Gold Medal Winning Facts About The “Miracle On Ice”

Hockey | 3/4/20

There’s nothing sports fans love more than a big upset. 1980’s Miracle on Ice may be the greatest upset of all time. Not only was the United States a massive underdog to the Russian National Hockey Team, but there was also a major political climate component.

The team has been immortalized in both hockey lore and film over the years. With the 40th anniversary of the event looming, the stars of the team are once again in public eye. Here are some little known facts about the famous game.

The NHL Wasn’t Very American In 1980

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Mike Powell /Allsport
Mike Powell /Allsport

While the US had a strong Olympic team in 1980, many Americans still hadn’t taken up the sport of hockey. The sport is wildly popular in Canada, of course, and NHL rosters during that time were overwhelmingly Canadian.

During the 1980-81 season, only a total of 76 American born players suited up for NHL clubs. The highest scoring of these Americans was Robbie Ftorek who played for the Quebec Nordiques. The Massachusetts-born left-wing tallied 24 goals and 49 assists for 73 total points.

There Were Very Few International Players In The NHL

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Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images
Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images

In the early 1980s, there were very few international players in the NHL. The rosters were made up almost completely of Canadian players with a smattering of Americans on each team. Most of the international players hailed from Sweden or Finland.

As the ’80s moved on the league would feature international stars like Finland’s Jari Kurri or Sweden’s Ulf Dahlen. In 1990, Russian players began to play in the NHL and guys like Pavel Bure and Sergei Federov became superstars.

It Was A Battle Between Amateurs And Professionals

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Dick Loek/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Dick Loek/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The United States Olympic team was made up completely of players from the NCAA ranks. Many would go onto careers in professional hockey, but if any of them had already been paid for playing the sport, they would not be eligible for the games.

The Russian team was made up of players in their 20s and 30s who had long starred for the team. The Soviet roster was made up of legends like Vladislav Tretiak, Slava Fetisov, and Sergei Makarov.

The Two Teams Were Not At Each Other’s Throat

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Via Getty Images
Via Getty Images

Considering the Cold War between the United States and Russia was at a fever pitch, one may think that the teams would be competitive with each other. And, of course, the teams wanted to win, but there was no bad blood between them.

The Olympic games always put a heavy emphasis on the camaraderie of the athletes. In fact, the night before the Silver medal game, Sergei Makarov and American goalie Jim Craig played a game of Centipede together.

The Coach Knew What It Felt Like To Be Cut

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Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images
Bruce Bennett Studios via Getty Images Studios/Getty Images

Before the team made its way to Lake Placid for the games, the coach, Herb Brooks, had to make some devastating cuts. Some of these cuts were dramatized in the 2004 film Miracle.

Coach Brooks, though, knew what it was like to be dropped from the team. The former Minnesota Golden Gopher was cut from the 1960 Olympic Team. He did make the 1964 and 1968 teams. Following his hockey career, Brooks became a coach for multiple NHL teams.

Al Michaels Was The Undisputed Choice To Call The Game

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Scott Cunningham/Getty Images
Scott Cunningham/Getty Images

While hockey had a hardcore audience in the United States, it wasn’t the biggest audience. Al Michaels began his career calling games both for basketball’s Los Angeles Lakers and Major League Baseball’s Cincinnati Reds.

In 1972, the NBC network was desperate for someone to call the Olympic hockey games and Michaels volunteered. By the time 1980 had rolled around, Michaels was a veteran of calling hockey games. He later made one of the most famous calls in the sport’s history, asking, “Do you believe in miracles?!?”

Most Americans Didn’t See The Game Live

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Focus on Sport/Getty Images
Focus on Sport/Getty Images

The silver medal hockey game wasn’t meant to be a big ratings hit for NBC. The United States wasn’t expected to make it very deep into the tournament. Once they did, the International Ice Hockey Federation tried to move the game time.

The Russians, however, had no interest in moving the middle of the night start time of the game. Despite an offer of tens of thousands of dollars, the Soviets wanted to make it easy for their fans to see the game.

There Was Only One Celebrity There

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Ron Wolfson/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Ron Wolfson/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

During the Olympic games, the stands are often dotted with famous attendees. Regardless of whether the games are taking place in the United, States, in Europe, or in Asia, actors and musicians are often in attendance.

The 1980 Silver medal game in Lake Placid, New York was a different story entirely. There was only one celebrity in the arena that sat around 7,500 people. That star was Jamie Farr who was best known for playing Klinger on the show Mash.

Herb Brooks Thought One Of The Russians Looked Like A Comedy Star

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Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images
Hulton-Deutsch Collection/CORBIS/Corbis via Getty Images

The young players for the United States played a number of incredibly tense games. The veteran coach, Herb Brooks, felt that it was very important to keep his team focused, but also loose.

The coach used humor as one of the ways to do this. The Russian right wing Boris Mikhailov drew a striking resemblance to Stan Laurel of Laurel and Hardy fame. Brooks frequently mentioned this not only to keep his guys laughing but to show them that the big, bad Russians weren’t so scary.

The Russians Had Recently Beat Up On Much More Experienced Competition

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B Bennett/Getty Images
B Bennett/Getty Images

Normally, the amateur teams of other countries did not provide real competition to the Russian team. Not only did the Soviet Union compete in tournaments like the Olympics and other international championships, but they also played exhibitions against pro-teams.

Just weeks before the Russians played against the US Amateur team, they played against a team made up of NHL stars. The Soviet team prevailed by a score of 10-3. They were expected to blow through the Olympics quite easily.

One Of The Announcers Had A Big Test Before The Game

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Denis Brodeur/NHLI via Getty Images
Denis Brodeur/NHLI via Getty Images

Al Michaels, famous for his “miracle” call, was not alone in the announcers’ booth. He was joined by legendary Canadians goalie Ken Dryden. Dryden had recently left his playing career to pursue other interests.

In addition to announcing, Dryden was also interested in pursuing a career in the law. The day before the game, the former NHL standout took and passed the Canadian bar exam. Dryden also got in politics before a Member of Parliament in his native Canada.

Another US Olympic Star Almost Couldn’t Get A Ticket

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STAFF/AFP via Getty Images
STAFF/AFP via Getty Images

The athletes participating in the Olympic games love to check out to the other sports. This was true of Eric Heiden in 1980. Heiden was another star of that year’s event, taking home 5 gold medals in speed skating.

Like everyone else, though, Heiden had a really difficult time scoring tickets for the game. NBC pulled some strings and the speed skater ended up in the booth sitting behind Dryden and Michaels. While he could barely see what was happening, he was just happy to be in the building.

Russia Bench A Legend

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Sovfoto/Universal Images Group via Getty Images
Sovfoto/Universal Images Group via Getty Images

From 1970 through 1980, the Russian International Hockey team was practically unbeatable. The Soviets won the Olympic gold in 1972 and 1976 to go along with numerous World Champions. Goaltender Vladislav Tretiak was between the pipes for those numerous titles.

And the US players were all in awe of him. The Americans didn’t have to worry about Tretiak after the first period, though. After the goalie made a mistake on a rebound, Russian coach Viktor Tikhonov benched him for his backup Vladimir Myshkin.

The US’s Ken Morrow Continued His Miraculous Run

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Focus on Sport via Getty Images
Focus on Sport via Getty Images

Ken Morrow, who was a star defenseman for Bowling Green University, was a crucial member of Team USA. He had also been drafted by the New York Islanders in 1976 and would go on to play for the Isles after the Olympic Games ended.

And the incredible success for Morrow continued. The Islanders would go on to win the next four Stanley Cups giving the defensemen an astonishing 5 titles in a row. He was later inducted into the US Hockey Hall of Fame.

Michaels Played Table Hockey To Learn The Russian Names

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Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Steve Russell/Toronto Star via Getty Images

One of the difficult things for announcers in the Olympic games is learning both the names for the opposing teams and how to pronounce them. Each announcer had their own method of doing this.

Al Michaels didn’t have the benefit of today’s video games so he had to go old school. Before they were to call the Russian games, Al Michaels and Ken Dryden would play table hockey. Michaels named each of the tiny figures after their Russian counterparts.

The Game Was Full Of Future NHL Players

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Focus on Sport via Getty Images
Focus on Sport via Getty Images

Before the famous 1980 game, no players from the United States or Russia had played in the National Hockey League. American players like Ken Morrow, Jim Craig and Dave Christian made the league.

The Russian team also put a number of players in the league, even though the skaters had to wait until 1989 to come to America. The best known Soviet to play in the NHL was Slava Fetisov who won Stanley Cups with the Red Wings in 1997 and 1998.

The United States’ Neal Broten Became The Biggest US Star

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Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images
Steve Babineau/NHLI via Getty Images

A number of the American team members went on to have successful NHL careers. Mike Ramsey had a long career with the Buffalo Sabres, serving as the team captain for five years. Dave Christian was a 14-year vet who made the 1991 All-Star team.

But the best career belonged to Neal Broten. Then center, who won the 1995 Stanley Cup with the New Jersey Devils notched 289 goals and 634 assists during his 17 year NHL career.

The Team Forgot The Words To God Bless America

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Focus on Sport via Getty Images
Focus on Sport via Getty Images

The game is considered one of sport’s greatest upset for a reason. The US team, made up of amateurs, was never supposed to be a pro-level team like Russia. And the US players didn’t quite know how to react.

After the game, the team sang the song God Bless America in unison. It didn’t go quite at planned as the team tripped up during a couple of different parts of the song. After a win like that, though, who could blame them.

A Movie About The Team Was Quickly Made

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Mike Slaughter/Toronto Star via Getty Images
Mike Slaughter/Toronto Star via Getty Images

The 1980s were a different time when it came to TV. There was no Netflix or Hulu and as soon as a major event happened, a made for TV movie was almost immediately produced.

The Miracle on Ice was no exception. The movie was briskly made and was on television screens by the summer of 1981. The film had some star power too. The king of the ’80s movies, Steve Guttenberg, portrayed the team’s goalie, Jim Craig.

The Arena Was Later Named For Herb Brooks

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DAVID BREWSTER/Star Tribune via Getty Images
DAVID BREWSTER/Star Tribune via Getty Images

When he took the US Olympic position, Herb Brooks was considered to be a well-respected coach. By the time the games were over, Brooks was considered a legend.

Soon after the Olympics, Brooks was named the coach of the NHL’s New York Rangers. In 2003, he was tragically involved in a fatal car accident in Minnesota. On the 25th anniversary of the Miracle on Ice, the Lake Placid Olympic Center Rink was renamed Herb Brooks Arena.