Ice HockeyNews

USA Hockey Can Take Inspiration From The 'Miracle on Ice' As They Go For Gold In Gangwon

by Brian Pinelli

Spencer Thornborough leads Team USA off the ice after the men's semifinals against Team Canada at the Winter Youth Olympic Games Gangwon 2024 on Jan. 30, 2024 in Gangwon, South Korea. (Photo by OIS/Jonathan Nackstrand)

If the overachieving youth hockey players representing USA Hockey in Gangwon, South Korea, need any additional inspiration as they prepare for their gold-medal showdown versus Team Czechia, they simply need to go to YouTube and search for the ‘Miracle on Ice.’

Led by the stellar goaltending of 16-year-old Xavier Wendt – who made 37 saves in regulation and denied all opposing shots in a shoot-out – the U.S. defeated their North American rival, Canada, in dramatic fashion, 6-5, to advance to the gold-medal game at the Winter Youth Olympic Games Gangwon 2024.

“It’s an incredible feeling beating Canada,” Wendt said, after the semifinal victory. “Long rivalry with them. It’s amazing.”

The 1980 U.S. Men's Hockey Team's shocking victory over the Soviet Union on Feb. 22, 1980, and subsequent gold-medal clincher over Finland, remains as arguably the greatest upset in Olympic and team sports history and will forever be known as the ‘Miracle on Ice.’

U.S. team captain Mike Eruzione summed up the magnitude of the moment – reflecting once again as he has happily done so for more than four decades – in a recent interview.

“It was a moment that touched the spirit of a nation at a time when we were looking for something to feel good about,” Eruzione told Team USA. “It was a moment that we as a team didn’t know was happening, but 44 years later we still get great pride and joy to see the reaction and what that moment has meant to people for whatever reason that might be.”

The improbable triumph transcended both hockey and sport, inspiring and uniting the United States during turbulent times, at home and abroad.

Fans in the charming Adirondack Mountain village of Lake Placid, New York, erupted in euphoria as the young, inexperienced group of American college hockey players defeated a juggernaut Soviet team that had won four consecutive Olympic gold medals, 4-3.

Two days later, the resilient U.S. squad rallied from behind, yet again, and beat Finland, 4-2, to clinch gold at the Olympic Winter Games Lake Placid 1980.

Mike Eruzione, captain of the 1980 'Miracle on Ice' U.S. men's ice hockey team, and the rest of the gold-medal hockey squad prepare to light the Olympic Cauldron during the Opening Ceremony of the Olympic Winter Games Salt Lake City 2002 on Feb. 8, 2002 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Getty Images)

Against the powerful Soviet Union squad, the Americans found themselves trailing, 3-2, after two periods.

Eruzione’s teammate Buzz Schneider – who scored the first goal for the U.S. – said he and the team, motivated and calmed by their coach Herb Brooks, didn’t panic.

"We had 20 minutes to go – (Brooks said) don’t change anything that we’ve been working on," Schneider recalled. "He kept us on track to play within the system and that’s what we did."

Eruzione, No. 22, scored the game-winning goal versus the Soviets with ten minutes remaining on the game clock.

“It was a play that came out of nowhere…in front of me was a defenseman and I shot the puck using him as a screen,” Eruzione said, recalling his clutch goal released from the slot. “It found the opening that I was trying for. I didn’t know it went in until I saw the crowd behind the goal jump up into the air.

“It was a long last 10 minutes, but I think the Soviets had only five or six shots on goal after that – we really controlled the game after we took the lead.”

It was a supremely tense battle over the waning minutes and as the game clock struck zero, ABC Sports commentator Al Michaels famously uttered the enduring words: ‘Do you believe in miracles, yes!’

U.S. goaltender Jim Craig was sensational between the pipes, stopping 36 of 39 shots, as the underdog Americans, having trailed three times, astonishingly pulled off a life-changing victory at the Lake Placid Olympic Center.

In a locker room speech prior to the contest versus the seemingly invincible Soviets – who had won 21 consecutive Olympic contests – U.S. Head Coach Herb Brooks inspired the best from his youthful squad affirming to them: “You were born to be a player. You are meant to be here. This moment is yours.”

Pivotal third-period goals by Mark Johnson and Eruzione complete the miraculous comeback. There was a wild atmosphere in a modest arena designed for 7,700 fans, but more likely jammed with around 11,000 that evening. Naturally, the raucous celebrations and fanfare immediately spread through the streets of Lake Placid.

“The atmosphere was incredible – people were waving American flags in the streets and singing the Star-Spangled Banner and God Bless America,” Eruzione said. “Downtown, it was like a Fourth of July parade – it was such a proud moment for our country.

“The whole place was excited about having the Olympics Games. Sure, there was craziness with traffic, buses and scheduling, but downtown Lake Placid was almost an extension of the Olympic Village. And also with what Eric Heiden did, it was electric – Lake Placid is just such a special place.”

Team USA celebrates after victory in the men's semifinals against Team Canada at the Winter Youth Olympic Games Gangwon 2024 on Jan. 30, 2024 in Gangwon, South Korea. (Photo by OIS/Jonathan Nackstrand)

Eruzione stressed the camaraderie and chemistry that developed rapidly among the squad of upstart collegians – especially impressively considering that the team was trounced, 10-3, by the Soviets in an exhibition game at New York’s Madison Square Garden the week before the Olympics opened. 

“Looking back, we were obviously better than people thought we were and probably better than we thought we were,” Eruzione said, about the team with an average age of 22. “We were young, naïve, just playing hockey and having fun doing it – there was no pressure on us.”

Coach Brooks molded a squad for ultimate success both physically and mentally, without distractions, on and off the ice.

“In the third period at those Olympics, we outscored our opponents 17-3 – that is an incredible number and it just showed the conditioning, practice and work we put in, as Herb just demanded so much out of us.

“The other big thing that Herb did was that we weren’t allowed to talk to the media. We didn’t know what was being written or what was being said. We knew that Lake Placid was excited, but we had no clue, no idea that the country and the world was watching as they were.

“We were kind of secluded in our own little cocoon and just playing one game at a time – there was no Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram and just three TV stations. The media coverage today would have been absolutely insane.

“If you were in our locker room, you would see that we were laughing and just having fun. We were just playing hockey and enjoying the success that we were having,” he said. “The old days as I call it, were a lot more fun than today.”

Eruzione and teammates returned to the Olympic spotlight 22 years after the ‘Miracle on Ice’ reuniting to light the cauldron at the opening ceremony of the Olympic Winter Games Salt Lake City 2002. It was yet another indelible moment in U.S. Winter Olympic history.

Who knows what the future might hold for the young and talented U.S. players that have risen to the occasion on the ice in Gangneung, but one more important victory would be a great start, just like those other guys 44 years ago.