On February 24, 1980, at Lake Placid in upstate New York, the United States Olympic Hockey Team defeated Finland 4–2 to win the gold medal. The U.S. team had beat the team from the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) two nights previously in a game since called the “Miracle on Ice.” The final rankings were based on points accumulated in matches against the other teams in the medal round. Despite the common misconception that the Americans won gold the night they beat the Soviets, this did not occur until February 24 when they defeated Finland and finished the tournament undefeated. The Soviets finished with silver; Sweden won the bronze. As part of its centennial celebration in 2008, the International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) named the “Miracle on Ice” as the best international ice hockey story of the past 100 years.
The Soviet Union had won the gold medal in five of the six previous Winter Olympic Games, and entered the Lake Placid games as the heavy favorite. In the four Olympics following their 1960 bronze-medal finish at Squaw Valley, Soviet teams had gone 27–1–1 (wins-losses-ties) and outscored their opponents 175–44. In head-to-head match-ups against the United States, the cumulative score over that period was 28–7. In 1980, the Soviet team consisted primarily of professional players with significant experience in international play. By contrast, the United States’ team—led by head coach Herb Brooks — consisted exclusively of amateur players, and was the youngest team in the tournament and in U.S. national team history consisting mainly of college students.
The 1980 Winter Olympics, officially known as the XIII Olympic Winter Games (Les XIIIes Jeux olympiques d’hiver in French), ran from February 12 (with the Opening Ceremonies on Valentine’s Day) through February 24, 1980, in Lake Placid. This was the second time the Upstate New York village hosted the Games, the first being in 1932. The only other candidate city to bid for the Games was Vancouver-Garibaldi, British Columbia, Canada, which withdrew before the final vote (though Vancouver would eventually win the bid to host the 2010 Winter Olympics.) The mascot of the Games was “Roni”, a raccoon. The mask-like rings on a raccoon’s face recall the goggles and hats worn by many athletes in winter sports. The sports were played at the Olympic Center, Whiteface Mountain, Mt. Van Hoevenberg Olympic Bobsled Run, the Olympic Ski Jumps, the Cascade Cross Country Ski Center, and the Lake Placid High School Speed Skating Oval.
The ice hockey games were held at the Olympic Fieldhouse with a capacity of 8,000 and the Olympic Arena which held 2,500 spectators. The first game of the preliminary rounds saw Czechoslovakia beat Norway 11-0 on February 12 in the Olympic Arena. In Olympic group play, the United States team surprised many observers with their physical, cohesive play. The United States played their first game later that afternoon in the Olympic Fieldhouse against favored Sweden. Team U.S.A. earned a dramatic 2–2 draw by scoring with 27 seconds left after pulling goalie Jim Craig for an extra attacker. Had the Americans not scored this goal and all other results remained the same, the Soviet Union would have emerged with the gold medal on goal differential over the U.S. in the medal round.
In an evening game on February 14, Team U.S.A. scored a stunning 7-3 victory over Czechoslovakia, who were a favorite for the silver medal. With its two toughest games in the group phase out of the way, the U.S. team reeled off three more wins, beating Norway 5–1, Romania 7–2, and West Germany 4–2 to go 4–0–1 and advance to the medal round from its group, along with Sweden.
In the other group, the Soviets stormed through their opposition undefeated, often by grossly lopsided scores. They defeated Japan 16–0, the Netherlands 17–4, Poland 8–1, Finland 4–2, and Canada 6–4 to easily qualify for the next round, although both the Finns and the Canadians gave the Soviets tough games for two periods. In the end, the Soviet Union and Finland advanced from their group.
For the first game in the medal round, the United States played the Soviets. The Soviets were led by legendary players in world ice hockey, such as Boris Mikhailov (a top line right winger and team captain), Vladislav Tretiak (the consensus best goaltender in the world at the time), the speedy and skilled Valeri Kharlamov, and talented, dynamic players such as defenseman Viacheslav Fetisov and forwards Vladimir Krutov and Sergei Makarov. From that team, Tretiak, Kharlamov, Makarov, and Fetisov would eventually be enshrined in the Hockey Hall of Fame. Many of the Soviet players had gained attention in the Summit Series eight years before and, in contrast to the American players, were de facto professionals with long histories of international play, employed by industrial firms or military organizations for the sole purpose of playing hockey on their organization’s team. Western nations protested the Soviet Union’s use of full-time athletes, as they were forced to use amateur (mainly college) players due to the International Olympic Committee’s (IOC) amateur-only policy. The situation even led to Canadian withdrawal from the 1972 and 1976 Olympics, but the IOC did not change the rules until the late 1980s.
U.S. head coach Herb Brooks held tryouts in Colorado Springs in the summer of 1979. Of the 20 players who eventually made the final Olympic roster, Buzz Schneider was the only one returning from the 1976 Olympic team. Nine players had played under Brooks at the University of Minnesota (including Rob McClanahan, Mike Ramsey, and Phil Verchota), while four more were from Boston University (Dave Silk, Jack O’Callahan, goaltender Jim Craig, and team captain Mike Eruzione). As Boston University and Minnesota were perennial rivals in college hockey, hostility between some of the players carried over onto the Olympic team for the first few months. However, part of Brooks’ selection process was a 300-question psychological test that would give him insight on how every player would react under stress; anyone who refused to take the test would automatically fail. Brooks had to select from 68 players who started the tryout.
The average age of the U.S. team was 21 years old, making it the youngest team in U.S. history to play in the Olympics (in addition to being the youngest team in the 1980 Olympic tournament), but Brooks had selected carefully and knew the limits of every player. As forward John Harrington said, “He knew exactly where to quit. He’d push you right to the limit where you were ready to say, ‘I’ve had it, I’m throwing it in’ — and then he’d back off.” Brooks continued the organization by campaigning for the players’ selection of Eruzione as the captain, and Craig had been the goalie for him in the 1979 World Championship tournament. Assistant coach Craig Patrick had played with Brooks on the 1967 U.S. national team.
The Soviet and American teams were natural rivals due to the decades-old Cold War. In addition, President Jimmy Carter was at the time considering a U.S. boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics, to be held in Moscow, in protest of the December 1979 Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. On February 9, the same day the American and Soviet teams met in an exhibition game in New York City, U.S. Secretary of State Cyrus Vance denounced the impending Moscow games at an IOC meeting. President Carter eventually decided in favor of the boycott.
Prior to the Olympic game against the Soviet Union, ABC requested that it be rescheduled from 5:00 p.m. to 8:00 p.m. Eastern Time so that it could be broadcast live in primetime hours. However, the IIHF declined the request after the Soviets complained that it would cause the game to air at 4 a.m. Moscow Time, as opposed to 1 a.m. Moscow Time. As a result, ABC decided not to broadcast the game live for the U.S. audience and instead tape delayed it for broadcast during its primetime block of Olympics coverage. Before the game aired, ABC’s Olympics host Jim McKay openly stated that the game had already occurred but that they had promised not to spoil its results. In order to accommodate coverage of the men’s slalom competition, portions of the game were also edited for time. To this day, some who watched the game on television still believe that it was live.
With a capacity of 8,500, the Fieldhouse was packed. The home crowd waved U.S. flags and sang patriotic songs such as “God Bless America.” Before the game, Brooks read his players a statement he had written out on a piece of paper, telling them that “You were born to be a player. You were meant to be here. This moment is yours.” Brooks believed they could win and later said, “The Russians were ready to cut their own throats. But we had to get to the point to be ready to pick up the knife and hand it to them. So the morning of the game I called the team together and told them, ‘It’s meant to be. This is your moment and it’s going to happen.’ It’s kind of corny and I could see them thinking, ‘Here goes Herb again….’ But I believed it.”
As in several previous games, the U.S. team fell behind early. Vladimir Krutov deflected a slap shot by Alexei Kasatonov past U.S. goaltender Jim Craig at the 9:12 mark to give the Soviets a 1–0 lead, and after Buzz Schneider scored for the United States on a 50-foot shot from the left boards at 14:03 to tie the game, the Soviets struck again when Sergei Makarov scored with 17:34 gone. With his team down 2–1, Craig improved his play, turning away many Soviet shots before the U.S. team had another shot on goal.
In the waning seconds of the first period, Dave Christian fired a slap shot on Tretiak from 100 feet (30 m) away. The Soviet goalie saved the shot but misplayed the rebound, which bounced out some 20 feet (6.1 m) in front of him. Mark Johnson sliced between the two defenders, found the loose puck, and fired it past a diving Tretiak to tie the score with one second left in the period. This would be an important judgment call by the officials, as an official announcement confirming the goal did not come until many Soviet players were off the ice and heading to the locker room for intermission. The first period ended with the game tied 2–2.
Tikhonov replaced Tretiak with backup goaltender Vladimir Myshkin immediately after Johnson’s tying goal, a move that shocked players on both teams. Tikhonov later identified this as the “turning point of the game” and called it “the biggest mistake of my career.” Years later, when Johnson asked Viacheslav Fetisov, now an NHL teammate, about the move, Fetisov responded with “Coach crazy.” Myshkin allowed no goals in the second period. The Soviets dominated play in the second period, outshooting the Americans 12–2, but scored only once, on a power play goal by Aleksandr Maltsev 2:18 into play. After two periods the Soviet Union led, 3–2.
Vladimir Krutov was sent to the penalty box at the 6:47 mark of the third period for high-sticking. The Americans, who had managed only two shots on Myshkin in 27 minutes, had a power play and a rare offensive opportunity. Myshkin stopped a Mike Ramsey shot, then U.S. team captain Mike Eruzione fired a shot wide. Late in the power play, Dave Silk was advancing into the Soviet zone when Valeri Vasiliev knocked him to the ice. The puck slid to Mark Johnson. Johnson fired off a shot that went under Myshkin and into the net at the 8:39 mark, as the power play was ending, tying the game at 3. Only a couple of shifts later, Mark Pavelich passed to Eruzione, who was left undefended in the high slot. Eruzione, who had just come onto the ice, fired a shot past Myshkin, who was screened by Vasili Pervukhin. This goal gave Team U.S.A. a 4–3 lead, its first of the game, with exactly 10 minutes remaining to play.
The Soviets, trailing for the first time in the game, attacked ferociously. Moments after Eruzione’s goal, Maltsev fired a shot which ricocheted off the right goal post. As the minutes wound down, Brooks kept repeating to his players, “Play your game. Play your game.” Instead of going into a defensive crouch, the United States continued to play offense, even getting off a few more shots on goal. The Soviets began to shoot wildly, and Sergei Starikov admitted that “we were panicking.” As the clock ticked down below a minute, the Soviets got the puck back into the American zone, and Mikhailov passed to Vladimir Petrov, who shot wide. The Soviets never pulled Myshkin for an extra attacker, much to the Americans’ disbelief; Starikov later explained that “We never did six-on-five,” not even in practice, because “Tikhonov just didn’t believe in it.” Craig kicked away a Petrov slap shot with 33 seconds left. Kharlamov fired the puck back in as the clock ticked below 20 seconds. A wild scramble for the puck ensued, ending when Johnson found it and passed it to Ken Morrow. As the U.S. team tried to clear the zone (move the puck over the blue line, which they did with seven seconds remaining), the crowd began to count down the seconds left. Sportscaster Al Michaels, who was calling the game on ABC along with former Montreal Canadiens goaltender Ken Dryden, picked up on the countdown in his broadcast, and delivered his famous call:
11 seconds, you’ve got 10 seconds, the countdown going on right now! Morrow, up to Silk. Five seconds left in the game. Do you believe in miracles? YES!
As his team ran all over the ice in celebration, Herb Brooks sprinted back to the locker room and cried. In the locker room afterwards, players spontaneously broke into a chorus of “God Bless America” and received a congratulatory phone call from President Jimmy Carter.
During the broadcast wrap-up after the game, ABC Olympic sports anchor Jim McKay compared the American victory over the Soviet professionals to a group of Canadian college football players defeating the Pittsburgh Steelers (the recent Super Bowl champions and at the height of their dynasty).
In the Soviet locker room, Tikhonov singled out first-line players Tretiak, Kharlamov, Petrov, and Mikhailov, and told each of them, “This is your loss!” Two days after the Miracle on Ice, the Soviet team defeated Sweden 9–2, winning the silver medal. The Soviet players were so upset at their loss that they did not turn in their silver medals to get their names inscribed on them, as is custom. The result stunned the Soviet Union and its news media.
The United States did not immediately win the gold medal upon defeating the USSR. In 1980, the medal round was a round-robin, not a single elimination format as it is today. Under Olympic rules at the time, the group game with Sweden was counted along with the medal round games versus the Soviet Union and Finland, so it was mathematically possible for the United States to finish anywhere from first to fourth.
Needing to win to secure the gold medal, Team USA came back from a 2–1 third-period deficit to defeat Finland 4–2. According to Mike Eruzione, coming into the dressing room for the second intermission, Brooks turned to his players, looked at them, and said, “If you lose this game, you’ll take it to your fucking graves.” He then walked towards the locker room door, paused, looked over his shoulder, and said to them again, “Your fucking graves.”
At the time, the players ascended a podium to receive their medals and then lined up on the ice for the playing of the national anthem, as the podium was only meant to accommodate one person. Only the team captains remained on the podium for the duration. After the completion of the anthem, Eruzione motioned for his teammates to join him on the podium. Today, podiums are not used for ice hockey; the teams line up on their respective blue lines after the final game.
The cover of the March 3, 1980, issue of Sports Illustrated was a photograph by Heinz Kluetmeier of the American players celebrating and waving an American flag; it did not feature any explanatory captions or headlines, because, as Kluetmeier put it, “It didn’t need it. Everyone in America knew what happened.” The U.S. team also received the magazine’s “Sportsmen of the Year” award, and were also named Athlete of the Year by the Associated Press and ABC’s Wide World of Sports. In 2004, ESPN, as part of its 25th anniversary, declared the Miracle on Ice to be the top sports headline moment, and game of the period 1979–2004.
At the 1981 Canada Cup, the United States, with seven players from their 1980 Olympic team, again faced the Soviet Union. The Soviets took the opening round encounter 4–1 in Edmonton. At the 1982 World Championship in Finland, with Mike Ramsey, Mark Johnson, Buzz Schneider, and John Harrington, the Americans again met the Soviets, but once again the U.S. lost, 8–4.
Despite the loss, the USSR remained the pre-eminent power in Olympic hockey until its 1991 break-up. The Soviet team did not lose a World Championship game until 1985 and did not lose to the United States again until 1991. Throughout the 1980s, NHL teams continued to draft Soviet players in hopes of enticing them to eventually play in North America. Soviet emigrant Victor Nechayev made a brief appearance with the Los Angeles Kings in the 1982–1983 season, and during the 1988–1989 season, the Soviet Ice Hockey Federation agreed to let veteran Sergei Pryakhin join the Calgary Flames.
Of the 20 players on Team USA, 13 eventually played in the NHL. Five of them went on to play over 500 NHL games, and three would play over 1,000 NHL games.
A made-for-TV movie called Miracle on Ice, starring Karl Malden as Brooks and Steve Guttenberg as Craig, aired on ABC television in March 1981. It incorporated actual game footage and original commentary from the 1980 Winter Games. The documentary film Do You Believe in Miracles?, narrated by Liev Schreiber, premiered on HBO in February 2001 and was subsequently released on home video. In 2004, Walt Disney Pictures released the film Miracle, starring Kurt Russell as Brooks. Al Michaels recreated his commentary for most of the games. The final ten seconds, however, and his “Do you believe in miracles? YES!” call, were from the original broadcast and used in the film since the filmmakers felt that they could not ask him to recreate the emotion he felt at that moment. The film was dedicated to Herb Brooks, who died shortly after principal photography was completed. Fast Forward, the final episode of People’s Century featured the Miracle on Ice as illustrating the Cold War. The documentary Of Miracles And Men, which was directed by Jonathan Hock, premiered on ESPN on February 8, 2015, as part of the channel’s 30 for 30 series. The story of the 1980 matchup is told from the Soviet perspective.
The victory became one of the most iconic moments of the Games and in U.S. sports. Equally well-known was the television call of the final seconds of the game by Al Michaels for ABC, in which he declared: “Do you believe in miracles?! YES!” In 1999, Sports Illustrated named the “Miracle on Ice” the top sports moment of the 20th century.
While I have never been a big sports fan, I have always enjoyed watching as much of the Olympic Games as I possibly can, particularly the Winter Games. I had begun collecting stamps a couple of years before the 1976 Games in Innsbruck and Montréal but I really began accumulating Olympic-related philatelic material at time of the Lake Placid Olympics. I made my first event cachets for the Torch Relay, dutifully sending these to the postmasters of the route cities which offered special cancellations. I had a nice collection of event covers from the various Olympics substations in and around Lake Placid and managed to acquire quite a bit of ancillary material (including a gym bag with the Lake Placid Olympics emblem that I kept with me through high school and into college, various ticket stubs and programs, all manner of souvenir magazines and books and so much more). Sadly, that box of Lake Placid material remained behind when I moved to Thailand nearly fifteen years ago and eventually succumbed to the ravages of temperature extremes in my sister’s Kansas basement.
However, the memories remain with me. I was caught up in some of the drama surrounding the Games including Eric Heiden’s five gold medals in speed skating and the withdrawal of five-time U.S. national figure skating pairs champions Tai Babilonia and Randy Gardner just prior to the gold medal competition. The couple had won the 1979 World Figure Skating Championships and were medal favorites until Gardner injured his groin muscle and was in too much pain to compete. Shortly afterward, I wrote a letter to them and actually received a reply from Babilonia (whom I had a crush on at the time due to her exotic beauty; she is part Filipino, part Native American and part African American). I created a display containing her thank you card along with the stamp Paraguay released in early 1983 depicting her and Randy Gardner (Scott #2076b).
Most of all, I remember the Miracle on Ice game and the chants of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” I have long had a patriotism streak inside of me, particularly when it comes to the history of my country. This was the first time that I truly felt that I was witnessing history as it happened. Our victory over the Soviet Union as well as the subsequent Olympic boycotts (us against Moscow, them against Los Angeles) that sparked a deep interest in what was then a very mysterious society and nation, an interest fed by stories in my family of land held in Russia prior to the Revolution and of being in a societal class that allowed an ancestor of my father’s to dance with the Czarina at an early-twentieth century ball. My fascination with all things Russia continues to this day.
Thus, I chose a Soviet stamp for my “Miracle on Ice” ASAD article. Scott #4809 was released as part of a set of five stamps and one souvenir sheet (Scott #4807-4812) issued exactly one month before the medal round game with Team U.S.A. The stamps to commemorate the Winter Olympics held at Lake Placid were printed using offset lithography and perforated either 12×12½ or 12½x12 depending on horizontal or vertical orientation. There were 6,300,000 copies of the 10-kopeck ice hockey stamp printed. It, and the freestyle skating stamp (Scott #4808), also exist imperforate with a value of U.S. $50 for the pair.