That was Al Michaels making one of the most famous calls in the history of sports for the greatest upset victory in the history of sports 31 years ago today, as the United States defeated the Soviet Union in the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York.
The Soviet Union team was considered to be the best hockey team in the world. They had won every gold medal in hockey since 1956 with the exception of one year. That one year was in 1960 which the United States won. Ironically, Herb Brooks, the 1980 U.S. Hockey coach, was the last player cut from that 1960 team. Brooks sat at home with his father as that team won the gold. That night, his father said to him that it “looks like Coach Riley cut the right guy”. Herb Brooks was already a self-driven person, but this served as further motivation.
Today the Olympic hockey teams are allowed to be professional players, but in 1980, the Olympians needed to be amateurs. Although the Soviets were classed as amateurs, they were given fake jobs provided by their government which allowed them to play professionally in a well-developed league with world class training facilities. They had some of the best players in the world on their team.
Meanwhile, Herb Brooks conducted tryouts in the summer of 1979. 9 players from the University of Minnesota (of which Herb Brooks was the coach) made the team as well as 4 players from rival college team Boston University. Since most of the players were rivals, they did not get along at first. But Brooks gave them a common enemy – himself – to make them get along and play as a team. Anybody who has gone through boot camp/basic training in the military can understand this pshychology. He was very hard on the players, and showed no mercy. It obviously worked.
During exhibition play leading up to the Olympics, the Soviet team went 5-3-1 against NHL teams. A year earlier, the Soviet team beat the NHL All-Stars 6-0. The last exhibition game before the Olympics, the Soviets destroyed the U.S. Olympic team 10-3. This may have been a blessing in disguise as it may have contributed to the Soviets underestimating the U.S. team 2 weeks later.
In the first game of the tournament, the U.S. tied a favored Sweden team 2-2. The U.S. actually tied Sweden with 27 seconds left in the game when they pulled goalie Jim Craig for an extra attacker. The tie was followed by a great 7-3 win over Czechoslovakia, which was considered to be the second best team after the Soviets. They then went on to win three more games in a row – Norway 5-1, Romania 7-2, and West Germany 4-2 to go 4-0-1 and advance to the medal round along with Sweden.
In the other bracket, the Soviets ran through their competition: Japan 16-0, the Netherlands 17-4, Poland 8-1, Finland 4-2, and Canada 6-4. They advanced to the medal round along with Finland.
The game between the U.S. and Soviets was scheduled for 5:00 PM on February 22. The U.S. tried to get it scheduled for 8:00 PM for American television. But, the Soviets refused as this would have been a 4:00 AM start for Russian viewers. ABC decided to broadcast the game on tape delay for prime time.
Before the game, Herb Brooks prepared the following statement for his players readit to them:
“You were born to be a player. You were meant to be here. This moment is yours.”
The Soviets scored first when Vladimir Krutov deflected a slap shot by Aleksei Kasatonov past Jim Craig. Then Buzz Schneider scored for the U.S. to tie the game. But, the Soviets jumped back in front with a goal by Sergei Makarov. Then goalie Jim Craig had the game of his life. He stopped many Soviet shots before the U.S. had another shot on goal. Towards the end of the first period, Dave Christian fired a slap shot on goal from 100 feet away. The Soviet goalie saved the shot but misplayed the rebound, which bounced out about 20 feet in front of him. The Russian defensemen, Pervukhin and Bilyaletdinov, quit playing and watched the clock tick off the last few seconds. Tretiak started to move out of goal. Mark Johnson sliced between the two defensemen, found the loose puck and fired it past a diving
Tretiak to tie the score with one second left in the period. The Soviet team played the final second of the period with just three players on the ice, as the rest of the team had gone to their locker room for the first intermission. The first period ended with the game tied 2-2.
The Soviet coach, Viktor Tikhonov, replaced Tretiak with backup goaltender Vladimir Myshkin to begin the second period, which shocked players on both teams. Tikhonov later called the decision “the biggest mistake of my career”. The Soviets dominated the period, and outshot the U.S. 12-2, but were only able to score once – on a power play. The Soviets led at the end of the second period 3-2.
In the third period, the U.S. tied the game just as a power play was ending. Later, Mark Pavelich passed to US captain Mike Eruzione, who was left undefended in the high slot. Eruzione, who had just come into the game, fired a shot past Myshkin, who was screened by Pervukhin. This goal gave the US a 4 3 lead, its first of the game, with exactly 10 minutes left.
With time winding down, the Soviets attacked relentlessly. There was even a shot that went off the goal post. As the minutes wound down, Brooks kept repeating “Play your game. Play your game.” Instead of playing defensively, the U.S. continued to play offense, and even took a few more shots on goal. With 33 seconds left, Jim Craig kicked away a slap shot Then another shot was put on goal with 20 seconds left. There was a mad scramble for the puck, and the U.S. was finally able to clear it with 7 seconds left.
As his team ran all over the ice in celebration, Herb Brooks sprinted back to the locker room, locked himself inside a toilet stall, and cried.
The Miracle Continues
In 1980, the medal round was a round-robin, not a single elimination tournament like it is today. Under Olympic rules at the time, the group game with Sweden was counted along with the medal round games versus the Soviet Union and Finland so it was mathematically possible for the US to finish anywhere from 1st to 4th.
The U.S. team needed to win their game against Finland in order to win the gold. They were trailing Finland 2-1 in the third period. They came back and won the game 4-2, which gave them the gold medal.
At the time, the players ascended a podium to receive their medals and then lined up on the ice for the playing of the national anthem, as the podium was only meant to accommodate one person. Only the team captains remained on the podium for the duration. After the completion of the anthem, Eruzione motioned for his teammates to join him on the podium. Today, the podiums are large enough to accommodate all of the players.
The victory bolstered many American citizens’ feelings of national pride, which had been severely strained during the 1970s. President Jimmy Carter had just announced that the United States was going to boycott the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and the country was faced with a major recession and the Iran hostage crisis. So, America was in desperate need of something to celebrate. The match against the Soviets popularized the “U-S-A! U-S-A!” chant, which has been used by American supporters at many international sports competitions since 1980.