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USA - Soviet Union 1980 Olympic Hockey matchHenry Zbyszynski, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Miracle on Ice: Do you believe in miracles?

In name, the Olympics are an amateur sporting event, meant to celebrate the best amateur athletes in the world across a wide variety of sports. Of course, politics infiltrates everything, from the way the locations are decided to how the events and the participants are chosen.

In February 1980, nine plus years before the Berlin Wall fell, the United States and the Soviet Union were still at the height of the Cold War. The Winter Olympics that year were held in Lake Placid, New York. Ice hockey is the showcase sport at the Winter Olympics, and the Soviet Union were heavy favorites, having won five of the past six gold medals, with Czechoslovakia being highly touted to finish with the silver.

The Soviet Union was icing players who were professionals in all but name, playing hockey full-time and with significant international experience. By contrast, the American team, led by the now legendary Herb Brooks, was a team where only four players had even any significant minor league experience.

The underdog American team went through the group stage playing strongly, remaining undefeated throughout, and notching surprising results such as a 2-2 draw against Sweden and a huge upset 7-3 win over Czechoslovakia.

This led to the Americans and the Soviets meeting in the first game of the medal round, with their Cold War rivalry resting squarely on their stick blades. Adding to the tension was the looming decision by President Jimmy Carter on boycotting the summer Olympics to be held that same year in Moscow, due to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

As a not-quite-15-year-old teenager, my knowledge of the political climate was limited to what I saw on the evening news – and that was watched only because, in my rural community, we had only two, over-the-air TV channels, atmospheric conditions permitting. And of course, I can’t say I was particularly interested in the Cold War, other than as a lingering low-grade worry that shadowed everyone’s life. But even then, watching this, I knew this was more than just a hockey game.

Soviets underestimated the Americans in Lake Placid

The Americans and Soviets had played an exhibition game just before the Olympics, in which the Soviets demolished the Americans 10-3. Longtime coach Viktor Tikhonov said after the Olympics that this was a “very big problem” as it led the team to underestimate the Americans.

The game itself was played at 5:00pm ET, although the network had requested it be changed to 8:00pm ET. The Soviets refused as this would have meant the game would have started at 4:00am in Moscow. ABC, rather than showing the game live, showed it on tape delay and edited it for time.

Vladislav Tretiak
Vladislav Tretiak – credit Alexey Chernyadyev, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Late in the first period, with the score 2-1 for the Soviets, Vladislav Tretiak, arguably the best goaltender in the world at the time, stopped a slapshot from Dave Christian, but the rebound was found by Mark Johnson, who fired it past a diving Tretiak to tie the score with one second left in the period.

Tikhonov, known to be fiery, was said to be angry about this goal and pulled Tretiak from the game, a decision that was heavily scrutinized by observers. Years later, when Viacheslav Fetisov, then an NHL player, was asked about this, his response was “Coach Crazy.”

Down 3-2, and having only managed two shots on replacement goalie Vladimir Myshkin in 27 minutes, the Americans tied the game late on a power play awarded to them for a slashing penalty. Only a short time later, the Americans were able to take the lead for the first time, as a shot, screened by a defender, beat Myshkin again.

The last 10 minutes saw the Americans desperately holding off a ferocious Soviet attack, but still pressing the attack when they could. Brooks continued to remind them to play their game, keeping the team from retreating into a dangerous defensive shell.

With time winding down, sportscaster Al Michaels expressed everyone’s excitement and disbelief as he said: “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!”

Peter, with over 20 years navigating the dynamic world of sports websites, brings not only experience but an insatiable passion for the games. An avid NHL and curling fan, his heart beats for all things sports, from the roar of the crowd to the quiet intensity of strategic plays. At Attiq, Peter strives to curate an attic of hidden stories, insightful analysis, and forgotten legends, inviting you to explore the depths of the sports world beyond the headlines. Click here for Peter's posts.