SI Vault: The Golden Goal: How the U.S. pulled off the Miracle On Ice
This article originally appeared in the March 3, 1980, issue of SPORTS ILLUSTRATED. We are republishing it in honor of the 35th anniversary of the U.S. team's landmark upset.
The U.S. went bonkers when Mike Eruzione's shot beat Vladimir Myshkin for the winning goal as America's Team stunned the once invincible Soviets en route to the Olympic title.
For millions of people, their single, lasting image of the Lake Placid Games will be the infectious joy displayed by the U.S. hockey team following its 4–3 win over the Soviet Union last Friday night. It was an Olympian moment, the kind the creators of the Games must have had in mind, one that said: Here is something that is bigger than any of you. It was bizarre, it was beautiful. Upflung sticks slowly cartwheeled into the rafters. The American players—in pairs rather than in one great glop—hugged and danced and rolled on one another.
The Soviet players, slightly in awe, it seemed, of the spectacle of their defeat, stood in a huddle near their blue line, arms propped on their sticks, and waited for the ceremonial postgame handshakes with no apparent impatience. There was no head-hanging. This was bigger, even, than the Russians.
“The first Russian I shook hands with had a smile on his face,” said Mark Johnson, who had scored two of the U.S. goals. “I couldn’t believe it. I still can’t believe it. We beat the Russians.”
In the streets of Lake Placid and across the country, it was more of the same. A spontaneous rally choked the streets outside the Olympic Ice Center, snarling bus traffic for the umpteenth time since the start of the Games. A sister of one of the U.S. hockey players—in between cries of “The Russians! I can’t believe we beat the Russians!”—said she hadn't seen so many flags since the ’60s. “And we were burning them then,” she added.
So move over, Dallas Cowboys. The fresh-faced U.S. hockey team had captured the imagination of a country. This was America’s Team. When the score of the U.S.–Soviet game was announced at a high school basketball game in Athens, Ohio, the fans—many of whom had probably never seen a hockey game—stood and roared and produced dozens of miniature American flags. In a Miami hospital, a TV set was rolled into the surgical intensive care unit and doctors and nurses cheered on the U.S. between treating gunshot wounds and reading X-rays. In Atlanta, Leo Mulder, the manager of the Off Peachtree restaurant, concocted a special drink he called the Craig Cocktail, after U.S. Goalie Jim Craig, whose NHL rights belong to the Atlanta Flames. What’s in a Craig Cocktail? “Everything but vodka,” Mulder said. Impromptu choruses of “The Star-Spangled Banner” were heard in restaurants around Lake Placid, while down in the U.S. locker room—you still doubt this is America's Team?—the players leather-lunged their way through “God Bless America!”
“Someone started it as a joke, I think,” said Dave Silk, the right wing who had set up the tying goal. “But all of a sudden we were all singing. We got to the part after ‘land that I love ...’ and nobody knew the words. So we kind of hummed our way to ‘... from the mountains, to the prairies ...’ and we finished it. It was great.”
Great as it was, there was still a little matter of the gold medal to take care of. Going into Sunday’s game against Finland, it was possible for any of the four medal-round teams—the U.S., Finland, Sweden, the U.S.S.R.—to win the gold. Despite its astonishing string of upsets and its 5-0-1 record, the U.S. wasn’t even assured of a bronze. But America’s Team had come too far to lose.
“To be one game away from the gold medal is the dream of a lifetime,” said Forward John Harrington. “There was no way we were going to blow it.”
They didn’t, but it wasn’t easy. Finnish Goalie Jorma Valtonen made 14 stops in the first period as Finland took a 1–0 lead—the sixth time in seven games the Americans had surrendered the first goal. Steve Christoff tied the game in the second period, but the Finns scored a power-play goal two minutes later.
So, after two periods, this U.S. squad found itself in almost the same position that another American Olympic hockey team had been in 1960 at Squaw Valley. After having beaten the Soviets the day before, the ’60 team was trailing Czechoslovakia 4–3 with one period to play. The U.S. players then came out and scored six unanswered goals. One of the leaders of that comeback was Billy Christian, and 20 years later it was his son, David, who sparked the decisive rally.
With just under 2½ minutes gone in the third period, Christian broke up-ice and slid a pass to Phil Verchota, who broke around the defense and beat Valtonen to tie the game at 2–2. Then, at 6:05, Christian backhanded a shot from the point that the ubiquitous Johnson picked up behind the net and passed out front to Rob McClanahan. After waiting calmly for Valtonen to make the fatal first move, McClanahan slipped the puck between the goaltender’s legs for a 3–2 U.S. lead.
The drama built as the Americans were called for three penalties between 6:48 and 15:45 and the Finns pressed the attack. Finally, with 3½ minutes to play, the U.S. scored perhaps its most spectacular goal of the entire tournament—a shorthanded one at that. Christoff slammed a startled Finn against the boards and centered a pass to Johnson.
“I was going to shoot it right away but the puck was bouncing, so I pulled it around, went in and took a backhand,” Johnson said. Valtonen sprawled and blocked Johnson’s shot, but with two defenders on him, the 5' 9", 155-pound Johnson rapped the rebound into the net. It was his team-high 11th point of the tournament. “We knew we’d never be in this situation again,” Johnson would say. “I just sit here in awe.”
It was the only time all week that any of the U.S. players had been in awe of anything. Coach Herb Brooks had told them so many times over the past few months that Soviet captain Boris Mikhailov looks like Stan Laurel that, well, it was impossible for them to treat Mikhailov, or any of his teammates, with reverence. “Every time we watched a film of the Russians,” said Harrington, “he'd keep saying, ‘Stan Laurel, Stan Laurel, look at Stan Laurel.’ ”
Harrington, Silk and captain Mike Eruzione have compiled a 16-page booklet entitled Brooksisms—and “Stan Laurel” is an entry. An old-fashioned motivator, Brooks repeats favored aphorisms with enough regularity that they make an impression. Among them:
• You’re playing worse every day, and right now you’re playing like the middle of next month.
• Gentlemen, you don’t have enough talent to win on talent alone.
• Boys, in front of the net it’s bloody-nose alley.
• Don't dump the puck in. That went out with short pants.
• Throw the puck back and weave, weave, weave. But don’t just weave for the sake of weaving.
• Let’s be idealistic, but let’s also be practical.
• You can’t be common because the common man goes nowhere. You have to be uncommon.
The U.S. hockey team was anything but common. Before the previous week’s upset win over Czechoslovakia, Christian sat in the locker room and secretly fashioned something out of a cardboard Budweiser packet. When he put on his helmet, there were a set of wings and a tail sticking out of the airholes. “Boy, am I going to be flying tonight,” Christian announced.
In the next game, against Norway, the U.S. fell behind 1–0 after the opening period and appeared frustrated. In the locker room between the first and second periods, Silk said something impassioned about how everyone had to support everyone else and suggested that they all tell each other nothing but nice things. There was a brief silence. Then:
“Eric, your hair looks marvelous.”
“Phil, that’s a wonderful job of taping your shin pads.”
“Jimmy, your eyes are a lovely shade of blue.”
As Eruzione noted later, “We may be young, but we’re immature.”
The U.S. players performed fearlessly, and the public ate it up. Even before the Americans beat the Soviets, Lake Placid restaurant managers sent over complimentary bottles of wine, and New York State Troopers asked for autographs. At one point, Silk’s mother, Abigail, who was housed with 40 other hockey parents and relatives in an abode they called the Hostage House, was riding a bus when she heard a young man tell the girl he was embracing that he was on the hockey team.
“Really? And who are you?” Mrs. Silk asked, cruelly.
“I'm Dave Silk,” he said, undaunted.
“I'm Dave Silk’s mom,” she replied.
The girl fled.
So it was that people actually sensed the impending upset of the Soviets, as if wishing could make it so. It was such an unreasonable hope—virtually unthinkable for anyone who had seen the U.S.S.R.’s 10–3 rout of the U.S. at Madison Square Garden three days before the Olympics opened. Tickets for the rematch were scalped for as much as $340 a seat, and Johnson heard of one lady who had offered $600. “Are you telling me it wasn’t worth it?” he said two hours after the upset, while watching a replay of the game with teammates in the Holiday Inn. “I'd have paid a thousand to have been in that atmosphere.”
It was electric. Craig, superlative throughout the Olympics, gave up two first-period goals but made 16 saves, most of them tough ones. Indeed, he kept the U.S. alive. Then, with three seconds remaining in the period, the U.S. made the key play of the game. Christian took a 100-foot slap shot from beyond center ice that goaltender Vladislav Tretiak let rebound off his pads. Johnson, busting toward the net, weaved through the two Soviet defensemen and picked up the puck. He feinted, dropping his shoulder as if to shoot, and Tretiak went to his knees. Johnson pulled the puck back, moved to his left a bit and slid the puck behind Tretiak and into the net just before time expired. That was all for Tretiak, who was promptly yanked from the game in favor of Vladimir Myshkin. And when Aleksandr Maltsev made it 3–2 at 2:18 of the second period, that was all the scoring for the Soviets.
All told, the U.S. outscored its opponents 27–6 in the second and third periods, testimony to the team’s depth and conditioning. Charged up by the chants of “U.S.A.! U.S.A.!” the Americans tied the score at 8:39 of the third period. Silk sent a pass through two defensemen to Johnson, who picked the puck off a Soviet skate and fired it under Myshkin. The game winner came 1:21 later, Eruzione beating Myshkin through a screen. Eruzione means “explosion’ in Italian, and his goal sent repercussions rinkwide, nationwide, indeed, worldwide.
After it was all over on Sunday, and the U.S. players were wearing their gold medals, it was left to Harrington to find a fitting Brooksism for the whole improbable series of upsets. He didn’t have to think about it long. “Boys, we went to the well again, and the water was colder and the water was deeper.”
It was sweeter, too.