Tonight at five o’clock marks the thirty six year anniversary of the meeting of the 1980 US and Soviet men’s hockey teams in Lake Placid, New York. The matchup would go on to become one of the most storied and memorable moments in sports history.
In the summer of 1979 head coach Herb Brooks, a native of Saint Paul Minnesota, opened tryouts to create the roster that would eventually be sent to Lake Placid to represent the US in the 1980 winter Olympics. Hockey players from all across the country flocked to the tryouts, many of them amateur or collegiate level players looking for a chance to leave their mark on hockey history. The final roster would end up being comprised largely of men from Minnesota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Massachusetts, all with an average age of twenty one years old.
The Soviets were a known threat to any team making a bid for a gold medal, having been a dominant force since roughly 1964, but the political relationship between the US and the USSR created a rivalry that was un-matched elsewhere. Cold-War tensions between the two countries caused both hockey teams to see any of their meetings as much more than just a hockey game – it had become political.
Prior to the Olympic Games the US team was involved in a series of exhibition games. Their final game was against the Soviets. On February 9th, the same day that the US was expected to face off against the USSR in their exhibition game at Madison Square Garden in New York, the US Secretary of State Cyrus Vance denounced the summer games at a meeting of the IOC (International Olympic Committee). Vance’s declaration was likely a result of President Carter’s potential boycott of the 1980 summer Olympics, to be held in Moscow, Russia, and deepened the rivalry between both teams. That night, the Soviets beat the young US team 10-3, unwittingly setting the stage for their final meeting.
At the beginning of the Olympic Games, Russia, Czechoslovakia, and Sweden were the favorites to advance to the medal round, but the US men’s team prevailed, narrowly beating Sweden in their first game (had they not beat Sweden, but won the rest of their games the USSR would have taken home the gold based on a goal differential). They would go on to defeat Czechoslovakia (silver medal favorite), Norway, Romania, and West Germany to advance to the medal round. While Russia would coast to victory handily defeating Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Finland, and Canada.
Come game night, the atmosphere was likely palpable as a large part of 8,500 fans sang patriotic songs, and waved American flags. For fans at home the situation was a little more complicated as the game wasn’t aired on ABC in the US, so fans close enough to the Canadian border could pick up the Canadian broadcast of the game, while those farther away had to rely on a delayed broadcast or the radio for their coverage.
The game itself was a flurry of action, with the Soviets scoring the first goal early in the first period as the US fought to even the score, their effort would see the first period end 2-2. The biggest surprise of the second period was not goals scored, but rather the decision of the USSR’s coach Tikhonov to replace his starting goalie Vladislav Tretiak (thought to be the best hockey goalie in the world at that time) with his backup, Vladimir Myshkin. And although Myshkin didn’t allow any goals in the second period, the Soviets only scored once, leaving the period to end 3-2 in their favor.
The third period opened up with a rare power play opportunity for the US, and they capitalized, tying the game 3-3. The biggest goal of the game wouldn’t come until there was just ten minutes of the game remaining as Boston native Mike Eruzione took advantage of being undefended, and scored making it 4-3 in favor of the Americans. As the clock continued to tick down, the Soviets began to panic and lose their composure, while the US held themselves in check. With less than twenty seconds left on the clock, there was a loose puck in front of the net, a last minute battle for both teams. As the US was able to secure the puck, the crowd began their countdown, and broadcaster Ken Dryden spoke his famous words “11 seconds, you’ve got 10 seconds, the countdown going on right now! Morrow, up to Silk. Five seconds left in the game. Do you believe in miracles?! YES!!!”
The US men’s hockey team of the 1980’s Olympic Games played a hockey game that was charged by both sports rivalry, and political implications to leave behind a legacy all of its own. Even though the Cold War wouldn’t end until 1991, the tensions that had stacked themselves on top of this legendary hockey game had been diminished, even if only slightly. The team would go on to win gold that year after coming back from a 2-1 deficit to defeat Finland 4-2.