Today, USA Hockey fans celebrate the 35th anniversary of the first of seven games played by a bunch of unheralded college kids en route to a memorable gold medal that meant as much to a sputtering nation as it did to the players themselves.
Romanticized by the 2004 movie, Miracle starring Kurt Russell as the venerable Herb Brooks, the United States' 4-3 victory over the seemingly invincible Soviet Union "Red Army Team" is often misconstrued as the final game of the tournament, in which the host nation captured gold. To some who know the Americans still had to take on Finland two days later, the "Miracle on Ice" is simply known as the tournament's semifinal.
In reality, neither of these scenarios held true. Until 1992, The International Olympic Committee had a round-robin tournament format in place that was second only to the NCAA in ridiculous ways to determine a champion. In fact, the 1980 Winter Olympics might have been the most overcomplicated format we've ever seen.
Here's how it broke down:
-12 participating countries were split into two six-team divisions, named Red Division and Blue Division.
-Each country played five "First Round" games, one against everyone in their division.
-The top two teams from each division advanced to the "Final Round," while third place in each advanced to the "Consolation Round."
(In previous competitions dating back the 1964 games, the top eight teams all played each other once in a group stage format with no "final round")
-The four "Final Round" teams would play three more games, in round-robin style. The team with the most points won the gold medal, the team with the second most won silver, and third won bronze.
-In the event of a tie in points, goal differential would decide the order in which the teams involved finished.
Seems simple, right? Here's where it gets tricky: yes, four teams were placed in the "Final Round," but they only got to play two additional games, one against each team from the opposite division. As a proxy for the third game, the result from the "First Round" matchup between each of the two teams carried over to the "Final Round." Those two games were the USSR's 4-2 victory over Finland, and a dramatic 2-2 tie between the United States and Sweden, in which Bill Baker's goal knotted the game with just 27 seconds remaining. Remember that for later.
So before the Americans and Soviets took the ice on February 22, there were already standings:
When the final buzzer sounded in Lake Placid's Olympic Fieldhouse and the celebration of the greatest upset in sports history had subsided, nothing tangible had been won yet. In fact, as Mike Eruzione recalls in the HBO documentary "Do You Believe in Miracles? The Story of the 1980 U.S. Hockey Team," they almost gave it all right back. Quoting an irate Brooks in the locker room in between periods, he tells of his short, but effective speech.
"If you lose this game, you'll take it to your f****** graves." After a short pause and a few steps, he said, Brooks turned around and repeated himself. "Your f****** graves."
Down 2-1 heading into the third period against Finland, the United States was in danger of finishing behind the Soviets for the fifth straight tournament despite having defeated them. For argument's sake, let's say the Americans pulled their goalie late in the game, desperately chasing the tying goal, like they did in the tournament's opening game against Sweden.
If Finland had scored an empty net goal and won 3-1, not only would the US have lost out on gold, but they would've also lost a tiebreaker to the Finns and walked away with bronze. As it turned out, the pesky college kids had one more comeback in them, scoring three goals in the third period to clinch the gold medal.
Here's how the final tournament table shook out:
Now, remember that Bill Baker goal in the dying seconds against Sweden in the tournament's very first game? What if it didn't go in, and the United States started their 1980 Olympics campaign with a 2-1 loss?
Disregard the fallacy of the predetermined outcome for a moment, and assume every other game that followed fell into place in the exact same way. That's right, the Soviets would've won gold, having the tiebreaker over the Americans. Now we're really in NCAA territory.
Luckily, the IOC switched to a hybrid of round-robin and knockout round style formats before the 1992 Olympics. Since then, every international ice hockey competition has ended with a true "gold medal game" between the final two contesting teams.
But despite all the pomp and circumstance surrounding the dramatic and improbable win over the Russians in 1980, Eruzione's memorable goal celebration midway through the third period and Jim Craig's phenomenal effort in the game's final minutes, it turned out that Baker's goal in the tournament's opening game was just as crucial to the tournament's end result: the most crowded gold medal podium in Olympic history.