Monday, January 24, 2011

FRB Flashback: 1980 Olympic Ice Hockey

Ask a casual sports fan about the 1980 Olympic ice hockey tournament and he'll probably say: "Oh yes, the Americans shocked the Soviets in the final to win the gold medal."
Ask a more serious fan and he'll say: "No, that's a popular misconception. The Americans beat the Soviets in the semifinal. They beat Finland in the final."
They're both wrong.

Oddly enough, there was no final or semifinal in the tournament. Instead, the medals were decided in a second group stage, a strangely anticlimactic format that has thankfully faded in popularity.
There were 12 teams in the 1980 tournament, divided into two groups of six. The United States won four games and drew one, as did Sweden. These top two teams joined the top two in the other group,  USSR and Finland, not in the semifinals, but in a new four-team group.
Results between the teams that advanced "carried over" into this round: the 2-2 draw between USA
and Sweden and the USSR's 4-2 win over Finland. So before the medal round actually began there were already standings, based on that one carried over game:

Team record pts. goal diff. goals
USSR 1-0-0 2 +2 4
Sweden 0-0-1 1 0 2
USA 0-0-1 1 0 2
Finland 0-1-0 0 -2 2
(Two points for a win, one for a tie.)

The first game of this medal round was the famous miracle on ice, with the Americans beating the heavily favored Soviets, 4-3. Later that night, Sweden and Finland skated to a 3-3 tie (there was no overtime at any point in the tournament). That left the standings like this with one game to play:

Team record pts. goal diff. goals
USA 1-0-1 3 +2 6
USSR 1-1-0 2 0 6
Sweden 0-0-2 2 0 5
Finland 0-1-1 1 -2 5

Clearly, the gold medal hadn't been decided yet. All four teams still had a chance.: The U.S. could clinch it with a win, but if Finland beat the U.S., the winner of Sweden -U.S.S.R. would take gold. And it's not hard to construct a scenario in which Finland wins the gold medal. Imagine if Finland beat the U.S. by 3-0 and the Soviets and Sweden played a 3-3 tie. Then we'd have these standings:

Team record pts. goal diff. goals
Finland 1-1-1 3 +1 8
USSR 1-1-1 3 0 9
Sweden 0-0-3 3 0 8
USA 1-1-1 3 -1 6

Finland would have been gold medalists, and despite the miracle on ice, the United States would have gone home with nothing.
In the end, though, the U.S. did beat Finland, 4-2, while the Soviets pasted Sweden, 9-2, leaving the final standings and the medals as follows:

Team record pts.
USA 2-0-1 5
USSR 2-1-0 4
Sweden 0-1-2 2
Finland 0-2-1 1

No Olympic team events end with a group stage any more. The perceived fairness of determining the medals based on performance over several games against top competition has been trumped by the excitement that  knockout games provide..


  1. If the U.S. uses their heads they will prepare other Olympic Ice Hockey teams with similiar PHYSICAL CONDITIONING and TACTICAL METHODS that Herb Brooks used in 1979-80 when the United States won the Gold Medal.

    1. Mark Johnson has won a number of NCAA championships with his Badgers by seeming to use similar methods.