Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Was The US Hockey Gold Medal in 1980 A Miracle?

This subject came up on the blogosphere today. See Was the 1980 Miracle on Ice team really that much of a Miracle? by Tangotiger. He links to an article by Hawerchuk. But what Hawerchuk does is very similar to something I wrote about 6 years ago when the movie about the team came out. I wrote an article for the newspaper of San Antonio College (where I teach). The link to that original article is no longer on line, so it is below. But I have some details after it that proves when I wrote it. Here is the article:

Do you believe in critical thinking? If not, stop reading. The movie "The Miracle," about the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team, provides a great opportunity to use critical thinking, which shows that the game against the Soviet team was not as big a "David vs. Goliath" story as the movie made it out to be.

But first, it's a good movie. Kurt Russell portrays coach Herb Brooks well. Brooks was a good coach who did a great job of preparing his team. The hockey scenes are exciting. The team spirit and patriotism in the movie seem sincere and genuine. Thumbs up.

But back to the "David vs. Goliath" angle. Was team USA a "David?" In hindsight, we know that twelve of the U.S. players went on to play in the NHL. Some very soon after the Olympics were over. Some had long and fine careers. So the talent was there. At the end of the movie, we're told what the players are doing now. But no mention of their NHL careers. If they had mentioned this, we might not have seen them as such a little "David." So the director only told us what he wanted us to know, to play up his angle.

If we compare the U.S team in 1980, to the team in 1960, which also won a gold medal, we can see how good the 1980 team was. Only two players from the 1960 team made it to the NHL and one had a career of only 12 games. Now, in 1980, there were 21 teams in the NHL and in 1960, there were only six. So if it were 3.5 times easier to make it to the NHL in 1980, we might expect 7 players from the 1980 to make it if they had the same talent level as the 1960 team (3.5*2=7). But many more, 12, did. Furthermore, the 12 from the 1980 team played a total of about 6,000 games in their NHL careers while it is just 675 for the 1960 team. So it seems even more miraculous that the 1960 team took the gold since it looks like they had much less talent than the 1980 team. The 1960 team also beat the Soviet Union, who were the defending gold medal winners. Haven't heard about a movie for the 1960 team.

Were the Russians invincible? No. But the movie shows the U.S. players watching the Russians beat a team of NHL all-stars 6-0 on TV just prior to the Olympics. If you know nothing about the history of hockey, you might say to yourself while watching the movie, "wow, how can these young kids beat a Soviet team that clobbers the NHL's best?" Well, that 6-0 loss was part of a three game series in which the NHL won one game (4-2) and the other was close (5-4). In 1972, a team of NHL all-stars beat the Russians in a seven game series. In 1976, a team of NHL all-stars won the Canada Cup tournament, which pitted the best national teams of the world against each other. This included the Russians, who won 2, lost 2 and tied 1. Also, these NHL all-star teams did not spend six months practicing together as a team like Team USA did in 1980. If they had, they would have done even better and the Russians would not have looked so invincible. It takes both talent and team work to win.

The old format of the NHL All-Star game also shows the value of teamwork. In 1950s and 1960s, the defending Stanley Cup Champions played a team of All-Stars at the start of the NHL season. Obviously the All-Stars had more talent than could be assembled on any one team. But the all-stars only won the series 10 wins to 7, with two ties. The Detroit Red Wings beat the all-stars 7-1 in 1950. In 1959, the Montreal Canadiens beat the all-stars 6-1. So sometimes all-star teams get beat pretty bad because they have not had a chance to practice together as a team. To make an issue out of one game (the 6-0 game mentioned above) is to reach a conclusion based on a small sample size. That can be very misleading.

In the final seconds of Team USA's victory over the Soviet Union in 1980, the announcer Al Michaels shouted, "Do you believe in miracles?" Calling something a miracle does not make it so. If you believe in critical thinking, you won't be so easily fooled. Maybe the movie should have simply been titled "The Upset." But an upset is not as compelling as a miracle, now is it?


You can actually see pretty much what I wrote as a comment at IMDB. Click here to see it. You just have to scroll down a bit. You can see the date it was posted. Look for "Good but misleading, 12 February 2004."

Also, an article about me that was published in the Chicago Sports Review in 2004 mentions the article. Click here to see that. You will see that it was posted August 13, 2004 09:55 PM (GMT). Look for where it says about me and my website: "He even includes an essay he wrote debunking one of this country's most cherished myths: that the 1980 U.S. Olympic hockey team's win over the Soviet team was a miracle. Morong's essay calls it an upset, yes, but by no means a miraculous victory."


Anonymous said...

Let's see about this. The 80 USA team was a minor league team that beat maybe the best team ever.

The USA a minor league team? But they had 12 guys make the NHL you say. Okay, a team with 12 guys who make the NHL with an average team age of 21 and no #1 picks is a minor league team.

The 80 team played 4 average NHL teams in its exhibition season and lost them all by an average of over 2 goals a game.

The 80 team played each of the CHL teams twice and had a pretty good record. And the CHL was probably not as good as the AHL.The 80 team would have been a good minor league team.

The US did not have a lot of good pro players in 1980 of any age. There were no NHL goalies who were from the USA during this time. There were virtually no all-star caliber players in the NHL from the USA.

The Russians outscored the NHL stars in 1979 13-6. The NHL stars had a winning record against Stanley Cup champs. That would make Russians better than the average Stanley Cup champ.

The Russian Red Army team (which had most of the USSR players) played 9 NHL games in 1976/1980 against teams that had an average of 98 points - they went 5-3-1 record against them.

so, they were better than a 98 point NHL team, and then they get to add in some more players.

In 1976 the Canadians did practice a lot before the Canada Cup series and did not want to lose after their 1972 showing. The USSR was not as strong in 76 and 77 as their team was in transition.

So you have a minor league team playing against a team that was as strong as any NHL team.

Cyril Morong said...

What you are missing is my point that I focused on how the movie only presented certain facts, facts that fit the miracle theory.

My point about the players from the US team in 1980 that maded the NHL was that it needed to be compared to the team from 1960.

Who were the NHL teams they played during the exhibition season? How early on in their training was this? Maybe the point of playing those teams was to learn and improve.

I will have to take your word for it on the CHL vs. the AHL.

I don't see the point of how many good pro players the US had in 1980. None of them could have played in the olympics. The point is to look at the talent level of the players who did play. The movie never mentions that many of them went on to play in the NHL.

You talk about the Russians outscoring the NHL stars in 1979 then mention the all-stars record vs. the Stanley Cup champions. But by 1979, it had been many years since the all-stars played the Stanley Cup champions (the mid-60s). So we don't know if the Russians were better than the average Stanley Cup champs. They could have been, but we can't know based on this.

You mention the Russians being better than a 98 point team. But 98 point teams will lose a few games each year to inferior teams and no one calls it a miracle.

I don't know how much the Canadians practiced in 1976. I doubt it was nearly as long as the US olympic team practiced together in 1980.

I don't think we can conclude that the US team was a minor league team. They were very talented and had practiced together for a long time.

Again, the movie only mentioned one game the NHL all-stars played against the Russians and this exagerates how good the Russians were. That particular game was against a bunch of all-stars who had not practiced much together. So my point was to show how the movie was misleading.

You might be right about the relative qualities of the two teams. I don't deny that the Russian team was better. But it is the movie I addressed and how it tried to portray the match up as "David vs. Goliath." But it was not as much like that as they said.

Anonymous said...

NHL Exhbibition games - all average opponents Margin 24-8. They were games 11-14 for the team, in late Sept, early Oct

Minnesota North Stars 4:2 USA.
St. Louis Blues 9:1 USA
Atlanta Flames 6:1 USA
Washington Capitals 5:4 USA

My point of USA pro players was that the USA was not a hockey power in 1980, and even their best players would be big underdogs against the USSR. The USA finished 7th at worlds in 1979; the USSR dominated.

I only brought up the NHL all-star game because you did.

The 98 point was a minimum level; I would think they would be considered a much better team than that.

After the 1972 series, the Canadiens did everything to win the 1976 one. The USSR also lost their best player, Kharlamov around then, and were not as good in 76-77. Using this series just shows how good Bobby Orr and the NHL players were versus USSR 4 years earlier.

A team with 10 guys that will play pro hockey, no number 1 picks, no future all-stars, average age 21 is a minor league team.

The USA was a minor league team. They had about 10 guys who played NHL hockey. I checked the hockey database for the best team in the CHL that year - they had more than 10 guys who went pro.

The US went 14-3-1 (w/l/t) outscoring the chl teams 85-57. They were a good minor league team.

The movie tried to make a point about how good the Russians were. Obviously the 6-0 game exaggerates that. To be more fair they could have used the 1 goal game. But they were using facts, not making them up, like the Texas Western movie did.

They were as good as anyone in the
world. They won the 1979 worlds easily.

A minor league team beat the best team in the world.

Cyril Morong said...

If you look at the link I have in the beginning, it shows their draft picks. It looks like one guy was a #1 and some others were high. I would not call them a minor league team if so many guys ended up in the NHL. I suppose their is room to quibble, though. It would be interesting to look at that CHL team and see long their careers were in the NHL.

They also had to beat the national teams of several other countries and I think their experience against both NHL and minor leaguers improved their skills and gave them the experience they needed.

I only mention the all-star games because the movie did. And I only mention that some of the players went on to play in the NHL because the movie failed to mention it but they did say what those guys were doing 20 or so years later.

Anonymous said...

One last try

80 USA had 6,041 pro games from its 20 players, with more than 1/2 (3,178) coming from 3 guys Broten,Ramsey, and Christian. 10 guys played more than 143 games, #11 was Craig with 30. Goal scorers 6 and 7 did not make the NHL, number 5 got 4 games.

To compare, Salt Lake City, the top team in the CHL, got 3,777 games out of its top 20 players in games played. All but 2 made the NHL, but only 1 played more than 1,000 games, Joe Mullen, who almost played on the 80 USA team. So the difference between them and the USA team were 2 guys who played 1,000 pro games.

To compare to an NHL team, 2 teams tied for last in the league in 80.
Colorado had 10,878 pro games on its top 20 players. Winnipeg got 8,145 pro games out of its top 20.

So, the USA team had far less pro games on its roster than the worst 2 NHL teams. Those teams got 51 points.

CHL champ ~4,000 games
USA ~6,000
worst 2 NHL ~9,000

Also, the average age for the top 10 guys for Team USA who played in the NHL was 20.6 - the oldest 22. So none of them were in their peak years.

So, Team USA was worse than the worst NHL team -a 51 point team based on NHL games played. Add into that whatever aging adjustment you want.

I still have a good minor league team beating the best team in the world.

Anonymous said...

The Soviet teams won ALL the Super Series in the seventies and eighties, plus Challenge Cup -79 and Canada Cup -80, and all World Championships around that time. So yes it was a miracle and yes the Soviets were the better team, but shit sometimes happens.

Cyril Morong said...

Thanks for dropping by and commenting. Where are you getting this info about the "Super Series?"

In 1972, a team of NHL all-stars beat the Russians in a seven game series.

It is not just about who won what, it is also about what information the movie used. The movie would have you think the Russians always beat NHL all-stars and always by a lot.

Unknown said...

The 1980 U.S. defeat of the Soviet's was still a big upset but even before they lost to Team USA the Soviet's looked vulnerable in their wins against Canada and Finland. The biggest reason I think the Soviet's looked vulnerable was their Goaltending was bad that Olympic Year (1980) and their #1 starting Goalie Tretiak was in a terrible Goaltending slump that Olympic Year. Of course what helped the U.S. Team the most that Year is that they also had the best GOALTENDER that Year in Jim Craig and their Coach Herb Brooks prepared the U.S. Team in a very smart way with PHYSICAL CONDITIONING and TACTICS! Other upsets have happened in Winter Olympic Ice Hockey History with GOALTENDING usually being the biggest reason why like in 1936 with Great Britain winning the Gold Medal behind the GOALTENDING of Jimmy Foster and the Czech Republic winning the Gold Medal in 1998 behind the GOALTENDING of the Dominator Hasek!

Cyril Morong said...

Bob, thanks for all the great insights. Surprised to get a comment after all this time