Just in time for the 34th anniversary of an Olympic miracle, Curator Jane Rogers shares her favorite hockey story. The game between the U.S. and Soviet teams took place during the Cold War and spawned a major motion picture.
"Do you believe in miracles? Yes!" This was ABC sportscaster Al Michaels' quote "heard 'round the world" after the U.S. National Team beat the Soviet National Team at the 1980 Lake Placid Winter Olympic Games to advance to the medal round. This win wasn't even for a medal, but it didn't seem to matter as the impossible happened in front of 8,500 fans and a worldwide audience of 34.2 million.
I remember watching that broadcast, sitting on the edge of the coffee table, my brothers and my dad screaming and yelling, and all of us jumping up and down when the buzzer sounded. We didn't even realize it was a tape-delayed game, having been played that afternoon. In this age of instant media, we would have known the result of the game before watching, which would have made the experience less memorable somehow.
It wasn't just a good game—it was a stunning one. A team of college kids with an average age of 21, the youngest team in U.S. history to play in the Olympics, beat the Soviets, who had played together, essentially as professionals, for years and who had not lost a World Championship or Olympic tournament since 1954. I don't think anyone except Herb Brooks, the coach of Team USA, and perhaps the team themselves, believed they could beat the Russians.
The day before the match, columnist Dave Anderson wrote in The New York Times, "Unless the ice melts, or unless the United States team or another team performs a miracle, as did the American squad in the 1960 Winter Olympics, the Russians are expected to easily win the Olympic gold medal for the sixth time in the last seven tournaments."
Anderson's theory was based in truth as three days before the games began, both teams met in an exhibition game in Madison Square Garden in New York City. Intimidated and outplayed, the Americans were crushed by Russia, 10 to 3. Looking back, the Russian head coach, Viktor Tikhonov, believed that playing the exhibition game with the Americans was the worst mistake their team could have made because the Soviets came into the Olympics underestimating the Americans. They figured it would be another easy win—big mistake on their part!
Herb Brooks was no stranger to competing in the Olympics, having played in the 1964 and the 1968 Olympics. His theory for winning against the Soviets was to introduce a faster European style of play, which he hoped would stress teamwork. This was a daunting task as many of the players Brooks handpicked were rivals from the University of Minnesota and Boston University—they basically hated each other. One of his more famous quotes reflects his emphasis on the team, not the individual, "You're looking for players whose name on the front of the sweater is more important than the one on the back. I look for these players to play hard, to play smart, and to represent their country."
Brooks found a combination of American and Canadian styles of play and extreme conditioning were the key to winning. To beat the Soviets, he believed, the team would need to outlast them, or at least keep up with them, until the end of the game. The Soviets were so well conditioned, other teams were simply exhausted before the end of the game, letting the Soviets outplay them in the end. Endless drills and conditioning turned this group of young college kids into a motivated and cohesive unit.
Brooks had his team play 61 games in five months to prepare for the Olympics, although he was disappointed when his US team tied Sweden in the opening game. After what I can only imagine was a really good pep talk, the U.S. team went on to beat Czechoslovakia, Norway, Romania, and West Germany, while the Soviets went undefeated.
The Soviets and the Americans met on February 22, 1980, and the rest, as they say, is history. But in case you missed it, there's a summary here.
Two days later, the U.S. would go on to beat Finland for the Gold medal which was a great game but could not compare to the win over the Russians. I remember Captain Mike Eruzione accepting the gold medal and, after the national anthem had played, he motioned for his teammates to join him on the medal stand for an all-out celebration of sheer joy. It was one of those sports moments that you never forget.
Eight uniform pieces from the 1980 Miracle on Ice team were donated to this museum's sports collection. The pieces were worn by different players during that celebrated win—the jersey belonged to defenseman Bill Baker, who is remembered for scoring the tying goal in that first Olympic game with Sweden.
The skates, gloves, and helmet belonged to forward Phil Verchota, who did not score any goals during the game, but just being part of the team made him important. As Herb Brooks said before going out onto the ice for the final period, "You were born to be a player. You were meant to be here. This moment is yours." While there is no documentation as to who wore the shorts or the leg warmers that were donated, the uniform is complete as was worn during that famous win, which has been displayed at the museum and in traveling exhibits many times since its acquisition in 1984.
A signed hockey stick from the team completes the story of that Miracle team and brings it all together. These pieces are some of the most requested objects for loan, exhibition, photography, and research—a true testament to the American character and the underdog spirit that those college kids brought onto the ice that day in February 1980. I remember exactly where I was the day "we" won that game, do you?
Jane Rogers is an Associate Curator in the National Museum of American History’s Division of Culture and the Arts. She has also blogged about the 1948 Olympics in London and more recent winter Olympics collections.