Monday, February 22, 2010

30 Years Ago 10: Do you believe ... ?

30 years ago today, the big day had arrived. The U.S. was matched up against the Soviet Union in a hockey game at the 1980 Winter Olympic Games at Lake Placid, New York. I set the political context here, and the athletic context here. Now for the game itself:

The USSR scored first, with a goal by Vladimir Krutov at 9:12 of the first period. Then Buzz Schneider tied it for the U.S. at 14:03. The Soviets again took the lead, when Sergei Makarov, Krutov's linemate on the famed KLM line (Igor Larionov was the third) scored at 17:34. As the first period ended, the Americans got the type of goal no team wants to give up, the one that shifts momentum right at the end of a period. And I do mean at the end: Mark Johnson was credited with the tying goal at 19:59.

The Johnson goal prompted an amazing reaction from USSR head coach Viktor Tikhonov. His starting goaltender, Vladislav Tretiak, was generally believed to be the best hockey goalie in the world at that time. Tretiak had only played occasional exhibition games against North American professionals, so there was little hard evidence, but that was the consensus among observers of the sport.

For the last two periods, Tikhonov put in Vladimir Myshkin to replace Tretiak. Such a move is relatively rare in hockey. The Americans had already won a victory of sorts, by sending the great Tretiak to the bench.

For a while, the replacement goalie did OK. The only second period goal came at 2:18, when Aleksandr Maltsev put the USSR back in the lead, by a score of 3 to 2. Things looked good for the Soviets as that lead held up, going into the third period. But, in retrospect, Maltsev's goal was the high-water mark for the Soviet team.

At 8:39 of the third, Johnson scored again, to tie the game at 3 to 3.

Then, exactly halfway through the third period, came what is arguably the most memorable play in the history of American sports.

Mike Eruzione was the old man of the team, at the age of 25, He had played his college hockey at Boston University. Many of his Olympic teammates went on to play in the National Hockey League (NHL), and some of them have their names etched on the Stanley Cup. Eruzione was not among those NHL players; his subsequent involvement in the sport included television work and coaching.

But Eruzione instantly achieved athletic immortality, by scoring a goal at exactly 10:00 of the third period, with assists from Mark Pavelich and John Harrington. The U.S. led 4-3.

Attention shifted to Jim Craig, who played goalie for the U.S. throughout the Olympics. He stopped all of the Soviet shots during the final 10 minutes. Like Eruzione, Craig did not go on to achieve any significant success in the NHL. But Craig is given much of the credit for the American victory. The USSR team had 39 shots on goal, to only 16 for the Americans.

Ken Dryden, a former NHL goalie who was the analyst on the ABC telecast, commented, just before Eruzione's goal, that the U.S. team was relying too much on Craig. Perhaps so, but the results show that Craig was up to the task.

Dryden's broadcast partner was Al Michaels. Michaels, who is mainly known for his football and baseball work, had announced only one hockey game in his life, before the 1980 Olympics. As the final seconds were counted down, Michaels asked "Do you believe in miracles?" He then proceeded to answer his own question: "Yes!" The U.S. had defeated the USSR by a score of 4 to 3.

In the final minute of the game, the Soviet coaching staff made another startling decision; they kept their goalie Myshkin on the ice. Standard hockey strategy under those circumstances, is to pull the goaltender off the ice, and replace him with an additional player at a forward position. If a team is in danger of losing by one goal, it makes little difference if they instead lose by two or more, so it's worth the risk to give them a better chance of scoring a tying goal. I remember some speculation at the time, that the Soviet team had so often been far ahead of their opponents toward the end of the game, that they had no instinctive feel for the proper time to pull the goalie.

For some Americans, the Soviet game was the main achievement. It's often said, probably correctly, that most people carry a faulty memory that it was in that game that the U.S. won the gold medal. But the reality was that the Americans had one more game to play. Their final opponent was a sparsely-populated country next door to Russia, that punches above its weight in hockey. That country is the land of my maternal ancestors: Finland.

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