It immediately became known as the Miracle on Ice. USA 4, USSR 3 in the 1980 Winter Olympic hockey semi-finals. It was the result that shocked the world – free and otherwise.
Here was the vaunted Soviet juggernaut - Olympic gold medalists in 1964, 1968, 1972 and 1976 – out to prove the validity of their way of life. The last time the Winter Olympics were held in the United States - 1960 Squaw Valley, Calif. - hockey gold, ironically, went to the Americans. But that was considered ancient history. In addition to four straight Olympic titles, Russia had won the World Cup, the World Championships and had soundly defeated the same USA team, 10-3, at Madison Square Garden just two weeks before the Olympic tournament. The U.S. group was good enough for a medal, most felt, but was not in the league of the Soviets.
The team began the tournament with a come-back tie against Sweden as Bill Baker scored in the final 30 seconds of the contest to earn the deadlock. From there to the semi-finals, the U.S. steamrolled each opponent with a similar story line – stellar play from goaltender Jim Craig and a burst of energy from all 20 players in the final period.
Norway, Romania, West Germany fell by the wayside and momentum and optimism was building. It reached a fever pitch when the home squad trounced gold medal contender Czechoslovakia, 7-3. Could the unthinkable really happen?
The night of Feb. 22, 1980 put it all into context. Twenty exuberant players and a single-minded coach hit the ice at 5:06 pm local time unaware that a nation, reeling from an unsettling situation in Afghanistan, a hostage crisis in Iran, a potential boycott of that summer’s upcoming Summer Olympics in Moscow and a down-trending economy needed a pick-me-up. And did it get one.
The Russians, clearly overly impressed with their resume, skated in that manner. The U.S., playing with purpose before about 10,000 partisans, seemed to skate above the ice. Nevertheless, the USSR held the lead for much of the contest but could not shake the determined Yanks.
The USSR tallied first (Vladimir Krutov) which only seemed to add to their non-chalance. But later in the opening period, Buzz Schneider tied the count with a slap shot from the left wing. Unfazed, Russia went ahead on a goal by Sergei Makarov and were ready to take the 2-1 advantage into the first intermission. As time was expiring, the Americans fired the puck down ice while the Russians were headed to the locker room prematurely. But Mark Johnson, skating to the buzzer, walked in behind a sleeping Soviet defense that was moving in the opposite direction. Johnson grabbed the puck and fired it past the heretofore world’s best goaltender Vladislav Tretiak with one second remaining.
2-2 after one period. This was noteworthy for the U.S on two fronts: they were deadlocked after one period and Tretiak was mysteriously benched in favor of Vladimir Myshkin.
The USSR’s Alexandre Maltsev scored the only goal in the second period to take a 3-2 advantage. However, not many in the audience thought the matter would be this competitive after two periods.
At 8:39 of the final frame, pandemonium erupted when the Red, White and Blue knotted the score at 3-all as Johnson tallied again.
Now the visitors were embroiled in the game of their lives against the upstarts and it was clear that they could not shift gears.
The American system of playing in this tournament was actually patterned after the European method. At the time, North American hockey had devolved into a dull pattern of skating the puck to center ice, shooting it deep into the opponent’s zone, chasing it and trying to get the opposition to turn it over to you for a scoring opportunity. However, USA coach Herb Brooks felt differently. He wanted to play a possession game emphasizing skating into open ice, precise passing and attacking. To this end, he recruited the fleetest feet in the country, mostly collegians and several minor league professionals. And, of course, he needed a clutch goalie.
When Mike Eruzione scored the famous fourth and winning goal with 10 minutes remaining in the game, a scene of delirium broke out. But still there were 10 minutes to play and, after all, these were the Soviets, who many felt could turn up the heat when needed. It was needed, but they could not turn it up.
With Craig’s solid play in the net and the crowd spurring on the rest of the team, Russia had few good chances to tie, while the USA grew stronger and more confident.
As time wound down, sticks and gloves were tossed into the air and jubilation rang out across a nation.
A miracle had been created, one which has stood the test of time, and the likes of which we will never see again.