The Cold War “On a Sheet Of Ice”
On February 22nd, 1980, the US Olympic hockey team defeated the juggernaut Soviet Union team in the biggest upset in sports history, known as the “Miracle On Ice.” The young Americans, mostly collegians, were outmatched by what most people considered the finest hockey team in the world. However, led by legendary Coach Herb Brooks, they were able to overcome the odds and defeat the Soviets on the way to a gold medal. The US national reaction to this game was unprecedented as they treated the win as more than an Olympic victory. This game was played in the shadow of the Cold War and had much larger implications than any ordinary hockey game. This event had major political implications as well as cultural significance. Al Michaels said it best as he opened the broadcast with these words:
“I’m sure there are a lot of people in this building that don’t know the difference between a blue line, and a clothes line. It’s irrelevant, it doesn’t matter, because what we have at hand, the rarest of sporting events, an event that needs no build-up, no superfluous adjectives. In a political or nationalistic sense, I’m sure this game is being viewed with varying perspectives, but manifestly, this is a hockey game, the United States and the Soviet Union, on a sheet of ice, in Lake Placid, New York.”
One didn’t need to know anything about hockey to understand that this event was special and unlike any other. This was not merely a victory for the US over the Soviets in sport, but an ideological victory for the American people as well.
No prior knowledge was necessary for any onlooker, besides the fact that the USSR were gold medalists in the last four winter Olympics, to understand the mountain that the inexperienced USA team had to climb if they wanted to defeat the Soviets. The game itself was a war in every sense of the word; each team threw their best punches and took their opponent’s best shot as well. The game began with the Soviets jumping out to a fast start and an early lead, to which they were accustomed, and it looked as though the outlook was grim for the young men in the red, white, and blue. But the US answered, with a slapshot goal from Buzz Schnieder, and mid-way through the first period, it was back to even keel. After another Soviet goal, it looked like the Americans were going to enter the first intermission facing a deficit. Then, with five seconds remaining in the period, a shot from center ice was lazily kicked away by the Soviet goaltender, and out of nowhere came Mark Johnson who deposited the goal as time expired, tying the game at two goals apiece. The US team had come from behind in every game so far in the tournament, and they were sticking to their identity on this day.
The lone goal of the second period was scored by the Soviets and the US entered the final frame in a familiar position: trailing. Just a few minutes into the third period, with the Americans showing little life, Mark Johnson picked up a loose puck and scored the tying goal, his second of the game. Then, with about ten minutes remaining in the contest, the most unlikely of candidates, captain Mike Eruzione, scored the goal that gave the US the lead. As they did after every goal in this game, the young and enthusiastic American players cleared the bench in celebration, and the chants of “U.S.A., U.S.A., U.S.A.,” poured over them. The final ten minutes were filled with stout defense, but mostly miraculous saves from goaltender Jim Craig. The game ended with a score of 4-3, and Al Michaels with his most famous quote, “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”
The Cold War and the ongoing conflict between the United States and the Soviet Union were very much at the forefront of this event. Our involvement in the conflict escalated a short time earlier when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan. This truly began the deterioration of relations between the Soviets and the West. At its most basic level, the Cold war for the US was about ending communism and Soviet influence in the Soviet Bloc countries.
The USSR was trying to spread communism and its own ideological beliefs to Europe, Africa, Asia, and Latin America. Aside from their invasion of Afghanistan, they also sold arms to the Cubans during the Cuban Missile Crisis. The threat of nuclear war during this time was comparable to that in the Cuban Missile Crisis. Both the Soviets and Americans relied on the idea of mutually assured destruction, but the threat was always looming. In 1980, with the election of President Ronald Reagan, new anti-communism policies were adopted towards the USSR. The Soviets represented everything Americans opposed as a nation and President Reagan even went as far to call them the “Evil Empire.” At the core of this attitude was the concept of American exceptionalism. This is the belief that America is an extraordinary nation with a special role to play in human history—a nation not only unique, but also superior to all others. Democracy is the only way to live and everyone in the world would be better off under the US Constitution. The Soviets were the ultimate enemy, with a very different government and different sets of ideological beliefs.
This conflict even permeated the sports world, as President Jimmy Carter announced a US-led boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow, prior to the 1980 Winter Games in Lake Placid. The fear in the sports world was that if we don’t go there, then they might not come here. But with little time to spare, the USSR confirmed their participation in the winter games and the scare was no more. They decided rather to boycott the 1984 games, which took place in Los Angeles.
The Soviet team, made up of seasoned veterans like goalie Tretiak, captain Mikhailov, and Kharlamov, had won the last four gold medals and spent the rest of their time obliterating the best competition in the world. The Red Army, as they were called, was viewed similarly to their government: as a world superpower. They conducted themselves as a regime, very militaristic in all that they did. They beat you, and beat you badly, and didn’t crack a smile in doing so. A real quote from player Jack O’Callahan, depicted in the movie Miracle, illustrates this idea: “They’re Russians, they get shot if they smile.” Although the US government was also regarded as a superpower, its team was not. The young players found themselves in a David versus Goliath matchup that was inevitably politicized by the entire United States.
The reception of the US victory by the American public and the American media was unprecedented. At the Olympic Center, as well as throughout the village of Lake Placid, people went wild. Following the game, onlookers chanted “U.S.A” and waved their American flags, and many even took to the ice to hug and congratulate the players. Once fans learned that the US was triumphant, people hit the streets with their flags and noisemakers. Drivers honked incessantly and the small village in the Adirondack Mountains became party central, host to the greatest athletic feat in history on the world’s biggest stage. At a time of political upheaval and nationalistic fervor, the entire nation found something to restore its faith in this single moment of victory.
News of the victory hit the media immediately and every news station got wind of the upset. The game was played in the early evening at 5 PM and news outlets began to promote the tape delay of the game that was to be aired on ABC in primetime that evening. This game, as anticipated and important it was, was not aired live in the United States. ABC, realizing the opportunity for a large viewing audience, requested that the starting time of the game be pushed back until the evening but its attempts were thwarted. Their request to play the game live was then rejected by the Soviet Federation, so only by word of mouth did news travel that the Americans had achieved the unthinkable. My mom described how she was working and received a call from her father, “I was working as a waitress and my father called the restaurant and asked for me. I could hear my mother going crazy in the background, and he said ‘You have to watch this!’ So we turned on the news and saw the celebrations and people cheered in the restaurant. He told me we would all watch it later together, as I’m sure everyone did.”
On the following day, pictures and stories of the team and their upset littered newspapers throughout the country. On the front page of the New York Times, above the fold, there was a photo of the team celebrating and a headline that read, U.S. Defeats Soviet Squad in Olympic Hockey by 4-3. This article gave a vivid game summary, and highlighted some of the more crucial moments of the game, including the changing of the Soviet goaltender in the second period, and the game-winning goal from the unlikely hero, Eruzione. The writer described the pandemonium:
“Few victories in American Olympic play have provoked reaction comparable to tonight’s decision at the red-seated smallish, Olympic Field House. At the final buzzer, after the fans had chanted the seconds away, fathers and mothers and friends of the United States players dashed onto the ice, hugging anyone the could find in red, white, and blue uniforms.”
The article also mentions that the victory prompted a call to the locker room by President Carter immediately following the game, congratulating Coach Brooks and his players on such a massive accomplishment. It was almost as if he had forgotten that the US team still had another game to play to secure the gold medal. It seemed that he, along with the rest of the American people, understood that this was the most important game, more than a gold medal.
The role that the events in Lake Placid played in boosting the national morale cannot be overlooked. A revitalization of nationalism swept the country, at a time where it had been withering away. Throughout the Carter administration, the US had dealt with a struggling economy, and much turmoil at home and abroad. There was certainly, as Carter put it, a crisis of confidence. We still had hostages in Iran, and Americans watched flags being burned nightly on the news. This triumph didn’t bring back the hostages or kick the Soviets out of Afghanistan, but for this moment there was something to overshadow that and give them a glimmer of hope. This sense of rejuvenated nationalism could be felt by the chants of “U.S.A.”, the waving flags, and the nationwide celebrations. Every American had reason to celebrate, because on an international stage, the US was back on top and nobody could say differently. This comes back to the reassurance of the American people’s conception of exceptionalism. The game helped affirm how Americans already felt about themselves and their country, that their way is superior to all other ways of living and forms of government. It is easy to say that hundreds of years of history could also support that our government was far superior than the one implemented in the Soviet Union, and three periods of hockey could not change that, but that is how people viewed it.
Another major contribution to the pride people gained from the victory of the 1980 US Men’s Hockey team over the Soviets was the type of men that comprised the squad. The team was made up of college hockey players, mostly from Minnesota and Boston. It was a group of patriotic kids from mostly working class families, who were willing to make sacrifices for the unknown, and came out victorious. The American peoples’ faith was restored because they could relate to these young men and their stories. They were the underdog and had the whole country behind them, they performed as only Americans could, and shined while the whole world was watching.
The feeling that this victory gave the American people is still felt to this day whenever they see an image, footage, or hear the legendary call from Al Michaels. It brings a person back to the very moment they watched or heard of the miraculous upset. For me, I was not even born and I cannot help but get teary-eyed whenever I watch Mike Eruzione score that game-winning goal and run across the ice on his skates, or see the final seconds wind down as the fans chant and the team storms the ice in the purest form of elation. Any person, American or not, who watched the events in Lake Placid that day will forever hold the memory in their hearts as the greatest sports moment in history. Thirty-five years later nobody has forgotten and a century from now it will be the same way.
In conclusion, there are several aspects that contributed to the politicization of the Olympic hockey game between the United States and the Soviet Union. In the midst of the Cold War and ongoing conflicts with the USSR, every major contest between the two countries was brought into the political ring, and this was no exception. On that February evening in Lake Placid, a group of young men reignited the fire of an entire country and reminded the American people why their home is the greatest country in the world. The event had major ideological significance to the people of the United States at a time when there was doubt among them. They viewed this game as larger than sport, and if you were a hockey fan or not, one understood the bigger picture at hand, and the implications of that sixty minutes of hockey.
Abelson, Donald E. “Politics on Ice: The United States, the Soviet Union, and a Hockey Game in Lake Placid.” Canadian Review of American Studies, 2010, 63-94.
Anderson, Dave. “‘U.S.A., U.S.A.’ and Fireworks.” The New York Times, February 23, 1980, Sports of the Times sec.
Do You Believe in Miracles? The Story of the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team. United States: HBO, 1997. Film.
Eskenazi, Gerald. “U.S. Defeats Soviet Squad in Olympic Hockey by 4-3.” The New York Times, February 23, 1980.
Meoli, Karin. 2015. Interview: 1980 US Mens Hockey Olympic Victory Over the Soviet Union. On phone.
Miracle. Directed by Gavin O’Connor. United States: Buena Vista Pictures, 2004. Film.
Moffitt, Kimberly R., and Kirk Tyvela. “Cold War Crucible: The Berlin Wall and American Exceptionalism.” In The 1980s: A Critical and Transitional Decade, 381-394. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2011.
Shepard, Richard F. “ABC-TV Unable To Offer Key Hockey Playoff Live; Federation Rejected Request.” The New York Times, February 23, 1980.
“U.S.-Soviet Relations, 1981–1991 – 1981–1988 – Milestones – Office of the Historian.” Office of the Historian. October 31, 2013. Accessed December 16, 2015. https://history.state.gov/milestones/1981-1988/u.s.-soviet-relations.
 Miracle. Directed by Gavin O’Connor. United States: Buena Vista Pictures, 2004. Film.
 Moffitt, Kimberly R., and Kirk Tyvela. “Cold War Crucible: The Berlin Wall and American Exceptionalism.” In The 1980s: A Critical and Transitional Decade, 381. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2011.
 Miracle. Directed by Gavin O’Connor. United States: Buena Vista Pictures, 2004. Film.
 Meoli, Karin. 2015. Interview: 1980 US Mens Hockey Olympic Victory Over the Soviet Union. On phone.
 Eskenazi, Gerald. “U.S. Defeats Soviet Squad in Olympic Hockey by 4-3.” The New York Times, February 23, 1980.
 Abelson, Donald E. “Politics on Ice: The United States, the Soviet Union, and a Hockey Game in Lake Placid.” Canadian Review of American Studies, 2010, 64.