They were kids, for goodness sakes. Kids with sticks and stones, going up against an army of men with howitzers and tanks.
If they had scheduled that hockey game in 1980 in anywhere but the Olympics, it wouldn’t have been sanctioned. It would have been deemed illegal—child abuse.
Would you put an adolescent Gold Gloves boxer up against Muhammad Ali? The school mini-golf champ against Tiger Woods?
30 years have passed—it’s another time where it’s my duty to point out how old we all are—since those American kids met the Russians on the pond after school and made like David against the Soviets’ Goliath.
Billy Bonds helped spoil the surprise, though.
The game was televised by ABC, but on a tape delay basis. The local affiliate, channel seven, knew the outcome but didn’t want to ruin the drama for their viewers.
Someone forgot to tell Bonds—or maybe they did, and Billy was too tipsy to remember. Anyhow, in the early evening during a newsbreak, Bonds went on the air and let the cat out of the bag: the USA hockey team had defeated the mighty Soviet Union squad in an upset of cataclysmic proportion.
Film at 11.
So it was that I knew the outcome of the game before tuning in. I was on my way to a high school basketball game that evening when my buddy Mike Lank made like Bonds and ruined my surprise.
“The United States beat Russia!” Mike said as he piled into our car. He had heard it from Billy.
It was all I could think about that evening, as the basketball game droned on below me.
Bonds took a lot of heat for scooping his own station, but maybe he brought in viewers who otherwise might not have flipped on the game. Of course, the trade-off was that those viewers, for the most part, knew how the game ended.
But it doesn’t matter with miracles, really. If I were to tell you that if you stare at the Empire State Building and in ten seconds it’s going to disappear, thus ruining the “surprise,” would that make it any less amazing when it vanishes?
The USA hockey team had no business being on the ice with those Russians in Lake Placid, New York in 1980. It was a mismatch of the highest degree. Less than two weeks earlier, in an exhibition at Madison Square Garden, the Soviets beat the American kids, 10-3.
This was Olympic hockey pre-NHL players. In those days, you played for your country, then you tried out for the NHL. The average age of that USA team was around 22 years old. The Soviets were grizzled and experienced and they played with guns at their heads, practically. A stint in Siberia awaited them if they took home anything short of the gold medal.
The USA captain was from the East Coast and talked like it. If you heard Mike Eruzione speak you’d think you were listening to a Bowery Boys flick from the 1940s. Hockey people don’t talk like that. Eruzione sounded like a punch drunk boxer, not like a hockey captain.
The Soviets had the best goalie in the world, Vladislav Tretiak, who was just slightly less imposing than the Berlin Wall, in the wall’s heyday. USA had Jim Craig, a nice young man from Massachusetts, between the pipes.
So they drop the puck and the game carries on and it’s already an upset that after five minutes the United States isn’t trailing by two or three goals, though the Soviets did score first. Buzz Schneider of Babbitt, Minnesota—don’t ask—tied it. The Soviets moved ahead, 2-1, but with one second left in the first period, Tretiak misplayed a rebound and Mark Johnson took advantage, depositing the puck behind the All-World netminder for a 2-2 tie.
Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov replaced Tretiak after the first period with backup Vladimir Myshkin, which shocked many, including his own players. Former Red Wing Slava Fetisov, who played for the Soviets, called Tretiak’s removal the turning point of the game. He may as well have called it the turning point in sports history.
Yet the Soviets led, 3-2, after two periods. Craig played well in the net for the Americans; the Soviets would outshoot their opponents, 39-16, for the game.
Johnson struck again for the United States 8:39 into the third period to tie the game. Barely a minute later, Eruzione fired a shot from the high slot past Myshkin, who was screened by his own player. The U.S. had its first lead of the game, which is the only lead it would need.
Craig repelled one Soviet rush after the other in the frantic final half of the third period to clinch the victory. But you know all this.
I have a bone to pick with that 1980 USA hockey team, however.
They ruined the sports upset, forever.
The New York Jets were on the top of the heap in that department for 11 years, after their unforeseen—except by Joe Namath—win over the mighty Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III in January 1969. Nothing could compare to the Jets’ dismantling of the Colts, who were 18-to-20 point favorites in that game.
Nothing, until Feb. 22, 1980.
And nothing has come close to it since. Perhaps nothing will ever top it, as far as that goes. It’s lockstep with Joe DiMaggio’s 56-game hitting streak when it comes to feats that will likely never be equaled, much less surpassed.
The United States didn’t win the gold medal that night, contrary to legend. They did that a few nights later, dispatching Finland, 4-2. Maybe beating the Finns was a greater test for the American kids, as they shook off the expected letdown after beating the Soviets.
USA coach Herb Brooks anticipated such a letdown in his pre-game talk.
Eruzione recalled it, “Herb said, ‘If you lose this game, you’ll take it to your bleeping graves.’ Then he turned to walk away, stopped, turned around, and said, ‘To your bleeping graves.’”
The Miracle on Ice—so dubbed thanks to ABC’s Al Michaels and his indelible “Do you believe in miracles? YES!” call as the final seconds ticked off the clock—happened 30 years ago next week.
The United States kids should have been used as the Soviets’ personal Zamboni with which to clean off the Lake Placid ice, much less win the bleeping game.
It was 30 years ago, and I still can’t believe it. I guess I need some more time.