many, this is considered the greatest moment in United States sports history.

Since 1964, the Soviet hockey team was considered the best in the world.  It boasted a roster of talent that was second to none, including the man considered the best goalie of the time, Vladislav Tretiak.  In 1979, its players had beat a team of National Hockey League All-Stars 6-0 and went on to dominate the 1979 World Championship as well.  They were professional players, backed by the Soviet state, and entered the Winter Olympics as the overwhelming favorite.

On the other side of the coin stood the American team.  Crafted out of the image of their demanding head coach, Herb Brooks, the Americans were a group of college kids with no professional hockey experience.  Over the course of a year and half, Brooks practiced his team with intensity and put them up against tough international competition with mixed results.  One such game occurred against the Soviet Union two weeks before the Olympics began.  Final score:  Soviet Union 10, United States 3.

As the Olympic games got underway, the Americans played well beating three teams and tying another.  They earned a spot in the medal round against the undefeated Soviets.  The game was not broadcast live in the United States, but still provided plenty of excitement.  Any chance to compete against the Soviet Union during the Cold War garnered attention.

The game itself was dominated by the Soviet Union for the first two periods, but the Americans kept the game close.  The pivotal moment occurred after a last second goal by Team U.S.A. at the end of the first period.  The Soviet coach replaced star goalie Vladislav Tretiak with his backup, a move still questioned by hockey analysts today.  The Americans trailed 3-2 entering the third and final period.

The best was yet to come.  American Mark Johnson scored a goal to tie the game.  With ten minutes left,  American team captain Mike Eruzione fired a 25-foot wrist shot past the Soviet goalie, giving the U.S.A. a 4-3 lead.  The Soviet Union was not able to put another puck past American goalie Jim Craig.  The final moments of the game are best remembered for the iconic call of sportscaster Al Michaels.  He counted down the final seconds and uttered the line, “Do you believe in miracles?  Yes!”

What is often not remembered about the game was that it was not the gold medal game.  The U.S.A. had to defeat Finland two days later for the gold medal.  Although again trailing going into the final period, the American team responded and beat Finland 4-2 to secure the gold medal.

The victory gave a huge lift to the spirits of the American people.  In 1980, the economic conditions in the country were far from favorable, as interest rates and energy issues were a major concern.  Abroad, not only did the United States have to deal with the constant nuclear threat of the Cold War, but the country was also in the middle of the Iranian Hostage Crisis.

Sports has the ability to unify us.  Americans all across the country reacted with pure joy to the news of the U.S. victory.  A single game instantly became a source of American pride.  Then and now.

Footnotes:

American coach Herb Brooks was killed in a car crash in 2003.

Although not professionals at the time, several U.S. players went on to play in the National Hockey League.

The story of the 1980 U.S. hockey team was depicted in the 2004 movie, Miracle starring Kurt Russell.

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