But as 1999 drew to a close, most surveys declared the “Miracle On Ice” America's greatest sports achievement of the 20th century. A few years later it was immortalized by Hollywood in the movie Miracle.
“It may just be the single most indelible moment in all of U.S. sports history,” said Sports Illustrated of Team USA's improbable gold medal run at the 1980 Winter Olympics. “One that sent an entire nation into a frenzy.” American hockey came of age on February 22, 1980, when the young Americans took down the mighty Red Machine from the USSR.
The story begins with Herb Brooks, NCAA coach and student of international hockey. Brooks had played for his country at two Olympics, and was the last man cut from the 1960 team, which won America’s first Olympic gold medal in hockey. He spent the 1970s as head coach at the University of Minnesota, leading the team to three NCAA titles and earning notice for his prickly personality and fanatical preparation.
The USSR, emerging from several major defeats in the mid-1970s, was back on top of the hockey world going into the 1980 Games at Lake Placid. The previous year, the national team had crushed the NHL All Stars 6-0 in the deciding game of a challenge series. The Soviet domination of the 1979 World Championship was absolute. The veterans – Boris Mikhailov, Valeri Kharlamov, Alexander Maltsev, Vladimir Petrov – were still in peak form, while exciting young players like Sergei Makarov and Vladimir Krutov brought a new, fearsome edge. Behind them, as always, was the great Vladislav Tretiak in net.
The romantic notion that a bunch of college scrubs felled the world’s greatest team through sheer pluck and determination is misguided. Brooks spent a year-and-a-half nurturing the team. He held numerous tryout camps, which included psychological testing, before selecting a roster from several hundred prospects. The team then spent four months playing a grinding schedule of exhibition games across Europe and North America. The players included Neal Broten, Dave Christian, Mark Johnson, Ken Morrow and Mike Ramsey, who would go on to impressive NHL careers.
There was no matching the Europeans in skill. So Brooks emphasized speed, conditioning and discipline. Knowing how luck plays a large role in short tournaments, he wanted a team that could grab whatever opportunities came its way. Regional and college rivalries ran high among the players, most of whom hailed from Minnesota or Massachusetts. Brooks worked to unite them, often against himself. He challenged them physically, but also verbally, questioning whether they were good enough, tough enough, worthy of the task. A few confrontations ended in shouting matches.
“He messed with our minds at every opportunity,” said Ramsey.
“If Herb came into my house today, it would still be uncomfortable,” added captain Mike Eruzione, years later.
Brooks’ tactical moves must also be credited. Shortly before the Olympics, seeing the need for more mobility on the blue line, he asked Dave Christian to switch from forward to defense. His quest for speed produced a trio of centers – Broten, Johnson, Mark Pavelich – that could skate with anyone. By luck or design, he managed to get goaltender Jim Craig to peak at exactly the right time.
The Americans were underdogs, but they were competitive. Brooks suggested that a bronze medal was within reach. Then came a pre-Olympic exhibition game against the Soviets. The wide-eyed Americans were manhandled 10-3. Brooks blamed himself, saying his game plan was too conservative.
At Lake Placid, Team USA began tentatively against Sweden, but a last-minute goal by Bill Baker salvaged a 2-2 tie. A 7-3 win over Czechoslovakia boosted confidence. The momentum grew with victories against Norway and Romania and a 4-2 comeback win over Germany.
The Soviets went undefeated in their group, of course, although they fell behind against Finland and Canada before rallying late to win each game. Such stumbles appeared little cause for concern. The group standings set up the scenario the Americans had been hoping to avoid: their first opponent in the medal round was the USSR.
While most recollections focus on the scoring heroics of Eruzione and Johnson, the American triumph would not have been possible without Craig. The Soviets came out flying, out-shooting the Americans by wide margin. The goalie kept his team in the game, down 2-1 as the first period drew to a close. His teammates were more aggressive than in the exhibition game, forechecking harder. But it seemed only a matter of time before the Soviets added to their lead.
The first sign of an upset in the making came at the end of the first period...
Part Two: The Miracle Unfolds