They were seeded seventh among 12 teams -- they had little hope of winning a medal, much less the gold.
And competing with the world's most feared hockey powerhouse, the original Big Red Machine, the Soviet Union? Well, there was little chance of that, either. After all, the U.S. Olympic hockey team was a bunch of college kids, some of whom appeared as if they weren't even old enough to shave, and the Soviets were veterans, the best national hockey team in the world, the invincible team every country feared, the one with the distinctive blood-red uniforms and the intimidating CCCP lettering across its chests. They had crushed the U.S. Olympians, 10-3, in an exhibition contest at Madison Square Garden just 13 days before the Games began in Lake Placid, New York.
But there was something special about this U.S. hockey team. They were unusually gritty and mentally tough, highly disciplined, and conditioned like thoroughbreds as a result of head coach Herb Brooks' relentless and intense training methods.
Brooks, a cold, complex, distant perfectionist from the University of Minnesota, was meticulous in the manner in which he choose this Olympic team, opting for durable and resilient players with big hearts and dogged determination. He worked them harder than they had ever worked before, and when the tournament began against dangerous Sweden, the U.S. Olympians immediately demonstrated exceptional characteristics.
With one minute left against Sweden, the U.S. trailed, 2-1. After Brooks pulled goaltender Jim Craig, Bill Baker slapped home the tying goal off a centering pass with 27 seconds left. Two nights later, the Americans hammered Czechoslovakia, 7-3. After that, the U.S. knocked off Norway, Romania and West Germany, all on third-period outbursts fueled by superior conditioning, evident by the fact that the U.S., outscored 9-6 in the first period of the tournament, dominated opponents in the final two periods, ultimately outscoring them by an astounding margin of 27-6.
But in the semifinals against Russia, none of that was supposed to matter. It was seen as a game of boys vs. men.
Friday evening, February 22, 1980, Lake Placid, upstate New York.
Anticipation in the Olympic Field House is incomparable as the U.S. and Soviet teams circle the ice in the semifinal showdown. The feeling among Americans and the global hockey world is that the Americans have performed wonderfully, capturing the hearts of a country in turmoil, but that this is the night their dreams would be obliterated. The Soviets, after all, are a fast, furious, indestructible hockey machine that lives, breaths and eats the sport.
But the cold Brooks, who has utilized psychological ploys from the moment he was named coach, warms up and becomes emotional, for a moment at least, in the locker room before the Soviet game, telling his team, ''You're born to be a player. You're meant to be here. This moment is yours.''
With Brooks' words reverberating in its collective psyche, the U.S. team storms onto the ice, confident, prepared and ready to create history and shock the universe.
As the final seconds of the opening period tick away, the U.S. trails, 2-1, when American center Dave Christian slaps a 100-foot prayer shot toward the net. Vladislav Tretyak, considered the best goalie in the world, and owner of two Olympic gold medals, a goalie who seldom ever makes a mistake, blocks the shot, but allows the rebound to slip out and slither about 15 feet away. Out of the blue, fleet U.S. winger Mark Johnson swoops toward the puck as the clock ticks down, and with one second left, he slides a shot past the stunned Tretyak.
The crowd is delirious. The arrogant Soviets are shaken, which is evident when the teams line up for the face-off with 0:01 left in the period. Shockingly, Soviet assistant coach Vladimir Yurzinov yanks the legendary Tretyak from the net, replacing him with Vladimir Myshkin. For Tretyak, it's the ultimate disgrace, one he'll never live down.
But just when everyone thinks the Soviet hockey reign is in jeopardy, the Red Machine comes out and outshoots the U.S. 12-2 in the second period. But the Soviets can muster only one goal because of the acrobatic, sprawling brilliance of U.S. goalie Jim Craig. Russia leads 3-2 in the game, yet because of Craig, it's the U.S. that actually gains confidence heading into the final period.
"We were frustrating them," Craig says today. "For the first time in a long, long time, the Soviets panicked. First they pulled their star goalie, then they bombarded us with shots, and only had a one-goal lead. They skated and passed better than everyone in the world, but then they began to throw the puck forward. We wore them down, mentally, emotionally and physically."
The heart and superior conditioning of the Americans -- as well as their fierce, relentless body-checking and flawless playmaking -- begins to overcome the Soviets' speed, discipline and experience.
At the 8:39 mark of the third period, Mark Johnson scores for the U.S., and 90 seconds later, U.S. captain Mike Eruzione, coming off the bench on a shift change, picks up a loose puck, heads to the slot between the face-off circles, hides behind a Soviet defenseman, and fires a 30-foot shot into the net to give the U.S. the lead, 4-3, with 10 minutes left. Bedlam erupts.
The final minutes are frantic and frenzied, as the Soviets charge forward, only to be turned away time after time, shot after shot, by Craig and the stout U.S. defense.
For the U.S., the clock moves slowly. "I looked up at the clock with 3:32 left and look up again after what I thought was two minutes and the clock read 3:25," Eruzione would say later. "It was unreal."
The final minute of play is simply one of disbelief as the Soviets skate and pass and shoot furiously while the Americans bang away, knocking the Soviets off the puck repeatedly. Every passing moment is like slow motion, everything is magnified, and as the final seconds tick away, the excitement builds uncontrollably as fans see that the impossible is happening, that the invincible is not invincible, that miracles do happen.
The final Soviet charge fails, and as the pucks flutters away, and as the clock hits 0:02 . . . 0:01 . . . 0:00, the arena explodes with joy. American flags wave in a wild and beautiful sea of red, white and blue as the U.S. players leap into each other's arms and roll on the ice.
The ecstasy spills outdoors. Thousands of people stream onto the Lake Placid streets chanting "USA! USA!" The euphoria is felt across the country, state by state, from Pennsylvania, through Illinois and to California.
In the U.S. locker room, the players are still in disbelief, unable to comprehend the magnitude of their achievement. Nearby, at the entrance to the locker room, two security guards wipe away tears from their eyes.
Before long, it dawns on everyone that this incredible conquest will be diminished if the Americans don't defeat Finland 48 hours later in the gold medal championship game. TV sets throughout America and the world are tuned in to the U.S.-Finland showdown on an early Sunday morning.
The U.S. trails 2-1 going into the final period, but as they have done throughout the seven-game tournament, the Americans dominate the final period with their superior conditioning, scoring three third-period goals to down Finland 4-2 and win the gold.
This team belonged to America. The team galvanized a country during a time of turmoil and fear, when 52 Americans were being held hostage in Iran. The U.S. Olympians stopped the planet for 72 hours, the most glorious three-day, two-game period in sports in our nation's history.
"What's so great is that when people talk about memorable events in American history, a lot of them are negative, like JFK and now 9/11," Ken Morrow, a member of that U.S. team, would say. "Our victory took on an aura of being much bigger than a game. From a national standpoint, there's never been anything to match what we did. Nothing."