In his new book, “The Greatest Moments in Sports,” veteran sportscaster Len Berman looks back at the players and games that made history. In this excerpt, he writes about the game that wins the title of being the all-time greatest in American sports.
‘Miracle on ice’
The moments in this book display either great individual or team accomplishment, often overcoming long odds. The results are either unexpected or of such magnitude that everyone had to stand up and take notice. But no sports event gripped the country like the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York. Specifically, the hockey team.
In those days, professional players weren’t permitted in the Olympics, only unpaid amateurs. In the United States, the country’s best players were a part of the National Hockey League. But those players weren’t allowed in the Olympics because they were paid athletes. Countries like the Soviet Union didn’t have a National Hockey League, so the best hockey players were on their country’s Olympic team.
The United States and the Soviet Union were the two major world powers in 1980, and they were major rivals. So, when the Olympics came around every four years, in the eyes of most Americans, it was “the good guys vs. the bad guys.” And the Soviets usually won. They won the gold medal in hockey in the last four Olympic Games before 1980. They were virtually unbeatable. In fact, the U.S. hockey team played the Soviets at Madison Square Garden in New York City the week before the Lake Placid Olympics. The Soviets trounced the Americans 10–3. Many people wondered: Why should the U.S. hockey team bother going to the Olympics? Maybe they should just give the Soviets another gold medal and not waste everyone’s time.
The Soviet team had some grizzled veterans of international hockey. Their goaltender was the great Vladislav Tretiak. He was 27 years old. Their terrific left winger, Valeri Kharlamov, was 32. However, the United States had a bunch of young college kids on the 1980 Olympic hockey team. The captain of the U.S. team was left winger Mike Eruzione from Boston University. He was the oldest man on the team at 25 years old. The goaltender, Jim Craig, Eruzione’s teammate from Boston University, was only 22. Many of the American players were even younger than that.
The U.S. team was coached by Herb Brooks, the University of Minnesota hockey coach. He was a disciplinarian who knew all about heartbreak. He was the last player cut from the 1960 U.S. Olympic hockey team. That team went on without him to win the gold medal in Squaw Valley, California.
Coach Brooks was a hard taskmaster. He emphasized teamwork and skating. Once, when the United States played against Norway in an exhibition game in Oslo before the Olympics, the game ended in a tie. Brooks wasn’t happy with his team’s effort. So, after the game, after all the fans had gone home, with the lights of the arena turned off, he dragged his team back onto the ice and made them skate until they dropped. The drills were known as “Herbies.” Players had to skate as fast as they could and then stop. Then start again. Then stop. And that night in Oslo, they did it in the dark, over and over and over again. That’s the kind of disciplinarian Brooks was.
The first game the U.S. team played in the 1980 Olympics was against Sweden. The United States trailed in the third period. Turns out, they would trail in virtually every game they played. It took a goal by Bill Baker with just 27 seconds remaining to escape with a 2–2 tie. Next up was Czechoslovakia. The Czechs were expecting to contend for the silver medal. But the American kids stunned them by winning the game 7–3. And talk about teamwork. The seven goals were scored by seven different players!
Norway was next. Remember the tie game that got the coach so angry? Not this time. The surprising U.S. team won 5–1. And they didn’t stop. They played Romania, and it was another big win, 7–2. And then, they played West Germany. The Germans went up 2–0. But in a stirring comeback, the United States won the game 4–2. The Americans had played five games. They had four wins and a tie. Next up — the medal round and a date with the mighty Soviets.
It was Friday, February 22, 1980. It was the most anticipated hockey game in U.S. history — and not just among sports fans. All Americans wanted to see if this group of kids could do the unthinkable and beat the mighty Soviets. The Soviet team had not lost an Olympic hockey game since 1968, a stretch of 21 games. They had not lost the Olympic gold medal since 1960. And remember the thrashing they gave the United States at Madison Square Garden? They were the overwhelming favorites to put the Americans in their place. Before the game began, Coach Brooks had a simple message for his team: “You’re meant to be here. This moment is yours.”
And then the game began. It was a boisterous crowd at Lake Placid. They were waving American flags and chanting “U-S-A, U-S-A.” It was a back-and-forth first period. The Soviets scored first and then the Americans tied it. The Soviets regained the lead and then one of the biggest moments of the tournament occurred. Trailing 2–1 in the final seconds of the first period, a couple of kids from Minnesota combined to tie the game. Dave Christian took a long shot that was stopped by the Soviet goaltender Tretiak. Mark Johnson was there for the rebound, and he scored to tie the game with no time remaining on the clock. They went to their locker rooms tied at 2.
The Soviet coach then pulled a surprising move. He replaced his goaltender. Backup Vladimir Myshkin took over for the great Tretiak. Even the players were surprised. But it seemed to work. The United States didn’t score a goal in the second period. The Soviets took the lead. It could have been worse for the Americans, but Craig was fabulous, turning away shot after shot. With one period remaining, the Soviets led the game 3–2.
The third period began, and the Americans tied the game on another goal from Johnson. It was now 3–3 with just 10 minutes to go. And then it happened. The captain, Eruzione, the old man on the team, fired a shot that went in! The arena went crazy. The Americans had taken their first lead of the game, 4–3. But there were still 10 long minutes to go.
The great Soviets were not about to give up. Neither was Craig. He stopped every shot the Soviets took. They took 39 shots during the entire game, and Craig stopped 36 of them. By contrast, the Americans only had 16 shots on goal, but they made theirs count. As the final seconds ticked off the clock, the arena was in a frenzy. The impossible was about to happen. On television, the announcer calling the game for ABC, Al Michaels, yelled out: “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”
They had done it. A group of college kids from America had defeated the mighty, unbeatable Soviets 4–3. The players mobbed each other while the flag-waving crowd cheered at the top of their lungs. But there was still another game to play. The United States had to play Finland two days later with the gold medal on the line. Just one game to go.
As usual, the United States fell behind. But trailing 2–1 in the third period, they scored three straight goals to beat Finland 4–2 and capture the gold medal. For the medal ceremony, there was room on the podium for just the team captain. But when Eruzione went up to receive his gold medal, he motioned for all his teammates to come up with him. How fitting. This was truly a team effort. All that hard work and all those “Herbies” had paid off. And in many ways it was a national victory. Americans everywhere felt enormous pride in what these kids had done. They had boosted the spirits of an entire country. It was truly a “Miracle on Ice” and, in my opinion, the greatest moment in American sports history.
Excerpted from “The Greatest Moments in Sports” by Len Berman. Copyright (c) 2009, reprinted with permission from Sourcebooks.