We Still Believe In Miracles: Celebrating The 40th Anniversary Of The Lake Placid Winter Olympics

Just about every winter, the unmistakable voice of Al Michaels manages to find its way into my consciousness and nudges me to set out on a daytrip to Lake Placid. Do you believe in miracles? Yes! The fabled call by Michaels, uttered 40 years ago in the waning seconds of the United States hockey team’s astonishing 4-3 victory over the mighty Soviet Union in the Olympic semifinals, was the defining moment of the 1980 Lake Placid Games, instantly securing the status of top-shelf reverence in the American lexicon. Four decades later, that frozen-in-time event still resonates and retains its significance as arguably the most important achievement in our country’s decorated sports history. 

Setting out northbound from Saratoga Springs, I travel Interstate 87 to Exit 30, hang a left onto US Route 9 and make my way through the deep woods of the delightful Keene Valley, along picturesque NY-73 all the way to Lake Placid. The trip takes about two hours, and the drive, unless Old Man Winter is in a foul mood, is a blissful sensory treat of the season’s wondrous splendor. Winding through the snow-blanketed landscape, this gourmet slice of the Adirondacks is a charming oasis for outdoor enthusiasts and an inspiring canvas for artists of various disciplines. 

As I reach my destination and make the left turn onto Main Street, one of the first landmarks I pass is Lake Placid High School and the speed skating rink on the front of the property. This was the site of Eric Heiden’s five scintillating gold-medal performances during the 1980 Olympics. Up the road a bit is Herb Brooks Arena—named in honor of the beloved US hockey coach—the venue where the “Miracle On Ice” took place. I’m convinced more people who visit Lake Placid get chills from its history than its frigid winter temps. 

Main Street in this village of a little more than 2400 inhabitants is dotted with quaint shops and cafes and a breathtaking view of Mirror Lake. (If you’re wondering, the actual Lake Placid is located in the nearby towns of North Elba and St. Armand.) During the winter months, Mirror Lake is always bustling with activities such as dog sled rides across its frozen waters, pond hockey games, cross-country skiing, snowshoeing and skating on the two-mile plowed track that frames the lake. There’s even an ice-covered toboggan chute, which is a 30-foot high converted ski jump trestle that can shoot toboggans more than 1000 feet onto the ice. This place is the embodiment of winter fun, a living Norman Rockwell painting. Not much has changed here in the past 40 years, which is fine by me. As far as I’m concerned, Lake Placid is timeless. 

As the village commemorates the 40th anniversary of hosting the XIII Olympic Winter Games (it also hosted the 1932 Winter Olympics), the hailed achievements of 1980 have only grown in magnitude through the procession of time. No Olympic team in any sport has since approached in scale and cultural impact what Brooks and his charges accomplished on the ice by defeating the four-time defending gold medalists from the Soviet Union, then going on to secure the gold by defeating Finland. Featuring a deep and talented roster comprised of accomplished professional standouts, with extensive experience in international competition, the Soviet team was an overwhelming favorite for a fifth consecutive gold. The Soviets had outscored their opponents 175-44 in the previous four Olympics, including a 28-7 margin in games against the US. The Americans, meanwhile, had the youngest roster (average age: 21) in US national team history and were the youngest of all the teams competing in Lake Placid. 

The audience at the 1980 Winter Olympics in Lake Placid.

Brooks, however, seemed impervious to what he was up against and maintained a razor-sharp focus on the task at hand. He was the definition of elite coaching and sports psychology. Brooks was deeply familiar with his team and knew every right button to push and, just as important, when to push it. Nine of the 20 members of the US team had played for Brooks at the University of Minnesota, while 4 others, including Goaltender Jim Craig and Team Captain Mike Eruzione, were from rival Boston University. Despite the reputation of the Soviet team and the inexperience of his squad, Brooks never strayed from his unwavering confidence in the young men on his team.

The Americans were not expected to be a medal contender at Lake Placid, but they opened group play with a 2-2 tie against favored Sweden. They followed with an eye-opening 7-3 victory over expected medal contender Czechoslovakia, then had three more wins—against Norway, Romania and West Germany—to advance to the medal round. In the other grouping, the Soviet Union bulldozed its way through overmatched foes with a series of lopsided victories against Japan, the Netherlands, Poland, Finland and Canada by a combined 51-11. An over-capacity crowd estimated at 8500 jammed into every nook and cranny of the Field House (as it was known before being renamed to honor Brooks) for the David versus Goliath showdown between the two teams on February 22, 1980. The Americans trailed 3-2 entering the third period, but Mark Johnson scored for the US on a power play with 11:21 remaining to tie the game, setting the stage for Eruzione’s game-winner with exactly 10 minutes to play. Goalie Craig was a brick wall for the remainder of the contest (stopping 36 of 39 shots overall), and history was made as Michaels went into his unforgettable call as the clock ticked toward the fairytale American victory. 

The other major story for the US that year was the speed skating dominance of Wisconsin native Heiden, who earned the other five gold medals his country won at Lake Placid. The biggest individual star of the 1980 Winter Games, Heiden won at 500,1000, 1500, 5000 and 10,000 meters, setting a world record in the 10,000. He became the first athlete to win five individual gold medals at a single Olympic Games (either Summer or Winter) and he remains the lone athlete to win five golds at a Winter Games. Heiden won more gold medals than every country other than the Soviet Union (10) and East Germany (9). His performance in Lake Placid led many experts to rate Heiden as the greatest speedskater in the sport’s history, and ESPN ranked him No.46 on its 50 Greatest Athletes Of The 20th Century list. 

While celebrating past glories will always be integral to the allure of Lake Placid, the village appears to have a bright and dynamic future as a marquee winter sports haven. In July 2019, the New York Olympic Regional Development Authority’s board of directors voted to approve $100 million worth of capital improvements to the Olympic Center and other area competition facilities. The various projects are expected to be completed in time for the Winter World University Games, which are coming to Lake Placid in 2023. Some of the village’s athletic facilities have been in use since the 1932 Winter Olympics and need major upgrades to attract future events. The modernization efforts are expected to include expansion of the USA Rink from National Hockey League dimensions to the larger Olympic-size skating surface, retractable seating and luxury suites around the rink, better access to food service and concessions, expanded hospitality offerings at Herb Brooks Arena, locker room improvements, additional retail services and a renovated Lake Placid Olympic Museum. Several projects are already underway, including the installation of new LED lighting, spectator seating and scoreboard in Herb Brooks Arena. 

Could these upgrades lead to Lake Placid making a third Winter Olympics bid? The odds seem to be against it. The Lake Placid region has only about 2000 rooms for traditional lodging, approximately the same number as it had in 1980. The International Olympic Committee now requires prospective Winter Games host sites to have a minimum of 40,000 available rooms. In the past, a proposal was floated for a joint Olympic bid for Lake Placid and Montréal, with the Olympic Village being located at SUNY Plattsburgh, about 50 miles from Lake Placid. There’s precedence for such a joint bid, although it was an unsuccessful effort. Slovakia and Poland submitted a co-proposal for the 2022 Winter Games that was eventually awarded to Beijing, China. The 2026 Winter Games will take place in Milan and Cortina d’Ampezzo, Italy. 

So how about 2030? It would seem a fitting tribute for what would be the 50th anniversary of the 1980 Winter Games, but in 2018 the US Olympic Committee acknowledged that if it bids for the 2030 Winter Games, it would be on behalf of Salt Lake City, UT, which hosted the event in 2002. I, of course, am biased when it comes to the subject, but I couldn’t think of a better place than Lake Placid for a future Winter Games. Creative thinking can overcome any logistical obstacles. Yes, it’s certainly a longshot for Lake Placid to be awarded a third Winter Olympics, but we’ve seen miracles in this village before.   

Lake Placid’s Top 5 Moments

To say The 1980 Winter Games were memorable is a colossal understatement.

By Will Levith

In February 1980, I was a little more than two months old. And having just recently dug into my parents’ photo albums in the basement of my Saratoga Springs childhood home in Saratoga Springs, I can report that my life back then revolved almost entirely around eating. (Little has changed.) But had I been about a decade older, I can only imagine the excitement that I would’ve experienced, glued to my family’s rabbit-eared television set, rooting for the USA at that month’s Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid. All dreams aside, had my parents, between feedings, strapped me and my older brother into the family car and driven us two hours north, man, would I have had some monumental memories. Alas, here are the top five moments I missed out on at the 1980 Winter Olympics.

1. “The Miracle On Ice” When the US men’s hockey team upset the USSR’s seemingly unbeatable squad in dramatic fashion in the semifinals, it skated right into the history books. Fun fact: The night before, US Goalie Jim Craig squared off against Soviet right winger Sergei Makarov in a friendly (arcade) game of Centipede. 

2. Finally, US Hockey Gold Fans often forget that “The Miracle On Ice” wasn’t actually the gold medal game. That would be the US’ next match, during which the team offed Finland to become kings of the medal stand. 

3. Eric Heiden’s Golden Run Over a nine-day period, US speedskater Eric Heiden won five individual gold medals—more than the combined totals for Finland, Norway, the Netherlands, Switzerland, West Germany, Italy, Canada, Hungary, Japan, Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia and France.

4. It’s All Downhill From Here Ingemar “The Silent Swede” Stenmark became one of only a quartet of men to take home golds in both slalom events at a single Winter Olympic Games.

5. “The King,” Crowned Soviet cross-country skier Nikolay Zimyatov landed the Games’ first gold in the now-discontinued 30km race. He then followed that feat up with two more golds, making him a hero in the Motherland and earning him the title “The King Of Skiing.”

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