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This Day in History: Underdog US Hockey Team Stages Historic Olympic Upset Over Soviets

  • VOA News

Members of the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team celebrate after their upset victory over the heavily favored Soviet team by 4-3 score in the Winter Olympics in Lake Placid, N.Y., on Feb. 22, 1980.

It was called the “Miracle on Ice.”

The year was 1980. The event was the winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, New York.

Thirty-seven years ago today, an inexperienced American hockey team staged one of the biggest Olympic upsets in history, defeating the Soviet team, regarded as the finest in the world. The Soviets had won four consecutive Olympic gold medals between 1964 and 1976.

A ticket stub from the "Miracle on Ice" with a hand-written final score, February 22, 1980.(S. Springer/VOA)
A ticket stub from the "Miracle on Ice" with a hand-written final score, February 22, 1980.(S. Springer/VOA)

With less than five seconds left on the clock, an American television commentator asked, “Do you believe in miracles?”

He didn’t wait for an answer, yelling out a triumphant “YES!” as the American squad scored its final goal, clinching the game at 4-3. Many in the crowd of 10,000 spectators erupted in joyous celebration.

Two days later, the Americans defeated Finland 4-2 to win Olympic gold.

U.S., Swedish, and Soviet teams lined up to receive their Olympic gold, bronze, and silver medals, Lake Placid, N.Y., February 24, 1980.
U.S., Swedish, and Soviet teams lined up to receive their Olympic gold, bronze, and silver medals, Lake Placid, N.Y., February 24, 1980.

Few had any hopes for seventh-seeded U.S. Olympic hockey squad, but the team soon silenced its detractors, making it through the opening-round of play undefeated, with four victories and one tie to advance to the four-team medal round. The Soviets, however, were seeded No. 1, easily capturing five victories in the first round.

Soviet Coach Victor Tikhonov huddles with Soviet players Aleksei Kasatonov and Viacheslav Fetisof as the last minute counts down in the USA vs USSR ice hockey game in Lake Placid, N.Y. during the Winter Olympic Games on Feb. 22, 1980.
Soviet Coach Victor Tikhonov huddles with Soviet players Aleksei Kasatonov and Viacheslav Fetisof as the last minute counts down in the USA vs USSR ice hockey game in Lake Placid, N.Y. during the Winter Olympic Games on Feb. 22, 1980.

After stunning their Soviet competitors and beating the Fins, the 1980 U.S. hockey team no longer could be seen as a collection of inexperienced underdogs. In fact, the team was probably the best-conditioned American Olympic hockey team of all time — the result of countless hours of running and skating exercises in preparation for Lake Placid.

The so-called “Miracle on Ice” was more than just an Olympic upset; to many Americans, it was an ideological victory in the Cold War as meaningful as the Berlin Airlift or the Apollo moon landing.

The upset came at an auspicious time.

President Jimmy Carter had just announced the United States was going to boycott the 1980 Summer Games in Moscow because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, and Americans, faced with a major recession and the Iran hostage crisis, were in dire need of something to celebrate.

The historic victory was later made into a film in 2004, called Miracle, starring Kurt Russell as coach Herb Brooks.

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