Thirty-one years ago today, at the Lake Placid Olympics, an American ice hockey team made up of a combination of amateur and collegiate players took the ice against the Soviet Union's hockey juggernaut - and won a major victory en route to winning gold.
To set the stage where hockey was: the NHL was still dominated by Canadian players in 1980. The Colorado Avalanche were still the Quebec Nordiques, the Carolina Hurricanes were still the Hartford Whalers, the Phoenix Coyotes were still the Winnepeg Jets, all freshly admitted from the WHL to the NHL along with the Edmonton Oilers. The Calagary Flames were still playing as the Atlanta Flames, the Dallas Stars were still the Minnesota North Stars. There were no NHL franchises in Ottawa, Raleigh, Florida (Sunrise OR Tampa Bay), Columbus, Nashville, Anaheim, or San Jose. NHL divisions still had had names like Smythe, Norris, Adams and Patrick. Wayne Gretzky was playing his rookie year in the NHL. European players in the NHL were still few and far between; the only Russians who played were those who had defected.
The Soviet team was the favorite to win gold; they'd won it every year since 1964. Their team members were classified as amateurs for the Olympics - the IOC did not allow professional athletes to compete until 1986 - but they were essentially professional, having access to world-class training facilities and played in a top-end league in Russia. Soviet teams regularly beat NHL teams in exhibition games prior to the 1980 Olympics.
By contrast, U.S. ice hockey coach Herb Brooks held final team tryouts in Colorado Springs the summer before the Olympics. Only one player, Buzz Schneider, returned from the 1976 Olympic team. Of the final 20 on the Olympic roster, nine had played at the University of Minnesota (13 of the 20 players were born in Minnesota as well), and four had played for Boston University.
The American team was an underdog in every sense of the word going into the Olympics; but Brooks had been thorough in his preparations - his weeding-out process had included psychological testing. Brooks also knew that he had to get them on a united mindset, so he challenged them constantly. And, if the team couldn't beat other teams on skill alone, then he was going to emphasize what many pro hockey teams favor today, a "hybrid" style of conditioning, speed, and discipline.
To understand the importance of this win - and how sports can influence the national psyche - one must understand the politics of U.S.-Soviet relations in 1980.
Jimmy Carter was still President, and the resurging Cold War was leading to intensified relations between the two countries. As a way to protest the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, President Carter was still in the process of considering boycotting the 1980 Summer Olympics, which would be held in Moscow (this was when Summer and Winter Olympics still ran during the same year). International tensions ran high. The 1970s were marked by the Vietnam War, Watergate, unemployment, an energy crisis, and rampant inflation.
It was all this political backdrop that gave the U.S.-U.S.S.R hockey game so much weight, so much impact.
Consider, too, how much technology and information has changed in 31 years. In 1980, less than 20% of American homes had cable TV - and cable TV at the time was a far cry from the 500+ channel overload that it is today. There were 28 national networks in 1980, and less than 4% of U.S. homes owned a VCR. The launch of MTV was still a year and a half away. BASIC was still a top computer programming language; and personal computers and the internet were still in the realm of science fiction for most people.
Under those circumstances, when the Olympics rolled around, it was a major TV event. Due to the popularity of the Games, other networks knew they could not compete for ratings, so the Olympics took center stage. And while most people thought they watched this famous game live, it was in fact on a three-hour tape delay, although most people didn't know the outcome of the game prior to watching it.
During a pre-Olympics exhibition game at Madison Square Garden, the Soviets had beaten the U.S. 10-3. The Russians were poised to capture yet another gold.
And then... the game happened. All of Brooks' coaching and mental preparation for his team fell into place, and despite the Soviets dominating most of the game, and being outshot 39-16, the amazing happened: the Americans won, 4-3. Al Michaels' final call of the game has gone down in international sports history alongside this incredible game:
"Eleven seconds. You got ten seconds, the countdown going on right now. Five seconds left in the game! Do you believe in miracles? Yes!"
The game wasn't the gold-medal round. The U.S. team still had to beat Finland, which they did, 4-2. But the U.S.-U.S.S.R. game was not only the most memorable of the 1980 Olympics, but one of the most amazing sports upsets in modern sports history. It was so impactful that Sports Illustrated's cover didn't even have any text to go along with its picture:
(image source: Wikipedia)
Thirteen members of that team went on to play in the NHL. Among them:
- Neal Broten, the first American player to tally 100 points in a season;
- Ken Morrow, who joined the NY Islanders after the Olympics and won a Stanley Cup that spring to become the first player to win Olympic gold and the Cup in the same year (only six players have done it to date, 3 of whom were on the 2010 Chicago Blackhawks);
- Mike Ramsey and Dave Christian, who would both play in 1,000+ career NHL games;
- Mark Johnson, who played for several teams in the NHL, and who won Olympic silver in 2010 as head coach of the U.S. women's ice hockey team.
The game gave great pride to Americans as a whole at at point when they needed it most, but also helped introduce a lot of people to hockey. Hockey was well-established in northern states, but to win such a major game on the international stage gave a huge boost to U.S. hockey.
USA Hockey has only been tracking player registration on a state-by-state basis since 1998-99. Hockey has become the second-fastest growing sport in the country, more than doubling its number of registered players between 1990 and 2010 (195,000 in 1990; 475,000+ now).
After the 1980 Olympics, the Soviet Union returned to gold in 1984 and 1988; and in 1992, the "Unified Team" won, consisting of team members hailing for 6 of the former 15 Soviet republics. Canada has regularly placed in the medal rounds since 1992, and have Finland, Sweden and the Czech Republic. The United Sates won silver in 2002.
This year's Olympics gave another strong boost to American hockey. Unlike 31 years ago, today's Olympic hockey teams are nearly fully composed of NHL players, so these games are truly the best-of-the-best competitions for hockey. Both Team Canada and Team USA were equally strong, although many gave Team Canada the home-ice advantage as motivation to bring home the gold.
During the preliminary rounds, Team USA beat Team Canada 5-3. In the Gold medal round, Team Canada beat Team USA 3-2 in dramatic overtime. Interestingly enough, women's hockey results also matched the men's - Canada gold, U.S. silver, and Finland bronze. Americans Ryan Miller (Buffalo Sabres) won MVP honors, and Brian Rafalski (Detroit Red Wings) won Top Defenseman; they were joined by Zach Parise (NJ Devils) on the Olympic All-Star team.
The 2010 Olympics gave a lot of recognition to American hockey - both men's and women's - and helped fuel a boost in interest in the sport over the past year.
Although it's been 31 years since that fateful game, interest in it has never fully faded. It stands as a saga, both for achieving the seemingly impossible, and to illustrate what hard work and preparation can reward you with. Al Michaels' game calls - produced on the spur of the moment in a wash of emotions - have become iconic.
Herb Brooks' fantastic motivational speech - recreated in the 2004 film Miracle - reached far beyond hockey as well.
"Great moments are born from great opportunity. And that's what you have here tonight, boys. That's what you've earned here, tonight. One game. If we played 'em ten times, they might win nine. But not this game. Not tonight. Tonight, we skate with 'em. Tonight, we stay with 'em, and we shut them down, because we can! Tonight, we are the greatest hockey team in the world. You were born to be hockey players—every one of ya. And you were meant to be here tonight. This is your time. Their time—is done. It's over. I'm sick and tired of hearin' about what a great hockey team the Soviets have. Screw 'em! This is your time!! Now go out there and take it!"
U.S. hockey continues to grow and thrive, in no small part thanks to the success of a team of American underdogs who won 4-3 over the Soviets one night in Lake Placid.
Sadly, Herb Brooks didn't live to see the recent success of American hockey. He died in a car accident in Minneapolis in August 2003 at the age of 66. Brooks was a tireless supporter of hockey, both its players and programs; a teacher, coach, innovator and an amazing motivator.
Upon his passing, Ken Morrow stated, "When it came to hockey, [Brooks] was ahead of his time. All of his teams overachieved because Herbie understood how to get the best out of each player and make him part of a team. And like everyone who played for him, I became a better person because I played for Herb Brooks."