On November 4, 1979, 52 American diplomats and citizens in the United States embassy in Tehran, Iran were taken hostage. The embassy was overrun by large groups of Iranian college students, supporters of the country’s new leader, the anti-American cleric Ayatollah Khomeini.
Americans gathered around their television sets, night after night, to witness mass anti-American demonstrations and flag burnings in a country that had recently been our ally. Often, hostages were brought out, blindfolded, to taunt us and remind us that our people had been taken, daring the word’s greatest superpower to do something about it.
Jimmy Carter, the President at the time, ultimately decided to negotiate through a third-party country, and a standoff ensued. America was still healing from Vietnam, a conflict that had divided the country, and we seemed to have little stomach for another war in a faraway land that most of us knew little about.
The situation was heartbreaking and beyond frustrating. Sadly, it was hardly an isolated incident that caused Americans to openly question what had become of our once great nation.
There had been a nuclear incident at a place called Three Mile Island. Gasoline was scarce in some areas, and rationing was introduced. NASA, who had put a man on the moon in 1969, warned us that something called ‘Skylab’ was falling out of the sky. 11 kids were crushed to death outside Cincinnati’s Riverfront Coliseum before a concert by ‘The Who.’ And, on Christmas day, 1979, we woke up to find out that the Russians, our longtime Cold War nemesis, had invaded Afghanistan.
For years, the Unites States and Russia had clashed, directly or indirectly, on almost every issue, in almost every arena, in one form or another, in almost every location on Earth. Each country tried to prove to the rest of the world that their political ideology and way of life was best, and no event offered a better stage for that message than the Olympic games.
To demonstrate their superiority, the Russians assembled the Soviet Red Army Hockey Team. Hockey hadn’t been widely played in Russia prior to World War II, but during the Cold War the Russians not only started playing ice hockey, but they revolutionized the sport. The Russians created a game that emphasized fitness, teamwork, passing and puck possession, more than the way the game had traditionally been played in North America.
Russia, or as it was known back then, the USSR (United Socialist Soviet Republics), began to dominate Olympic hockey. The Olympic games were supposed to be a platform for amateur athletes to come together to engage in friendly competition on a global stage. The Soviets found a way around the “amateur” designation by using full-time athletes who were hired as regular workers of a company or organization that sponsored them, in order to keep their amateur status. In ice hockey, this was the Soviet Red Army Team, and quite simply, they were almost unbeatable.
Between 1954 and 1991, the Russians won nearly every world championship and Olympic tournament and never failed to medal in any International Ice Hockey Federation (IIHF) tournament they competed in.
Enter Herb Brooks.
Brooks was coming off having led the University of Minnesota to the 1979 NCAA Championship in ice hockey, the school’s third in six seasons, but he had always had his eye on a bigger target.
“I am very proud of winning three NCAA National titles,” said Brooks. “But to go on to become the coach of Team USA was what it was all about for me.”
After being named head coach in 1979, Brooks began to institute a master plan he had been developing for years. 68 players from around the country were invited to compete for just 26 roster spots. By February of 1980 that number would be winnowed to just 20.
In between, Brooks put his team through 61 grueling games over five months of competition against minor league, NHL and international competition, but the biggest opponent was always Brooks himself. “I pushed this team hard,” said Brooks. “I mean, I really pushed them, but they had the ability to answer the bell.”
Brooks told Sports Illustrated, “It was a lonely year for me, a very lonely year, but that was by design.”
Brooks design was to get his players to bond by making himself, not the mighty Soviets, their biggest enemy. He pushed the team through what have now become legendary practices, threatening to cut Mike Eruzione, the team captain, just weeks before the games began. After all, who knew better than Brooks how motivating such a move could be? Brooks had been the final player cut in 1960, the last time Team USA had won gold in Olympic ice hockey competition.
“He was like your dad,” said Eruzione. “I mean, sometimes you loved your dad and sometimes you hated him because he made you do things you didn’t want to do. That was Herb.”
Less than a week before the Olympic games were to start in Lake Placid, New York, Team USA played the Russians in a final tune-up game at Madison Square Garden. The Red Army Team breezed its way to a 10-3 thrashing of the Americans. The media scorched Brooks and the overmatched Americans, the Russians yawned, and Herb thought the setup was perfect. Now, he just had to get his players to buy-in.
In the opener, played before the Opening Ceremonies, team USA needed a late goal from Defenseman Bill Baker to tie Sweden 2-2. Next came a 7-3 upset of favored Czechoslovakia before wins over Norway, Romania and West Germany to get into the medal round and a game against the heavily-favored Soviets.
Of the many things Herb Brooks told his team leading up to the Olympic semifinal game on Friday, February 22, 1980, was that the Russians were overconfident, ripe to be beat, and that “their time was done!.” Before he left the locker room Brooks told his team that he believed in them, closing with, “You were born to be a player. You were meant to be here. This moment is yours.” And, it was.
When the game was over the fallen Russians stood at center ice with a collective look of shock on their faces while the Americans wildly celebrated a most improbable 4-3 victory. Around the country, people blew car horns, complete strangers embraced, people waved American flags out windows and over highways, many repeating the line that almost no one could believe, “We beat the Russians!?” It was even reported that on the Indian Ocean. The American nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, the Nimitz, flashed a message to the Soviet ship, the Peleng: “Olympic hockey: U.S. 4, Soviet Union 3.” The Peleng responded with an acknowledgment signal, ending a communication silence that had been ongoing for months.
Team USA followed their epic upset with a workmanlike 4-2 win over Finland to complete their epic journey to the gold medal. Afterward, the team was invited to the White House, where President Carter called them “modern-day American heroes,” going on to say, “For me as President of the United States of America, this is one of the proudest moments that I have ever had.“ A team of unknown players, playing a niche sport, had suddenly become national heroes in the span of two weeks.
“I think we all know that it was only a hockey game. But if that’s what it takes to get young people to wave a flag and sing the National Anthem, instead of burning the flag and ridiculing this nation, then I’m awfully proud to have been a part of it,” said Brooks. “But in a very real sense, it wasn’t my team or the athletes’ team, it belonged to the nation, it was America’s team.”
On January 20, 1981, after 444 days in captivity, the U.S. hostages were finally freed from Iran. On their flight home they were brought up to date on the many things that had happened during their year-plus in captivity. When they were told that Team USA had beaten the Soviet Red Army team on their way to winning the gold medal in ice hockey during the Lake Placid Olympics, one of the former hostages was said to have replied, “Wait a minute, we beat the Russians?” And with that he smiled.