1980 Olympic 'Miracle on Ice'
Lake Placid, New York
USA Hockey Team vs the Soviet Union
This article originally appeared as a chapter in "USA Hockey: A
Celebration of a Great Tradition."
What the U.S. hockey team did to the Soviets on the ice at Lake Placid
in 1980 hardly compares to what they did to the hearts and minds of American
people. "It's the most transcending moment in the history of our
sport in this country," gushed Dave Ogrean, former executive director
of USA Hockey. "For people who were born between 1945 and 1955, they
know where they were when John Kennedy was shot, when man walked on the
moon, and when the USA beat the Soviet Union in Lake Placid."
The 1980 U.S. team, consisting of college players and long-shot pro aspirants,
won Olympic gold.
No other Olympic performance has touched America the way that hockey team
did, not even Jesse Owens's brilliant runs in front of Adolf Hitler in
Berlin in 1936. Thanks to the advent of television, Eruzione's goal in
1980 triggered a spontaneous national celebration of amazing proportion.
People wept, strangers hugged each other, and groups around the country
broke into stirring renditions of "God Bless America" and "The
"Miracle on Ice"
Separating myth from reality
The USA beat the Soviets in the gold medal game.
Truth: The USA defeated the Soviets 4-3, then defeated Finland
4-2 to win the gold.
Mike Eruzione was the USA's top offensive player.
Truth: Eruzione had the game winner against the Soviets,
but five other teammates outscored him.
The USA won all its games.
Truth: The USA tied Sweden 2-2 in the first game.
The Soviet game was on television live in prime time.
Truth: The game was played at 5 P.M. and was on tape delay.
The USA overachieved at the right time against a superior Soviet
Truth: Maybe it was a "Miracle on Ice," but the USA had a
strong team, particularly at center with Neal Broten, Mark Pavelich,
and Mark Johnson, and with defensemen such as Mike Ramsey, Dave
Christian, Ken Morrow, and Jack O'Callahan, and a hot goaltender
in Jim Craig.
Those in attendance remember the incredible number of American flags that
were in the crowd that day, not small flags that fit comfortably in the
hands of small children, but mammoth flags that were usually found on
30-foot flag polls. Americans were overcome by patriotism.
"Right after we won I got bags of mail," Eruzione said. "It
was like in the movie "Miracle on 34th Street" when they bring
in all that mail to Santa. That's what I used to get."
The U.S. team, made up of college players and long-shot pro aspirants
like Eruzione and Buzz Schneider, defeated a Russian program that had
dominated the Olympics since 1964. The U.S. team beat a Russian team that
had seven players from the 1976 Olympic team and one player who had played
in three other Olympiads.
Somehow over time, the U.S. team has been miscast as a group of overachievers,
even though the core group of players, Mark Johnson, Neal Broten, Mark
Pavelich, Ken Morrow, Dave Christian, and Mike Ramsey, also made significant
marks in the NHL.
"Maybe we overachieved," Ramsey said. "But we were a damn
good hockey team."
The USA had speed, defense, scorers, conditioning, goaltending, and coaching
- a complete team, something the Soviets didn't realize until it was too
late. The Soviets had expected to win the tournament with the same ease
with which they had dispatched all comers at the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck,
Austria. Further buoying their confidence was the 10-3 licking they had
applied to the Americans in an exhibition at Madison Square Garden just
one week before the world arrived at Lake Placid.
The Americans trailed in six of their seven Olympic wins, including the
gold medal game, which they won 4-2 over Finland. In their opener, defenseman
Bill Baker scored with 27 seconds left to give the USA a 2-2 tie with
Sweden in the opening game of the tournament. Would the Miracle of Lake
Placid have occurred if Baker had not scored? Probably not. The tie was
important because the Americans had a gloomy history with Sweden. They
hadn't beaten the Swedes since 1960. Baker's goal lifted the team's morale
like the thrust of a rocket booster.
The Americans then dominated the Czechoslovakians, winning 7-3 with seven
different goal scorers. That outcome surprised many, particularly the
Czechs, who had entered the tournament with aspirations of at least a
silver medal. The Czech team had the Stastny brothers -- Petr, Marian,
and Anton -- who would later defect for a chance to play in the NHL with
the Quebec Nordiques.
Then Norway was taken, followed by Romania and West Germany. Coach Herb
Brooks had been worried about the Germans, because they had beaten the
USA 4-1 in 1976 at Innsbruck, undermining coach Bob Johnson's hope of
a bronze medal. They didn't have the talent to compete with the Americans.
They weren't fancy, like the Swedes, Czechs, Finns, and Soviets. But they
were dangerous because they played hockey as if it was trench warfare.
They were tough and determined, not like the German players who the Americans
whipped in the 1960s.
"Miracle on Ice"
Separating myth from reality
Myth: The USA beat the Soviets in the gold medal game.
Truth: The USA defeated the Soviets 4-3, then defeated Finland 4-2 to
win the gold.
Myth: Mike Eruzione was the USA's top offensive player.
Truth: Eruzione had the game winner against the Soviets, but five other
teammates outscored him.
Myth: The USA won all its games.
Truth: The USA tied Sweden 2-2 in the first game.
Myth: The Soviet game was on television live in prime time.
Truth: The game was played at 5 P.M. and was on tape delay.
Myth: The USA overachieved at the right time against a superior Soviet
Truth: Maybe it was a "Miracle on Ice," but the USA had a strong
team, particularly at center with Neal Broten, Mark Pavelich, and Mark
Johnson, and with defensemen such as Mike Ramsey, Dave Christian, Ken
Morrow, and Jack O'Callahan, and a hot goaltender in Jim Craig.
The competitive spirit the Germans had unveiled in Innsbruck in 1976 also
made the trip to Lake Placid. The Germans claimed a 2-0 lead against the
Americans after one period, scoring both goals with shots from beyond
the blue line. The first shot was one chance in a thousand, a 70-footer
by Horst-Peter Kretschmer that caught Craig off guard. The second goal
was a 50-foot shot from the point by Udo Kiessling. Craig was screened
on the play.
Enraged by their ineffectiveness, the Americans stepped up their game
in the second period. But they weren't able to tie the game until Neal
Broten scored with 1:29 remaining in that period. Rob McClanahan and Phil
Verchota scored in the third period to complete the 4-2 win.
Although the Americans won, the game didn't help them in the standings.
Ironically, at that point in the tournament, the Americans were trying
to avoid facing the Soviets. The U.S. was tied with Sweden for the first
place in the Blue Pool, and the loser of the tiebreaker system would play
the Soviets first in the medal round. The Americans wanted to win the
Blue Pool to assure they would play the Finns first and then play the
Soviets for the gold medal. Therefore, the U.S. hoped the Czechs would
defeat the Swedes in the final Blue Pool game, assuring the United States
would win the Blue Pool and face the Finns first. However, the Swedes
beat the Czechs, so the United States hoped to beat Germany by seven goals
so they would have a better goal differential against the Swedes and win
the first tiebreaker and the Blue Pool. But the United States only beat
the Germans by a two-goal margin. They would have to play the Soviets
first. Destiny awaited.
Brooks wondered whether he had successfully exorcised the players' memories
of the humiliating defeat they had suffered in Madison Square Garden at
the hands of the Soviets. "Our guys were applauding the Soviets when
they were introduced," he recalled.
One of coach Herb Brooks's goals before the Olympics was to "break
down the Soviets to mortals." He told his players that the great
Boris Mikhailov looked like Stan Laurel of the comedy team Laurel and
Hardy. He hoped his players would stop looking at Mikhailov as if he was
"You can beat Stan Laurel, can't you?" Brooks would ask.
The Soviets weren't hockey gods, but they were legends. Mikhailov, goaltender
Vladislav Tretiak, Alexander Maltsev, Vladimir Petrov, Vasili Vasiliev,
and Valeri Kharlamov were all members of the Soviet team that had played
against the NHL All-Stars in the 1972 Summit Series. The NHLers thought
they would dominate the Soviets in all eight games. Instead, they needed
a goal by Paul Henderson with 34 seconds left in regulation of the final
game to win the tournament with 4-3-1 record.
As expected, the Soviets' Olympic team began an immediate offensive blitzkrieg
against the Americans, but the Americans were staying with them. Craig
was looking sharp, as sharp as he ever had. The team was gaining confidence
as the first period progressed, even if they were getting out-shot badly.
"When you are an underdog, all you are looking to do is keep the
game close so you will have a chance to win it in the end," Mark
Johnson would say later.
The U.S. team celebrates their upset win over the U.S.S.R.
Eruzione's goal was preserved in the minds of Americans as "The Goal"
of American hockey history, but Johnson was the Americans' top scorer
in the game against the Soviets and in the tournament. Because of his
tremendous skill, teammates called him "Magic" Johnson, comparing
him to the NBA superstar. Johnson was as slick with the puck as any player
in the tournament.
He was twenty-two years old, yet he probably had as much hockey savvy
as some of the veteran Soviets. Though he hadn't played as much as they
had, Johnson possessed a sense about the game that other Americans did
not. As the son of the legendary American coach Bob Johnson, he had soaked
up every bit of insight that was available in every hockey school his
father had run and when his father had coached the national team in 1975.
Johnson was a senior at Madison Memorial High School in 1976 when his
father, needing a player at the last minute, decided to add his wunderkind
son to the Team USA roster for the pre-Olympic tour. Mark held his own
on the team, but Bob Johnson felt there would be too much pressure on
his son if he took him to the Olympics. Everyone might believe he was
there just because his father was the coach.
Although Johnson was probably the best player in college hockey, he had
some concerns about making the 1980 Olympic team because Brooks and his
dad were bitter rivals. When Brooks was at Minnesota and Johnson was at
Wisconsin, they never had anything good to say about each other. "They
got along with Germany and France," said agent Art Kaminsky, who
considered himself friends with both men.
Mark Johnson said he was never comfortable that he would be on the team
until the pre-Olympic tour in Oslo, Norway, when Brooks told him the was
counting on him to be a leader as well as a player. Did he really believe
Brooks might cut him because of his feud with his father? "Hey,"
Johnson said, "stranger things have happened in hockey."
But Brooks's desire to win at the Olympics meant more to him than prolonging
any feud. He even patched up his considerable difference with Kaminsky,
an important step because the agent Kaminsky was going to represent most
of the players Brooks wanted for his team. Kaminsky said that prior to
their peace accord, Brooks considered him "vermin." Kaminsky
jokingly responded: "And I thought he was a maniac."
After Brooks and Kaminsky had each vented their frustrations with the
other, they decided to work together, knowing that a successful run at
the Olympic Games would be best for all concerned.
On the ice, Mark Johnson lived up to his reputation. He had several big
goals, including two against the Russians. He wasn't intimidated by the
Russians. Every Sunday, he had played in what his father called the "The
Russian Game." His father had Russian jerseys made with all of the
top Russian names sewn on the back. Mark Johnson had played against Mikhailov
many times, although the player wearing the jersey never had quite the
same talent as the namesake.
With this team trailing 2-1 near the end of the first period, Johnson
split two defenders to drive hard to the net after Dave Christian cranked
a long shot. Tretiak didn't surrender many rebounds, but this puck bounced
off his pads as if it had a spring attached. It went directly to Johnson,
who drilled it past him with one second left. The goal gave the USA a
major lift going into the second period. After Johnson's goal, Soviet
coach Viktor Tikhonov stunned one and all by removing Tretiak and replacing
him with Myshkin.
The Americans assumed Treiak would be back, but he wasn't. Not many coaches
would have had the courage to remove a Russian hockey legend from goal
after only one period in the world's most important international hockey
tournament, but Tikhonov was no ordinary coach. He was a dictator, as
hated as he was successful. Even today, Detroit Red Wing standouts Igor
Larionov and Slava Fetisov curse the methods Tikhonov used to keep the
Years later, when Johnson found himself playing on the same New Jersey
Devils team with Slava Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov, another member of
the 1980 Soviet team, he asked Fetisov why Tikhonov had pulled Tretiak.
Fetisov just shook his head and said two words with his thick Russian
accent: "Coach crazy."
Vladimir Myshkin was hardly a second-rate replacement, as he had shut
out NHL All-Stars, 6-0, the year before. But clearly, Tretiak's presence
had a negative psychological effect on the Americans, an air of invincibility,
even if they had scored two goals against him.
Going into the third period, the Americans finally believed they could
beat the Soviets. Johnson scored the tying goal on a power play at 8:39
of the third period.
Right after we won I got bags of mail. It was like in the movie
"Miracle on 34th Street" when they bring in all that mail to
Santa. That's what I used to get.
Brooks was short-shifting his players to keep them fresh. Two minutes
after Johnson's goal, Eruzione jumped off the bench with a burst of energy.
He ended up in the slot, where Pavelich found him with a pass. Eruzione
fired a 25-foot wrist shot that skipped through a screen and past Myshkin.
All of America rejoiced.
The celebration that followed the game felt surreal to the players involved.
Craig was buried by the crush of his teammates, and sticks and gloves
were scattered everywhere. Euphoria reigned, and for the next few hours,
players were besieged by well-wishers. Fans lined the short distance between
the arena to the media center, forcing the team bus to inch it way toward
the press conference. As fans banged on the bus, one player, most seem
to think it was Neal Broten, started singing, "God Bless America."
Other players quickly joined in.
U.S. team physician V. George Nagobads, a native of Latvia, talked with
Soviet players after the Olympics. Most of them didn't seem mortally wounded
by they loss, although Vasili Vasilyev was perplexed that the U.S. had
managed to defeat his strong team.
"What did you give your players to eat or drink so in the third period
they can skate like that?" Vasilyev asked. "Last period is always
ours. In second period, when we were ahead 3-2, we celebrate."
Nagobads, who speaks some Russian, replied, "It's called the fountain
Years after the event, it's easier to see that the Soviets badly underestimated
the Americans' talent. After soundly beating the United States in Madison
Square Garden, the Soviets never entertained the possibility that the
Americans would give them a better game in their next meeting.
Also, the Soviets never thought that Craig was capable of playing as well
as Tretiak did in his prime. Craig gave the United States the same quality
goaltending Jack McCartan had supplied the gold medal-winning 1960 team.
Brooks expected no less from Craig, who was his goaltending choice from
Craig was a complicated man whose habit of saying the wrong thing at the
wrong time made him a lightning rod for controversy. He came across as
arrogant, even though those who knew him said he really wasn't like that.
Overall, most teammates did like Craig, and all of them respected his
ability to play goal. Craig oozed confidence like no goaltender they had
Boston University coach Jack Parker recruited Craig out of Massasoit Junior
College, actually grabbing him away from Jack Kelley, his former coach,
who wanted Craig for his Colby team. Parker was honest with Craig, telling
him from the beginning that he had offered a scholarship to Mark Holden
of Weymouth, Massachusetts. Parker also had Brian Durocher penciled in
as one goaltender. If Holden accepted, Craig wouldn't get a scholarship,
as Parker didn't have three scholarships for goaltenders.
"I understand," Craig told Parker. "But I've seen Durocher
and I've seen Holden and I'm going to be your goalie."
Holden didn't go to Boston University. Two years later, in 1978, Craig
was 16-0-0 with a 3.72 goals-against average and Durocher, grandnephew
of baseball legend Leo Durocher, was 14-2-3, as they split duties during
Boston University's national championship season in 1978.
"He's the best college goaltender I've seen with the exception of
Ken Dryden," Parker said. "[Two-time Olympic coach] Dave Peterson
used to tell me that Craig was absolutely perfect technically."
Parker remembered that when he watched Craig practice, it would seem as
if "the net had disappeared behind him." Craig's best asset
was his confidence. He hated to get beaten by a shooter. "When you
are good, and you know you are good, it's the greatest feeling in the
world," Parker said. "And Jimmy Craig had that feeling."
Brooks seemed to understand how to push Craig's buttons better than anyone.
Just before the Olympics, Brooks told Craig he might have made a mistake
by playing him too much. He left the impression that he didn't believe
Craig was playing all that well.
"You are playing tired, and your curveball is hanging." Brooks
said to him.
That might have devastated some players, but that kind of talk simply
fueled Craig, who could transform anger into energy. During the Olympics,
he never looked tired.
Brooks was not like any hockey coach these players had experienced before.
He was hockey's version of George Patton or Norman Schwarzkopf. In style,
he was a combination dictator-philosopher whose instructions forced his
players to think as well as act. Every day was an adventure in psychology
for the guys wearing the red, white, and blue. "He got inside our
heads," Ramsey said.
Backup goaltender Steve Janaszak recalled a nose-to-nose confrontation
when Brooks convinced left-winger Rob McClanahan to continue playing in
the tournament opener against Sweden despite a severe charley horse. Brooks
questioned McClanahan's manhood in a curse-filled tirade and called him
a "cake eater." McClanahan responded with cursing of his own.
The scene was ugly.
The enraged McClanahan went out and played as well as he could with his
muscle knotted. "That locker room scene is still vivid in my mind,"
Janaszak said more than a decade later.
Brooks's attack on McClanahan probably had little to do with McClanahan
and more to do with the fact that Americans weren't playing well in their
first Olympic test. Brooks tried to unify his team against him, a technique
he used on many occasions, and sent a message to his players that the
team was going to overcome all obstacles. Players kept a notebook of what
they called "Brooksisms." One of them was "This team isn't
talented enough to win on talent alone."
Before the game against the Soviets, Brooks took out a note card and read
a prepared text. "You were born to be a player. You were meant to
be here." His players believed him.
Brooks said the 1980 Olympic team members embodied qualities he admired
most. "The players had big egos, but they didn't have ego problems.
That's why all-star teams traditionally seem to self-destruct. We didn't."
The players' mental toughness was demonstrated when they came back from
behind to beat Finland 4-2 to capture the gold medal two days after stunning
the Soviets. It's been forgotten by many that if the United States had
fallen to Finland, it would not have earned a medal at all, gold or otherwise.
The U.S. team claimed the gold medal with a 4-2 win over Finland.
But the American players understood the challenge. Champagne was sent
to the American dressing room following the win over the Soviets, and
not a single American player touched it.
"If we don't win tomorrow," Craig told the media gathering after
the Russian game, "people will forget us."
What made the U.S. team so special was that every player was a hero in
his own way. Defenseman Jack O'Callahan's knee was so badly injured in
the last exhibition game against the Soviets that he should have headed
for surgery and not Lake Placid.
And there was the Conehead line of Mark Pavelich, John Harrington, and
Buzz Schneider, named after the Saturday Night Live alien characters.
All three players were from Minnesota's Iron Range, and none of them played
a style that could be easily copied.
Eruzione recalled their strange play. "They were the only line that
stayed intact because no one could play with them," Eruzione says.
"I played with them once, and I had no idea what I was doing or where
I was going."
Brooks liked to use the Conehead unit when he needed some creativity or
a home run swing. When the play looked innocent, that's when the Coneheads
were most dangerous.
Craig Patrick said years later that the well-traveled Schneider was probably
the unsung hero of the 1980 squad. At twenty-five, he was the oldest player
on the team and the only returnee from the 1976 Olympic squad. Playing
on his fifth national team, his leadership was probably as important as
Eruzione's. Schneider was among the leading scorers in the tournament.
He had almost stopped playing hockey when he failed in a tryout with the
Pittsburgh Penguins. Before then, Schneider had played briefly in Hershey,
Saginaw, Oklahoma City, Birmingham, Hampton, and Europe.
"I was the only player in the Penguins camp without a contract,"
Schneider said. "They only needed me as a practice body."
Even when the 1980 Olympics ended, the celebration continued. Dave Ogrean,
then a young public relations director for USA Hockey, remembered boarding
a plane to head home, thinking how nice it would be to catch up on the
sleep he lost in the gold medal revelry.
The flight attendant's eyes widened as she noticed his Team USA hockey
parka. But Ogrean cut her off with a quick shake of the head. He had just
closed his eyes when the flight attendant announced over the public address
system: "Ladies and gentleman, in 6C, we have a member of the U.S.
gold medal hockey team." The plane filled with applause and hoots
"I really didn't want to take the time to explain to everyone that
I wasn't a player, and besides, they wanted me to be a player," said
Ogrean, now USA Hockey's executive director. "They wanted to come
by and be a part of what had occurred at Lake Placid."
He thought quickly about what player he could pass for and settled on
backup goaltender Janaszak, who had been the only team member not to register
a minute of playing time at the Olympics. Ogrean figured no one would
know Janaszak and signed many cocktail napkins that were passed his way.
Years later, he ran into Janaszak at a luncheon and confessed to the impersonation.
He told Janaszak he signed fifteen autographs using his name. "That
means there are probably sixteen napkins out there with my autograph,"
One of Eruzione's favorite Olympic moments occurred years after the gold
medal celebration and in Hartford, Connecticut, not Lake Placid, New York.
Eruzione was set to drop the puck in a ceremonial pregame NHL face-off
between the Hartford Whalers and Quebec Nordiques when the Quebec center
addressed the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey captain by name. "Mike, you
fooled us in Lake Placid," said Slovakian Peter Stastny, who played
for Czechoslovakia in 1980.
Eruzione laughed. "He was absolutely right. We were better than anybody
thought," Eruzione said.
But superior skill is not why America loved those players as much as they
did. Players have said global politics wasn't an issue to them when they
were playing against the Soviets in 1980, but it was an issue to those
It's the most transcending moment in the history of our sport in
this country. For people who were born between 1945 and 1955, they know
where they were when John Kennedy was shot, when man walked on the moon,
and when the USA beat the Soviet Union in Lake Placid.
The United States' gold medal at the 1960 Olympics may have been just
as dramatic, just as emotional, maybe even as unlikely, as the 1980 gold
medal. But the 1980 victory was surrounded by political circumstances
that weren't present twenty years before. The world had changed dramatically
in the two decades between the gold medals. Kennedy and Nikita Khruschev
had played a high-stakes games of chicken during the Cuban missile crisis.
The arms race had become a dangerous sprint toward mutual destruction.
Russia had become a synonym for evil. Therefore, the U.S. victory in 1980
held much symbolism for the American public.
The Soviets had helped created their negative image. After the 1960 debacle
at Squaw Valley, they had begun sequestering their athletes, keeping them
out of the public eye and therefore constructing a wall of mistrust. To
Americans, Russian athletes had lost their humanity. To those who watched
international competition on television, Russian athletes were state-run
machines. Americans didn't know, or want to know, that Soviet athletes
were flesh and marrow human beings who struggled, complained, and fought
the system as much as American athletes.
The Soviets' dominance in hockey had humbled everyone, including the mighty
Canadians, who didn't compete internationally in the 1970's because they
viewed the Russians as professionals. Soviets players were Darth Vader
on skates, unemotional soldiers from the evil empire.
Images of athletic Frankensteins created in laboratory experiments were
conjured up because Americans couldn't believe that any country could
produce better, more dedicated athletes than the United States. Steroids?
Blood packing? Performance-enhancing drugs? Americans believed anything
was possible with the Soviets.
Remember, the American public of 1980 was disillusioned. Ayatolla Khomeini
had kept Americans imprisoned for more than 100 days. The Soviets had
invaded Afghanistan. At home, America faced domestic inflation, unemployment,
and economic uncertainty. The United States didn't seem to be as mighty
on the global scene as it once was -- until its hockey team hit the ice.
That's why Americans loved the 1980 hockey team and their victory over
the Soviets. They made America feel like it was back in control.
Reprinted from USA Hockey: A Celebration Of A Great Tradition © 1997