Forty-one years ago today, a ragtag team of amateur hockey players from the United States shocked the world by defeating the menacing Soviet Union’s national team during the 1980 Winter Olympics. The event has come to be known as The Miracle on Ice.
Our nation could use a unifying even like the Miracle of Ice right about now.
During the Cold War, we had a common enemy in the Soviet Union. Now, many view their own neighbors on the other side of the pollical aisle as their enemy.
This wasn’t just another game. The matchup pitted two Cold War rivals against each other, and America’s national morale was low following the malaise of the 1970s. Watergate, Vietnam, inflation, gas shortages, and the Iran Hostage Crisis had all stifled the American spirit. America needed a spark, and that spark came from an unlikely source: college-age hockey players.
Even all these years later, the upset is still astounding. The Soviet Union had been unbeatable for twenty years and their B team had trounced the Americans in an exhibition game one week before the beginning of the Olympics.
The USSR had won gold medals at each of the previous four Olympic Games, as well as 12 gold medals in the 16 World Championships they played between 1961 and 1979.
The Soviets had dominated the Americans in 12 previous competitions. They defeated the US every time, once even outscoring them 117-26 (total points scored). In 1976, the US team consisted of NHL players, but they still got their clock cleaned—twice—in the 1976 Canada Cup.
With that sort of track record, it appeared that the US team had a one-in-a-million chance of defeating the USSR…and even those odds seemed too generous.
Coach Herb Brooks had the boys ready to play, and they somehow caught lightning in a bottle. The Olympics were on American soil—hosted in Lake Placid, New York—and the loud roar of the pro-American crowd gave the team energy to compete at a higher level, and it showed.
Team USA cruised to victory in the preliminary rounds and the quarterfinals. Many people have forgotten, understandably so, that the matchup with the Soviet Union took place not in the Gold Medal game, but rather the Semi-Final game.
Legendary announcer Al Michaels opened the game by setting the stage for the epic matchup:
“What we have at hand is the rarest of sporting events, an event that needs no buildup, no superfluous adjectives. In a political or nationalistic sense, I’m sure this game is being viewed with different perspectives, but manifestly, it is a hockey game.”
With those words of eloquence, the game began. It was anything but an easy victory for the Americans. The Soviets controlled the puck for most of the game and had far more scoring chances and shots on goal than Team USA.
Writing for ESPN, Chris Peters broke down the alarming Soviet Union puck possession stats:
“The most basic metric is total shot attempts—the total number of shots a team takes, whether they hit or miss the net or are blocked by the opposition, commonly known in the hockey stats community as ‘Corsi’—specifically those taken when both teams are skating five players a side. It is commonly presented to show possession tendencies.
In all situations, the USSR had 52 shot attempts, while the U.S. recorded just 25 (67.5% of the total attempts).
When taking that same statistic and looking at only 5-on-5 situations, the USSR held a 46-21 shot attempt advantage (68.7% shot share).
When looking at shots that hit their target, the official box score credited the USSR with 39 total shots on goal, and we determined it had 31 at 5-on-5. The United States? Try 16, and just seven at 5-on-5. We actually classified six of those 16 American shots as dump-ins on goal, too, meaning there were really 10 true shots from Team USA. A ridiculous 71% of shots on goal in the game came from the Soviets, and that number jumped to 81.6% at 5-on-5.”
Goaltender Jim Craig played the game of his life and cemented himself as one of the all-time great American Olympians. Despite being pelted by a continuous Soviet onslaught, Craig stood tall and stopped 36 out of 39 shots.
The game was tied 2-2 after the first period. The Soviets led 3-2 following the second period. Then the third period started. The Americans quickly tied the game at 3-3, and then team captain Mike Eruzione notched what would become the game-winning goal with ten minutes left in the game.
The Americans withstood the final Soviet onslaught and did the unthinkable: they defeated the mighty USSR team. The game concluded with Al Michaels uttering the now immortal words: “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”
The chants of “USA! USA!” exploding from the crowd showed the beginnings of a revival of the stifled American spirit.
And that right there is why sports matter. Sports unify people of all colors, religions, and nationalities. It was sporting events that helped heal the nation following September 11, 2001. And on a cold day in Lake Placid, New York in 1980, sports sparked a nation that badly needed a reason to celebrate their country. After a decade of endless national embarrassments, America was back.
The 1980s would witness the reigniting of the American spirit under the leadership of President Ronald Reagan and the eventual end of the Cold War.
America could use another event like the Miracle on Ice today…but until that happens, let the memory of that historic day serve as a reminder of what our nation can truly be.