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True Underdogs; Do You Believe in Miracles?

“Do you believe in Miracles? Yes!” That infamous line on February 22, 1980 gave a new power to the word miracle.

Color commentator Al Michaels didn’t have that line scripted. It wasn’t even supposed to happen, and it wasn’t just another hockey game. It was the Cold War played out on a sheet of ice.

Heavily favored Soviet Union, gold medalist in every Olympics since 1964, faced a bunch of savvy, inexperienced college kids from the United States in the semi-final round of the Games. What the whole world didn’t know was on this day in Lake Placid, New York, history would be made as this month marks the 29th anniversary of that epic match-up.

The Stage is Set

The Soviets had a tradition of using  intimidation along with experienced veteran players during their countless victories. Olympic gold medalist year after year, how could you beat them? It seemed that legendary head coach Herb Brooks knew how to: “You win by taking their game and throw it right back at them,” he said.

The Soviets led by team captain Boris Mikhailov and arguably the best goaltender in the world, Vladislav Tretiak, were prepared and eager to return to their home country with their fifth straight gold medal.

“Amateurs” would be the best word to describe the Americans. They were college players and not heavily respected in the hockey world, and certainly not by the Soviets. The Americans’ average age on the team was 21. They may have been young, but they proved to be determined.

Brooks was also a great hockey player in his days. Former Minnesota Golden Gopher, Brooks made the Olympic team in 1960, however he was cut just three days before the team left for the games. He watched at his home in Saint Paul, Minnesota as his team won the Olympic Gold Medal.

Brooks wasnt going to let this opportunity pass as he loaded up his team with the best in the country. Led by goalie Jim Craig, forards  Mark Johnson, Rob McClanahan, Buzz Schneider, defensivemen Jack O’Callahan, and team Captain Mike Eruzione.

A Joke of a Prediction

The Americans were picked to finish fifth in the Games with the Soviets winning the gold medal. That prediction was qukcily dispatched as the Americans tied a tough Sweden team, dominated Czechoslovakia 7-3, who was considered the second best in the world behind the Soviets. This momentum carried over with wins against Norway and Romania, and a 4-2 come-from-behind win against West Germany. The Americans were now in the driver’s seat heading straight for the Soviets.

Before their game against the Soviets, telegrams from all across the nation poured in as fans proclaimed support for this underdog team. The Americans hung all their cards on a wall outside their locker room. As the team passed through, one by one they touched the wall for extra motivation. It was  support something rare to these college kids. In 1980, the U.S. was  going through a war, a recession, and a hostage crisis. These kids emerged and gave this nation something to believe in, a chance for Americans to finally feel good about themselves.

On February 22, fans packed the Lake Placid arena hoping for a miracle against the heavily favored Sovietist. “Some of the fans here don’t know the difference between a blue line from a  clothesline. Its irrelevant; it doesn’t matter,” said  Al Michaels.

Little Fish on the Big Frozen Pond

The time has come for the team’s own branch of the Cold War. USA forward Dave Silk said that “For the first five minutes I couldn’t feel my skates on the ice.”  Tension was first pierced by a Soviets goal on an American turnover, giving the Soviets the early advantage. The emotion could be compared to a grand slam home run by the opposing team, as some of the hope American fans brought with them that day seeped from the arena.

A chance for the American team gleamed again, as in the closing minutes of the first period, Buzz Schneider skated through the Soviet defense and fired a shot straight pass Tretiak tying the game. The Soviets quickly responded with a Sergei Makarov goal giving them a 2-1 advantage midway in the first period.

You Think it’s Time to Stop?

The Soviets were known to be perfect on the ice, perhaps being compared to Mickey Mantle or Babe Ruth at the plate, but at the end of the  first period, the Soviets made a rare error; a mental one. With five seconds left, Dave Christian fired a shot on goal, which Tretiak blocked easily,however forward Mark Johnson didn’t hear the horn and kept playing as the Russians stopped. Johnson slipped past two Russian defenders, picked up the puck and scored, quickly beating the buzzer, thus giving the Americans a 2-2 tie going  into the second period.

The Russian head coach replaced Tretiak with Vladimir Myshkin at the start of the second period, sending the American bench into a frenzy. The best goaltender in the world on the bench, and the Americans are to blame. Talk about respect for these college kids.

Oh, Now You Want to Play?

Myshkin played superb in the second period, blocking six shots by the Americans. The Soviets used this momentum as Alexsandr Maltsev scored, giving the Soviets a 3-2 lead.

In the third period, Johnson connected on his second goal of the game, forcing yet another tie for the Americans. Just 81 seconds later, Captain Mike Eruzione who’s name in Italian means “eruption” triggered one. With ten minutes left in the game, Eruzione picked up a loose puck and fired a slap shot on the  left corner beating Myshkin. The stadium combusted as the Americans had their first lead in the game. Thats when noise had feeling. “My friends always say, three more inches to the left, you’d be painting bridges” says Eruzione.

With just 10 minutes to hold the lead, the American chances were gleaming  but, still, that was ten minutes against the Soviets. “They could score in 10 minutes what it would take us 60 minutes to score, and I knew that,” Craig said.

It’s Miracle Time

Shot after shot, shift after shift, the Soviets couldn’t muster a goal against Craig, who proved to be at the top of his game. Minutes dragged on, shots became quicker as the time ticked down on this Cinderella story. The countdown began throughout the stadium during the final minute of the game. “Five seconds left in the game. Do you believe in miracles? Yes!” announced Michaels.  It was the greatest upset in sports history.

Holding off the Russians for 10 minutes was a miracle on its own, as the rest of the team stampeded onto the ice to celebrate their victory thus proving  to the whole world they belonged amongst the best.

Three days later, the miracle was complete as the Americans defeated Finland 4-2, coming from behind once again, thus earning their first gold medal in Olympic’s  since 1960. This time Herb Brooks was there.

During the medal ceremony, Eruzione stood on top of the podium during the National Anthem. When the anthem concluded, he turned to his teammates and shared this moment with them. All 20 players scampered on the podium with their hands raised, fingers in the air enjoying their accomplishment. They were gold medalist, champions, and better yet, a now respected United States Hockey Team.