Thirty-two years ago shortly after 4 p.m., the U.S. Olympic hockey team faced off against the Soviet Union in the 1980 Winter Olympics hockey medal round.
For those who argue that sports has an outsized influence on our culture, one hockey game might prove your point. For those who argue that sports has too much influence on our culture, this hockey game proves otherwise.
Things were not good in 1980. (Similar to today.) Americans enjoyed both double-digit unemployment and double-digit inflation. Gas prices were going upward in the second energy crisis of the 1970s. The Soviet cancer seemed to be growing unchallenged worldwide, the Soviets having invaded Afghanistan and having promoted friendly governments in Africa and eastern Europe. Three months earlier 52 Americans had been taken hostage in the U.S. Embassy in Tehran, Iran. President Jimmy Carter appeared to have been elected to preside over the decline of the U.S., even in sports, where he decided to keep the U.S. out of that summer’s Olympics in Moscow.
The Olympic world was different from today. The Soviet Union was considered the best hockey team in the world, given their collection of world championships and Olympic titles. Their American counterparts were college hockey players, two from Madison — forward Mark Johnson and defenseman Bobby Suter — coached by one of the best college coaches of all time, Herb Brooks, who met no one’s definition of Mr. Personality. (In sharp contrast to Johnson’s and Suter’s coach, “Badger Bob” Johnson, who had coached the Olympic team to a fourth-place finish four years earlier.)
The TV world was also different from today. Unless you were an employee of ABC-TV or an ABC affiliate station, or lived close enough to the Canadian border to get Canada’s live coverage, you didn’t see the game live. ABC didn’t broadcast the game until its Friday evening Olympic coverage started at 7 p.m., when those watching the 6 p.m. news probably already knew the results.
Brooks, the last cut from the 1960 Olympic hockey team, put his team through a gauntlet of pre-Olympic games that included the Soviets’ flattening of the Americans just before the start of the Olympics. (The same Soviet team also beat a National Hockey League all-star team.) So even though the U.S. had overachieved to get to the medal round, one would have had to have been excessively optimistic to think the U.S. could actually beat the Soviets and then win the gold medal two days later.
But a funny thing happened on the way to yet another Soviet gold medal.
The world’s greatest goaltender, Vladislav Tretiak, was unusually sieve-like, giving up his second goal just before the end of the first period. And then Soviet coach Viktor Tikhonov either panicked or let his anger get the best of him and replaced Tretiak after one period. Even though the Soviets dominated the second period, they led just 3–2 going into the third period of a game that ABC’s Al Michaels called “the rarest of sporting events — an event that needs no buildup, no superfluous adjectives.”
Johnson scored his second goal of the night on a power play near the midway point of the third period. And then …
Because of its context, the game turned out to be not only the biggest American hockey moment of all time (biggest? The term “sacred” wouldn’t be an overstatement), but arguably the biggest American sports moment of all time.
Having covered a lot of sports over the years, I’ve seen that blank look of the loser at the end of the big game. But I’m still struck 32 years later at the look of mixed emotions on the parts of the Soviets at the end of the game, as if they realized that the right team won that game, even though it wasn’t them. Years later, Tretiak said something like “We lost to a bunch of students!”, as if channeling Michaels’ last line about “the most improbable circumstance you could ever have imagined before these Olympics started.”
That win did not win the gold medal, of course. The next game did:
The cover of the following week’s Sports Illustrated is the only cover in the nearly 60-year history of the magazine to have neither headline nor caption. It didn’t need one.