On This Day: February 22, 1980: “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”

Member the good old days when Russia was our enemy? I miss that.

FIRST UP: For my column at Film Comment, I wrote about Miracle, the 2004 film about the “miracle on ice” – which turns 41 years old today. It went up a year ago, for the 40th anniversary. Many many thanks to Film Comment for accepting what is, perhaps, aside from the piece on Elvis’ acting career, the most Sheila-esque pitch on the planet.

Al Michaels:

It was a sliver of the Cold War played out on a sheet of ice. Here you have a bunch of fresh-faced college kids taking on the big bad Soviet bear, in the United States, in the Olympics. The confluence of events was so extraordinary it can never happen again. It was the greatest sports moment of the 20th century.

John Powers, Boston Globe:

The Americans were always amateurs, college kids, some of them, or recent graduates, who still played the game but certainly not at the Russian level. There was no way they could be competitive. And the feeling going into 1980 was they really haven’t got much of a chance, even though it’s here at Lake Placid.

Jim Lampley, ABC sports:

This was a case where for a few hours at least a magical coach got a magical group of kids to believe that they could do something that they really couldn’t do.

On the Soviet Hockey Team:

Dave Silk, forward, US 1980 Olympic hockey team:

64, 68, 72, 76, right up until 1980 – the Soviets were unbeatable in the Olympics.

Igor Kuperman, Soviet sports journalist:

It was a dynasty, definitely, for 10, 20, 30 years. Their main goal was to win every game, every period, every shift. There was one regular season when they won 43 out of 44 games.

Jim Lampley, ABC sports:

They played hockey the way we played basketball, with the same kind of control of the puck, the same kind of intricate offensive patterns, and of course the presence in goal of Tretiak – how could you beat ’em?

Boris Mikhailov, forward, Soviet hockey team, 1980:

Sport was tied with politics and any victory had big political undertones. Especially during the Olympic games when the General Secretary and everybody else was worried about how we would represent our country. Our task was only to place first.

On Putting Together the US Olympic Team:

Herb Brooks, coach, 1980 US Olympic hockey team:

[The Russians] could execute at such a high level of speed – skating, passing, shooting, thinking – I tried to develop a team that would throw their game right back at ’em.

Bill Baker, defenseman:

There was a huge difference, I think, between the guys from out East and the guys from out West. They’d come in with their fancy clothes, talkin’ trash, and there’s us guys with a little bit of a different outlook on everything.

Dave Silk:

The Boston guys – we thought we were pretty savvy, and there were guys who didn’t lock their doors or left their wallets out in plain sight. You know, we thought, these guys are a bunch of hicks from the cow pastures.

Herb Brooks:

I wanted to blur the boundaries of our country, build a We and an Us in ourselves as opposed to an I, Me, Myself. Our spirit was going to be a big asset. And you can’t have that type of thing if you have pockets of individuals and there’s not those team-building exercises throughout the year.

Herb Brooks to the team:

“Gentlemen, you don’t have enough talent to win on talent alone.”

On the Tension of the Time
(Iranian hostage crisis, oil crisis, Russian invasion of Afghanistan, possible boycott of Olympics averted.)

Igor Kuperman, Soviet sports journalist:

Newspapers were full of articles blaming the Americans for everything, so an attitude for the entire Olympic team: Let’s show them who we are, let’s show them who are the greatest, let’s show them who are the strongest, and let’s show them on their soil.

February 12, 1980: Start of the Olympics in Lake Placid, Day 100 of the Hostage Crisis

The US and the USSR were in separate brackets, and nobody ever expected a standoff. They would only play one another if they both made it to the medal round.

Vladislav Tretiak, goaltender for the Russian team, one of the best to ever play the game:

We were anticipating getting the gold medals because we were the strongest team. The Czech team wasn’t very strong, the Swedes weren’t strong either. The Americans never really counted as an opponent. Therefore, there was nobody really to compete with.

The U.S. played Sweden first. It didn’t start off well. They were trailing 2-1 in the final period. Herb Brooks, wanting an extra man on the ice, pulled Jim Craig out of the goal, leaving it unattended.

Al Michaels, sportscaster:

I remember the US had several opportunities to tie the game and you just got the feeling, and of course as the clock ticks down, and now you’re under a minute … well, it’s not to be.

But with 29 seconds left in the period, Bill Baker scored.

Mike Eruzione, US team captain:

You always wonder – if Billy doesn’t score, what happens to the hockey team? Well, Billy did score.

Bill Baker:

I couldn’t believe it when it went in, you know?

John Powers, Boston Globe:

That was the biggest goal of the Olympics because if the Americans lose that game they’re virtually out of contention before the games even start.

Two days later, the U.S. played Czechoslavakia.

Mike Eruzione:

Many people said that the Czechs were considered the second-best team in the world and the only team that had a chance to beat the Soviets. Well, we pretty much dominated the Czechs.

This was the infamous game where Mark Johnson was injured from a cheap shot by a Czech player and there was a closeup of an enraged Herb Brooks on live television shouting out onto the ice in a cold controlled manner, “We’ll bury that goddamn stick right down your throat.”

Al Michaels:

I think that was one of the moments where a lot of people in this country said, Hey, pretty good little story taking place here. You have these fresh-faced kids, gotta keep an eye on these guys, and look at this coach, I mean, he’s right there backing his players.

John Powers, Boston Globe:

Now you’ve got a tie against the Swedes, you’ve got a win over the Czechs and you can sense it starting to build. You can sense the interest in America, they’re now taking notice of these kids, who are starting to turn this tournament on its ear.

Al Michaels:

So everybody is starting to look ahead to this prospective match-up against the Soviets, but before that, you have three other games. Norway figured to be the easiest of the games, and it was. Then you had Romania. And they won that game. Germany presented a little bit of a problem on Wednesday night, the last game prior to going into the medal round. Germany leads 2 nothing. Wait a second, what’s going on here, you don’t want this bump in the road, you don’t want it now. And the US was able to come behind and beat Germany. So they did all of the things they had to do. But then of course you had the spectre of the Soviets, just looming there.

Vladislav Tretiak, Soviet goaltender:

We were way stronger. Nobody ever doubted that. We were professionals and they were just students. Simply put, we did not respect their team. And you cannot do that in hockey.

Herb Brooks:

I kept whetting their appetite. Someone’ll beat those guys, someone’s gonna beat those guys. I don’t like how they’re playing. They think they’re better than they are.

Jack O’Callahan, U.S., defenseman:

Boris Mikhailov was as close to the Hockey Chief of the World as there was and Herbie starts teasing the guy all week. Look at that guy’s nose. Look at that guy’s face. Looks like Stan Laurel. And he’s insulting the guy. Look at Tikhanov, look at his head, he looks like a chicken. He’s laughing. Who do these Russians think they are anyway? Ha Ha Ha.

Herb Brooks:

“Can’t play against Stan Laurel? Piece of cake, guys!” To relax them, to keep them focused, and also plant the seed: Hey. Someone’s gonna beat those son of a guns.

February 22, 1980

The game was scheduled for February 22 at 5 p.m. No one had anticipated the wave of interest. 5 p.m. was definitely not primetime. The game was taped and they waited to broadcast it (which you could never do now in this day and age of Twitter, etc.)

Al Michaels:

So here in this most bizarre and freakish circumstance, you have a 5 o’clock game on a Friday where people are filing in to a building in daylight going to a semi-matinee. Little would anybody understand that it would be … maybe the most memorable sports event they would ever go to in their lives.

Good ol’ Al Michaels in his sharp Peter Pan collar, started off the broadcast with:

The excitement, the tension building, the Olympic Center filling to capacity. I am sure there are people in this building who do not know the difference between a blue line and a clothes line. It’s irrelevant. It doesn’t matter. Because what we have at hand is the rarest of sporting events. An event that needs no buildup, no superfluous adjectives.

Herb Brooks went into the locker room to talk to the players.

Mike Eruzione:

He told us we were born to be a player, we were meant to be here, this moment was ours.

Jack O’Callahan:

And he told that story about spitting in the eye of the tiger. This is OUR time, this is not THEIR time. Screw them, Stan Laurel, all those Russians. It’s OUR turn.

Here’s secret footage taken of Herb Brook’s speech that day:

Jim Craig, US goaltender:

I remember taking that first step and looking up and around and it was …. packed. Overflowed, flags everywhere. The intensity and the hatred is incredible. You don’t want to hit somebody against the boards. You want to put ’em through the boards.

Dave Silk:

You realized that the USA on the front of your sweater meant that you were playing for your country.

First Period

Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, Soveit defenseman:

The Americans were so strong in the first period, it was unexpected for us. They played very fast and very emotionally in all aspects.

The Soviets scored the first goal.

EM Swift, Sports Illustrated:

The Russians scored first, and you winced, and thought, Here it comes. But the US team took that blow, Craig made some key saves, and then Buzzy Schneider came down the left …

Slap shot. The US celebrate as if they won the game. As Herb Brooks said, “If you score a goal against Tretiak, keep the puck.” To underline this point, Al Michaels says during the broadcast, “That’s the type of goal you don’t expect somebody like Tretiak to give up!”

The Soviets scored again, but with seconds left to play, the Soviets made an error. It just goes to show you that Tretiak’s honest admission (“simply put, we did not respect their team”) was in operation in all the Soviet players. “These are just college students. The gold is already ours.” It’s still amazing to watch this footage because you can feel it happen. There are seconds left in the period. Literally. 4 seconds. And you can FEEL everyone on that ice (the Americans as well as Soviet) slacken. Oh well, the period’s over, nothing else can happen here, let’s go back to the bench. Except for Mark Johnson.

Mark Johnson knows that 4 seconds means 4 seconds. The period is NOT over.

Mike Eruzione:

Davy Christian has the puck. There’s about 5 seconds to go in the period. I stop to skate to the bench thinking the period’s over.

Jack O’Callahan:

And then I see Mark Johnson scooting up. He just didn’t stop playing. He was still playing. The Russians had stopped.

Mark Johnson:

I was going hard to the net, the defensemen just sort of let me go by, and I picked the puck up off a rebound and was able to put the puck in.

Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, Soveit defenseman::

We relaxed a little bit. We thought that the period was over and the horn would sound. Unfortunately, that was a big mistake.

Jack O’Callahan:

[Herb] had said it all week when he was teasing the Russians. “These guys think they’re gonna walk through everybody, look how cocky they are, they aren’t here to play hockey, they’re here to trade jeans and have a vacation and go home with the gold medal. They’re not serious about this.”

Astonishingly, the Soviet coach pulled Tretiak from the game.

Vladislav Tretiak, Soviet goaltender:

I went to the locker room and was preparing to play. But Tikhonov came in and said “Tretiak is playing poorly and will not play in the second period.” That was it.

Viktor Tikhonov, the Soviet coach:

[Benching Tretiak was] the biggest mistake of my career. Tretiak always played better after he gave up a goal. The decision was a result of getting caught up in emotions. After Tretiak gave up the rebound and let in the soft goal by Johnson, my blood was boiling. It was my worst mistake, my biggest regret.

Sergei Makarov, Soviet forward:

The whole team was not happy when Tikhonov made the switch. It was the worst moment of Vlady’s career. Tikhonov was panicking. He couldn’t control himself. That’s what it was – panic.

Second Period

The Soviets quickly scored another goal. Jim Craig worked overtime keeping the puck out of the net, it was save after save after save. Watching it, to this day, is a nail-biter. It’s AGONY. It’s like fighting off a tidal wave with a thimble. Herb Brooks worked to keep the players focused and relaxed. You can see him in the footage shouting at the line of players on the bench, “Poise and control! Poise and control!”

Mike Eruzione:

We were only a goal down. We’d been there throughout the Olympic games, we were down to Sweden, we were down to West Germany, this is no big deal, no big difference for us, just keep playing, keep going.

Third Period

Valery Vasiliev, Soviet defenseman:

We were already celebrating. Nobody can skate with us in the third period.

But then Dave Silk comes down with the puck, shoves it toward the net and it pretty much lands right up against Mark Johnson’s waiting stick. Johnson easily scored and the score is now tied. 3-3.

Around this time, you stop being able to hear anything. Al Michaels is screaming over the roar of the crowd. Even Herb Brooks has lost his cool!

And 81 seconds later, with 10 minutes left in the period:

Mike Eruzione:

Puck bounces out to me, coming over. You know, as my friends say to me to this day – 3 more inches to the left, you’d be painting bridges.

Al Michaels:

And that’s when the building went crazy. That’s when sound had feel. I mean, that was like an earthquake.

Jim Lampley, ABC sports:

The atmosphere in that arena was incredible. The feeling, the sense … that they could DO this. They could actually pull it off.

Jack O’Callahan:

I sat down and I looked up and I went, 10 minutes. That’s a long time against these guys.

Jim Craig:

They could score in 10 minutes what would take us 60 minutes to score, and I knew that.

And so then began the longest 10 minutes in the history of recorded time. Nobody who watched that broadcast will ever forget it.

Mike Ramsey, defenseman:

Too much time. Too much time. We can’t hold them off this long. It was just a constant clock watch, shift by shift, shift by shift.

Al Michaels:

It went on forever. Time just stood still. It kept building and building and the clock kept winding down and it just got louder and louder.

Vladislav Tretiak:

Until the last minute I thought we would beat them. To lose? That was not possible.

It’s still thrilling to me to watch the footage of the final minutes of that game. Look at how CRAZY the fight is on that ice. Can’t you feel it? Everyone is clawing and scraping their way through each second. It’s ferocious, desperate, and NOTHING is a done deal.

Al Michaels:

And I’ll never forget we had that one shot of one of the Soviet players, his chin up against the top of his stick, and he had such a curious look on his face. I mean, it was almost as if he was enjoying this a little bit.

Zinetula Bilyaletdinov, Soveit defenseman:

We won so often that we no longer felt the thrill that the Americans showed. On the one hand it was great to see their emotions. But it was very bitter.

The following morning, the folks back in Russia got the news that their team had lost.

Igor Kuperman, Soviet sports journalist:

When the word got out that the Soviets lost and the game was shown and replayed, nobody believed in it. First of all, it’s lost to the Americans. Second of all, it’s lost to the Americans on American soil, and then – which is the most embarrassing – you lose to the college guys! Are they … drunk or what? What happened?

Vladislav Tretiak:

When you win the silver medal, it’s an honor. But not in the Soviet Union. When we arrived back home we wanted to quickly hide from the shame in the airport. In the streets people were saying How come you lost? And to whom? Some students?

Next, the U.S. had to play Finland, the final game of the medal round.

John Powers, Boston Globe:

It was still possible that if the Americans did not beat the Finns, that they would not only not win the gold, they wouldn’t win any medal at all, and Herb understood this.

Mike Eruzione:

We were excited, we were anxious, we couldn’t wait to get out and play. And Herb Brooks walked into the locker room and he looked at us and he said, “If you lose this game, you’ll take it to your fuckin’ grave.” Then he stopped, walked a couple of steps, turned to look at us again, and said, “Your fuckin’ grave.”

Despite the pep-talk, the game with Finland was shaky at first, and after two periods, the US were down 2 to 1.

Jack O’Callahan:

There’s no way that Finland is keeping a gold medal from us. We went out there in the third period and I think we just steamrolled them from the time they opened that door and let us out. They didn’t have a chance.

The U.S, scored three goals in the third period, winning the game 4 to 2, and winning the gold medal.

Barry Rosen, one of the hostages held in Iran for 444 days:

When we did come back there was a video put together by the State Department about what went on during the entire time that we were taken hostage, ending with the Olympic hockey game, and I can tell you that all of us as hostages watched that and applauded most for that one, more than anything else. For me, having just came out of Iran, it was one of the happiest things to really see. I spent 14-1/2 months in deep captivity and there I am exposed to this wonderful sight of Americans going crazy over a hockey game. I wish I had been there. That was my only regret. Captivity shows you the depravity of human beings. I think the hockey game shows you the apogee of how things can happen in life.

Source: HBO doc: Do You Believe in Miracles, Tretiak’s autobiography, America’s Coach: Life Lessons and Wisdom for Gold Medal Success: A Biographical Journey of the Late Hockey Icon Herb Brooks by Ross Bernstein and Mike Eruzione, and Wayne Coffey’s book Boys of Winter.

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24 Responses to On This Day: February 22, 1980: “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”

  1. devtob says:

    I knew this was the best sports story ever, I forgot that it happened on Washington’s birthday.

    Wonderful commemoration, with so many great quotes from the participants.

    My faves are:

    Tretiak telling the truth: “We were way stronger. Nobody ever doubted that. We were professionals and they were just students. Simply put, we did not respect their team. And you cannot do that in hockey.”

    And Herb Brooks showing why he was a world-class coach: “I wanted to blur the boundaries of our country, build a We and an Us in ourselves as opposed to an I, Me, Myself. Our spirit was going to be a big asset.”

    Thanks for putting together this unique tribute.

  2. sheila says:

    devtob – you’re welcome. It’s just such a great story, isn’t it?

    And yes, Tretiak’s honesty. Wow. His autobiography is amazing, if you haven’t read it. His perspective on this event is quite unique. It’s also a great look at the Soviet sports machine, and how dedicated these guys were.

  3. sheila says:

    I also love Tikhanov’s honesty. You can still feel the pain in his words. “Listen, I freaked out. I over-reacted.”

    I mean, imagine how fierce Tretiak would have been in the following period if he HADN’T been yanked from the game.

    Major mistake.

  4. kathy says:

    Where’s my Fatha??!!

  5. Pingback: Amazing Anniversary

  6. Sean O'Kane says:

    Great reminder of a great moment.
    My 2 boys & I have watched “Miracle” many times.
    They both play and play well.
    Keep your eyes out for Seamus “Big Red” O’Kane (15)
    & Conal “the champ” (11). We dream about more miracle games.

  7. David says:

    It is a great story – but as a hockey fan — nothing beats the Canada – Russia Series of 1972.

  8. john says:

    A visit to the small historic town of lake placid is well worth it, how a international event like this could be held in such a small town is amazing

    • sheila says:

      I know, right? A friend of mine was actually there at the 1980 Olympics – her brother had tried out for the 1980 hockey team, and I think he was an alternate, so he was connected in a peripheral way. She actually attended this historic event (she was 10, 11 years old) and got everybody’s autographs. I continuously grill her for her memories of it.

      Thanks for the comment!

  9. Jaquandor says:

    I have a friend who is a HUGE sports fan and collector of memorabilia — he actually has some autographed stuff from both team members, and last summer on his vacation he spent a day at the Lake Placid facility. He says it gave him serious chills to enter that arena. His tour guide that day was, if I remember his telling correctly, a state policeman at the time who was actually on the Olympic beat that night.

    Also FYI: This same friend recommended to me a recent ESPN documentary, made as part of their “30 for 30” series, that tells the story from the viewpoint of the Soviet team. I haven’t watched it, but here in Buffalo (which is just a tad hockey-crazy), everybody I know did watch it and gushed about it.

  10. sheila says:

    Jaquandor – I have an autographed picture of Jim Craig and I love it!

    I haven’t seen the 30 in 30 but have heard about it. The Soviet side of the story is FASCINATING – I love Tretiak’s memoir. Will definitely check it out.


  11. Cousin Mike says:

    Love this post. Is the Coffey book the best one to get on this? And when I say “get” I mean purchase, read three chapters and then put on a nightstand until my kids leave for college.

    • sheila says:


      The Coffey book is good. There’s also a good book about Herb Brooks – I think it’s called America’s Coach.

      But the HBO doc is just phenomenal – highly recommend it – I watch it all the time to get a shot in the arm of inspiration.

  12. Patrick says:

    The movie with Kurt Russell was great fun. My brother was coaching a kid’s hockey team when it came out – he took the team to the movie, then a few day’s later they won their league championship. I don’t know if they were connected, nice to think so though…

    • sheila says:

      Loved the movie!! Kurt Russell was amazing: a dead ringer.

      The special features on the DVD are excellent, too.

      Highly recommend the documentary Do You Believe in Miracles?. Short, sweet, really good!

      • Patrick says:

        Maybe I can stream that thing. Things really came together for that one moment. I was at one time a Minnesota boy, so that was a big deal for us.

        • sheila says:

          Oh of course!!

          And my family’s Boston roots were well-represented as well. A friend of mine was actually there at Lake Placid when she was a kid, and attended the event. Her brother was a hockey player – and maybe had been a one-time alternate. He was somehow connected (and a superb jock, of course, to have made it that far.) My friend was 11 or something, and didn’t really get what was happening, but has such vivid memories of the pandemonium in that rink.

  13. I lived in Buffalo at the time, and so watched it live on the Canadian feed. As a result I did not hear Al Michaels’ calling the game and that has always felt funny to me– one of those moments that everyone recalls sharing, but my experience of it was a half bubble off what the rest of the country saw.

    • sheila says:

      Interesting! I was still really young but I watched and had gotten caught up in the excitement.

      Turns out a friend of mine (much later, in college) was there in Lake Placid and was AT the game. Her brother was an alternate for that damn team! So she got to meet all of them. I was like, “Tell me everything.” She said it was insane.

  14. Hank_M says:

    This is by far the best write-up of this game ever.
    You capture every emotion I recall experiencing when I saw the game live.
    Wonderful memory, wonderful writing. Regards, Hank.

  15. Elliott says:

    Every year, I tell myself that I’ll only read a few quotes, and every year I read the whole thing. Thank you for putting this together. Knowing more about history, knowing more about time do not make this less exciting, but more.

    I watched the last five minutes of this game the other day, and I was gripping it. It is as compelling as anything.

  16. Bill Wolfe says:

    The only sports event that I can think of that might rival this game is the second fight between Joe Louis and Max Schmeling in 1938. The image of a black American versus a representative of Hitler’s Germany as the prospect of war between Fascism and Democracy was growing had genuinely international significance. (Although, ironically, and to his credit, Schmeling refused to join the Nazi Party.) The fight also had domestic significance, where Louis carried the hopes of many black Americans. Without TV, the fight didn’t have the media intensity that the hockey game had, but it was still ingrained deeply enough in our collective memory to serve as the subject of a pretty decent TV movie in 2002 (Joe and Max).

    • sheila says:

      Bill – so interesting, I’m reading the first volume of Volker Ullrich’s incredible biography of Hitler right now (actually just finished it this morning) and Ullrich gets into the significance of that fight – and the crazy racist rhetoric in Germany about that fight and how much it was on Hitler’s radar. Like, life or death that “Germany” won.

      Thanks for this context.

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