Updated: Feb 24, 2020
By Chris Champitto
Forty years ago, the United States of America were searching for any win it might find. The Cold War was nearing its peak, the Iran hostage situation continued, and US morale needed a boost in any way it could get. That boost would come from Lake Placid, New York, with an Olympic hockey game win by the young Americans over the powerhouse Soviet Union. This game was so much more than a game to the public. They saw it as another battle between Democracy and Communism.
The U.S.S.R. team took home the gold in the last four Olympic Games, were undefeated against the US since 1960, and hadn't dropped a single Olympic game since 1968. They were THE hockey power in the world. The Soviets rolled through their group going 5-0 and grabbing the #1 seed in the four-team playoff, while the US would go 4-0-1, rounding out the playoffs as the 4th seed. That's right, the U.S.S.R. vs USA game wasn't the gold medal game. That game would be played two days later against Finland. But the game everyone remembers is the one now immortalized as "The Miracle on Ice."
The first period started out just like many previous games had for the US, with a deficit. A little before the halfway mark of the first period, the Soviets scored on a Vladimir Krutov deflection off a slap-shot from Alexei Kasatonav. But just five short minutes later, Buzz Schneider tied up the game with a score from the left boards on the short-side. With less than three minutes remaining in the period, the Soviets recaptured the lead on a shot by Sergei Makarov that beat goaltender Jim Craig high and on the glove-side. The US however would not let this game get away from them. With a mere five seconds left in the first, Dave Christian fired a shot from center-ice. The Russian goalie, Vladislav Tretiak, made the save but the rebound bounced out towards the blue line where Mark Johnson found it and scored past the diving goaltender with a single second remaining on the clock. The first period would end in a 2-2 tie.
Jim Craig's gear that resides in the Hockey Hall of Fame
The second period started with a coaching decision that would later be identified by the Soviet coach as "the turning point of the game," and "the biggest mistake of my career." The move left Tretiak, arguably the greatest goalie in the world, on the bench and put Vladimir Myshkin, a goalie that really only played in garbage time, in the crease with the game tied. Myshkin, however, did his job and shut out the Americans in the second period, while the Soviets out-shot the Americans 12-2 and scored once. The lone score came from Aleksandr Maltsev on a power play early in the period. After two periods the Soviet Union led, 3-2. The third period would go down in history. During a power play, Dave Silk advanced the puck up the ice only to be knocked down by Valeri Vasiliev. The puck slid to the waiting stick of Johnson who found space under the goalie's pads and guided the puck into the back of the net, tying the game at 3-3. With 11:19 to go in the game there was plenty of time for the US to make dreams come true, or for the Soviets to turn those dreams into nightmares. A couple of shifts later Mark Pavelich found US Captain, Mike Eruzione, undefended in the high slot - a shooters dream - and Eruzione blasted a shot past Myshkin, who may have been screened by a teammate, to give the US its first lead with exactly ten minutes left. When asked about those final ten minutes, players later recalled that they would look up at the clock and see 9:40 as they went out to take a shift. After what felt like a long 60 second shift, they looked back up to see 9:39 still on the clock.
Coach Herb Brooks' famous quote instilling to his players that they were a team and not just a group of individuals
The Soviets, now trailing for the first time in the game, attacked ferociously. Most of the final ten minutes would be played with the Soviets in possession of the puck. As the minutes ticked away, Herb Brooks told the young Americans, "Play your game. Play your game." And that they did. Instead of sitting back and playing a tight defense to secure the lead, the Americans played their game as they always had; pushing the puck to open space, creating opportunities, and even getting shots on goal. The Soviets were in a panic and were shooting wildly. As the clock ran under one minute, the Soviets pushed the puck back into the American zone. The Americans were looking to the Soviet bench to discern who the sixth attacker would be once the goalie was pulled, and who on the ice would be responsible for picking up the undefended shooter. But incredibly, that sixth player never came out as the Soviet goalie was never pulled. Sergei Starikov later explained that "We never did six-on-five," not even in practice, because "Tikhonov just didn't believe in it."
With the clock now below 20 seconds, Craig made a kick-save and a wild scramble for the puck ensued, ending when Johnson found the loose puck and passed it up to Ken Morrow. The US cleared the zone with seven seconds left and the countdown began to roar. Al Michaels picked up on the crowd countdown and delivered the most iconic sportscasting call of all time:
As the crowd erupted, the players flooded the ice. The Soviets ended up standing on the blue line watching the celebration, almost as if they missed the excitement of winning and playing because they loved the game. Coach Brooks famously sprinted to the locker-room and began to cry. I remember asking my dad where he was when this iconic moment occurred, only to find out that he actually went to this game. I remember him telling me, "The crowd was so loud when we took the lead I could FEEL the noise. And when the clock hit zero it was so loud the building itself shook."
The game would go down in history as the greatest upset in sports and the most iconic American sports moment of all time. Looking back at the stats, the game was completely one-sided in favor of the Soviets. ESPN eventually ran the numbers and broke down just how impossible it was that the US actually won that game (linked below). Forty years ago today David toppled Goliath, and the US got the morale boost it needed in the most unlikely way.
The March 3, 1980 cover of Sports Illustrated ran without any accompanying captions or headlines.