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22 February
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31st Anniversary of Ice Hockey History

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U.S. Olympic Hockey Team Helmet and Gloves, 1980

You may not know, but I am a huge fan of ice hockey. A little odd for someone who lives outside of Canada, but never the less a huge fan. So when I saw that it was the 31st anniversary of the Miracle on Ice today, I was very excited. Finally something that links my two great loves hockey and history.

Even though hockey is not as popular as other sports, see Google trends graph above, I still love it. This Olympic hockey game seems to be very well known. Of course, it helps that it was the Olympics and not a regular National Hockey League (NHL) game. And it also helps that there has been a movie made on the subject, not to mention a couple books. Like The Boys of Winter: The Untold Story of a Coach, a Dream, and the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team which Jim Craig, the USA team goalie wrote the forward to. Sport Illustrated even said, “It may be the single most indelible moment in all of U.S. sports history.” That is a pretty big statement.

The Winter Olympics that year took place at Lake Placid. The USSR, was the team to beat. They were unstoppable. In ’79 the USSR embarrassed the NHL All Stars in the final game of a challenge series; the score was 6-0 USSR. Ouch! The U.S. would need a great team if they were going to beat the USSR at the games.

The Coach

The man chosen to lead this team was Herb Brooks. He was a NCAA coach for Minnesota, where he led that team to three titles. He himself was a student of international studies and played for the U.S. in two Olympics. He was cut from the 1960 team at the last moment.

Brooks spent one and a half years working his team, making them into Olympians. His first step was to gather those troops. He held several tryout camps and gave the prospects psychological tests. The final team then spent four months playing exhibition games in Europe, Canada and the U.S. Brooks concentrated on speed, conditioning and discipline for his team, since matching the Europeans skill would be all but impossible in the time he was given.

These college players that Brooks had on his team didn’t like each other. They had come from competing colleges. It was a constant struggle to keep them from fighting. Brooks, got them to all hate him and with a common enemy things cooled down between the players. One of the defenders, Mike Ramsey once said of Brooks, “He messed with our minds at every opportunity.” Captain Mike Eruzione added, “If Herb came into my house today, it would still make me feel uncomfortable.”

Brooks was able to tap talent out of all his team members and with that skill and his training he had a winning team. Still, this USA team was seen as the underdogs. Brooks felt that a Bronze medal was in reach for his team. Before the Olympics he arranged for an exhibition game to be played against the USSR team. The U.S. team lost 10-3. Brooks took the blame saying that his game plan was too conservative.

The Games

The first game of the Winter Olympics for the U.S. team was against Sweden. They were tied 2-2 near the end of the game, but at the last moment Bill Baker scored, sending them to play Czechoslovakia, which went much better, they won 7-3. They turned up the heat and won two more games against Norway and Romania. Then they had a comeback win in a gripping game against Germany, that ended 4-2.

The Soviets dominated in almost every game. They did fall behind in the Finland and Canada games briefly before they came back to win those games. The outcomes of those games meant that the first team that the U.S. team would play against in the medal round was the USSR. They had to win or there would be no medal, not even the Bronze which Brooks had thought within their reach.

Center Mark Johnson and right wing Mike Eruzione would be remembered for their scoring, but without goalie Jim Craig they would not have had a chance. Craig kept them in the game. After the first period the score was 2-1, the USSR was winning. But a last minute goal late in that period was still being considered. Dave Christian got a lucky break when USSR goalie Tretiak gave a fat rebound and Christian knocked it in at the buzzer. The referees deemed it good and now the teams were tied after only 20 minutes.

When the USSR came back on the ice, they replaced their seasoned goalie with their backup Myshkin. Tretiak expressed his disappointment in the coaches decision in his book. In the second period, the Soviets were definitely playing much harder. The Americans were only able to get two shots at the goal and the USSR team scored, bringing the game to 3-2 at the end of the period.

Brooks had prepped his team well. In the third and last period one of the main components of Brooks’ training came into play. Speed. The Soviet coach leaned heavily on his veteran players, but the U.S. players could catch them. Brooks’ team was faster. When the USSR did finally make a mistake an American player was there to make the most of it. That is exactly what Eruzione did when he scooped up a botched pass, skated to the top of the USSR zone and landed a wrist shot, making the score 4-3 USA.

The game began to roll down to the final moments and that’s when broadcaster Al Michaels said these now famous words:

“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 building erupted in applause. It was the first loss by a Soviet Union team in Olympic play in 20 years. The soviets had actually outshot the USA 39-16 shots on goal during the game, but it just wasn’t enough for the USSR. The USA team wasn’t done yet though. That was only the first game in the medals round, now they had to win against Finland.

In a practice game before the next medal game Brooks kept up his torment saying, “You’re too young. You can’t do this.” It seemed like he might be right, because in the first period the U.S. team was down 2-1. In the intermission, Brooks said to his team that if they didn’t win, “this will haunt you for the rest of your lives.” His players responded by three unanswered goals in the last period of the game.

This article is getting pretty long so I’ll just tell you that there is this great post at lifewhile.com about where the players of the miracle team are now. It was published last year on the 30th anniversary of the great game.

Here is the last 5 minutes of that amazing game:

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