How a Hockey Game United America: Miracle on Ice and the Cold War

“Do you believe in Miracles?… Yes!”. This, one of the most memorable moments in broadcasting history was uttered in sheer disbelief by Al Michaels as the United States hockey team defeated the Soviet Union squad in the semifinals of the 1980 Winter Olympic games, despite facing seemingly impossible odds against them. This however was not just a victory on the ice in Lake Placid, New York, but a victory for democracy across the world. This victory meant so much more than a gold medal, it was a moment to serve as a unifying force in the heat of the Cold War.

It is no secret that the Olympic Games are not only a display of a country’s athletic prowess, but an opportunity to show their country’s overall superiority. When an Olympic medal is won, it is a moment for the entire world to watch as a nation’s athletes are stood at attention, its spectators belting their national anthem, and its flag flying high in the rafters. While oftentimes the Olympic Games serve to ease international tensions in times of political strife, other times, these international relations are magnified on an even greater scale.

These tensions were arguably at their highest when the US hockey team, consisting entirely of amateurs from various college programs took on the team from the USSR, made of Soviet quasi-professionals, who had won five of the previous six Olympic gold medals, and thirteen out of the previous sixteen world championships (Coffey, 35). The 1980 iteration of the USSR hockey team was seemingly unbeatable, as they defeated the NHL All Star Team 6-0. They also defeated the same US Olympic team just weeks before the Olympics by seven goals at Madison Square Garden (Coffey, 46-48).

To understand the ramification of this game, you have to first understand the world political climate of the time, particularly between the Soviet Union and the United States, and the razor thin line dividing the world between tension and nuclear war. This was immediately following the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979, and the immediate response of President Reagan, which was to institute what was known as “The Reagan Doctrine”, which focused on dissolving communist nations in Eastern Europe. It was a period of time which many look back upon as the most tense period of the Cold War since the Cuban Missile Crisis (Seifreid, 116-117). It was common knowledge that the Soviets held great disdain for America, and the capitalism which it holds so dear. Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev was quoted saying “Our firm conviction is that sooner or later Capitalism will give way to socialism. Whether you like it or not, history is on our side. We will bury you” (Khrushchev, 1956). It was no secret that there was bad blood between the two countries, and these tensions were at their highest leading up to these 1980 Winter Games. This attitude carried over to the players as well. American goalie Jim Craig was quoted saying “I hate them. I don’t hate their hockey players specifically, but I hate what they stand for” (Abelson, 84).

While the Soviets essentially had a professional team—professionals were not allowed in the Winter Games, but Soviet players only trained and practiced, while being “employed” elsewhere—and the US team had only joined together in the summer of 1979, while their Soviet counterparts (for the most part) had been skating together for the better part of a decade. The American team was the youngest team in the field, with an average age of 21, and much less experienced than their Soviet counterparts.

When it came time for the semifinal match up, which was for most, of biblical David and Goliath proportions, few gave the Americans a fighting chance. The day before the game, New York Times columnist Dave Anderson wrote “Unless the ice melts, or unless the United States team or another team performs a miracle…the Russians are expected to easily win the Olympic gold medal” (Anderson, New York Times, February 21, 1980).

The most significant moment of the game occurred as time was waning in the first period, when Mark Johnson found an errant rebound and sent it to the back of the net as time expired, tying the game at two. This caused Soviet Coach Victor Tikhonov to remove goalie, Vladislav Tretiak, who was considered the best goaltender in the world. Tikhonov considers this to have been the turning point in the game, and the “biggest mistake in my career” (Coffey, 150-155).

With ten minutes remaining in the game, captain Mike Eruzione, connected from roughly thirty feet out, giving the Americans their first lead of the game, which they would not relinquish (Coffey, 360-374). As time wound down, the crowd began to countdown the seconds, when Al Michaels joined them in making his famous “Do you believe in miracles?” call. As the clock stuck zero, the American team poured out onto the ice, while Coach Brooks ran back into the locker room and wept, as he was overcome with emotion after witnessing his team defeat one of the best teams ever to play the game (Coffey, 387).

This victory was monumental in the course of 1980 worldwide tension. This came as President Jimmy Carter announced that the United States will be boycotting the 1980 summer games in Moscow in response to the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, as the US House of Representatives approved the boycott by a vote of 386 to 12 (State Department Website). This uplifting moment came when it was most needed. Americans were at a point where they were starting to lose faith in their country, coming off the heels of the disaster of Vietnam, and the first three years of Carter’s presidency, which saw inflation rise, and Americans taken hostage by Iran. This victory gave something to all Americans, a renewed optimism in their country.

While the Americans were filled with joy after this monumental victory, the Russians had the opposite reaction to their loss. Current Russian goalie Evgeni Nabokov spoke about that 1980 game as something that isn’t discussed back in Russia, saying that the story of the game was “never actually told to us” (Nabokov interview, AP 2010). This was done intentionally, as Soviets did their best to ensure that they seemed superior to the Americans. This was a black eye on the Soviet attitude of superiority towards America, and this would spread to the citizens of the country, and across the world.

The victory of US Hockey over USSR was not just a semifinal matchup at the 1980 Olympics games in Lake Placid, New York. It was a victory of David over Goliath, a victory of amateur versus professional, of youth versus age, of desire versus talent, and most importantly; of democracy over communism.

Suggested Reading:

Donald Abelson: Politics on Ice: The United States, the Soviet Union, and A Hockey Game in Lake Placid. 

Wayne Coffey: The Boys of Winter. 

Chad Seifreid: An Exploration into Melodrama and Sport, The ‘Miracle on Ice’ and the Cold War Lens. 

Bonus: Here is Kurt Russell, playing American Coach Herb Brooks in the 2004 film, Miracle, portraying Coach Brooks’ final speech to his team before the game. Arguably one of the best sport movie speeches of all time.