In the annals of sports history, the event ranks as one of the greatest games, and one of the greatest upsets, of all time. In a story that seemed more out of a hackneyed Hollywood formula film, a group of young college students, seemingly thrown together months earlier, took on the greatest international hockey team even assembled in the 1980 Winter Olympics, and defeated them in a stirring, come-from-behind victory. They would then go on to win the gold medal, but more than that, provide a nation, which was going through a period of self-doubt and uncertainty, a much-needed confidence boost.
As in all stories of this nature, there is much more to the saga than meets the eye. With the 20th anniversary of the "Miracle on Ice" fast approaching, it is appropriate to review "One Goal", an in-depth, entertaining look at how that upstart U.S. hockey club was put together, and how they were able to pull off one of the most amazing victories in sports by defeating the powerful Soviet Union hockey team.
One Goal begins it's examination by looking back at the history of the United States Olympic hockey program. It highlights a similar upset by an American hockey club in 1960 at the Squaw Valley Winter Games, when another club of upstarts defeated such favourites as the Canadians and Soviets enroute to the gold medal. As the book indicates, that team was very much more a group of unknown players thrown together than the subsequent 1980 squad. In those days, the United States was sending hardly any players to the National Hockey League, and those players on the 1960 team literally took leave of absences from their regular jobs to play together for several months in pursuit of an Olympic medal. When they were finished, rather than moving on to big time professional careers, almost all went back to their regular jobs and average lives.
The 1980 US hockey team, on the other hand, was the product of a very competitive college system. Their players were being scouted by NHL teams, and in fact, many of those who would make up the 1980 team were already drafted by National Hockey League clubs. If they failed to make the cut in the NHL, their university degrees would give them lucrative job oppotunities. No longer were they firemen and farmers and factory workers who were taking time off to compete in the Olympics.
It was still a long way from the type of program that would turn out future NHL stars as it is today, and in terms of development was still several steps behind the Soviet Union. However, it was a far cry from the type of system the 1960 team had sprung from. However, as entertaining and competitive as the college leagues were, whoever put together the U.S. Olympic squad would have to be able to make the players overcome their natural rivalries toward each other, and come together as one unit.
College coach Herb Brooks would prove to be the mastermind in bringing this about. A former player who, ironically, was one of the last players cut from the 1960 team, Brooks set about building the 1980 team in a manner completely different from previous squads. He relied on careful scouting methods, looking for the right players to play the right roles. It was in this way he discovered players like goaltender Jim Craig, defenceman Ken Morrow and forwards Mike Eurizone, Neal Broten and Eric Strobel.
Furthermore, he was a student of the "Father of Soviet Hockey", Anatoli Tarasov, and once visited the USSR to learn what he could from Tarasov. Brooks believed his team should be constantly in motion and forechecking agressively. He also believed his players needed to be in peak physical form, putting them through a gruelling conditioning program. Finally, Brooks was a master of the mind games, at least when it came to manipulating young, impressionable minds like those of his players. He united his team against him, which in turn bonded them together as a team. While this may have seemed like a recipe for mutiny, it garnered the players respect. As tough a taskmaster as Brooks was, he was also fair. If you played hard for Brooks, you earned your place on the squad.
Still, it would not be an easy road to Olympic glory. The team played numerous games around the United States against other college teams, AHL squads and an exhibition against a couple of US teams; as well as a "barn-storming" tour of Western Europe. In an exhibition game against the Soviets days prior to the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics, the Americans were humiliated 10-3 at Madison Square Garden. Nobody was giving the U.S. squad any hope of winning gold. At best, folks were hopeful for a bronze medal. During the qualifying games, the Americans had their hands full against a rising Swedish team, as well as tough grinders from West Germany and Norway. There were pitfalls everywhere, in the eyes of Brooks, who constantly kept after his young players to maintain their focus.
Amazingly, heading into the medal rounds, the U.S. was undefeated. This would put them on their fateful collision course with the Soviets, themselves undefeated and a sure lock, it would appear, to win yet another gold medal. However, Brooks remained unconvinced. What he had seen, and others hadn't, was a Soviet team in transition. While goaltender Tretiak remained in his prime, long time stars like Kharlomov, Maltsev and Mikhailov, familiar to hockey fans since the famous Summit Series of 1972 against Canadian NHL stars, were aging.While the Soviets did have a rising crop of young stars in Fetisov and Makarov, Soviet coach Viktor Tikhanov tended to rely too heavily on his older players. Brooks was convinced the Soviets were ripe to be upset, and continually reminded his charges of this fact going into the matchup.
It is this game that becomes the climax of One Goal. Broken down into riveting detail, the book describes how the Americans stayed close to the Soviets in the first period, capitalizing on a late goal given up by a soft rebound by Tretiak. The story switches to the second period, with Tretiak on the bench and the Americans falling behind 3-2. However, it was this second period that would be the turning point of the game, as the out-played Americans absorb the best the Russians dish out. By the third, pumped up on adrenaline and with youth on their side, the Americans catch and overtake the Soviets by the middle of the third.
Still, as the book points out, no one on the US bench was confident of victory. With ten minutes remaining, they realize there's plenty of time for the Soviets to play their heartbreaking style of scoring in bunches and taking away victory. However, the Americans grimly hang on, as the Russians, unaccustomed to losing so late in the game, grow leg-weary and confused as the minutes wind down. Surprisingly, they don't pull their goaltender in the final minute to go for the equalizer. The Soviets run out of time and the Americans pull off the upset.
Coming as it did, it would become, in the words of journalist Sam Donaldson, "a victory for the country". The 1980 Winter Olympics came at a time of crisis for the United States. Their economy was struggling. Their embassy people in Tehran, Iran were being held hostage. The Soviet Union had invaded Afghanistan. The country was still coping with their failure, five years prior, in the Vietnam War. America was looking for some kind of morale boost, something that would begin to restore it's faith in itself. As One Goal points out, the U.S. Hockey team's victory became that morale booster. Finally, Americans had something to feel good about again. Their hockey team had defeated the "Commies", the team supposed to be invincible.
The rest of the story is anti-climatic. The US wins the gold over Finland. Several of the US players, including their coach, go on to NHL careers with varying degrees of success. Most of the squad will leave hockey to go on to other careers. The Soviets would re-group from their stunning defeat and would dominate international hockey once again in the early 1980s, including humilating Team Canada at the 1981 Canada Cup, with younger stars such as Fetisov, Larionov, Makarov and Krutov.
Much of the story of One Goal concerns how coach Herb Brooks built the team and how it came together in the months leading up to the 1980 Olympics. What makes the story more worthwhile is it goes into the lives of the players, of their backgrounds and their personalities, and how each of them approached the momentous game against the Soviets. Suffice to say, the stories are too numerous to mention here, but it provides a candid, revealing look into how the team was able to pull off the "Miracle on Ice". One comes away from reading this book with a much better understanding of how the US squad was able to accomplish what it did. Although the club was better prepared, and was more talented, than most gave it credit for, it does not take away from the fact that what those college kids did that day in upstate New York was nothing short of incredible. They were talented, they were younger, and they had some luck on their side. In the end, however, it was still a story that, while it could very well have come from a Hollywood scriptwriter, turned out to be one of the greatest sports moments of the 20th century.