It was a Sunday morning 30 years ago today.
You didn’t have to be a hockey fan to want to tune your television set to ABC at 11 a.m. You didn’t even have to be a sports fan, for that matter. If you were an American who wanted to see something magical and inspiring, you made an appointment with your TV that morning because you knew that the greatest of all underdogs had a chance to do something remarkable in the tiny village of Lake Placid, New York.
Team USA, a collection of 20 college and former college hockey players, was going to take on Finland that Sunday, and if Herb Brooks’ team beat the Finns, it was going to win an Olympic Gold medal that no sane person could have confidently predicted before the Games began.
Two nights earlier, in a game watched by millions of Americans on a three-hour tape delay, Team USA had shocked the sports world by beating the powerful Soviet Union. This was the same USSR squad that had beaten NHL All-Stars just a year earlier in the Challenge Cup at Madison Square Garden. This was a team that had won four straight Olympic Gold medals and had crushed the Americans 10-3 in an exhibition game at MSG just a few days before the Lake Placid tournament began.
Despite all of these obstacles, the U.S. kids had won 4-3 on a third-period goal by their captain, Mike Eruzione. Now they had one more game to win against a competitive Finnish team that would have liked nothing more than to spoil the party.
One of the best things about the USA-Finland game on Sunday, 24 February 1980, is that Americans were going to get to see it live, including those on the West Coast, who had to wake up for an 8 a.m. broadcast. Much like the Super Bowl, there was the sense that everyone in the country would be watching together.
Unlike the present-day Olympic format, when medal-round games are played in a playoff-style scenario, the 1980 medal-round was essentially a second round-robin to accumulate more points. Two teams emerged from two groups — the Red Division and Blue Division — and the medal-round gave the two teams from the Red Division a chance to face each of the teams from the Blue Division.
Sweden had edged Team USA, based on goal differential for first place in the Blue Division, even though the teams had tied 2-2 in their round-robin game on 12 February. The Soviets had beaten the Finns 4-2 in a Red Division game on 18 February. Heading into the medal round, each team was given credit for points earned in these head-to-head games. The Soviets entered the medal round with two points in the bank, while the Swedes and Americans each had one. Finland, meanwhile had no points.
In stunning the Soviets on 22 February, Team USA raised its total to three points. On that same day, Finland tied Sweden 3-3. Going into the final games, the U.S. led the medal round with three points, the USSR and Sweden were tied for second with two points, and Finland was third with one.
A win over Finland would give the Americans five points, making it impossible for the Soviets or Swedes to catch them for Gold. However, a loss to the Finns would have cost the U.S. a medal, because the winner of the Soviet-Sweden game would end up with four points to the Americans’ three. The Finns would have also had three points in that scenario, but would have owned a tie-breaker over Team USA, forcing the Americans to settle for Bronze at best. The nightmare scenario was a loss to Finland and a Swedish upset of the Soviets, which would have left the Americans out of the medals in fourth place.
As such, the Finland-USA game was not the kind of Gold medal game we know today, because the Finns were not going to get a Silver if they lost. Finland had to win for a shot at any medal, and Gold wasn’t available to them at all.
As it turned out, Team USA would win its game against the Finns 4-2 and the subsequent Soviet-Sweden game, which the USSR won 9-2, would be played for Silver.
Once again, 10,000 people packed the Olympic Field House, including 1,500 with standing-room tickets. Fans were chanting “U-S-A, U-S-A” from the minute they entered the building, but as had been the case in five of their six previous games, Team USA would fall behind and have to mount a comeback to win it.
Finland scored first on a 55-foot slap shot by team scoring leader Jukka Porvari, who stole the puck from U.S. defenceman Ken Morrow and promptly blasted it past Jim Craig. That lead stood up through one period.
The second period wasn’t much better for the Americans. Although Steve Christoff managed to tie the score shortly after Team USA killed a penalty to defenceman Mike Ramsey, the Finns needed less than two minutes to regain their lead on another power play. With Buzz Schneider in the penalty box for slashing, Finnish forward Mikko Leinonen, one of six future Rangers players participating in the game, made it a 2-1 score heading into the third period.
Between periods, U.S. coach Brooks was livid. He famously told his players that if they didn’t find a way to win it in the final 20 minutes, they would take the loss “to their (expletive deleted) graves”. That speech fired up the team, and Phil Verchota came through off an assist from Dave Christian to tie it at 2-2 early in the third period.
The eventual game-winner came from future Ranger Rob McClanahan, who was set up by Mark Johnson for a 3-2 lead. There was still more than half a period to play, however, and the desperate Finns took advantage of three straight USA penalties (to Neal Broten, Christian and Verchota), to apply heavy pressure on Craig.
Craig stood up to the test, and with time running out in the Verchota penalty, U.S. scoring leader Johnson scored a shorthanded goal at 16:25 of the third period to make it 4-2.
Johnson’s goal, his fifth of the Olympics, would be the last for Team USA. The insurance tally capped off a remarkable comeback and a miraculous tournament. The giddy American players went off to do media interviews and then returned for the medal ceremony that came right after the Sweden-Russia game. Wearing their Team USA track suits, the heroes of 1980 flooded the podium with their index fingers held high. They were truly the No. 1 team in the world at that moment.
After the game, Brooks and Eruzione received a call from President Jimmy Carter, who said all the key players in the White House had been watching USA-Finland.
“We were trying to do business and nobody could do it,” Carter told Brooks. “We were watching the TV with one eye and were watching Iran and the economy with the other.”
Thirty years later, these iconic images from Lake Placid remain branded into the minds of all those who can remember the excitement and anticipation of tuning in to ABC at 11 a.m. on that Sunday morning. They are also shared by a younger generation that experienced the “Miracle” in documentary films and the Disney film released in 2004.
In terms of USA Hockey, the impact of 1980 can never be underestimated. In an era when very few Americans reached the NHL, some 12 of the 20 team members would go on to play in hockey’s top league — some for longer stretches than others. Four players, along with Brooks and assistant coach Craig Patrick, would make their way into the Rangers organization, and even those who never played professionally after Lake Placid would have names more memorable today than many of the NHL players of their generation.
The Olympians of 1980 also created an entire generation of young American athletes who chose to pursue hockey over other sports or to set the Olympics as a priority. That generation included future NHL stars such as Mike Richter, Brian Leetch, Pat LaFontaine, Ed Olczyk, Tony Granato and Chris Chelios. It is hard to imagine what the past 30 years of NHL history would have looked like if none of these players had been so driven to pursue both their Olympic and professional dreams.
You just know all of those kids were all watching ABC on that Sunday morning, watching along with millions of their fellow Americans to share in a unique moment whose magnitude was as great as any in sports history.
04:54 – 🇫🇮 PEN – Koskinen, hooking
09:20 – 🇫🇮 GOAL – Porvari (Leinonen, Litma)
22:37 – 🇺🇸 PEN – Ramsey, roughing
24:39 – 🇺🇸 GOAL – Christoff
26:00 – 🇺🇸 PEN – Schneider, slashing
26:30 – 🇫🇮 PP GOAL – Leinonen (Haapalainen, Kiimalainen)
35:52 – 🇫🇮 PEN – Suoraniemi, delay of game
42:25 – 🇺🇸 GOAL – Verchota (Christian)
46:05 – 🇺🇸 GOAL – McClanahan (Johnson, Christian)
46:48 – 🇺🇸 PEN – Broten, hooking
48:54 – 🇺🇸 PEN – Christian, tripping
55:45 – 🇺🇸 PEN – Verchota, roughing
56:25 – 🇺🇸 SH GOAL – Johnson (Christoff)
W: 🇺🇸 Craig (21-23)
L: 🇫🇮 Valtonen (25-29)
SHOTS ON GOAL
🇺🇸 14+8+7 = 29
🇫🇮 7+6+10 = 23
🇺🇸 Goaltenders: Jim Craig, Steve Janaszak. Defence: Bill Baker (A), Ken Morrow, Jack O’Callahan, Mike Ramsey, Bob Suter. Forwards: Neal Broten, Dave Christian, Steve Christoff, Mike Eruzione (C), John Harrington, Mark Johnson, Rob McClanahan, Mark Pavelich, Buzz Schneider, Dave Silk, Eric Strobel, Phil Verchota, Mark Wells.
🇫🇮 Goaltenders: Antero Kivelä, Jorma Valtonen. Defence: Kari Eloranta, Hannu Haapalainen, Lasse Litma, Olli Saarinen, Seppo Suoraniemi. Forwards: Markku Hakulinen, Markku Kiimalainen, Jukka Koskilahti, Hannu Koskinen, Jari Kurri, Mikko Leinonen, Jarmo Mäkitalo, Esa Peltonen (A), Jukka Porvari (C), Timo Susi, Ismo Villa.
|🇺🇸 UNITED STATES (C)||vs.||FINLAND 🇫🇮|
(since 22 Feb 1980)
||28 Apr 1978|
|First IHLC Meeting (USA vs. FIN)
🇫🇮 FIN 7-2 USA 🇺🇸 – 05 Feb 1951 – EX – Tampere 🇫🇮
|Previous IHLC Meeting (USA vs. FIN)
🇫🇮 FIN 9-2 USA 🇺🇸 – 29 Jan 1976 – EX – Helsinki 🇫🇮
|Last IHLC Game
🇺🇸 USA 4-3 URS 🇷🇺 – 22 Feb 1980 – OG – Lake Placid 🇺🇸
|Next IHLC Game
🇺🇸 USA 3-3 FIN 🇫🇮 – 08 Apr 1981 – EX – Kuopio 🇫🇮