Has it Really Been 39 Years?

The United States’ 4-3 win over the Soviet Union in the 1980 Olympic Games in Lake Placid is considered by many to be the single most significant event in the history of American sports, certainly American sports in the 20th century. The game was played on February 22, 1980, exactly 39 years ago as this is written.

Here are a few notes and reflections while I’m wondering where 39 years went.


The Stakes—The game was not an Olympic final, nor was it semifinal in the purest sense of the word. The Olympic tournament format was different then. Two groups of six teams each played a round robin with the top two teams in each division advancing to the medal round to play the two teams from the other group. But they took with them the result of their game with the other qualifier from their own group.


Sweden and the United States each finished 4-0-1 in the Blue Division and advanced to the medal round, taking with them the 2-2 tie they played against each other. The Soviet Union (5-0) and Finland (3-2) advanced from the Red Division, taking with them the USSR’s 4-2 win over Finland in group play.

At the start of the medal round the standings looked like this

W      L      T      Pts

Soviet Union      1       0      0        2

United States      0       0      1       1

Sweden               0       0      1       1

Finland               0        1       0      0


On Friday the 22nd, the U.S. faced the Soviet Union followed by Sweden against Finland. The Sunday schedule would feature the U.S. against Finland and Sweden against the USSR regardless of Friday’s results.


How good were the Soviets?—At that point in hockey history, the Soviet national team was the best hockey team in the world. Eleven of the 20 players on the Olympic roster played for the Red Army team in the Soviet Union’s domestic league (officially CSKA Moscow. They were in the army but their military duty consisted of playing hockey. While the Olympics were restricted to amateurs at that time, the Soviet players were amateurs in name only.

The lineup featured Vladislav Tretiak, considered the finest goaltender in the world at the time, along with center Vladimir Petrov, left wing Valeri Kharlamov, and defenseman Viacheslav Fetisov among others.

The Soviets arrived in Lake Placid having won the last four Olympic titles.


What about the Americans? —The American team consisted primarily of college players. Apart from captain Mike Eruzione and Buzz Schneider (both 25) no one on the roster was older than 22. The youngest player on the roster, Mike Ramsey, was 19. The goaltender, Jim Craig, was 22.

The coach was Herb Brooks, who took a leave of absence  from the University of Minnesota to coach the Olympic team. He eliminated the rivalry between the New England and Midwestern fractions on his roster by giving his players a common enemy; himself.


The Game—Vladimir Krutov scored on a deflection to give the Soviets a 1-0 lead 9:12 into the first period Schneider tied the game with a log-range slapshot at 14:03. Sergei Makarov put the USSR back in front at 17:34. The Americans tied the game with one second remaining in the period after Tretiak gave up a long rebound of a long slapshot from Dave Christian. Mark Johnson put the rebound past Tretiak just before time expired. Indeed, the clock showed 0:00 but the officials ruled the goal counted and the Soviets, who had gone to their dressing room, had to put players back on the ice for the last second of the period.

Replay clearly showed the goal should have counted but video review by the officials was not permitted.


At the start of the second period, Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov replaced Tretiak was in goal with Vladimir Myshkin, which even today is regarded as one of the historic coaching blunders in the history of international hockey.

Aleksandr Maltsev scored the only goal of the second period at 2:18 to give the Soviets a 3-2 lead. They would not score again.

What is often overlooked is that the Soviets to that point were dominating the game. Jim Craig in the U.S. goal


Third period[edit]

The Americans got a power-play chance at 6:47 of the third period when Vladimir Krutov drew a high-sticking penalty. Johnson scored at 8:39 to tie the game at 3-3.

Eruzione scored what proved to be the winning goal with exactly 10 minutes left in the game on a shot from the high slot on a play on which Myshkin appeared to be screened.

The Soviets continued to generate scoring changes the rest of the way but never pulled their goaltender, something that just wasn’t done in the Soviet system. Of course, the USSR was so dominant in international play at the time that it seldom found itself behind late in a game.

On this occasion, the USSR outshot the U.S. 39-16.


The Aftermath—Two days after beating the Soviets, the U.S. defeated Finland and won the gold medal while the Soviets won silver by defeating Finland. Thirteen of the 20 players on the American roster went on to play in the NHL. Defenseman Ken Morrow joined the New York Islanders following the Olympics and helped them win the Stanley Cup—over the Philadelphia Flyers.

Five of the Soviet players later played in the NHL.


Fast facts—The game was not televised live in the U.S. ABC Sports, which had the American Olympic television rights at the time, asked that time game time be moved from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m. Eastern Time to facilitate a live telecast but the Soviets refused to go along.


Al Michaels, who called the game on TV with analyst Ken Dryden, got the hockey assignment in Lake Placid because he had experience calling hockey; exactly one game, the 1972 Olympic final in Sapporo, Japan which he did for NBC.

His Olympic performance certainly enhanced Michaels’s status in the broadcast industry, but he had already made a name for himself broadcasting baseball for the Cincinnati Reds and San Francisco Giants and had called some NFL games for CBS before joining ABC.


Final thoughts: For the young hockey players who are still reading this and are wondering if the occasion was as special as they’ve been told. Trust us when we say it most certainly was!






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