The Miracle on Ice

Sports Illustrated cover 3 Mar 1980. First cover in the magazine’s history that did not have accompanying language, because none was needed.
The late 70s was one of the darkest times in American history. Nixon and the Watergate scandal brought trust in the government to then all-time lows. The promise of nuclear energy was scuttled after the disaster of Three Mile Island. The OPEC embargo caused massive lines at gas stations. American hostages were flaunted by a theocratic Iran to the world in front of an impotent America whose military was gutted after the betrayal of South Vietnam. Islamic and domestic left wing terrorists had committed hundreds of attacks across the country. Unemployment was nearing 10% and the inflation rate flirted with 20%. America’s inner cities resembled war zones where good cops battled not just skyrocketing crime rates but rampant corruption. In July of 1979, President Jimmy Carter used the term “malaise” to describe America’s “crisis of confidence” in the late 70s. “The Great Malaise” was an apt description of America in late 1979.
 
In 1977, the Soviet Union unveiled the Tu-22M Tupolev strategic nuclear bomber and the SS-20 intermediate range nuclear missile, both of which meant that the Soviet Union could directly strike NATO countries with medium range warheads from well within Soviet territory. The perceived nuclear superiority of the Soviets terrified NATO countries and the resultant SALT II talks between the US and USSR broke down in late 1979. Soon thereafter the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan ending even the façade of détente. The Soviet Union was seemingly on the march across the globe.
 
On 13 February 1980, the XIII Winter Olympics began in Lake Placid, New York. The Soviet team had won the last four gold medals. They were de facto professional hockey players even though that was technically against the International Olympic Committee’s amateur-only policy. Nevertheless, the heavily favored Soviet team was expected to take the gold again.
 
America’s team wasn’t expected to even make past group play. All of the team members except one were new. And they were all collegiate players with an average age of just 21, the youngest team in the history of Olympic hockey. Coach Herb Brooks formed the team in the summer of 1979, and forged the young men through grueling and repetitious training. In an autumn match against Norway, Brooks determined the team was not focused enough and had them skate “Herbies” aka sprints up and down the rink, well after the janitor turned the lights off that night. On 9 February, the US met the Soviet team in an exhibition match at Madison Square Gardens. The Soviet Union crushed America 10-3.
 
At Olympic group play, the US team stunned the world by tying Sweden and defeating the Czechoslovakian team, who was predicted to win the silver medal. The American team then defeated Norway, Romania and West Germany to advance to the medal rounds, along with Sweden, Finland and the Soviet Union.
 
On 22 February 1980, the American team again met the Soviet team. The match wasn’t televised, it was taped to be played the next day during prime time. And the match wasn’t even for a gold medal, the round robin type tournament was based on points. Nevertheless, it seemed the entire Cold War came down to this moment, and the Americans were expected to lose. And badly, like they did weeks before.
 
The Soviets had not lost a game in 12 years.
 
At the end of the first period, the score was surprisingly tied 2-2, but the Soviets took the lead in the second period 3-2. However, in the third, a rare American power play goal tied the game. At the ten minute mark, the American team captain Mike Eruzione scored again giving America the lead, and the Soviets trailed for the first time.
 
“Play your game” was Brooks’ mantra throughout the rest of the third period.
 
Characteristically, Brooks continued the American offensive, refusing to hunker down, and the decision increased America’s shots on goal. The Soviets began to panic and became sloppy. The Soviets didn’t pull their goalie because they hadn’t been in this situation since most their adversaries were in middle school in the 60s. As the seconds slowly ticked by the crowd and announcers began to count down. Al Michaels final comment during the match,
 
“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!”
 
And the buzzer sounded.
 
The crowd went insane and the team mobbed the ice. Herb Brooks sprinted back to the locker room and cried.
 
In the locker room later, the team received a congratulatory call from President Jimmy Carter and spontaneously broke into a rendition of “God Bless America”.
 
(I need to dust my room…”)
 
The Miracle on Ice shocked the world, and America even more so, especially three hours later when the game was finally broadcast.
 
A few days later, America met Finland and a win would secure the gold. Going into the second intermission, America was down 2-1. Rink side, Brooks looked at his team and just said, “If you lose this game, you’ll take it to your fucking graves.” And then walked toward the locker room. Halfway there he stopped, turned, pointed at them, and said, “Your fucking graves.”
 
American came back and won the gold.
 
At the medal ceremony, normally only the captains were allowed on the podium, but American hockey team changed that when they all crowded on. The IOC eventually ditched the medal podium for hockey at the next Winter Olympics.
 
The Miracle on Ice provided a sorely needed boost in American self-confidence. The win is easily the greatest moment in American Olympic history, if not sports history.

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