Simply put, Miracle on Ice was the greatest upset in sports history, bar none.
I can’t even call the above statement homerism, because I can’t think of a bigger upset. A game with so much at stake that had professionals playing amateurs in a sport where the professionals were the dominant team on earth … and the amateurs weren’t even the best amateurs on their continent. I tell my wife and son, imagine the Miami Heat playing a college all-star team, but some of the all-stars are not eligible to play. The Heat decide to pull LeBron James in the second quarter of the game because he made a mistake, and never put him back in. The college all-star team wins; then wins again to bring home the Championship. That could and would never happen.
And Miracle on Ice is even more of an upset than our imaginary game. We know some college players are capable of excelling in the NBA. We know some of the USA Miracle on Ice contingent went on to play in the NHL, and have superb careers but the USA team wasn’t even considered the best team in North America. Let’s steal some from Wikipedia to set the scene:
In exhibitions that year, Soviet club teams went 5–3–1 against National Hockey League (NHL) teams, and a year earlier, the Soviet national team had routed the NHL All-Stars 6–0 to win the Challenge Cup. In 1979–80, virtually all the top North American players were Canadians, although the number of U.S.-born professional players had been on the rise throughout the 1970s. The 1980 U.S. Olympic team featured several young players who were regarded as highly promising, and some had signed contracts to play in the NHL immediately after the tournament.
And it wasn’t like the Americans had been dominating the USSR:
In the last exhibition game against the Soviets at Madison Square Garden on February 9, 1980, the Soviets crushed the Americans 10–3.
Yikes. The USA faced an uphill climb to even get to the medal round. But they skated as a cohesive unit, got great goaltending from Jim Craig and Herb Brooks coached the team to a gold medal.
In the Soviet Union – USA game, the USSR coach, Viktor Tikhonov pulled legendary netminder Tretiak after he allowed a rather soft goal with one second left in the 1st period and the US trailing 2-1. This tying goal was huge, as the USSR took a 3-2 lead into the third. They had dominated the 3rd period in previous Olympic games, often outlasting opponent with their up-tempo style. But the Americans weren’t to be denied. Mark Johnson scored on the power play to tie it at three; then team captain Mike Eruzione scored to give the US its first lead. Instead of hanging on, the US team continued to try to attack. The USSR team, as shown in the video had started to press and take uncharacteristic shots. Even at the end, the stubborn nature of the USSR coach showed through when he refused to pull the goaltender for an extra attacker.
I watched that game on tape delay, and I found it unbelievable the USA team had won. In fact, I didn’t believe it even though I knew the score. The USA team was so below the USSR in talent, there was no way for the USA to win a normal game. Unlike most of my fellow Americans, I didn’t believe it was a political victory. It was a win; a miraculous win for sure, but also one in which the USSR team participated in its own demise. Tikhonov would have been fired for such a performance at the NHL level. Pulling Tretiak was ridiculous, and not even practicing with an extra attacker showed incredible hubris. The USA team was good, and lucky. That’s a great combination. If the USA and USSR played a best of seven, the USSR would have won in five.