This Day in History: The Men’s U.S. Hockey Team & the “Miracle on Ice”

On this day in 1980, the “Miracle on Ice” occurs. The United States men’s hockey team defeats the Soviets at the Lake Placid Olympic Games. It was a much-needed morale boost, just when our country needed it most.

Who can forget the late 70s? The economy was bad. Gas lines were long. Hostages were stuck in Iran. The Cold War was persistent. Naturally, the Olympic Games reflected that Cold War tension.

Hockey came to have a particular focus.

It didn’t look good for our boys. No one really believed that a group of college kids could beat the all-but-professional Soviet hockey team. But maybe someone forgot to tell the American coach that he was supposed to lose?

Herb Brooks fully intended to win. He’d selected the best of the best from American universities. Nevertheless, regional tensions threatened to undo his team. How could he get boys from rivaling universities to play together as a cohesive unit?

Simple. He gave them a common enemy to unite against—himself.

“Gentlemen, you don’t have enough talent to win on talent alone,” Brooks would blast. “You’re playing worse and worse every day and right now you’re playing like it’s next week.” His strategy worked. “[We] got very tight with the idea that it was us versus him,” forward John Harrington later said. “And we were constantly as a group trying to prove to him that we were good enough to play.”

Matters came to a head during a 1979 exhibition game. It ended in a tie—and Brooks was furious! He refused to let the team leave, even after the arena lights were shut off. Instead, he made his players skate hard, back and forth, for about an hour. “That moment probably had more to do with us gelling as a team,” forward Dave Silk said, “feeling like we were a group, a family. We looked at each other and said . . . . He’s not going to break us.”

The Olympics finally opened in February 1980. No one expected our boys to make it to the Medal round—but then they did. They would face off against the Soviet Union on February 22 at 5:00 p.m.

Expectations of the American hockey team had been so low that the game wasn’t even scheduled for prime time.

What a night it must have been! The arena was packed with cheering crowds. American flags were everywhere. The players felt the significance of the moment. “You realized that the U.S.A on the front of your sweater meant that you were playing for your country,” Silk concluded.

Our boys were determined, and they held their own. Nevertheless, the Russians were winning when the third period opened: It was 3-2.

And that’s when “the miracle” occurred. Americans scored two quick goals. “Puck bounces out to me,” Eruzione would say of that second goal, “coming over . . . . [As my friends say,] three more inches to the left, you’d be painting bridges.’”

The crowd “literally exploded,” as one player said, when Americans gained the lead. But could they hold out for the last ten minutes? The Russians still didn’t think they’d lose. “Until the last minute,” the Soviet goalie later concluded, “I thought we would beat them. To lose, it was not possible.”

And yet they did. What a feeling as spectators counted down those final seconds! Emotion gripped the crowd—and the sports announcers. “Do you believe in miracles?” Al Michaels famously yelled as the game ended. The American team spilled out onto the ice, pumping the air with their fists. It was a once-in-a-lifetime kind of moment.

A team of college boys had accomplished the impossible—and they’d reinvigorated Americans, just when we needed it most.