No game in hockey history packed as much drama—or carried greater significance—than Team USA’s timeless 4-3 victory over the Soviet Union at the 1980 Lake Placid Olympics. Indeed, Sports Illustrated magazine rated the “Miracle on Ice” as the top sporting event of the 20th Century.
Waged on February 22, 1980 amid Cold War tensions, the contest not only pitted the United States against its bitter enemy, it represented a clash of divergent ideologies as well. Not merely a hockey game, to Western eyes it was a faceoff between capitalism and communism, democracy and despotism, good and evil.
Clad in dashing, bright-red uniforms and emanating an almost supernatural aura, the Soviet national team possessed frightening firepower. Boasting luminaries such as all-world goalie Vladislav Tretiak, high-scoring Alexandr Maltsev, and future NHL stars Slava Fetisov, Alexei Kasatonov, and Sergei Makarov, the Soviet juggernaut seemed invincible. Indeed, a year earlier the “Big Red Machine” had destroyed a team of NHL All-Stars, 6-0, to capture the Challenge Cup.
Team USA coach Herb Brooks believed the Russians could be beaten. Brooks devised a hybrid style that combined aspects of the Soviet’s creative, swirling style with the NHL’s traditional, straight-line game. He also drove his players hard to ensure they were in peak condition. Indeed, a favorite Brooksism—“the legs feed the wolf”—became Team USA’s unofficial mantra.
A master motivator and psychologist, Brooks cannily scheduled an exhibition match between his squad and the Soviets at Madison Square Garden on the eve of the Olympics. Although the Russians hammered the Americans, 10-3, the outcome provided Brooks with motivational fodder. Meanwhile, the easy victory fostered Soviet overconfidence.
Once the Olympics got underway it was clear the two superpowers were locked on a collision course. Following a dramatic, last-minute tie with Sweden, Team USA routed Czechoslovakia, 7-3, and beat Norway, Romania, and West Germany to roll into the medal round. With threshing-machine precision the USSR annihilated Japan (16-0) and the Netherlands (17-4), and walloped Poland, Finland, and Canada to set up the epic showdown.
Despite their inspired play the Americans were heavy underdogs.
“Unless the ice melts, or unless the United States team or another team performs a miracle, as did the American squad in 1960,” wrote New York Times columnist Dave Anderson, “the Russians are expected to easily win the Olympic gold medal for the sixth time in the last seven tournaments.”
Brooks didn’t pay attention to the naysayers. In the locker room prior to the game he gave one of his most stirring speeches.
“You were meant to be here,” he told his young charges. “This is your night.”
Predictably, the Soviets jumped to an early lead on a goal by Vladimir Krutov. For a moment it seemed the lethal Russians were poised to overwhelm their callow opponent, just as they had in the pre-Olympic meeting.
A former Penguins draft pick turned the tide. William “Buzz” Schneider, a nondescript left wing who enjoyed an otherwise unremarkable career, took a cross-ice pass from Mark Pavelich and blew the puck past Tretiak at 14:03.
Although the Soviets quickly countered, another Pens pick soon rose to the occasion. With one second left in the period Mark Johnson—son of future Steel City coaching legend Bob Johnson—split two defenders and wired a loose puck behind Tretiak.
Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov was livid. When the Russians skated onto the ice to start the second period Tretiak—arguably the best goalie in the world—was on the bench. Taking his place between the pipes was Vladimir Myshkin.
The momentum had irretrievably shifted. Although the USSR carried a 3-2 lead into the third period, there was a sense that something special was in the air. Once again Johnson delivered. At 8:39 of the final period “Magic” beat Myshkin from close range to knot the score and stun the Soviets.
The stage was set for Mike Eruzione’s emotionally charged game winner and announcer Al Michaels’ now immortal call—“Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” Thanks to the utmost effort of 20 college kids and a coach who dared to dream, the veil of Soviet supremacy was swept away and American pride was restored.