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Tuesday, February 21, 2006

The Miracle on Ice, February 22, 1980

Today in 1980, the United States’ Olympic Hockey Team defeated the Soviet team in Lake Placid, New York. The score was 4-3. The game was probably the most watched hockey game ever broadcast on American television. But it was more than just a game. In one brief afternoon, a group of young men helped restore a nation’s faith in itself.

Many of you do not remember 1980 and those of you who do are not likely to forget it. As the year began, 52 American hostages were still being held in Iran. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan in 1979 and the Carter administration, in early 1980, began to consider boycotting the 1980 Summer Olympic games in Moscow (the games were eventually boycotted). To top it off, interest rates, inflation and unemployment were all high.

After 35 years of Cold War tension, the Soviet Union seemed stronger than ever. The US Army faced the Red Army in a divided Germany; as a Colonel told reporter Mike Wallace in an interview around that time: “See that field? If Soviet tanks cross that field, it’s World War Three.” The world had been teetering on the brink of nuclear annihilation for a generation.
During this time, the Olympics served as a place for Soviet Bloc and NATO countries to square off and compete in a way that would not result in an armed conflict. The papers were full of accusations of Soviet weightlifters using exotic drugs to enhance their performance and Romanian women who had begun life as men. While some of these accusations were fanciful, one thing was true: most Soviet athletes were professionals; that is, their sport was their full-time job. All of the American athletes were amateurs who were either in school or, in the case of 13 hockey team members, preparing to actually become professional athletes.

Of the 12 hockey teams who took to the ice in Lake Placid, the US team was seeded seventh. The Soviet team had won the gold medal in every Olympics since 1964 and had not lost a game in the Olympics since 1968. The men who made up the Soviet team were all officers in the Red Army, although playing hockey was their full-time military assignment. This made them seem even more ominous in the minds of many Americans.

A few days before the games began, the Soviet and American teams squared off in an exhibition game at Madison Square Garden in New York City. The Soviet won 10-3. This loss left most analysts and reporters feeling that only a miracle would bring the gold home to the United States.

On the way to the Olympic match-up, the American team gained four victories and one tie while the Soviet team won five straight matches. On the Friday afternoon of the game, 10,000 people crammed into the arena. At the end of the first period, the Americans seemed to be holding their own: the scored was tied at 2-2. But the Soviets dominated the second period; only the saves by goaltender Jim Craig saved the day. Still, the Soviets led 3-2 at the end of the period.
Nine minutes into the third period, the Americans scored two goals in the span of 90 seconds. There was still 10 minutes left to play in the game, but the young men held out against the best attempts of the Red Army professionals. When the clock got under 10 seconds, the crowd began counting down. As the buzzer sounded, history had been made and a miracle had been performed.

Despite assumptions to the contrary, this was not the final game for the American team. Two days later, they beat the Finnish team to win the gold medal. The scraggily group were treated as heroes, even going to the White House for a celebratory lunch. It was the last time the entire team was in one place.

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