We have all seen upsets in sports before. We might see a number one team in college football lose to an unranked bottom feeder, a team barely making the NBA playoffs sweeping the defending champs in the first round, a boxer throwing a desperate punch and knocking out a champion. But forty years ago today, on Feb. 22, 1980, the sports world was rocked to its core. The U.S. Men’s hockey team beat the mighty Soviet Union team at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid, NY.
This upset was truly a David versus Goliath upset. The Americans had no reason or chance to win… at least that is what everyone thought.
In the Olympics then, there were strict “amateur” rules on who was eligible. Professional athletes were not allowed to play. Hence Americans couldn’t send NBA or NHL players in the Olympics even if they wanted to. So, the USA (and most of the world) had to rely on college kids and other non-professionals. Once you were done with school, you got a job and trained on your own time. The Communist Bloc, however, found an obvious way around that. They more or less gave athletes bogus jobs and paid them to train all the time. They were essentially professionals.
The Soviets dominated the international hockey scene because of this. Prior to this game, they had won five Gold Medals and 14 World Championships. They had been playing together for years and were a well-oiled machine. In contrast, the Americans had only been together for a few months. They were college kids who usually only had one chance at the Olympic games because of the amateur rules.
In an exhibition at Madison Square Garden before the Olympics, the USA was trashed by the Soviets by a score of 10-3. The Soviets went into the Olympic games as a very confident team.
As the tournament progressed in the round-robin format, both teams played well. The Americans fought to a draw and several victories, while the Soviets steamrolled everyone they played.
People often forget, but it wasn’t the Gold Medal Game. And if you remember watching it live, you remember wrong — the game was on a tape delay by about three hours. Over 18,500 people packed the arena at Lake Placid, and there was a patriotic fervor in the air. People claim the U-S-A chant started that night.
Nowadays, we are used to the super-patriotic feelings at sporting events, but things were different back then.
America was in a bit of a rough spot.
There was still a pall hanging over the country over the lives lost in Vietnam, made worse when Saigon fell in 1975. There was inflation and gas shortages to deal with. The value of the dollar was low. There was stagnation in the economy. Urban decay and high rates of violent crime racked American cities. The Ayatollah in Iran was still holding Americans hostage after the embassy takeover.
The mood could best be described by a term that was applied to a Jimmy Carter speech – “malaise.”
Americans really needed a moment of pride. It came that night.The USA played hard, scrappy, and didn’t back down. They went down three times and came back to tie three times. They went ahead in the third period on a Mike Eruzione goal to make it 4-3. When you look at the stats of the game, the U.S. was really outplayed in most aspects. They held off the Soviet attack 10 minutes, which probably seemed like an eternity.
As the time clicked off the clock, the crowd grew more insane, and the arena turned into a human pressure cooker ready to blow.
Al Michaels, feverishly counted down the time with one of the most iconic calls of all time.
“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!”
The effect was immediate. Pandemonium reigned in the stands. Players exuberantly celebrated. The Soviets looked on in shock and awe. Coach Herb Brooks ran into the locker room and broke down in tears. When the players went in, they broke out into “God Bless America.” They then took a call from President Carter (and they still had a game to go to win Gold!).
Seriously this video will give you chills.
Sports Illustrated didn’t even have to put words on the cover. The picture alone told the story.
The country was gripped with patriotic fervor, and after what seemed like a long national nightmare, Americans felt that miracles do indeed happen, and good times were ahead.