U.S. Hockey Team Upsets Soviets Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

When the U.S. hockey team upset the heavily favored Soviet team at the 1980 Winter Olympics, the victory generated an outburst of patriotic fervor at a time when Americans had begun to doubt their nation’s status as a superpower and its ability to counter the Cold War threat posed by the Soviet Union.

Summary of Event

The meeting between teams from the United States and the Soviet Union on the ice at Lake Placid, New York, during the Winter Olympics in 1980 was more than just a hockey game. In the aftermath of the debacle of the Vietnam War, many Americans were questioning their nation’s greatness. In addition to long lines at gasoline stations and a stagnant economy, the United States faced trials on the international front. In 1979, Islamic radicals had seized the American embassy in Tehran, Iran, and taken the embassy staff hostage, and the United States seemed impotent to do anything about the situation. In the same year, the Soviet Union extended its influence by invading Afghanistan, again reinforcing the perception that the United States was weak and no longer able to impose its will as a global superpower. At a time when the United States never seemed weaker, the Soviets seemed ever stronger. Sports;hockey Hockey Olympic Games;1980 Miracle on Ice [kw]U.S. Hockey Team Upsets Soviets (Feb. 22, 1980) [kw]Hockey Team Upsets Soviets, U.S. (Feb. 22, 1980) [kw]Soviets, U.S. Hockey Team Upsets (Feb. 22, 1980) Sports;hockey Hockey Olympic Games;1980 Miracle on Ice [g]North America;Feb. 22, 1980: U.S. Hockey Team Upsets Soviets[04070] [g]United States;Feb. 22, 1980: U.S. Hockey Team Upsets Soviets[04070] [c]Sports;Feb. 22, 1980: U.S. Hockey Team Upsets Soviets[04070] Brooks, Herb Eruzione, Mike Craig, Jim Tikhonov, Viktor Tretiak, Vladislav

Soviet dominance extended to the hockey rink as well. In 1960, the U.S. hockey team had won the gold medal at the Winter Olympic Games held in Squaw Valley, California. The Soviets, however, had won the gold medal in the four subsequent Olympics, and they were the overwhelming favorites to win again in 1980. In an exhibition tour before the 1980 Olympic Games, the Soviets, under the firm leadership of coach Viktor Tikhonov and shielded by outstanding goalie Vladislav Tretiak, had swept to victories over professional teams of the National Hockey League, and it seemed that the college players that made up the U.S. Olympic team posed no real threat to the Soviet team.

Herb Brooks, the U.S. coach, however, had different ideas. Brooks, a college coach who had built a winning hockey program at the University of Minnesota, had been the last player cut from the gold medal-winning team in 1960, and he wanted a gold medal as a coach. Instead of putting a team together just before the games, Brooks convinced U.S. Olympic officials to let him assemble a team eighteen months before the games to give the players time to develop and train. The plan worked. Brooks held numerous tryouts, attracted many of the top U.S. college hockey players, and molded them into a cohesive team. Playing well in exhibition matches and Olympic qualifying games, the U.S. team headed into Lake Placid seeded seventh among the competing teams, the best U.S. standing in years. In a crushing example of Soviet dominance, however, on February 9, in the last exhibition game before the Olympics, the Russian team defeated the U.S. team by a score of ten to three at Madison Square Garden, dampening enthusiasm for the U.S. team’s chances at the Olympics.

Once the Olympics got under way, however, hope began to return. In their opening game, the U.S. skaters tied Sweden, one of the best hockey teams in the world, two to two. In their next game, the Americans upset Czechoslovakia, another top team, by a score of seven to three. The U.S. team also won its next three games against Norway, Romania, and West Germany, to enter the medal round with a record of four wins, no losses, and one tie. Joining the U.S. team in the final round were the teams from Sweden, Finland, and the Soviet Union; the Soviets had easily defeated all the teams they had faced (beating Japan sixteen to zero and the Netherlands seventeen to four). As the top teams in their respective rounds of competition, the U.S. and Soviet teams would meet first in the medal round.

In front of a frenzied standing-room-only crowd, the U.S. and Soviet hockey teams faced off on February 22, 1980. The first period was a flurry of activity. The Soviets scored first, with a slap shot deflected past U.S. goalie Jim Craig. Moments later, however, American Buzz Schneider Schneider, Buzz tied the game when he scored on Soviet goalie Vladislav Tretiak. The Soviets countered immediately, and scored again on Craig to grab a lead of two to one.

The game seemed to be going the Soviets’ way, as they attempted far more shots on goal than the U.S. team, and most of the action was taking place at the American end of the ice. The waning seconds of the first period, however, changed the game. As the clock wound down to the end of the period, most of the Soviet and some American players headed to their benches, anticipating the whistle signifying the end of the period. American player Mark Johnson, Johnson, Mark however, continued to play hard to the whistle. Skating down the ice, Johnson was in a position to capitalize on a Soviet miscue. Dave Christian Christian, Dave had fired a desperation shot down the ice, which Tretiak easily deflected. The deflection, however, came right toward the streaking Johnson, who fired it past the Soviet goalie with one second left on the clock. Instead of trailing going into the first intermission, the U.S. team had tied the Soviets.

Angry at Tretiak’s failure to stop Johnson, Tikhonov did the unthinkable: He pulled Tretiak, the best goalie in the world, from the game and replaced him with Vladimir Myshkin, Myshkin, Vladimir a competent goalie who had played very little. The switch seemed to work. The Soviets regained the lead with a goal in the second period while Myshkin prevented the Americans from scoring.

As the third and final period began, the Soviets clung to a lead of three to two and seemed likely to win the game. Tikhonov, however, began to get conservative. Instead of putting rested players on the ice, he kept his most reliable older players in the game, and the Soviets began to tire. At the same time, the American goalie, Jim Craig, turned in an outstanding defensive performance, turning away the Soviets shot after shot, giving his team the confidence to press on offense. With Craig providing solid defense behind them, the U.S. team went on the attack. Well into the third period, Johnson scored again on a power-play goal that tied the game three to three. Minutes later, Mike Eruzione, the captain and emotional leader of the U.S. team, gave the Americans their first lead in the game when he grabbed a failed Soviet clearing shot and fired the puck past Myshkin, who could not see Eruzione because a Soviet player screened his vision.

With ten minutes left on the clock, the U.S. team continued its aggressive play. Craig continued his stellar performance, stopping numerous Soviet shots on goal. As the clock wound down, the vastly pro-U.S. crowd was screaming and chanting, “U-S-A, U-S-A.” As the final seconds elapsed, television sportscaster Al Michaels Michaels, Al uttered his famous question, “Do you believe in miracles?” When time had expired, the Soviets stood stunned by the loss as all the members of the American team spilled onto the ice to celebrate their unlikely victory.

Two days later, the U.S. team defeated Finland by a score of four to two in the game that ensured the Americans the Olympic gold medal.


The 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team provided a much-needed lift to a nation that had been questioning its greatness. A group of college kids had demonstrated that the Soviets could be beaten in fair competition, helping many Americans to feel that things could get better. As a battle of the Cold War, Cold War the American hockey team’s victory over the Soviets, which quickly became known as the Miracle on Ice, was a major victory for the United States. As the prestige and international power of the United States grew in the 1980’s, many Americans began to see the Olympic triumph over the Soviets as a turning point in the resurgence of American pride and power.

The impact of the victory lasted beyond the 1980’s as well. In 1999, respondents to a survey conducted by the Entertainment and Sports Programming Network (ESPN) voted the 1980 Olympic hockey victory over the Soviets the greatest sporting moment in U.S. history. Sports;hockey Hockey Olympic Games;1980 Miracle on Ice

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bernstein, Ross. Remembering Herbie: Celebrating the Life and Times of Hockey Legend Herb Brooks. Eagan, Minn.: Bernstein Books, 2003. Examines Brooks’s acerbic coaching style and his relationships with the players he coached, both in college and the Olympics.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Coffey, Wayne R. The Boys of Winter: The Untold Story of a Coach, a Dream, and the 1980 U.S. Olympic Hockey Team. New York: Crown, 2005. Well-written account of the U.S. Olympic hockey team’s success includes many insights shared by Brooks before his untimely death in an auto accident in 2003. Published to coincide with the twenty-fifth anniversary of the event.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Wendel, Tim. Going for the Gold: How the U.S. Won at Lake Placid. Westport, Conn.: Lawrence Hill, 1980. One of the first books written on the “Miracle on Ice” after it happened; captures the national euphoria over the U.S. victory.

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Categories: History