The nineteen seventies are finally over. Disco is dead. America is in the throes of economic and socio-political recovery and confusion. The Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, New York, USA were just beginning. American Hockey was the last place anybody was looking to find a dream come true, much less experience the thrill of “The Miracle on Ice”.
In 1960 a young hockey player by the name of Herb Brooks was the last player cut from the USA Olympic Hockey team. He went on to have a distinguished coaching career. His career was so impressive, that he was selected to coach the 1980 USA Olympic Hockey Team.
Maybe this was a motivating factor in the drive he instilled in the players, maybe it was not. His hard approach and often controversial coaching methods are still the “stuff of legends” today.
Hockey had been dominantly controlled by many other countries. The USA hockey team was never highly regarded and even frequently viewed as no challenge at all. The American team was made up of college age students, most with no experience in the sport outside school teams.
The Russians, on the other hand, had a very powerful team, full of experienced and determined players. During a demonstration match, the Americans had been handed a resounding 10-3 loss to the very Russian team that they would be facing in the Olympics.
Herb Brooks selected a team through a unique combination of select skills and psychological profiling. Herb Brooks knew that his team would not do well in the Olympic Games and he publicly gave them very little chance of success at even obtaining a bronze medal, much less a gold. His players consisted of a spattering from around the country.
Most of them were still caught up in the rivalries common to college sports. His strategy to unite the players was to give them a common foe … namely himself. Many players still relate to his harsh criticism and ability to incite deep emotions among the players. While he was sure they would not win the gold, perhaps they could still do well.
His strategy for the game was to sacrifice size for speed. He knew that he could not match the skill and experience of the European teams, but perhaps he would be able to maneuver around that, literally and figuratively. His reasoning was sound but often theories work best as theories and do not do so well in practical applications. He knew the individual strengths of all of his players both on and off the field, physically as well as mentally. He would go on to use every tool at his disposal to turn them into team players.
The American hockey team played a very difficult schedule including practices and exhibition games. By the time the Olympics were ready to start, it was commonly held among the coach and players that perhaps they could win a bronze medal. For a team that was so easily dismissed by so many people around the world, this would be a major accomplishment in and of itself.
The first game the Americans had was against Sweden. While it was a hard fought contest, the Swedish team clearly dominated the rink. Only a last minute goal saved the Americans from losing. Even so, the game only ended in a tie, with no clear victor, and the team knew they had been beaten on a technical level.
Coach Brooks counseled his players in that special way he had of motivating them. Their next appearance against Czechoslovakia was a little more impressive. They soundly defeated the Czechoslovakian team by an amazing 7-3. This greatly enhanced the players’ belief that they could indeed, earn a medal. With a sense of renewed confidence and determination, they set about to prove it to the rest of the world. Their winning streak continued throughout the preliminaries. Their final game against Germany was perhaps the toughest game they had faced to date. Germany held the lead for most of the game, but the Americans fought back with tenacity and ended the game with a 4-2 win.
The American’s worst fear was realized in the beginning of the medal rounds. Their first opponent was to be the same Soviet team who had so easily beat them 10-3 in a previous exhibition. While their confidence may have been dashed, their hopes and dreams of winning a medal were not. The Soviets clearly dominated the first half of the game but due to outstanding plays by the American’s goalie, they only had a two to one lead to show for it.
In the final seconds of the first half, a slap shot was made on the Soviet goal. The goalie haphazardly kicked it back out into the field of play expecting the play to stop while the buzzer rang. Nobody saw the American player as he shoved his way past the defending Russian players and forced home the tying goal. The play was called for a review, and ruled to be a goal. Both teams were forced out of their locker rooms in order to play off the last second of the clock to officially end the first half.
While the Americans may have been ecstatic, they knew they still faced another half of play. While this may have tempered their excitement at the accomplishment they had achieved, it did not reduce their enthusiasm any at all. They were happy to have fared so well but knew there was still long ways to go before the final buzzer.
When the second half began, the more experienced Soviet goalie had been replaced by the backup. To this day, that movie is still in question and may indeed have been a deciding factor in the final score. The Soviet domination in the second half of play was clear, but the more experienced and larger Soviet players were tiring. The American goalie had performed remarkably well. The Soviet attack on the American net was ruthless and fast paced. The Americans took a slight edge towards in the final twenty minutes of play. Their speed and agility were now paying off.
The Soviets had a 3-2 lead going into the last portion of the game. A power play by the Americans brought the game back to a tie score. The Americans finally pulled ahead on a defensive error on the part of the Soviet team. The Soviets now charged relentlessly towards the American goal. Coach Brooks was constantly putting in replacement players though. The Soviets, while more experienced, were now exhausted from such a hard fought contest.
The Americans managed to hold off the attack. In what has become one of the most memorable Olympic broadcast moments, the broadcaster called out a countdown of the final eleven seconds of the game. At five seconds he asked the now famous question: “DO YOU BELIEVE IN MIRACLES … YEEEESSSSSSS!”
While the Americans went on to play and beat other teams, this was indeed the “Miracle on Ice” and a defining moment in Olympic history.
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