The Miracle on Ice: US College Kids Defeat Mighty Soviet Machine

When Ron Davidson marched in the opening ceremony in Lake Placid in February 1980, he realized his dream of representing Canada in Olympic hockey.

“I was so emotional during the opening ceremony – it was the biggest thrill of my hockey career,” he said in an interview with the Original Hockey Hall of Fame.

It would turn out to be a bittersweet experience as the USA – not Canada – defeated the Soviet Union and Finland to capture the gold medal. It was dubbed the Miracle on Ice, as a group of US college students took down the mighty Soviet machine, which had won four gold medals in a row.  Canada was a medal contending team. In the months before the Olympics, they had a lot of success, including beating the US team a number of times in exhibition matches. But all of that didn’t matter in Lake Placid.

The American team did well early in the tournament and seemed to grow more confident with every game. The US played in a different pool than Canada so Davidson got the chance to watch many of the US games. “We could tell very early on that something special was happening with the American team.”

“I call it the miracle that didn’t happen for Canada,” Davidson jokes. Both the Soviets and Canadians had beaten the US squad in exhibition matches, but the American team was on the rise.

This was a different era. Professionals were not allowed to play in the Olympics so Canada could not send NHL players to the games – it had to put together a team of talented amateurs. The Soviet Union circumvented the rule by enrolling its players in the Red Army, allowing them to play together year around.

“It may have been the best Soviet team ever assembled,” Davidson argues. It included stars from the epic 1972 Canada-Soviet series, such as forward Valeri Kharlamov and goalie Vladislav Tretiak. “It really was a miracle that the US could compete against one of the greatest Soviet teams.”

In December of 1978, Father David Bauer selected a Canadian national team to see if amateur players could compete against high level competition. Davidson was chosen for that team. In exhibition matches, they defeated the junior all-stars, the WHA’s Edmonton Oilers and Moscow Spartak. In his position at centre, Davidson faced off frequently against Wayne Gretzky during the Edmonton tilt. “What I really noticed about playing against Wayne was that you usually have a lot of contact with the opposing centre, but Gretzky wasn’t like that – he would head to other areas of the ice and the puck would follow him there.”

The Canadian Olympic team for Lake Placid was selected in September of 1979. They stayed together for the five months leading up to the Olympics. The squad was packed with young talent. Twelve players would go on to skate in the NHL. Glenn Anderson was later inducted into the Hockey Hall of Fame and Randy Gregg earned five Stanley Cups with Edmonton.

Davidson played on a line with Anderson and Jim Nill, who is now the General Manager of the Dallas Stars. “I couldn’t have asked for better linemates,” said Davidson. “Glenn was an incredible competitor and Jim played every game with grit and passion.”

In Lake Placid, the Canadian team played well in the preliminaries but didn’t make the medal round. They scored lopsided wins against Poland, Holland and Japan. They were up 3-1 half way through the game against the Soviets, but lost 6-4, with an open net goal. They also fell 4-3 to Finland. While Canada and Finland ended the round tied in the standings, Finland moved on to the medals because it had defeated Canada.

Weak goaltending proved to be the Achilles heel for Canada. Bob Dupuis infamously let in a Finnish shot from 150 feet away, which cost Canada a chance to play in the medal round. Davidson played solidly in the six-game tournament, scoring a goal and notching four assists.

However, he was relegated to watching the medal round from the stands. “I was very disappointed for the longest time,” he recalls. “It took a while to appreciate that I had been there representing Canada.”

Focus on puck handling, passing and puck movement

Davidson grew up in Ottawa. His hockey career was launched when he was drafted by the Cornwall Royals in 1974, where he scored 111 points in his rookie year in the Quebec junior league. Wanting to attend Queen’s, he asked to be traded the following year to the Kingston Canadians, where he had a solid year with 44 points, despite an injury plagued season. During that era, the Canadians were a powerful squad, with stars like Ken Linseman, Brad Rhiness and Tony McKegney.

In Lake Placid, Davidson played solidly in the six-game tournament, scoring a goal and notching four assists. In the photo, he is shown just after scoring against Vladislav Tretiak.

Under the tutelage of coach Herb Brooks, the American team peaked at the right moment. He was a creative, tough and inspiring coach, pushing his rag-tag team of amateurs to deliver their best.

“Brooks took their skills to a whole new level, both with on-ice and off-ice training, which was innovative at the time,” Davidson says. “What impressed me about their practices was the focus on puck handling, passing and movement of the puck.”

However, even the American coach was surprised by his team’s prowess. Brooks was in the stands watching as the Canadians took an early lead against the Soviets, only to fall in the third period. After the game, Davidson ran into Brooks in the cafeteria. “He said to me that it’s the first time he realized that the Soviets could be beaten.”

The Miracle on Ice was actually two miracles. The American battle with their Cold war rivals the Soviets was the first. With the US leading 4-3 and ten seconds left in the game, sportscaster Al Michaels yelled: “Do you believe in miracles? Yes!”
Still, the US team needed to win the next game to capture the gold medal. In the final match against Finland, the Americans were down 2-1 at the end of the second period. They answered with two goals in the third to defeat the Finns and become Olympic champions.

Following Lake Placid, Davidson headed back to law school at Queen’s. He was with the 1980-81 Golden Gaels team that won the provincial title and played in the national championship. He went on to play and coach pro hockey in Sweden, France and Switzerland.

Always a student of hockey skills, he wrote a book to help players improve their technical abilities. He also presented a regular segment on Hockey Night in Canada called Think Hockey. Davidson now works as a personal injury lawyer in Bowmanville.

More than 40 years later, he regards walking into the Olympic ceremony in Lake Placid and wearing the Canadian colours as the highlight of his life in hockey.