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Tuesday, February 23, 2010

2010 U.S. v Canada = 1980 U.S. v Soviet Union? Why It Doesn't, and Why It Does

In light of the upset of the Canadian nation by the 2010 U.S. hockey team, we've seen a smattering of articles including comparisons of this year's game to the Miracle on Ice.  A few journalists trumpeted the great achievement, and more than a few absolutely castigated the said journalists.

1980's Miracle on Ice inhabits a sacred realm for many Americans; not so much for Russians.  It's viewed as an untouchable upset, and in many ways it is.  For the United States.  As Behind the Net points out, there's often a lot of ignorance in the American perspective of upsets.  Certainly, Switzerland defeating Canada (indeed, shutting out Canada) at Torino was pretty big.  But the Olympics are inherently about nationalism, so I'm rarely surprised when countries analyze these events through their own goggles (although said goggles are likely Made in China).

Before getting into the meat of this post, I want to preface these arguments with two undisputable facts: a.) the 2010 U.S. v Canada game has little to no historical context that could match the 1980 U.S. v Soviet Union game, and b.) the 2010 game had a bit less weight on the final results of the tournament than the 1980 game  (2010: round play that got U.S. into quarter-finals; 1980: semi-finals).  Context certainly elevates the 1980 game.

So what about the other argument, that it was (in 1980) a "bunch of college kids" upsetting the best team in the world as oppose to (in 2010) "NHL stars" beating "better NHL stars"?  Let's look at both sides of the argument of whether, talent-wise, the 1980 game was a greater upset than the 2010 game.

Arguments for 1980 U.S. v Soviet Union

- The Soviets were the best team in the world.  On numerous occasions in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s, the Soviet teams challenged NHL teams and beat them.  In the Super Series (mini-tournaments between NHL & Soviet teams) over this period, the Soviets would win 14 of 18 series.  The team (at the time of the 1980 Olympics) boasted Russian greats Boris Mikhailov, Valeri Kharlamov, Vladimir Petrov, Vladislav Tretiak, and Alexander Maltsev.

- The U.S. team was a "bunch of college kids."  Indeed they were, in the truest sense, a bunch of amateurs (as they were supposed to be).  Many of the Soviets were considered part of the military to "prove" they were working to provide for themselves and not being paid for hockey.  All of the U.S. team were fresh out of college, with the exceptions of Buzz Schneider and Mike Eruzione, who had both played some minor league hockey (Schneider had played on the 1976 team).

- The same Soviet team beat the U.S. 10-3 in an exhibition before the Olympics.  Yowza.

Arguments For 2010 U.S. v Canada

- The 1980 Soviet team was in a transitional period.  A little summary of Soviet hockey history: in 1980, the Soviet team was experiencing a virtual changing-of-the-guard.  Those dominant teams of the 1970s were aging (the average # of pro games after the Olympics for Soviet greats Boris Mikhailov, Valeri Kharlamov, Alexander Maltsev, and Vladimir Petrov before retirement?  39), and in fact had been playing at about 2/3 of their peak production for the 3 seasons 1978-79 to 1980-81.  The future Soviet greats, Slava Fetisov, Alexei Kasatonov, Sergei Makarov, and Vladimir Krutov, were very young (average age - 20) and not at their peaks, either.  Makarov was close, but the other two were years away (Note: the famed KLM line, including Krutov, Larionov, & Makarov, was not even an idea at the time).  The players that were still playing at a world-class level, including Petrov, Helmuts Balderis, and Vladislav Tretiak, were not as numerous as in previous Olympics.

- The 1980 U.S. team's talent is understated.  First of all, of the 18 skaters, 15 had been drafted by NHL teams or both NHL and WHA teams (most in the first 3 or 4 rounds).  No less than 10 would be in the NHL within a year.  College kids?  Yes.  NHL-ready?  Yes.  If you want to evaluate the Soviet team's talent by the future accomplishments of the players, then you cannot deny the high level at which Mike Ramsey, Dave Christian, Mark Pavelich, Ken Morrow, Mark Johnson, Steve Christoff, and Neal Broten played in the most talented league on Earth.
Oh, and the 1980 U.S. team won the gold medal, which I think means they might have played at a high level in the other games, too.

- Tretiak was pulled, Brodeur was not.  The classic Soviet argument was that Tretiak should not have been pulled.  And I've yet to come across someone who has reasoned that to not be a mistake.  The fact of the matter is that his replacement, Vladimir Myshkin, was not particularly good, in part because the Soviets never intended for him to play.  Brodeur, like Tretiak one of the best if not the best goaltender of his era, played the entire game.

- The "systems" argument is a wash.  The Soviets had a great system; so did the U.S.  Nine of the members of the U.S. team were former Brooks understudies at Minnesota, and as a team they played 55-65 games together.  The 2010 Canadian and U.S. teams have, in general, not had the time together to perfect a system the likes of which was seen in 1980.

- The results are inconclusive as to whether the Soviets were actually the best team in the world at the time.  They may have been the favorites at the Olympics, but they had not consistently shown the ability to defeat the best NHL teams.  Many of what were dubbed the "Super Series" games were played against middling to poor NHL teams (in part because the better NHL teams were afraid they would lose).  In general, Soviet teams compiled a 61.5 winning percentage in the Super Series spanning from 1976 to 1991. On the other hand, two years before and after the 1980 Olympics, the Soviets record was hovering around 50 percent (against mostly middling and poor NHL teams, mind you).  As mentioned before, they were in transition.

- The 2010 Canadian team boasts 1 to 2 (if not 3) of the top 5 players in the world at every position. Martin Brodeur, Roberto Luongo, Chris Pronger, Scott Niedermayer, Ryan Getzlaf, Sidney Crosby, Joe Thornton, Duncan Keith, Dany Heatley, Jarome Iginla...the Soviets could not have made a similar claim in 1980.

- The 2010 U.S. team would be lucky to have 1 to 2 of the top 10 players in the world at any position.  In general, the comparisons to the above list are Zach Parise, Patrick Kane, and Ryan Miller.  And that's about it. Let's put it this way...among Canadian forwards, seven have produced .95 points per game over the last 3 NHL seasons.  The U.S.?  One (Parise).  The average PPG for Canadian forwards is nearly one point-per, while the Americans sit at a meager .72 PPG.  Even defensively, the disparity is drastic: the 3-year average adjusted +/- for the Canadians in the NHL (which compares a player's +/- to his team's +/-) is nearly two times higher than the Americans.

As you can probably see, I have thought about and crunched numbers for this.  While I think the backlash against those comparing 2010 to 1980 for shallow reasons is qualified, I also think that a closer look could actually draw the nature of the upsets a bit closer.  In sum, the 1980 Russians were a tad mythologized, the 1980 Americans a bit too cheekily "underdogged", and the disparity between the 2010 teams too easily dismissed.  The 1980 game will never be matched for context, but "sacredness" of the upset itself could definitely be challenged by the amazing game played by the U.S. team a couple of nights ago.

P.S.  Behind the Net's Gabriel Desjardins commented on some of these same ideas this morning (2/24) with a little different tack.
P.P.S.  And apparently Neate Sager of Yahoo's Fourth Place Medal is taking up the cause, as well.


  1. I can't even begin to describe my hatred for this piece. Anybody that glazes over the cultural/political context of the 1980 game is completely clueless. Quite simply, is Disney going to make a movie about the 2010 U.S. Olympic Hockey Teams preliminary upset of Canada, starring Kurt Russell in one of the most underappreciated acting performances in the history of the world? Nope! Any analysis of 1980 Olympic Hockey that fails to mention inflation or Jimmy Carter has completely missed the point. I couldn't care less about the level of hockey and the degree of the upset. The fact of the matter is that the USSR has an air of invincibility that extended beyond hockey. Your analysis is off base and we are all now dumber for having listened to it (I had to throw in a Billy Madison reference for ya).

  2. Notions of Soviet invincibility were already crumbling with economic stagnation starting in the mid-1970s and the difficulties of the invasion of Afghanistan beginning in 1979.

    Like I said: goggles.

  3. Not true. The Soviets were winning the war in Afghanistan at the time. It took the help of Charlie Wilson in the Mid-1980's to start to turn the tide. The Soviet invasion of Afghanistan in 1979 actually furthers my point about the Soviet invincibility. They invaded Afghanistan and the rest of the world watched, because nobody dared step up to the giant beast. Charlie Wilson made his first trip to Afghanistan in 1983, which was under the new perception that the Soviets may be fallible--thanks to a little hockey game in a sleepy little hamlet called "Lake Placid."

  4. Are you referencing the movie "Charlie Wilson's War"? Because if you are, you should know that the movie takes some liberties with the truth. For the record, Carter had been supplying the mujahideen in Afghanistan by mid-1979.

  5. The Soviets were winning in Afghanistan just like the United States are "winning" in Afghanistan today.

  6. But I think the whole point of the 1980 U.S. team was context. You can't really analyze or compare that victory over the Red Army team without considering its contextual, representative value. So while I like the post's content, throwing out context at the open in order to explore the idea makes it ring hollow thereafter.

    As for the Soviet Union beginning to crumble at that point, that may be true, but it would not have been common knowledge to the average U.S. citizen who reveled in that victory as an image of triumph over a horrible evil.

    And further, don't forget the country being in the midst of the 444-day hostage crisis with Iran. Olympics victories are as impactful to national pride (in context) as they are toward establishing sports legacies. The U.S. didn't have much to hang their hats on in the national pride department entering the 1980s, and the Miracle on Ice victory IN CONTEXT is one that can never be topped.

  7. Great points, Dahntahn. The problem I see is that it seems like the upset of the U.S. over the Soviets takes precedent in the event, and the context is given a secondary role (the "backdrop" of the Cold War). But really, it's the context that sets it apart. I've just always been a bit tired of the "bunch of college kids defeating the best team in the world" part.

  8. Most of your reason for the Canada upset being hug relied on stats and star power. I think we all know a team of Ovechkins wouldn't be the best team. the reason the Soviets were so good has to do with how they moved the puck (chemistry). They were flawless in their attacks and they were always in the right positions. Let's not forget the intenisty of how the Soviets practiced as well. There was no time for Petrov to put on a hat and sunglasses and trot to the goalie with a lame move. The 1980 game was about creating enough chemistry and smart play in a short time to beat a team that had the best for so many years. As much as we want to get the cold war involved, I think it is merely a side note. Any team going into the olympics is going for gold and in 1980 that meant beating the Soviets. The only statement involving the cold war you can make is that it drove the players to work harder.

    Oh and personally, a team full of Swedish twins would beat a team of Ovechkins.

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