Miracle on Ice 35th Anniversary: A (Baker’s) Dozen Factoids

Today is the 35th anniversary of the “Miracle on Ice” when the US Men’s Hockey Team beat the Soviet Union in the medal round at the 1980 Olympics at Lake Placid.  It is widely considered one of the greatest upsets in hockey if not all sport and helped fuel hockey’s growth in the US.

1. It Was Not the First Time the US Beat the Soviets at the Olympics

The U.S. won its first Olympic hockey gold in 1960 when it hosted the Games at Squaw Valley, California.  Interestingly, the U.S. team included a player named Herb Brooks who was cut a week before the Games. The U.S. won all 7 games en route to the Gold Medal.  They faced the Soviet Union during the medal round, winning 3-2.

In the four Olympic games between the win at Squaw Valley and Lake Placid, the US was 0-4 versus the Soviets who outscored them 28-7.

2. The Soviets Had Won Five of the Last Six Gold Medals

The Soviet won the Olympic Gold Medal in 1956, 1964, 1968, 1972 and 1976.  Since losing at Squaw Valley, their record up to their match with Team USA in Lake Placid was 30-2 as they outscored their opponents on average 8.0 – 1.7.

3. The Soviets Beat the NHL All-Stars in the 1979 Challenge Cup

Immediately prior to the Olympics the Soviet team played an NHL All-Star Team in a 3-game series at Madison Square Garden.  The Soviets dropped the first game 2-4, but then won the remaining two by scores of 5-4 and 6-0.

4. The Soviets Beat the US Olympic Team in an Exhibition Game Two Weeks Earlier

Two weeks before their medal round match up, Team USA played an exhibition against the Soviets at Madison Square Garden and were routed 10-3.  Soviet Coach Viktor Tikhonov believed this made his players over confident when they faced each other again at the Olympics.

No matter what we tried, we could not get that 10-3 game out of the players’ minds. The players told me it would be no problem. It turned out to be a very big problem.

Soviet goalie Vladislav Tretiak recalled

The team [was] very young, very strong, good physical condition. My team [was] much better, and no respect for Team U.S. My friends said, ‘Oh, easy game.  You beat the U.S. before Olympic Games [in] exhibition game. We beat NHL players. How we play against students? For us, easy. Easy way.’

 

5. The US Was Not Expected to Win A Medal – Any Medal

The U.S. team was seeded 7th of the 12 teams.  Their first two games were against Sweden and Czechoslovakia.  From 1971-1979, Czechoslavakia won three gold and five silver medals at the World Ice Hockey Championships.  During this same period, Sweden won two silver medals and six bronze medals.  Also in their group was West Germany who had beat them 4-1 in the medal round of the 1976 Olympics to deny them the Bronze Medal.

6.  There Was Another Miracle at Lake Placid

Unlike the Squaw Valley team, Team USA did not win every game at Lake Placid.  They tied their opening game against Sweden, after having to pull their goalie down 2-1 with less than a minute to play.

7. The Conditioning of the US Players Made a Difference

Coach Brooks assembled his team over a year before Lake Placid and conditioned them to play international style hockey.

After tying Sweden, the US team routed Czechoslavakia 7-3. Czech Olympic star, Peter Stastny, who played in the NHL explained in A Reminder Of What We Can Be: The 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team that

the one thing that most shocked the international hockey community about the performance of the young Americans (average age: 22) was their conditioning. The Soviets had always been at one level, with everybody else at a level below. Suddenly here are a bunch of Americans, for heaven’s sake, whom the Russians are huffing and puffing to keep up with in the third period. Who are those guys? In the seven games played in the Olympics, the U.S. team was outscored nine goals to six in the first period, but outscored its opponents 16-3 in the third.

8. The Soviet Coach Benched The World’s Best Goalie

johnsonscoreThe anchor of the Soviet team was its goalie Vladislav Tretiak – the only Soviet player on Sports Illustrated’s all-time great hockey team.

The turning point of the game may have been at the end of the first period when Mark Johnson chipped in a rebound off Soviet goalie Tretiak with one-second remaining.  Al Michaels even said, “that’s the type of goal you don’t expect someone like Tretiak to give up.”

Soviet Coach Tikhonov benched Tretiak for the remainder of the game. His substitute, Vladimir Myshkin, had shut out the NHL All-Stars in the deciding game of the Challenge Cup only weeks earlier.

Coach Tikhonov stated it was the “biggest mistake of my career”.

Tretiak always played better after he gave up a goal. The decision was a result of getting caught up in emotions. After Tretiak gave up the rebound and let in the soft goal by Johnson, my blood was boiling. It was my worst mistake, my biggest regret.

One player blamed he move as well saying it “made the team nervous.”

On the other side of the ice, Tretiak’s presence “had a negative psychological effect on the Americans, an air of invincibility, even if they had scored two goals against him.”  Pulling Tretiak boosted the Americans confidence.

9. The Tournament’s Best Goalie Was Jim Craig

The Soviet team out shot the US team 39-16, which means not only did they score on 25 percent of their shots but that Jim Craig stopped 92.3% of the shots.  Craig was why the US team gave up the fewest goals of any team in the tournament.

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The Washington Post story on the game read:

The Americans never seemed to panic in the final five minutes. Only once did they ice the puck to ease the pressure the Soviets poured on at the end, and Brooks said he changed his checking system in the final 60 seconds to further bother the Soviets.

Craig, meanwhile, kept coming up with one brilliant save after another. With 8:15 remaining, he made a lunging skate save on a backhand shot by Vladimir Golikov, and there was another sweet stop on a backhander by Vladimir Petrov with 57 seconds remaining.

Former NHL goalie and Capitals goalie coach, Olie Kolzig recalls:

The way Jim Craig played, he was in a zone the whole tournament but it culminated that night against the Russians. … Truly the game really slows down. You see the puck so clear. It looks so big. It looks like it’s coming relatively slow at you. You feel like you have all the time in the world to react. … As the opposition, when you run into a goalie like that there’s not much you can do.

10. This Was No Ordinary US Team

ramseyFrom USA Today’s “6 Great myths about the Miracle on Ice”

It was an epic upset to be sure because the Soviets were a dominant hockey power. But the American team has never received enough credit for the talent it boasted. Twelve players off that team played more than 6,000 NHL games. USA’s center ice group of Johnson, Neal Broten and Mark Pavelich was formidable. Mike Ramsey, Dave Christian, Ken Morrow and Jack O’Callahan were all on the team’s defensive corps. Ramsey and Christian both played more than 1,000 NHL games.

See Newsday’s 25th Anniversary Miracle on Ice team: Where are they now?

11.  Al Michaels Was Selected As Announcer By Default

Michaels got the job as play-by-play man for ice hockey at Lake Placid because he was the only member of ABC’s announcing team who had previously called the sport (at the 1972 Winter Olympics in Sapporo, Japan).  And what a job he did, earning him “Sportscaster of the Year” in 1980 for his coverage of the event.

12.  The US Would Not Have Won a Medal Had They Not Won The Next Game

Team USA still had to beat Finland to win the gold medal and risked not winning any medal at all after Finland jumped to a 2-1 lead.  But two goals in the first six minutes of the third period put them ahead and then Mark Johnson sealed the win with his six goal of the tournament with 3:45 left.

13.  Soviets Never Forgot Lake Placid

Last year Dimitry Chernyshenko, president of the Sochi Olympics organizing committee commented

As a child, there were three horror films I knew from the West.  One was ‘Nightmare on Elm Street.’ The second one was ‘Friday the 13th.’ And the third one was ‘Miracle on Ice.’ ”


The tournament summary

  • USA 2, Sweden 2
    (Shots USA 29, Sweden 36)
  • USA 7, Czechoslavakia 3
    (Shots USA 27, Czechoslavakia 31)
  • USA 7, Romania 2
    (Shots USA 51, Romania 21)
  • USA 4, West Germany 2
    (Shots USA 32, West Germany 26)
  • USA 4, USSR 3
    (Shots USA 16, USSR 39)
  • USA 4, Finland 2
    (Shots USA 29, Finland 23)
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