As the U.S. celebrates the 30th anniversary of the “Miracle on Ice,” it becomes clear that 1980 was a different time.
Those who were six years old at the time are 36 years old now. Those who were 36 years old at the time probably don’t want to tell you how old they are now. The Cold War was on and someone else was at war in Afghanistan.
U.S. Olympic hockey was played by unknown amateurs and the Soviets seemed unbeatable.
But on Feb. 22 in Lake Placid, NY, coach Herb Brooks’s team of U.S. college kids, mostly from Minnesota and Massachusetts, upset the heavily-favored CCCP 4-3 in the Olympic semifinal before beating Finland for the gold medal. The Soviet game has since been considered one of the most memorable events in the history of American sports.
Coming into the game, the Soviets hadn’t lost in international play since 1960. Earlier that February at Madison Square Garden, they blew out Team USA 10-3 in an exhibition game. But according to team captain and forward Mike Eruzione, the U.S. team was not afraid.
“If you think you’re going to lose, you probably are,” he said. “We knew it was going to be difficult. We knew we had to play a perfect game. But we knew we had chance. Our level of confidence was high. We couldn’t wait to play.”
Outside of the team, though, optimism wasn’t so present.
“The Soviets had a professional team,” Al Michaels, the game’s play-by-play announcer, said. “That was their job. Nobody had left the country to play professionally elsewhere. Nobody gave them a battle. They would beat a team 4-1, but it would look like 12-0.”
After trailing the Soviets 1-0, 2-1, and 3-2, Eruzione scored the go-ahead U.S. goal with 10 minutes to play in the third period after Mark Johnson tied the game only a couple minutes earlier.
Michaels remembers calling the final minutes with color commentator Ken Dryden amongst a raucous, pro-American crowd.
“The wooden platform we were standing on was shaking,” he said. “The arena was nothing but a wall of sound. In the last 10 minutes, I was like a horse going down the track. I had blinders on. The only thing I can remember saying to myself was ‘Stay with it. Stay with it.’”
For Eruzione, they were the longest 10 minutes of his life. He joked that he came off after his next shift and the clock read 9:59. “What’s taking so long,” he thought to himself.
The U.S. team would hang on to win, giving way to Michaels’s famous call as time expired: “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”
While the game against the USSR is the one that’s most remembered, the gold medal would not have been won without a quality performance against Finland.
“If we had lost to Finland, people would have still been proud, but as a team we would have been very upset” said Eruzione, who thinks most people look at 1980 as if Team USA played only the Soviet game. “We didn’t go to win one game. We went to win the ultimate prize. [The Finland game] was the biggest game of our lives.”
Michaels said the gold medal game is not talked about enough.
“People would have said ‘So what happened here? You beat the Soviets and you lost to Finland?’ It wouldn’t have been a documentary, it wouldn’t be a movie. We wouldn’t be doing the 30th anniversary.”
But we are doing the 30th anniversary. And the team’s legacy is all over these Games.
Michaels is doing NBC daytime coverage. Eruzione was in Vancouver last week. Goalie Jim Craig is making rounds currently and Johnson is answering press conference questions about 1980 as the coach of the U.S. Olympic women’s hockey team.
There is no official celebration scheduled in Vancouver. (Why would there be just one day after that U.S.-Canada hockey game?) But the anniversary is sure to draw coverage on NBC, be featured in sports sections across the U.S., and prompt many “where you were when you saw it” conversations.
Rightly so when you consider that Michaels, now one of sports’ most respected commentators, refers to the game as his “calling card.”
“People always ask me, ‘Is that number one for you?’” he said. “That’s not the question. The question is, ‘What’s number two?’”