Celebrating The Anniversary Of A Miracle

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Saturday marks the 40th anniversary of one of the greatest sporting accomplishments of the 20th Century; the United States Mens Hockey Team’s victory over the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympics.  No sporting event has ever, or probably will ever, grip the nation the way the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team did.  The team galvanized Americans in manner unprecedented for its time, and unmatched to this day.

Photo courtesy of usahockey.com
The 1980 Hockey Team’s victory represented so much more to the country than sports.  The Cold War between the U.S. and the communist Soviet Union was still in full force.  For decades, the two superpowers were on opposing sides in conflicts around the globe.  While war was never formerly declared between the two, fear always ran high that tensions would escalate and lead to World War III.

The Soviet Olympic Teams symbolized that country’s totalitarian government, which was known as the Evil Empire (long before the moniker was given to the Yankees).  At the time the Olympics were an amateur event, but the Soviet teams were comprised of members of their National Army, and their sole purpose was to act as a propaganda wing for the communist government.  Though players were officially in the army and not paid athletes, they were essentially professional athletes who did nothing but play for their respective national teams.

To further up the ante and stir patriotism, the 1980 Games were to be held in America in Lake Placid, New York.  The United States did not want to be embarrassed in the game by the hated Soviets.

The Soviet team was the heavy favorite to win the gold medal coming into the Games.  They had won four consecutive Olympic Gold Medals (1964, 1968, 1972, and 1976).  The U.S. team, by comparison, was comprised almost entirely of college players who had only been brought together months earlier.  The two teams faced each other prior to the Games in an exhibition game in Madison Square Garden, and the Soviets embarrassed the Americans by a score of 10-3.

Shop thousands of officially-licensed NHL items at Shop.NHL.comThe American squad turned things around once the Games started.  In Group Play they earned a tough 2-2 tie in their opening game against Sweden, and then upset a strong Czechoslovakian team 7-3 in their second game.  The win and the tie against quality competition gave the team a boost of confidence, which then translated to three straight wins over Norway, Romania, and West Germany and a ticket to the Medal Round.  The Soviets bulldozed their way through their group, going 5-0 by a total aggregate score of 51-11, setting up a rematch with the Americans in the Medal Semifinals.

The Americans had already attracted the attention and adoration of the country with their unexpected gritty performance in Group Play.  But few dreamed of the Americans being able to knock off the powerhouse Soviets.  The Soviets tallied the first goal midway through the first period, but the U.S. evened the score at one apiece less than five minutes later.  After the Soviets scored toward the end of the period it appeared they would take a 2-1 lead into the intermission, but U.S. center Mark Johnson pounced on a rebound to tie the game at 2-2.

In a shocking move, Soviet Coach Viktor Tikhonov pulled legendary goaltender Vladislav Tretiak, who at the time was considered the best goaltender in the world, because of the goal he allowed prior to the end of the first period.  The Soviets dominated the second period, and scored the only goal of the frame to go ahead 3-2.  Despite trailing, the U.S. team continued to show the perseverance and mettle that made them a national sensation.

The U.S. scored a power play goal to tie the game at the 8:39 mark of the period, and followed that less than two minutes later with another goal by Team Captain Mike Eruzione, unbelievably putting the Americans ahead 4-3 with only 10 minutes left to play.  The Soviets mounted a ferocious attack, but the Americans withstood the onslaught, led by goaltender Jim Craig.  When the final horn sounded, the U.S. team celebrated by throwing their gloves in the air and flags waved not only in the arena, but all over the country.

Most people think the win over the Soviets gave the U.S. Team the Gold Medal.  In fact, it only gave them a spot in the Gold Medal Game against Finland.  Knocking off the Soviets was an amazing accomplishment in and of itself, but the U.S. Team was not to be denied in this tournament.  Though they trailed 2-1 in the third period, the U.S. came back to win the game 4-2 and take the gold.  The win was anticlimactic, but sweet nonetheless.

The U.S. Team had a solid connection to the Boston area, featuring four players with Massachusetts roots, all of whom played at Boston University.  Team Captain Eruzione hailed from Winthrop; starting goaltender Craig was from Easton; Right Winger Dave Silk from Scituate, MA; and Defensemen Jack O’Callahan from Charlestown.

Several of the players from the team went on to have long careers in the NHL.  For the Massachusetts players, O’Callahan played seven years for the Blackhawks and the Devils.  Silk played five years in the league for the Bruins, the old Winnepeg Jets, Red Wings and Rangers.  Craig played only 30 games in the NHL for the Atlanta Flames, Minnesota North Stars, and a very brief stint with the Bruins.

Eruzione, who was 25 years old at the time of the Olympics, retired after not being drafted by the NHL and never played professionally.

Other items of note and reflections of the time.

The game against the Soviets was played at 5:00 P.M. on a Friday afternoon, and was not shown live on National Television.  At the time, there were only three major networks - ABC, CBS and NBC.  ESPN had debuted just a few months earlier, and its programming consisted primarily of horseracing, badminton, and Canadian and Australian Rules Football.

ABC held the rights for the Olympics, and broadcast a replay of the semifinal game later that night in prime time.  By then, unless you had managed to avoid hearing the final score, most people already knew the outcome.

The hockey play-by-play man for the Olympics was a then unknown announcer by the name of Al Michaels.  His call of the final seconds of the win over the Soviets, “Do you believe in Miracles?  Yes!” is one of the most iconic calls in sports television history.  The notoriety gained from the Games catapulted Michaels’ career and led to him landing the job as play-by-play man for Major League Baseball and Monday Night Football.

With the Soviet Union now disbanded, and professional athletes allowed to compete in the Olympics, the days of such a David and Goliath match-up with National implications are likely gone.  If you weren’t fortunate to have lived through those politically charged times and to have witnessed the accomplishment of the 1980 team, you can’t truly understand how monumental an achievement it was for a group of college hockey players to defeat the greatest team in the world, and at the same time, strike a blow for the U.S. way of life.



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Boston Sports Syndicate: Celebrating The Anniversary Of A Miracle
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