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The First Miracle on Ice
Sunday, December 23
Updated: August 11, 8:58 PM ET
College kids perform Olympic miracle
By Kevin Allen
Editor's note: This article originally appeared as a chapter in "USA Hockey: A Celebration of a Great Tradition."
What the U.S. hockey team did to the Soviets on the ice at Lake Placid in 1980 hardly compares to what they did to the hearts and minds of American people. "It's the most transcending moment in the history of our sport in this country," gushed Dave Ogrean, former executive director of USA Hockey. "For people who were born between 1945 and 1955, they know where they were when John Kennedy was shot, when man walked on the moon, and when the USA beat the Soviet Union in Lake Placid."
Those in attendance remember the incredible number of American flags that were in the crowd that day, not small flags that fit comfortably in the hands of small children, but mammoth flags that were usually found on 30-foot flag polls. Americans were overcome by patriotism.
"Right after we won I got bags of mail," Eruzione said. "It was like in the movie "Miracle on 34th Street" when they bring in all that mail to Santa. That's what I used to get."
The U.S. team, made up of college players and long-shot pro aspirants like Eruzione and Buzz Schneider, defeated a Russian program that had dominated the Olympics since 1964. The U.S. team beat a Russian team that had seven players from the 1976 Olympic team and one player who had played in three other Olympiads.
Somehow over time, the U.S. team has been miscast as a group of overachievers, even though the core group of players, Mark Johnson, Neal Broten, Mark Pavelich, Ken Morrow, Dave Christian, and Mike Ramsey, also made significant marks in the NHL.
"Maybe we overachieved," Ramsey said. "But we were a damn good hockey team."
The USA had speed, defense, scorers, conditioning, goaltending, and coaching - a complete team, something the Soviets didn't realize until it was too late. The Soviets had expected to win the tournament with the same ease with which they had dispatched all comers at the 1976 Olympics in Innsbruck, Austria. Further buoying their confidence was the 10-3 licking they had applied to the Americans in an exhibition at Madison Square Garden just one week before the world arrived at Lake Placid.
The Americans trailed in six of their seven Olympic wins, including the gold medal game, which they won 4-2 over Finland. In their opener, defenseman Bill Baker scored with 27 seconds left to give the USA a 2-2 tie with Sweden in the opening game of the tournament. Would the Miracle of Lake Placid have occurred if Baker had not scored? Probably not. The tie was important because the Americans had a gloomy history with Sweden. They hadn't beaten the Swedes since 1960. Baker's goal lifted the team's morale like the thrust of a rocket booster.
The Americans then dominated the Czechoslovakians, winning 7-3 with seven different goal scorers. That outcome surprised many, particularly the Czechs, who had entered the tournament with aspirations of at least a silver medal. The Czech team had the Stastny brothers -- Petr, Marian, and Anton -- who would later defect for a chance to play in the NHL with the Quebec Nordiques.
Then Norway was taken, followed by Romania and West Germany. Coach Herb Brooks had been worried about the Germans, because they had beaten the USA 4-1 in 1976 at Innsbruck, undermining coach Bob Johnson's hope of a bronze medal. They didn't have the talent to compete with the Americans. They weren't fancy, like the Swedes, Czechs, Finns, and Soviets. But they were dangerous because they played hockey as if it was trench warfare. They were tough and determined, not like the German players who the Americans whipped in the 1960s.
Enraged by their ineffectiveness, the Americans stepped up their game in the second period. But they weren't able to tie the game until Neal Broten scored with 1:29 remaining in that period. Rob McClanahan and Phil Verchota scored in the third period to complete the 4-2 win.
Although the Americans won, the game didn't help them in the standings. Ironically, at that point in the tournament, the Americans were trying to avoid facing the Soviets. The U.S. was tied with Sweden for the first place in the Blue Pool, and the loser of the tiebreaker system would play the Soviets first in the medal round. The Americans wanted to win the Blue Pool to assure they would play the Finns first and then play the Soviets for the gold medal. Therefore, the U.S. hoped the Czechs would defeat the Swedes in the final Blue Pool game, assuring the United States would win the Blue Pool and face the Finns first. However, the Swedes beat the Czechs, so the United States hoped to beat Germany by seven goals so they would have a better goal differential against the Swedes and win the first tiebreaker and the Blue Pool. But the United States only beat the Germans by a two-goal margin. They would have to play the Soviets first. Destiny awaited.
Brooks wondered whether he had successfully exorcised the players' memories of the humiliating defeat they had suffered in Madison Square Garden at the hands of the Soviets. "Our guys were applauding the Soviets when they were introduced," he recalled.
One of coach Herb Brooks's goals before the Olympics was to "break down the Soviets to mortals." He told his players that the great Boris Mikhailov looked like Stan Laurel of the comedy team Laurel and Hardy. He hoped his players would stop looking at Mikhailov as if he was hockey's Zeus.
"You can beat Stan Laurel, can't you?" Brooks would ask.
The Soviets weren't hockey gods, but they were legends. Mikhailov, goaltender Vladislav Tretiak, Alexander Maltsev, Vladimir Petrov, Vasili Vasiliev, and Valeri Kharlamov were all members of the Soviet team that had played against the NHL All-Stars in the 1972 Summit Series. The NHLers thought they would dominate the Soviets in all eight games. Instead, they needed a goal by Paul Henderson with 34 seconds left in regulation of the final game to win the tournament with 4-3-1 record.
As expected, the Soviets' Olympic team began an immediate offensive blitzkrieg against the Americans, but the Americans were staying with them. Craig was looking sharp, as sharp as he ever had. The team was gaining confidence as the first period progressed, even if they were getting out-shot badly. "When you are an underdog, all you are looking to do is keep the game close so you will have a chance to win it in the end," Mark Johnson would say later.
He was twenty-two years old, yet he probably had as much hockey savvy as some of the veteran Soviets. Though he hadn't played as much as they had, Johnson possessed a sense about the game that other Americans did not. As the son of the legendary American coach Bob Johnson, he had soaked up every bit of insight that was available in every hockey school his father had run and when his father had coached the national team in 1975.
Johnson was a senior at Madison Memorial High School in 1976 when his father, needing a player at the last minute, decided to add his wunderkind son to the Team USA roster for the pre-Olympic tour. Mark held his own on the team, but Bob Johnson felt there would be too much pressure on his son if he took him to the Olympics. Everyone might believe he was there just because his father was the coach.
Although Johnson was probably the best player in college hockey, he had some concerns about making the 1980 Olympic team because Brooks and his dad were bitter rivals. When Brooks was at Minnesota and Johnson was at Wisconsin, they never had anything good to say about each other. "They got along with Germany and France," said agent Art Kaminsky, who considered himself friends with both men.
Mark Johnson said he was never comfortable that he would be on the team until the pre-Olympic tour in Oslo, Norway, when Brooks told him the was counting on him to be a leader as well as a player. Did he really believe Brooks might cut him because of his feud with his father? "Hey," Johnson said, "stranger things have happened in hockey."
But Brooks's desire to win at the Olympics meant more to him than prolonging any feud. He even patched up his considerable difference with Kaminsky, an important step because the agent Kaminsky was going to represent most of the players Brooks wanted for his team. Kaminsky said that prior to their peace accord, Brooks considered him "vermin." Kaminsky jokingly responded: "And I thought he was a maniac."
After Brooks and Kaminsky had each vented their frustrations with the other, they decided to work together, knowing that a successful run at the Olympic Games would be best for all concerned.
On the ice, Mark Johnson lived up to his reputation. He had several big goals, including two against the Russians. He wasn't intimidated by the Russians. Every Sunday, he had played in what his father called the "The Russian Game." His father had Russian jerseys made with all of the top Russian names sewn on the back. Mark Johnson had played against Mikhailov many times, although the player wearing the jersey never had quite the same talent as the namesake.
With this team trailing 2-1 near the end of the first period, Johnson split two defenders to drive hard to the net after Dave Christian cranked a long shot. Tretiak didn't surrender many rebounds, but this puck bounced off his pads as if it had a spring attached. It went directly to Johnson, who drilled it past him with one second left. The goal gave the USA a major lift going into the second period. After Johnson's goal, Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov stunned one and all by removing Tretiak and replacing him with Myshkin.
The Americans assumed Treiak would be back, but he wasn't. Not many coaches would have had the courage to remove a Russian hockey legend from goal after only one period in the world's most important international hockey tournament, but Tikhonov was no ordinary coach. He was a dictator, as hated as he was successful. Even today, Detroit Red Wing standouts Igor Larionov and Slava Fetisov curse the methods Tikhonov used to keep the Soviets powerful.
Years later, when Johnson found himself playing on the same New Jersey Devils team with Slava Fetisov and Alexei Kasatonov, another member of the 1980 Soviet team, he asked Fetisov why Tikhonov had pulled Tretiak.
Fetisov just shook his head and said two words with his thick Russian accent: "Coach crazy."
Vladimir Myshkin was hardly a second-rate replacement, as he had shut out NHL All-Stars, 6-0, the year before. But clearly, Tretiak's presence had a negative psychological effect on the Americans, an air of invincibility, even if they had scored two goals against him.
Going into the third period, the Americans finally believed they could beat the Soviets. Johnson scored the tying goal on a power play at 8:39 of the third period.
All of America rejoiced.
The celebration that followed the game felt surreal to the players involved. Craig was buried by the crush of his teammates, and sticks and gloves were scattered everywhere. Euphoria reigned, and for the next few hours, players were besieged by well-wishers. Fans lined the short distance between the arena to the media center, forcing the team bus to inch it way toward the press conference. As fans banged on the bus, one player, most seem to think it was Neal Broten, started singing, "God Bless America." Other players quickly joined in.
U.S. team physician V. George Nagobads, a native of Latvia, talked with Soviet players after the Olympics. Most of them didn't seem mortally wounded by they loss, although Vasili Vasilyev was perplexed that the U.S. had managed to defeat his strong team.
"What did you give your players to eat or drink so in the third period they can skate like that?" Vasilyev asked. "Last period is always ours. In second period, when we were ahead 3-2, we celebrate."
Nagobads, who speaks some Russian, replied, "It's called the fountain of youth."
Years after the event, it's easier to see that the Soviets badly underestimated the Americans' talent. After soundly beating the United States in Madison Square Garden, the Soviets never entertained the possibility that the Americans would give them a better game in their next meeting.
Also, the Soviets never thought that Craig was capable of playing as well as Tretiak did in his prime. Craig gave the United States the same quality goaltending Jack McCartan had supplied the gold medal-winning 1960 team. Brooks expected no less from Craig, who was his goaltending choice from the beginning.
Craig was a complicated man whose habit of saying the wrong thing at the wrong time made him a lightning rod for controversy. He came across as arrogant, even though those who knew him said he really wasn't like that. Overall, most teammates did like Craig, and all of them respected his ability to play goal. Craig oozed confidence like no goaltender they had ever seen.
Boston University coach Jack Parker recruited Craig out of Massasoit Junior College, actually grabbing him away from Jack Kelley, his former coach, who wanted Craig for his Colby team. Parker was honest with Craig, telling him from the beginning that he had offered a scholarship to Mark Holden of Weymouth, Massachusetts. Parker also had Brian Durocher penciled in as one goaltender. If Holden accepted, Craig wouldn't get a scholarship, as Parker didn't have three scholarships for goaltenders.
"I understand," Craig told Parker. "But I've seen Durocher and I've seen Holden and I'm going to be your goalie."
Holden didn't go to Boston University. Two years later, in 1978, Craig was 16-0-0 with a 3.72 goals-against average and Durocher, grandnephew of baseball legend Leo Durocher, was 14-2-3, as they split duties during Boston University's national championship season in 1978.
"He's the best college goaltender I've seen with the exception of Ken Dryden," Parker said. "[Two-time Olympic coach] Dave Peterson used to tell me that Craig was absolutely perfect technically."
Parker remembered that when he watched Craig practice, it would seem as if "the net had disappeared behind him." Craig's best asset was his confidence. He hated to get beaten by a shooter. "When you are good, and you know you are good, it's the greatest feeling in the world," Parker said. "And Jimmy Craig had that feeling."
Brooks seemed to understand how to push Craig's buttons better than anyone. Just before the Olympics, Brooks told Craig he might have made a mistake by playing him too much. He left the impression that he didn't believe Craig was playing all that well.
"You are playing tired, and your curveball is hanging." Brooks said to him.
That might have devastated some players, but that kind of talk simply fueled Craig, who could transform anger into energy. During the Olympics, he never looked tired.
Brooks was not like any hockey coach these players had experienced before. He was hockey's version of George Patton or Norman Schwarzkopf. In style, he was a combination dictator-philosopher whose instructions forced his players to think as well as act. Every day was an adventure in psychology for the guys wearing the red, white, and blue. "He got inside our heads," Ramsey said.
Backup goaltender Steve Janaszak recalled a nose-to-nose confrontation when Brooks convinced left-winger Rob McClanahan to continue playing in the tournament opener against Sweden despite a severe charley horse. Brooks questioned McClanahan's manhood in a curse-filled tirade and called him a "cake eater." McClanahan responded with cursing of his own. The scene was ugly.
The enraged McClanahan went out and played as well as he could with his muscle knotted. "That locker room scene is still vivid in my mind," Janaszak said more than a decade later.
Brooks's attack on McClanahan probably had little to do with McClanahan and more to do with the fact that Americans weren't playing well in their first Olympic test. Brooks tried to unify his team against him, a technique he used on many occasions, and sent a message to his players that the team was going to overcome all obstacles. Players kept a notebook of what they called "Brooksisms." One of them was "This team isn't talented enough to win on talent alone."
Before the game against the Soviets, Brooks took out a note card and read a prepared text. "You were born to be a player. You were meant to be here." His players believed him.
Brooks said the 1980 Olympic team members embodied qualities he admired most. "The players had big egos, but they didn't have ego problems. That's why all-star teams traditionally seem to self-destruct. We didn't."
The players' mental toughness was demonstrated when they came back from behind to beat Finland 4-2 to capture the gold medal two days after stunning the Soviets. It's been forgotten by many that if the United States had fallen to Finland, it would not have earned a medal at all, gold or otherwise.
"If we don't win tomorrow," Craig told the media gathering after the Russian game, "people will forget us."
What made the U.S. team so special was that every player was a hero in his own way. Defenseman Jack O'Callahan's knee was so badly injured in the last exhibition game against the Soviets that he should have headed for surgery and not Lake Placid.
And there was the Conehead line of Mark Pavelich, John Harrington, and Buzz Schneider, named after the Saturday Night Live alien characters. All three players were from Minnesota's Iron Range, and none of them played a style that could be easily copied.
Eruzione recalled their strange play. "They were the only line that stayed intact because no one could play with them," Eruzione says. "I played with them once, and I had no idea what I was doing or where I was going."
Brooks liked to use the Conehead unit when he needed some creativity or a home run swing. When the play looked innocent, that's when the Coneheads were most dangerous.
Craig Patrick said years later that the well-traveled Schneider was probably the unsung hero of the 1980 squad. At twenty-five, he was the oldest player on the team and the only returnee from the 1976 Olympic squad. Playing on his fifth national team, his leadership was probably as important as Eruzione's. Schneider was among the leading scorers in the tournament. He had almost stopped playing hockey when he failed in a tryout with the Pittsburgh Penguins. Before then, Schneider had played briefly in Hershey, Saginaw, Oklahoma City, Birmingham, Hampton, and Europe.
"I was the only player in the Penguins camp without a contract," Schneider said. "They only needed me as a practice body."
Even when the 1980 Olympics ended, the celebration continued. Dave Ogrean, then a young public relations director for USA Hockey, remembered boarding a plane to head home, thinking how nice it would be to catch up on the sleep he lost in the gold medal revelry.
The flight attendant's eyes widened as she noticed his Team USA hockey parka. But Ogrean cut her off with a quick shake of the head. He had just closed his eyes when the flight attendant announced over the public address system: "Ladies and gentleman, in 6C, we have a member of the U.S. gold medal hockey team." The plane filled with applause and hoots of delight.
"I really didn't want to take the time to explain to everyone that I wasn't a player, and besides, they wanted me to be a player," said Ogrean, now USA Hockey's executive director. "They wanted to come by and be a part of what had occurred at Lake Placid."
He thought quickly about what player he could pass for and settled on backup goaltender Janaszak, who had been the only team member not to register a minute of playing time at the Olympics. Ogrean figured no one would know Janaszak and signed many cocktail napkins that were passed his way.
Years later, he ran into Janaszak at a luncheon and confessed to the impersonation. He told Janaszak he signed fifteen autographs using his name. "That means there are probably sixteen napkins out there with my autograph," Janaszak joked.
One of Eruzione's favorite Olympic moments occurred years after the gold medal celebration and in Hartford, Connecticut, not Lake Placid, New York. Eruzione was set to drop the puck in a ceremonial pregame NHL face-off between the Hartford Whalers and Quebec Nordiques when the Quebec center addressed the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey captain by name. "Mike, you fooled us in Lake Placid," said Slovakian Peter Stastny, who played for Czechoslovakia in 1980.
Eruzione laughed. "He was absolutely right. We were better than anybody thought," Eruzione said.
But superior skill is not why America loved those players as much as they did. Players have said global politics wasn't an issue to them when they were playing against the Soviets in 1980, but it was an issue to those who watched.
The Soviets had helped created their negative image. After the 1960 debacle at Squaw Valley, they had begun sequestering their athletes, keeping them out of the public eye and therefore constructing a wall of mistrust. To Americans, Russian athletes had lost their humanity. To those who watched international competition on television, Russian athletes were state-run machines. Americans didn't know, or want to know, that Soviet athletes were flesh and marrow human beings who struggled, complained, and fought the system as much as American athletes.
The Soviets' dominance in hockey had humbled everyone, including the mighty Canadians, who didn't compete internationally in the 1970's because they viewed the Russians as professionals. Soviets players were Darth Vader on skates, unemotional soldiers from the evil empire.
Images of athletic Frankensteins created in laboratory experiments were conjured up because Americans couldn't believe that any country could produce better, more dedicated athletes than the United States. Steroids? Blood packing? Performance-enhancing drugs? Americans believed anything was possible with the Soviets.
Remember, the American public of 1980 was disillusioned. Ayatolla Khomeini had kept Americans imprisoned for more than 100 days. The Soviets had invaded Afghanistan. At home, America faced domestic inflation, unemployment, and economic uncertainty. The United States didn't seem to be as mighty on the global scene as it once was -- until its hockey team hit the ice.
That's why Americans loved the 1980 hockey team and their victory over the Soviets. They made America feel like it was back in control.
Reprinted from USA Hockey: A Celebration Of A Great Tradition © 1997 with permission of USA Hockey