Lessons from Sports: The U.S. Hockey Team at the 1980 Olympics

UPDATED: May 11, 2024
PUBLISHED: January 6, 2010

No one gave them a chance.

As the Olympic torch neared Lake Placid, N.Y., in 1980, signaling the opening of that year’s Winter Olympics, newspapers and magazines throughout the world offered predictions on who would win medals in the major sports. Not a single publication gave the American men’s hockey team a chance against the world powers. Team USA, with its talented but very young players, wouldn’t finish any better than seventh in the world, according to the prognostications.

Without question, the gold medal in hockey seemed destined for the powerful team from the Soviet Union, as the Cold War raged anew after that country invaded Afghanistan. When the upstart Americans met the quasi-professional Soviets in the medal round game, the contest took on political as well as sporting overtones.

You’ve probably heard the story of the “Miracle on Ice”—in fact, Disney brought it to the big screen in the 2004 movie Miracle. But 30 years later, the team captain and goalie tell SUCCESS the 1980 team’s triumph had less to do with miracles than it did Coach Herb Brooks’ leadership, as well as team spirit and hard work.

“We all knew what the world thought of our chances,” says Mike Eruzione, captain of the American team. “We all knew the only people who believed in us were the guys in our locker room. And we did believe in ourselves.”

“Conventional wisdom said we couldn’t win,” goalie Jim Craig says. “But conventional wisdom also leads many coaches and athletes to play ‘not to lose’ rather than to do whatever it takes to win. Coach [Herb] Brooks ran every practice preparing us to win. He gave us the courage to do what nobody believed we could.”

Today, after the collapse of communism in Europe and the breakup of the Soviet Union, there are still lessons to be learned and hope to be gained from that incredible game. The Americans’ ultimate victory, after all, was not isolated to one moment of glory in one game. It was the result of a series of unlikely triumphs along the way.

A Battle for Hearts and Minds

In their first game, they managed a 2-2 tie against the heavily favored Swedish team. With only 27 seconds left to play, the Americans fired the puck into the opposing net. It had been a risky move to take the U.S. goalie out of the game to add another offensive player, but coach Brooks knew at that point that they had nothing to lose by taking the risk.

“I never wanted to let them slide or have any sort of comfort zone,” Brooks later said of his players. His goal was always to keep them thinking in new and daring ways so they could rise to future challenges.

That thinking would not only push them to a greatness they didn’t know was possible, but would also unite them as a team. “It is a combination of pushing or pulling them to those standards,” Brooks said in a book written by author Ross Bernstein. “I don’t think good coaches put greatness into their athletes. You try to create an environment for athletes to pull this greatness out. Coaching is really a battle for the hearts and minds of your athletes.” That thinking paid off. After facing the Swedes, the U.S. team faced Czechoslovakia. Widely hailed as the silver-medal favorites, the Czechs fell 7-3, with each American goal scored by a different member of the team. It was truly a cooperative effort, with the team, rather than any individual, being the star of the game.

Opponent by opponent, the Americans used their momentum to catapult themselves past Norway (5-1), Romania (7-2) and West Germany (4-2) to earn a place in the medal round.

Meanwhile, in the opposite bracket, the Soviets were dominating the competition with a 16-0 win over Japan, a 17-4 win over the Netherlands, an 8-1 win over Poland, and tighter but still comfortable defeats over Finland and Canada at 4-2 and 6-4, respectively.

‘Do You Believe in Miracles?’

Sweden and Finland faced off in the first game of the medal round; the United States was paired against the Soviet Union in the second. No one—not even the most patriotic American fan—could have expected the game to be close. At an exhibition game between the two teams at Madison Square Garden just days before the Olympics began, the Soviets had crushed the American team 10-3. And that was thought to be just a warm-up.

In fact, The New York Times even ran a story in which Dave Anderson famously wrote, “Unless the ice melts, or unless the United States team or another team performs a miracle… the Russians are expected to easily win the Olympic gold for the sixth time in seven tournaments.”

But as history and countless highlight reels have shown us, miracles do happen. Legendary sportscaster Al Michaels ended the game with one of the most oft-quoted lines in sports journalism: “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”

Despite what others predicted, Brooks had built much of his pre-Olympic preparation on facing the Soviets in the medal round. To do that, he first had to get them to ignore the world’s opinion of the Soviets. Brooks wanted his team to see the Soviets as “mere mortals,” rather than the superhumans others believed them to be. He went so far as to suggest that Soviet superstar Boris Mikhailov resembled Stan Laurel of the comedy team Laurel and Hardy. “You can beat Stan Laurel, can’t you?” Brooks would ask his players mockingly during practice.

“Herb Brooks became our enemy,” Craig recalls, describing how his coach motivated the team. “He taught us that in life you have to have a real or invented enemy to motivate you to get you to another level. He became that enemy. I learned that strategy there and have used it for years in business. One time he was quoted as saying about us that ‘this team isn’t talented enough to win on talent alone.’ That motivated us.”

Seizing the Adversary’s Advantage

“Coach pushed us harder than any of us had ever been pushed,” says Craig, who today serves as a spokesman for an organization that encourages screening for abdominal aortic aneurysm, a condition that killed his father. “But he did it because he knew that the great strength of that Russian team was that its players were in incredible shape at the end of the game. They blew people away in the third period. We took that away from them by being in better shape. We worked every day in practice to be ready for that third period.”

When the third period started on that fateful night in Lake Placid, the Americans trailed by only a goal. That changed a few minutes later when U.S. star Mark Johnson tied the game. Two minutes after that, Eruzione scored the goal that would provide the United States a 4-3 win.

“In the locker room before that third period, Coach Brooks kept reminding us that we had given ourselves the chance to win because we had kept it close,” Eruzione says. “And now was the time when all that hard work would pay off.”

As the buzzer sounded and the American victory was secure, the celebration was every bit as jubilant as it would be just two days later when the U.S. team went on to defeat Finland 4-2 and capture the gold.

Despite the incredible odds against them, the American team members knew that by taking measured risks, pulling together as a team, working hard and refusing to listen to their critics, they could, indeed, find victory at every stage of the game, no matter how formidable their competition.

“Leaders tell us not what is, but what can be,” Brooks said before his untimely death in a 2003 car accident. “That team taught us all what we can be.”