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The Greatest Game

The greatest game ever played did not happen on NHL ice. It was a 60-minute contest that transcended the sport of hockey.

With the Olympics right around the corner, the world will once again focus on the happenings of ice hockey. The NHL is still committed to not sending their players although some will show up anyway. The tournament for gold is as wide open as ever. 

The powerhouse nations, Canada, Russia, Sweden, and Russia, will all be there. A host of other nations, mostly from northern Europe will also be represented. With the lack of star power, thanks to the NHL owners not taking part, young men will have their shot at grasping an elusive dream… a Gold Medal.


Back before the super teams of NHL All-Stars came together to play for the honor of their flag, young players, either from their national teams or from the college and junior ranks, were the ones to populate the rosters of the tournament teams. 

Some of those national teams were pretty much professional, or at least as talented as their counterparts playing in the professional leagues in North America. No team was as skilled, as professional, or as great, as the Red Army team.

(1980 Soviet Russian team)

Led by the likes of Boris Mikhailov, Vladislav Tretiak, and head coach Viktor Tikhonov, the Red Army team was simply unbeatable. Tretiak was beyond a shadow of a doubt, the best goaltender in the world. The Russians trained 300 days a year and had chemistry on par with anything Bill Nye could concoct. 

They were skilled from the fourth-line to the first and each defenseman was interchangeable. If you could construct a perfect team, the Russian Federation team would be it.

On the other side of the red line was the United States. The Americans comprised a bunch of young kids who were in college. They came from universities spanning the northern part of the country and were assembled less than six months before the 1980 Olympic games began.

Meaning more than a game

The game itself was a focal point of a war spanning decades. After the World War II, the allies of the U.S. and the Soviet Union went in very differing directions. While the U.S. experienced a baby boom and saw its economy boom post-war, the Soviets instituted communism, and went through the trials and tribulations of such an economic turn.

The Soviets and Americans competed in every arena on Earth. An arms race led to the militarization of most of the world. A space race saw a man make it past Earth’s atmosphere and step foot on the moon. Propaganda flew back and forth and created a major dividing line between the two superpowers.

(Neil Armstrong, first man on the Moon. courtesy of NASA)

As the calendar rotated, each nation saw changes. McCarthyism in the U.S. died. Russia slowly declined into a shell of what it once was under Stalin. The political turmoil in the U.S. led to a crippling recession. Gas shortages, over inflation, and a growing concern among the population led to something never imaged. 

For the first time in both countries, the current generation believed the next generation had it worse off.

That would bring us to the Olympics in 1980 where Lake Placid, New York was the host. Political unrest caused minor squabbling among the participants. The U.S. and a host of other countries were threatening to boycott the summer games, held later in that year in Moscow. The point of contention was the invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviets. 

The Soviets and the entire red block of countries took part in these games, held in February of 1980. However, 66 countries boycotted the Summer Olympics in Moscow, and the Soviet bloc boycotted the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles.

The Tournament

12 teams qualified for the men’s ice hockey tournament. The usual suspects were there. The United States, Canada, Sweden, Finland, Norway, and the Netherlands. Czechoslovakia, Poland, Romania, and Russia qualified on the other side of the curtain. West Germany, and Japan, each with ties to both sides of the communist blockade, took part.

(The official logo of the 1980 Winter Olympiad in Lake Placid, New York, USA)

The 12 teams divided into two divisions of six, a red side and a blue side. In the Blue Division, Sweden, the U.S., the Czechs, Romania, West Germany, and Norway would all vie. The top two finishers automatically qualified. On the red side, the Soviet Union, Finland, Canada, Poland, the Dutch, and Japan competed. The next two highest point totals, regardless of division, moved on.

Blue division

The consensus favorites in the Blue Division were the Swedes and the Czechs. The Swedes would show why. With young goaltenders Pelle Lindbergh and William Lofqvist in goal, the Swedish team showed why they were the pick to win the division. 

The Swedes had a 4-0-1 record and outscored their opponents 26-7 in five contests. The other popular pick was the Czechs. They showed how good they were with an 11-0 rout of Norway. In their five games, they scored a whopping 34 times, eight more than the next closest competitor, the Swedes, and nine more than the U.S.

The young American squad was picked to finish out of the medal round. After a 2-2 tie with the Swedes, the Americans beat the Czechs and Norway by four-goal margins. A 7-2 victory over Romania and a 4-2 win over West Germany meant it would be the U.S., and not the Czechoslovakian team, that qualified for the medal round.

Red division

It was not a  surprise that the Russians won all five of their games. 16-0 versus Japan, 17-4 versus the Dutch, 8-1 versus Poland, 4-2 over Finland, and 6-4 versus Canada putting the Russians into the next round. For those of you keeping track, the Soviet team outscored their opponents 51-11.

Finland and Canada finished tied for six points in the divisional round. A 4-3 Finnish victory gave them the tiebreaker, and the berth to the medal round. Canada and Czechoslovakia qualified for the consolation (fifth place) game.

The medal round was now all set. The U.S. and Sweden from one division and the USSR and the Finnish team from the other. Each team played the other once, with one point awarded for a tie, three for a victory, and none for a loss. 

The other game

While the Russians and Americans played first, the second game of that night was the one most confusing.

The Finns jumped out to a lead first on a goal at the three-minute mark of the first period by Mikko Leinonen. They tacked on a second at the 7:06 mark by Jukka Porvari. Ulf Weinstock scored 25 seconds after the halfway point of the second for Sweden to make the score 2-1.

In the third period, three goals occurred in a matter of 2:35 as Sweden lit the lamp twice and the Finns tied the contest. The score remained that way as time expired.

(United States versus Sweden on February 12, 1980, courtesy of the NY Daily News)

There was no overtime and no shootout, so the game concluded with a 3-3 score. This gave each team a point. The top two teams from each group played the top two teams from the other group once. Points from previous games against their own group carried over, excluding teams who failed to make the medal round. Thanks to a tie between Sweden and the United States, Sweden had two points. Finland, losing to the USSR, had just one. 

As long as the USSR and United States didn’t tie, a clear Gold Medal would be awarded. The Finnish team played the U.S. in the early game, and the Swedes played Russia. 

The main event

I am sure there are a lot of people in this building who don’t know a blueline from a clothesline. It’s irrelevant. It doesn’t matter, because what we have at hand is the rarest of sporting events. An event that needs no buildup, no superfluous adjectives. In a political or nationalistic sense, I am sure this game is being viewed from various perspectives, but manifestively, it is a hockey game. The United States, the Soviet Union, on a sheet of ice in Lake Placid, New York.

Al Michaels would open the ABC call of the contest, alongside his partner, a man who knew a thing or two about the game, Ken Dryden. Dryden added that “over the next two-and-a-half hours, we would know a lot more about this American team.”

The average face value of a ticket to gain access to Olympic Fieldhouse (now renamed Herb Brooks Arena in the Olympic Center) was over $60. Scalpers were charging a good three times that outside.

(Herb Brooks Arena at Olympic Center)

Inside, it was David versus Goliath. A team that has yet to show a chink in their armor in the Soviets, taking on an American squad who fell to this same team in an exhibition game 10-3, and looked like an over-matched team. To give you some perspective, imagine the Soviets as the Montreal teams of yesteryear, or the Edmonton teams of the 80’s. The U.S. could be more equitable to the Syracuse Crunch of the American Hockey League.

Period one

The Americans had a solid game plan… defend. Often, the U.S. would have a minimum of three or four players on their side of the center red line. This would hamper the Russian attack, but not stop it. The Russians dominated most of the period.

A deflected shot from the point on a keep in by Russian defenseman Alexei Kasatonov beat American goaltender Jim Craig at the 9:09 mark of the first. Getting credit for the goal was Vladimir Krutov.

The Americans responded. A rather innocent-looking shot from the point on a break in by Buzz Schneider beat Tretiak on the glove side. Tretiak seemed in a good position, and the shot came clean from 40 feet away. 

(Vladislav Tretiak, #20 for the Soviets, and widely considered one of the best goaltenders of all-time)

At 17:34, Russia scored. A shot immediately following a faceoff from the stick of Sergei Makarov got past Craig on his glove side. The Soviets now had a 2-1 advantage on the scoreboard.

Just before the period expired, some controversy arose. With the final seconds ticking away on the period, Dave Christian hammered a slap shot on goal. Nonchalantly, Tretiak kicked away the rebound. Mark Johnson split two Soviet defenders and grabbed the rebound. Skating left, he toe dragged around the prostrate Tretiak and flipped the puck into the twine. 

The scoreboard showed no time remaining. A replay put one second left on the clock, making it a good goal, and a tie game.

The Soviets retreated to the dressing room. They sent out a new goaltender, Vladimir Myshkin and only three players to take the final face off of the period. The upstart group of kids who never played together before being selected for this tournament, we’re now tied with the greatest team in the world.

Second period

The second period started with a huge change in goal. The best goaltender in the world began the period on the bench. Myshkin was in goal as action started in the second stanza. Tretiak, technically pulled with one second left in the first, sat on the bench for the rest of the game.

The play in the second period was much like it was in the first, with the Soviets controlling play and the U.S. picking their spots to assault the Russian net. 

Early in the second, the U.S. took their first penalty. A questionable call in which John Harrington hauled down Valeri Kharlamov in the Russian zone putting the Soviets on the power play. Aleksandr Maltsev stole the puck and beat Craig on a breakaway. The Soviets regained their lead. The score was 3-2.

It stayed that way for the rest of the period. Close calls came at both ends of the ice. The Russians could not convert on a failed chip play from behind the American net as the puck skipped the stick of the Russian player. Harrington, the player who put the Russians on their power play, shot wide on a breakaway chance to tie the game.

Buzz Schneider narrowly missed his second goal of the game when he beat Myshkin, but the puck skittered across the crease and out the other side.

(Buzz Schneider, #25 for the U.S. team)

An obscure rule led to a penalty on the U.S. goaltender Jim Craig when he attempted to play the puck behind his net. He lost his stick, and without “direct pressure” from an opposing player, he picked up the puck with his glove. By rule in international play, Craig was assessed two minutes for delay of game. 

It almost worked into the favor of the Americans. Fresh off the faceoff in the U.S. zone, the Americans broke in on a two on one, but shot it wide while shorthanded. Mark Johnson feathered a beautiful pass over to Buzz Schneider, but he could not finish as Myshkin was well out of position.

Third period

The U.S. began the third period with pressure. They were playing the way the Russians did all game with crisp passes, quick puck movement, and a circling style where everyone was in motion. As the period moved on, the Russians were showing glimpses of why they were so skilled.

Sergei Makarov, a member of the 2016 Hockey Hall of Fame, went around four members of the American defense before Jim Craig could come out and challenge him, and keep him from shooting the puck. It was the best chance the Russians had of scoring early in the final period.

A questionable call in the American defensive zone gave the U.S. their first power-play. Vladimir Krutov, the youngest player on the Russian squad and the scorer of their first goal, got sent off for slashing. The call is questionable since the referees let pretty much everything short of a felony go before this. 

Near the end of the penalty, the Americans broke in three on two. Dave Silk cut across to the near side of the ice and was falling as he slid the puck to Mark Johnson. Johnson would beat Myshkin and tally his second goal of the game, tying the score at three a side. 

(Mark Johnson, #10 for the U.S. team)

The score remained tied for a grand total of 81 seconds. A dump in and a failed clear by the Russians left the puck in the middle of the ice near the blue line. Mike Eruzione picked up the puck, dusted it off and fired a shot that lit the lamp for the U.S. The captain of the American team scored the go-ahead goal with exactly ten minutes remaining in the third period. 

In their first five games, the Russians trailed for a total of 14 minutes and 14 seconds in the third period. They were now behind the U.S. The crowd in Lake Placid roared with such ferocity the shock waves were felt in the Kremlin.  

The Americans went into a defensive shell. Under the rules, anytime the puck was pinned against the boards, the whistle was blown. The U.S. used this throughout the game, along with hard checking and solid goaltending by Jim Craig to hold out a rough onslaught of Russian attacks. 

The U.S. had one lone shot in the last ten minutes and held the Russians to only one shot in the last six minutes.

(Jim Craig makes a glove save during the Medal Round contest against the USSR in 1980)

The Americans were bigger underdogs than Leon Spinks when he faced Muhammad Ali. They were bigger underdogs than Buster Douglas when he knocked out Mike Tyson. They were a longer shot than that 100-1 odds horse you bet on. No one expected them to beat the mighty Russian team. 

As the seconds ticked off the Texas Instruments scoreboard above the ice at Lake Placid, the crowd grew deeper and deeper into a frenzy. Chants of U.S.A…. U.S.A…. were not just carried abound the arena, but in every bar, restaurant, and home tuning into ABC’s coverage of the Olympic Winter Games.

Al Michaels and the 8,500 hockey fans counted down the final seconds of the game. The classic line:

11 seconds, you’ve got 10 seconds, the countdown going on right now! Morrow, up to Silk. Five seconds left in the game. Do you believe in miracles? YES!

It would go down as one of the most iconic phrases in the sporting lexicon. As the Americans mobbed each other in their own zone, the greatest game of hockey, and one right up there with any in sport, had concluded.

The dejected Russian team leaned on their sticks. They had failed. Handshakes were exchanged as chaos reigned in the stands. With the U.S. gaining three points for a victory, a tie against Finland would guarantee them the gold.


On Sunday February 24th, 1980, the final two games of the medal round commenced. The United States, fresh from their emotional victory against the USSR played Finland at 11:00 AM local time. Rob McClanahan at the 6:05 mark of the third period scored the game winning goal. The United States beat Finland 4-2.

That meant the silver medal would go to the winner of the Sweden/USSR contest. However, it was no contest. By the end of the first period, it was 4-0 Russia. It continued to be 9-0 in favor of the Soviets after two. Sweden scored twice in the third, but it was far too little, much too late. The USSR waltzed to a silver medal with a 9-2 score.

(Podium ceremony as the flags rose, and the Star Spangled Banner played)

The Russians didn’t remain down for long. They did not lose another international game until 1985 and did not lose to the United States until the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. They retooled with the likes of Viacheslav Fetisov, Alexei Kasatonov, Vladimir Krutov, Igor Larionov, and Sergei Makarov becoming the new stars of the Russian Federation. 

Myshkin took over the goaltending duties from Vladislav Tretiak. The man behind the bench, Viktor Tikhonov, remained at the helm, and the Red Army would prosper again. 

The USSR Central Army team entered nine Winter Olympiads in hockey. They won the Gold Medal in seven of the nine. Their only two losses were in Squaw Valley in 1960 and Lake Placid in 1980. Both times, it was the U.S. who captured gold. 

Often, the winner of a contest can be easy to predict. When a winless football team goes on the road to face the reigning Super Bowl Champions, it is easy to see who will be the victor. When a team is up by 25 points with less than a half remaining, it can be assumed who will win. But on rare occasions, we are surprised. 

That is the joy of sports. 

On any given night, a miracle can happen.. 

Tell us what your memories are of the ‘Greatest Game’ in the comments section below.

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Ed Brickeen

Hockey is in my heart, baseball is in my soul, but wrestling is my life

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The Greatest Game

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