Between 1952 and 1992 the Soviet ice hockey team enjoyed a near monopoly on Olympic success. The only nation to break its grip on the competition was its then Cold War rival, the USA – which most notably pulled off what came to be known as the Miracle on Ice at the 1980 Lake Placid Games.
As the tournament began, the USSR were firm favourites, having won gold in four consecutive previous Games and thumped America 10-3 in an exhibition match just three days before the Opening Ceremony.
The USA’s patchwork squad of college men amateurs seemed to have next to no chance of Olympic gold. But their inspirational and relentlessly demanding coach Herbert Brooks had other ideas.
The stage was set for an epic confrontation that would grip the whole of the USA – not least because, unlike their previous win over the Soviet Union in 1960, the drama and excitement of 1980’s politically charged face-off was beamed into almost every living room across the nation via TV.
From the outset, Brooks told his youthful squad they didn’t have the talent to beat their Soviet counterparts. Instead, military-style discipline and a run of 63 games prior to the Olympic Games (including that 10-3 defeat) would forge an indomitable team spirit that would overcome the gifted Soviets.
Brooks instructed his team in the fluid European style of skating, made them aggressive and taught them how to play in any position, much like the roaming Total Football system deployed by the Netherlands football squad to devastating effect in the 1970s.
The USA were on the back foot from the first, and found themselves losing 2-1 to Sweden as their opening game entered its dying moments. But Brooks took an extraordinary gamble and substituted goalie Jim Craig for an extra attacker – and the Americans duly scored with 27 seconds on the clock to earn a 2-2 draw.
A greater shock came when they faced second favourites Czechoslovakia. After levelling the scores at 2-2 in the first period they trounced their eastern European opponents 7-3. The world’s watching media smelled a story.
Victories over Norway, Romania and West Germany catapulted the team – mostly drawn from the University of Minnesota – into the medal round with Finland, Sweden and the Soviets. David was about to meet Goliath. On ice.
As expected, the USSR took the lead and appeared to be cruising towards yet another victory as the end of the first period beckoned. But a stirring pre-match pep-talk from Brooks – in which he told his players, “This is your time” –gave the team the impetus to claw back a draw.
As the next period began, legendary Soviet Union coach Viktor Tikhonov replaced his experienced goalkeeper Vladislav Tretiak with backup stopper Vladimir Myshkin, to the general amazement of both sides. However the USSR scored again to take the tie to 3-2 – surely sealing the tie.
But with just 20 minutes to go the USA squad once more hauled themselves back from the brink, seemingly taking heart from the fact they were just one goal down.
Then the unthinkable happened – the Americans took the lead with two goals in the space of two minutes. With 10 minutes left on the clock, the USSR subjected their goal to a non-stop barrage – but the defence, and in particular goalkeeper Jim Craig, who pulled off 39 saves in the course of the match – held firm.
At full-time the arena exploded with the sound of celebration. Such was the high emotion of this extraordinary moment that the defeated Soviet team had to smile and offer sporting congratulations. And the USA hadn’t even won gold yet.
Brooks and his ragbag squad – now transformed into an Olympic-standard fighting unit – still needed to defeat Finland to win the competition. They duly did so 4-2, sparking yet more delirium among the home support.
So unexpected and so outrageous was the team’s victory that their achievement was turned many years later into a Hollywood movie. Members of the 1980 team lit the torch at the opening of the Winter Games at Salt Lake City in 2002. Jim Craig – now a motivational speaker – still receives letters of thanks from ice hockey fans.