1980 Miracle On Ice: 39 Years Later

By Jacob Silverman
Feb. 23, 2019

“Do you believe in Miracles? Yes!!!!”. Those were the words out of the mouth of NBC play-by-play commentator, Al Michaels, as the 1980 United States hockey team pulled off one of the biggest upsets in Olympic sports history.

A miracle, in the English language, is defined as a “highly improbable or extraordinary event, development, or accomplishment that brings very welcome consequences.” And consequences, there were, for the extremely unprecedented events of Lake Placid, New York in 1980.

Consistently in world history, when a country, city or place needs rehabilitation, they turn to sports to provide something; a play, a win, or a title, for its people to rally around. And in the United States of America in 1980, the country needed, well, a miracle.

To begin with, our own federal government seemed to have lost control. Exhibit A: the Kent State shooting committed by members of our own National Guard, leading to the deaths of four innocent civilians. Exhibit B: Watergate. A national media frenzy that lead to the first (and to this day, only), resignation of a United States president (Richard Nixon).

Secondly, our country had reached previously unrecorded economic turmoil. The US was already in more debt than ever before, then two of the most financially destructive events in the history of the country took place. One took place at Three Mile Island Nuclear Station, Pennsylvania, where a large scale nuclear power plant melted down. Billions of dollars were lost in the accident, and the cleanup, which took fourteen years. The second was the shortage of gasoline, leading to an increase in price, and even a rationing system for a country that prided itself on its accessories.

Last, but certainly not least, was the pushing around the US received from other countries. See the Vietnam War, leading to the deaths of tens of thousands of Americans in a war they didn’t sign up for. The last straw was the Iran Hostage Crisis, where fifty-two American citizens were taken hostage for nearly a year and a half.

Enter Herb Brooks, a gritty forward who was cut from the only American team to win gold (1960). Brooks was named head coach of the 1980 American Olympic hockey team, and he came in with one goal: beat the Soviet Union. The United States were rivals with the Russians both on and off the ice, and Brooks designed an offensive system in which the US uses the Soviet’s own game and beats them at it. The Soviet Union had dominated ice hockey for over a decade.

As Brooks crafted his team, both national and international media wrote off the Americans. But Brooks insisted he had a gold medal hockey team. After qualifying, the United States made quick work of three opponents (Romania, Sweden, and Germany). With Czech failing to qualify for the next round, the Soviets suddenly found themselves as the far and away favorites to win gold. Only one team stood in their way, and that was the United States.

Although the US clawed their way to the semi-final round, the media still wrote them off, and sighted them as a lack of a competitor to the superior Soviet Union. But, the stage was set for the silver round. Arch nemesis Soviet Union, facing the world class underdog: the United States of America. In their home country, too.

What took place on February 22nd, 1980, is still legend to this day. The United States, lead by team captain Mike Eruzione, fought with the Soviet Union from punch to punch, goal to goal. Entering the final period, however, the United States trailed the “coms” (short for Communists, the term coined by US citizens), 3-2. Approaching the halfway mark of the third period, it look as if the Soviet Union would win again. Then, in the next minute and a half, a flurry of shots and Soviet penalties lead to the unthinkable: a 4-3 US lead.

It became more apparent as time passed that a Soviet Union comeback was not in the cards. Eventually, Al Michaels found himself counting down the seconds, and rejoicing as America pulled off the biggest upset in the history of the sport. After advancing to beat the Swedes in the gold medal round, the Americans were champions of the world.

39 years after 1980, we still feel the effects and magic of those events. The American hostages in Iran were freed, and presented a documentary about this very same team. The US then went on to rebuild its empire, and claim its crown of top dog.

Yes, Al. We do believe in miracles.